Note: on Feb. 6, 2014, this post was featured in “Tips for a Healthier Church,” an e-blast series from “Healthier Church.”

Delving into the world of social media can be pretty daunting – I get it. Hashtags and mentions and bitlys, oh my! But social media is cheap, efficient and effective – what better way is there to broadcast your congregation’s mission, message and events to the entire world? So, after a lot of reflection and conversation (minus one burning bush, plus one burning laptop), I give you these 10 tips for congregations on social media:

Thou shalt be consistent.

Even with all the programs and apps available, there’s no doubt that social media will take time. One of the biggest mistakes nonprofits, including congregations, make on social media is to start an account but then post infrequently, only post requests for donations, or post a lot in a short amount of time. Don’t.

Thou shalt be authentic.

Millennials are “deeply drawn to authenticity,” which is even more important online where every word is trackable. Rick Dunn, a pastor himself, stated that pastors need to work with millennials, not at or for them – this is exactly why social media is key for this demographic. Of course, it’s not just millennials who are on social media; the fastest growing demographic is users over age 50. Being honest, vulnerable and passionate will go a long way in engaging folks both in person and online, and social media is the easiest and most efficient way to break through the barrier of one-way pulpit communication.

Thou shalt not be afraid.

Social media may not have been God’s intention when giving us Isaiah 41:10, but it’s certainly applicable. Embrace your fears of negative comments, time constraints, cost or making mistakes. Social media is run by humans and generally is a pretty forgiving place. (Unless you are a politician. Then I have a whole other list of commandments for you!)

Thou shalt check thyself.

Millennials are an Internet savvy bunch. We fact check sermons, feel comfortable sharing even the most minute details of our lives on social media, prefer to donate online, and are generally suspicious of claims by people or institutions that lack supporting evidence. I have witnessed congregational leaders claim to have conducted “studies on what millennials want” (when really they merely asked their nephew and granddaughter a question), falsely claimed expertise in a specific area and took credit for others’ research and quotes. I immediately lost trust in those individuals. Social media is not a place for the pretend – directness is appreciated, proper credit/citation is expected, and trust is currency.

Thou shalt remember social media is a conversation, not a billboard.

Another one of the biggest mistakes I see nonprofits (and especially congregations) make on social media is to broadcast their events and announcements but fail to interact with others.

I witnessed this first hand at my own congregation – a family attended for the first time on Ash Wednesday and posted “thank you for the lovely service” on the congregation’s Facebook page the next day. Over a week later, I saw that no one had replied to – or even “liked” – the post. I immediately emailed my pastor and volunteered to take over the account, thus ensuring that family received a personal message from the pastor and an invite to the next new member meeting.

So, remember this golden rule: social media is a conversation, not a billboard. If someone writes on your Facebook wall, respond. If people retweet or favorite your posts on Twitter, thank them. If someone is negative, react as you would in real life: Hear them, bless them and love them. Be sure to follow others and like, comment and share their posts – as Paul taught us in Acts 17, what we see and respond to is just as important as what we say.

Thou shalt do as I say – and as I do.

In researching church social media practices, I found a synod’s website that proudly proclaimed – front and center – that they were hosting a conference about the value of congregations embracing social media. I immediately scoured Twitter, Facebook and the synod website for any social media presence, either by the synod or the bishop – nothing. We all know “do as I say and not as I do” is an ineffective parenting cliché and an even worse stereotype of Christians – let’s rise above that.

Thou shalt use scheduling functions.

As previously mentioned, social media can take time. However, Facebook and Twitter (through TweetDeck) both offer scheduling features. This enables you to schedule large chunks of content to be posted at different times while having only logged in once.

Thou shalt understand social media’s strengths and limitations.

Many organizations on social media – businesses and nonprofits alike – get frustrated when results aren’t immediate. Would you be disappointed if you shook someone’s hand, they said, “Great sermon!” and then didn’t immediately become a member and write a $5,000 check? No. Online relationships, just like face-to-face relationships, take time to build, cultivate and nurture. Increasing awareness and engaging with your audience is the main goal.

Thou shalt know thy settings and thy audience.

Social media sites are increasingly becoming pay to play, meaning that posted content is not necessarily being seen by the intended audience. This is disconcerting for nonprofits, including congregations that have little or no communications budget. Here’s what you can do to ensure that members who have “liked” the congregation’s Facebook page are seeing the content you post:

  • Increase interaction. The more an individual interacts with a page by liking, sharing and commenting on its content, the more likely it is future posts by that page will be seen in the individual’s news feed. Another great way to increase interaction is to encourage “check-ins” on Facebook and Foursquare.
  • Set home pages to “most recent.” On an individual’s home page (also known as the news feed), there is a “sort” drop down menu with two options: “most recent” and “top stories.” The default is “top stories,” but by changing to “most recent,” an individual will see posts in chronological order instead of just the stories that Facebook deems most popular. (Note: An individual may have to make this change on multiple consecutive logins. Also, what is seen from a phone or tablet app may be different than what is seen on a computer.)
  • Pay attention to changes and react accordingly. Facebook recently tweaked the news feed algorithm to emphasize articles but pictures continue to gain the most ”likes,” which means congregations should be posting timely and relevant articles in addition to pictures, videos, and other status updates.
  • Re-engage with older posts. Due to Facebook’s “story bumping” feature, re-engaging with older posts is a great way for them to re-surface in your audience’s newsfeed.

Thou shalt integrate social media into events.

Encouraging the use of social media during worship is understandably controversial. However, it’s easy to integrate into other congregational events. Consider sharing videos of council/congregational meetings, encourage feedback via social media during youth or new member events, share content posted by partner organizations or the synod – maybe you can even offer drive-through prayer, a YouTube channel or Beers with Hymns!

Social media is a great new form of outreach and congregations that have embraced and executed it well have seen great success. It is an enhancement to and not a replacement of bulletins, eblasts, posters in the narthex or any other form of communication your congregation currently uses.

May the Lord be with you – online and in person!

Nora Brathol
Nora Brathol is the founder Arka Pana Consulting and is passionate about using social media for social good. Nora has published in The Huffington Post and provides daily social media tips on her Facebook page. She is a member of Resurrection Lutheran Church, Chicago. Find her Twitter: @NoraNoH8.

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