Christian Media

Can a Church or Ministry Do Anything About an Employee’s Negative Social Media Posts?

You may have seen that recently, police departments and law-enforcement unions are issuing warnings and offering social-media training to members, hoping to stop a recent tide of offensive posts by police officers and other employees. There’s apparently been a wide range of controversial posts, from disgruntled employees complaining about policies, to threats, and even some racists comments.

Which made me think about what’s being posted by employees of churches and nonprofit organizations.

There has been numerous cases where church or ministry employees complained online about their pastor’s message, a particular church policy, or other employees. Whatever the reason, it’s not a positive thing – particularly when they’re seen by the general public. It tends to toss the Biblical concept of “unity” out the window when local communities see church employees complain, disrespect, or criticize the church or its leaders.

A number of major churches and ministry organizations have a social media policy in place, but not many. Besides, are they legal? Can a church censor those posts, or fire the employee? What about freedom of speech?

I asked my friend David Middlebrook, a highly respected attorney that focuses on church and nonprofit issues. Here’s David’s response:

“Recent court decisions add to a growing body of law that data posted on social media websites is not entitled to special legal protections. For example, the United States District Court of California noted that the content on social networking sites is not privileged or protected by common law. Mailhoit v. Home Depot USA, Inc., 285 285  F.R.D. 566 (C.D. Cal. 2012).
             Every church should have handbooks signed by all of its employees, volunteers, and board members (“Staff”) that contain a Social Media Policy. This policy should communicate that the Staff is expected to live committed Christian lifestyles, and this obligation includes the use of social media. As such, the content on social media of a Staff should be consistent with Church teachings. Therefore, if in the opinion of appropriate church leadership, a Staff member’s postings on social media portrays images, ideas, or lifestyles inconsistent with Church teachings, then it is grounds for discipline up to and including termination.”

I’m not an attorney so I recommend you contact David’s team here if you have any specific questions. But the bottom line is that for churches and ministry organizations, there’s hope. I wouldn’t worry about the occasional comment, but if you’re getting employees regularly posting negative comments about your church or ministry on social media, you now have options to pursue.

And if you have questions about creating a social media policy for your team, we’d be happy to help.

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  1. Strangely enough, I spoke to an attorney about this just yesterday. The bottom line he gave me was that when the rubber hits the courtroom, the precedence is that social media forums are considered forums of conversation. The precedent is that such speech is protected, being related to companies are not allowed to restrict conversations. This is tied to the freedom of employees to discuss unions and so forth.
    Hiding behind what we think may be law is taking an irresponsible move by our organizations. Conversations about what is good or bad should happen long before they get to social media. It’s hard to develop relationships with people. It’s hard to set up a culture of sharing. We don’t do it and hope that a strongarm approach or a flimsy employment agreement will stop what we fear. Facing the conversations openly and sharing is scary. But when we do, it strengthens our relationships and can reduce people posting stuff we don’t want to deal with in a public forum.

    Don’t be too concerned with people lying about you on social media. Be concerned when they start telling the truth.

  2. Yikes, Phil. Policies like this only strengthens faulty, unhealthy, self-preserving power structures. Negative social media posts, especially from within the organization, are the fruit of leadership that are out of touch. Making people sign something should guarantee a two way conversation rather than “protect the ministry.” Free speech is a balancing mechanism, even if negative.

    1. I tend to agree, however if an employee is really trying to help, then social media is not the place to air grievances and complaints – especially with a church or ministry.

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