Growing up a fan of the Florida Gators in the 1990s, I had a front row seat to watch “the Head Ball Coach,” Steve Spurrier. Of course, we all loved the fact that he had an exciting offense and knew how to win, but he was entertaining as well. While his barbs aimed at your team might sting, it was usually pretty easy to laugh too.
Recently, while at ESPN to promote his new book, some college football journalists asked him about some of his funniest lines. My personal favorite was following a fire at an Auburn University library. Coach Spurrier said the real tragedy was that 15 of the books hadn’t been colored in yet.
A few years into his term as coach at South Carolina, their game against Georgia was moved from the second week of the season to the fourth week of the season. When asked what he thought of the change, he said he didn’t like it. Why not? Because Georgia usually had two or three key players suspended during the first two games of the season.
Every college football team, Spurrier’s included, always has a few players suspended early in the year due to off-season incidents. So, when the Athletic Director at Georgia was asked what he thought about the comments, he reportedly said, “Well, it’s true. How can I be mad at him if it’s true?”
What took this interview from something that I was enjoying on a walk with my dog to something I wanted to share with you was what came a few minutes later. The reporter who had asked the question about Georgia said that, after having a good laugh, he asked Spurrier, “Do you really want me to use that [in the article]?” and Spurrier said to put it in. The reporter went onto to say that he could never recall a time when Spurrier ever asked for something to be off the record. Spurrier responded:
“I learned a long time ago, there’s no such thing as ‘off the record.’ So, anything I say, I think you ought to be able to repeat.”
As more and more of our communication becomes digital — and especially as it passes through apps, servers, and devices over which we have little to no control — this is a reality for anyone involved in church communication.
Everything is on the record. And just about anything digital is on a permanent record. Once things are on the web or in the cloud, it is hard to ever fully remove them. Even things sent via a private message can be stored, screenshotted, printed, or forwarded somehow.
One of the biggest and most common tips for social media success is to remember that it is all about relationships. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, and the like should not simply be outlets for broadcast. We should be using them for interaction, conversation, and connection.
But interaction, conversation, and connection are unpredictable and, at times, messy. You can carefully craft a broadcast, but if you ask a question, you give up control by allowing others to respond. If you engage a topic, you open yourself up to both support and criticism.
It can be easy to be lulled into a false sense of security for some pastors or church staff. We can be trusting and assume that others reciprocate the trust because we’re “good people” who “work for God.” We can make jokes, be flippant, or give out information that maybe doesn’t need to be public.
We are also human, so we are subject to emotions. While authenticity is vitally important, it doesn’t mean we should share things we haven’t thought through or may regret later. Sadly, during this time of tension and conflict in both my country and my denomination, I have seen pastors and churches post things that appear to be the result of anger, fear, suspicion, or worse.
So, how do we move forward? How do we live in this digital world without making mistakes? How do we maintain authenticity and keep from being an impersonal, highly-polished platitude machine? And what do we do when we have that itchy trigger finger ready to hit send on a post or message we know we shouldn’t send?
First, we need to constantly remind ourselves and our ministry teams that there is no such thing as “off the record.”
Even offline, things we say can be repeated. Communication is a responsibility — especially informal and social channels that can lower our guard. Nothing can be unsaid, only apologized for. Which leads to…
Second, we must acknowledge our need for grace when we mess up.
We all have, do, and will continue to make mistakes. Sometimes you have to delete a Tweet. Sometimes you have to pull a post. Sometimes you have to admit that what you said or did was wrong and that you are sorry for the impact it has had. And what’s the best way to build up grace and a benefit of the doubt in your congregation or online audience? Offer it to them and others — repeatedly.
Third, we need to work to live lives and lead ministries that are actually authentic and transparent in good ways.
Which churches receive the highest level of suspicion? The ones who hide things. Which leaders seem the most polished or inauthentic? The ones who clearly craft everything based on how it will look to others.
Communication is a responsibility, and we should be strategic, but if it doesn’t represent who you actually are as a leader or ministry, people can tell, and they won’t trust or follow you. I had a seminary professor who used to say, “I committed a long time ago to try to make sure my inside and outside were the same. My outside got a little worse, but my inside got a whole lot better.”
Finally, we need to find safe places where we can actually be off the record.
No one can truly live their entire life on the record — it’s too much pressure. Even if we are honest and authentic in everything we do, sometimes we need places where we can confess things, work through ideas, seek counsel, or simply blow off steam. We all need the people to whom we can text that snarky comment instead of Tweeting it. The more supportive and safe our off-the-record relationships are, the easier it will be to function and communicate on the record.
Header image by Flickr user Jeff Kern. Used under Creative Commons License. Edited/Cropped from Original.
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