A blind Hindu, an elephant — and a social media policy?

By Robert Erven Brown

John Saxe’s short poem, “The Blind Men and the Elephant,” poignantly describes an important truth about how one’s point of view: It can dramatically distort perception of reality. As in the poem, depending on your point of view, an elephant can look and feel like a broad wall, a long hose that smells like fresh peanuts, or — if you grab its tail — a skinny rope that doesn’t smell at all like fresh peanuts!

In the world of church governance, the policies formally adopted by the church board establish the paradigm — or, the perspective — through which a topic is viewed. These procedures then establish the boundaries, the “cookbook,” and the practicalities of how something like social media can be used. They provide the roadmap for the practical implementation and use of social media.

IntegratingparadigmsThe 8-track generation
For church leaders in their 50s and 60s (let alone their 70s), the phrase “social media” can easily make the eyes glaze over. The topic includes a constantly evolving set of new jargon and concepts which are completely foreign to those who completed their education without the benefit of an iPad, a cell phone or the Internet.

Like the Hindu who viewed the elephant as being a skinny rope that doesn’t smell so good, social media appears to the 8-track tape player generation as unsettling, mysterious, and not particularly inviting.

On the other hand, emerging church leaders — certainly those currently leading our youth groups — grew up with a cell phone (and, increasingly, a smart phone) as an integral part of their wardrobe. Texting and Tweeting are simply assumed to be part of the conversation.

This group grasps these tools, and is profiting from them. As Wikipedia notes, “The benefits of participating in social media have gone beyond simply social sharing to building reputation and bringing in career opportunities and monetary income.” That sentiment rings loud and clear to this generation.

Integrating paradigms with the law
Merging these conflicting worldviews into a coherent set of policies and practices is the challenge facing church leaders today. Another important part of this challenge is being realistic about the risks which these important social media tools carry with them. Our legal system is racing to catchup with evolving questions, including:

  • Can our church Google applicants?
  • How do we handle a cyber-bully?
  • What are appropriate limits for Internet posting and use of videos and photographs?
  • What types of potential losses could arise from a cyber security breach?
  • How much would it cost to repair these damages?
  • Do we have appropriate cyber security insurance to cover these types of lawsuits?
  • Should we allow each person to bring his or her own device into our system, without a common security protocol?
  • Who is responsible for dealing with a data breach?
  • What types of resources are available to our church in planning coherent set of policies and procedures for dealing with our social media?

As you work through answers to these questions in the context of your own church, it will become increasingly obvious that we can no longer ignore the need for an evolving social media policy.

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Is your church ahead of the social media curve?

If so, send Robert Erven Brown a copy of your social media policies and procedures — he’ll share them on his “Risk Management Realities” blog at ChurchExecutive.com.

And, the social media discussion continues! Brown and Church Executive will lead a panel discussion on social media risk management at the 2014 National Association of Church Business Administration annual conference in July. Stay tuned for details.

Robert Erven Brown is an attorney licensed to practice in Arizona. He and his nonprofit practice group work with nonprofits and churches, helping them manage key operations connected with their missions, visions and causes. As permitted by local Rules of Ethics, they collaborate with attorneys who are licensed in states other than Arizona.  

He is the author of Legal Realities: Silent Threats to Ministries, which describes his Campus Preservation Planning© initiative — a comprehensive program designed to manage the wide array of risks facing non-profit organizations. silentthreats.com.

This publication is designed to provide accurate and authoritative information in regard to the subject matter covered. It is provided with the understanding that the publisher is not engaged in rendering legal, accounting or other professional service. If legal advice or other expert assistance is required, the services of a competent professional person should be sought. “From a Declaration of Principles jointly adopted by a Committee of the American Bar Association and a Committee of Publishers and Associations.” Simply reading this material this does not create an attorney/client relationship with Brown, as this article is general legal information, not legal advice. A formal attorney/client relationship will not be established until a conflict check is completed and an engagement letter has been signed by both the attorneyand the client. No “informal” legal advice will be provided by telephone. Simply sending an e-mail to Brown will not create an attorney/client relationship.

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