Social media is a valuable tool for helping your church engage with your congregation and reach your community. Many church leaders, though, have reservations. What happens when something goes wrong? Who is going to manage our accounts and how can we trust them? What are the legal risks?

A social media policy is a plan that addresses these concerns ahead of time. A social media policy is a formal document written with your staff in mind and should lay out specific roles and responsibilities. While you won’t be able to anticipate every potential pitfall, your policy will contain general principles for how to address issues that may arise.

Drafting a social media policy can help you get buy-in from your staff and key leaders.

In this post, we’ll address 7 essential elements of your church social media policy.

1. Who can create social media accounts?

As your church becomes successful in growing and engaging a social media audience, other leaders in your church will take notice and may create accounts on their own. Often, those accounts will use your church brand (e.g. Church Name Kids, or Church Name Young Professionals).

Early on, this may not be an issue. But as the number of associated accounts grows, it will be more difficult to keep tabs on what accounts exist and what they are being used for. In a recent audit at our church, we discovered more than 80 accounts across the “big three” social media channels that our ministries had created.

To combat this, carefully define who can create social media accounts and what they should be used for.

Sam Morris at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary asks staff to have three things in place before he allows them to create a new account.

  • A person. A ministry must appoint someone to own and manage the account(s).
  • A plan. A ministry must post regularly (at least twice a week).
  • A purpose. The content must not be available somewhere else.

2. Who can access social media accounts?

Granting access to social media accounts can be a significant security risk. Not only can malicious users post unauthorized content, they can irrevocably transfer ownership of your page, locking users out of your account.

To mitigate this risk, social media managers should be selective in how and to whom they grant access to accounts.

At our church, our “brand” accounts are managed by our communications team. Each campus or ministry then has a designated a staff point person who owns their social media accounts and who is ultimately responsible for those accounts. We also allow (and encourage) each campus or ministry to assign a co-manager to help create content and moderate discussion.

One of our current objectives is to create a volunteer team. We’ve carefully defined their roles and access levels in our social media policy.

Access to our Facebook accounts are granted via our Business Manager, while Twitter and Instagram credentials are shared with discretion. One option for giving users access to social media accounts without sharing credentials is to use a Hootsuite multi-user account.

Additionally, consider defining roles and responsibilities for people who can access your accounts.

3. What kind of content do we create?

Your social media policy should also define what types of content that you will publish on your social media channels.

This doesn’t need to be a detailed “approved/not approved” list, but a general direction regarding the purpose and goals of social media content on each channel.

For example, our Facebook channels are centered on connecting people in our church to one another. Instagram is for visual content to showcase what is going on at our church and get people excited about our mission and vision. Twitter is designed for real-time updates.

If we were to confuse these purposes, our marketing efforts wouldn’t be as successful. By defining the purpose of each channel, it helps our social media managers make better decisions about the content they’re publishing and helps them be more effective at accomplishing our social media goals.

4. How should we engage with our audience?

One of the most significant reservations that church leaders have about social media is, “What happens when someone says something objectionable?”

To ease (or perhaps confirm) your fears, it will happen, but that’s no reason to opt out of social media. What matters is having a plan for how you’re going to engage when people do comment.

Most often, comments are positive and discussions civil. Occasionally, comments are malicious. In these cases, we plan ahead of time how to respond. We will hide offensive comments from first-time offenders, so only that person and their friends will see the comment. If a comment is particularly mean-spirited, or the person is a known troll, we will either engage that person and ask them to behave, or delete the comment and ban the user.

It’s not always a cut-and-dry approach, so you’ll need to use your discretion. See my post, 7 Common Facebook Comments (and How to Respond to Them) for more on how to engage your audience.

5. What happens when there is a crisis?

A crisis is any emergent issue that requires a timely public response. Examples include national tragedies, serious events within your church, etc.

When faced with a crisis or potential crisis, your social media team should plan to consult with your church leaders to determine an appropriate response, being careful to solicit guidance on timing, language, and appropriate channels.

6. What are the potential legal risks?

The public nature of social media communication can open your church to a number of legal risks. Here are a few risks and how to mitigate them in your social media policy.

  • Crediting sources. Credit original sources if they are reposted from an external source.
  • Photo usage. Using unlicensed images (such as those found on Google Images) can get you in big trouble. Therefore, use only original photos taken by your church or licensed stock photos. Consider using free Creative Commons licensed images from sites such as Unsplash. Also be sure to obtain model releases for any identifiable model who is featured in an original image.
  • Privacy and disclosure. Be diligent to not share nonpublic financial or operational information, or personal information about church members or staff (including email addresses and phone numbers) without approval. Do not publish, post, or release information that is considered confidential.

7. Plan for the unknown.

Your social media policy won’t be a comprehensive, end-all-be-all document. There will be times when your policy simply doesn’t answer a question or concern.

Be prepared for when that happens with the following principles:

  • Define who has the authority to make the decision. When a question arises that isn’t addressed by your social media policy, who makes the decision? Defining this ahead of time can cut down on confusion and conflict when it happens.
  • Think principles before specifics. Because the social media landscape is ever-changing and unpredictable, it’s helpful to lead with principles in your policy, rather than specific details that may be outdated next week.

Getting buy-in

Once your social media policy is drafted, invite key stakeholders into the process — your senior leadership, key staff who will be impacted by the policy, etc. Invite them to ask questions and be open and receptive to their feedback. After all, you’ll need them on the team in order to be successful. Many times, questions from outsiders will help clarify or expand upon things that you may have missed because social media comes naturally to you.

Once you have incorporated their feedback, get their final approval and then publish your policy!

Your social media policy is designed to mitigate risk in your organization and keep everyone on the same page with regards to how and why your church is engaging in social media. Don’t overlook this valuable asset!

Rob is the Director of Digital Marketing for The Summit Church in Raleigh-Durham, NC. He and his wife, Cassie, live in Cary, NC with their two girls, Emma and Audrey. Opinions are his own.