I was 21 when I was handed my first hedge trimmer. As a seminary student I was often confined to a square study carrel in an even squarer library that smelled of cloth and dust. Every day I climbed the stairs, passed through overgrown arborvitaes, and entered the gaping maw of the bibliophile’s heaven.
Afraid of becoming a permanent fixture of the library, of blending into the wallpaper, I sought whatever means I could to escape esoteric theologians and overly loquacious authors. Offered an opportunity to work with the grounds department as a part-time work-study student, I eagerly agreed.
And so I gladly began my work for him with rake in hand – which is no small task during New England autumns. Before long, though, I pined for the power tools. With each extension of my leaf rake, I dreamt of feeling the vibrations of a hedge trimmer, of sitting behind the wheel of a John Deere industrial lawnmower, of anything besides the monotony of raking leaves.
And then one day I was handed a hedge trimmer and taken to my first overgrown hedge – my empty canvas.
While I envisioned grandeur, my lack of experience produced something else.
I must have spent only five minutes moving the hedge trimmer back and forth before the inevitable happened – I cut too deep, too quickly – and exposed the barren underneath of this once unnoticeable shrub.
Like those dreams where you find yourself standing naked in front of an audience of strangers, I had exposed the very soul of this shrub with one swipe of my powerful tool. What once was nondescript was now ugly. What once was unnoticeable was now unavoidable.
And I had done it.
Over the past 7 years I have served two different Christian colleges in varied pastoral roles. One of the greatest joys in life, in my opinion, is walking alongside young people as they entertain dreams, set out from underneath their family’s wings, and embrace life as emerging adults.
Journeying alongside young people makes one more hip to the trends, and so I was a fairly early adopter of social media. My early adoption of Facebook was merely a gateway to the wider world of social media, and since that day I have been an active participant.
According to Facebook, I joined on December 14th, 2005. A cursory look at my original postings shows that my interactions were with a small group of friends and were fairly superficial.
But then something happened. More people joined Facebook. And as someone working in college ministry, I had instant access to virtual friends. My friend list grew rapidly and most of them were the college students with whom I was working.
What didn’t grow as quickly was my understanding that my Facebook account was merely an extension of myself – it was not something separate from me, but a part of me. My status updates and my pictures were actually me – not just a representation of me or a caricature of me, but actually me.
Like a baby, clumsily discovering it’s legs can take it somewhere much more quickly than rolling or crawling can, social media was an appendage that I soon realized I did not know how to use well.
In 1990, Tim Burton introduced us to a young man with a garish appearance and a heart of gold. His name was Edward Scissorhands, and he was the creation of a mad scientist who had unfortunately died before putting the finishing touches on his latest creation – and so in a last ditch effort Edward was given multiple scissor-like implements for hands.
The movie chronicled Edward’s introduction to life lived in community, as he was discovered alone in a forsaken castle and taken in by a family who lived in a non-descript suburban neighborhood.
Here, for the first time, he was introduced to a way of life that was completely foreign to him. He watched, and tried to mimic, people who easily used their hands to perform rather simple tasks like eating dinner.
As the clip above illustrates, the use of these tools, his makeshift hands, was not easy. But they were an extension of him, something from which he could not separate himself, something that others saw as connected to him, as inseparable from him.
As he continued to more fully understand his new world, and his awkward hands, he began to see more clearly what it mean to use them well, to use them for good. He became known in the neighborhood for his dog-grooming, his hair-styling, and most impressively, his shrub trimming.
As a campus pastor who uses social media, I have a responsibility. If my social media accounts are truly extensions of myself, I need to use them in ways that bring life to others, that represent who I truly am, that create space for others to encounter Christ.
I have a general policy of not initiating friend requests of current students, and yet I accept any friend request or follow that comes my way. I have nearly 1,000 friends on Facebook and another 250 followers on Twitter. Klout says that my influence is larger than the average person, and my blog receives enough traffic to be more than a private journal.
I list these stats not to brag (many of you have much higher stats than these!) but to merely say this – my use of social media is more than a hobby, it is more than an occasional indulgence – it is an appendage, and extension of my very self, and I am responsible before my community and before God for how I use it to impact others.
It seems to me that social media is often seen as something that is disconnected from our actual existence. What I say or do on-line, how I interact with others, what I like, what I tweet, what I post are not necessarily representative of who I really am.
And this mindset is dangerous. It is akin to Edward Scissorhands ignoring that his hands are sharp objects before petting the neighborhood cat.
As a pastor who is seriously engaging social media I need to remember, in every interaction, that what I am posting, tweeting, pointing others toward is no different that how I use my tongue, my arms, my hands when I am preaching, praying, or sharing a meal with a student.
Practically speaking, here are just a few of the questions I attempt answer as I practice a pastoral use of social media:
- Am I posting something I would say from the pulpit?
- Am I demonstrating love for all people in my interactions?
- Do my pictures insinuate certain activities with which I do not really practice?
- Do I recognize the power of my presence on-line?
- Do I encourage others by how I use social media?
I did become a much better hedge trimmer as time went on – but it took time, it took practice, it took paying attention to how others did it before I learned how to do it well.