News Column

Like the Pope, Local Religious Groups Embrace Social Media

January 8, 2013

Frank Lee

It was the tweet followed around the world -- a virtual blessing in 140 characters or less. Pope Benedict XVI first took to the Twitter account @Pontifex last month for spiritual questions and answers.

"I think it's kind of fun," said William Cahoy, dean of St. John's School of Theology/Seminary in Collegeville. "And I think he seems to think that it's sort of fun, too."

The 85-year-old pontiff's use of the youth-oriented social networking and micro-blogging service is a milestone not universally embraced by local clergy.

"Social media, in this instance, is spanning any generation gap," said Cahoy, an associate professor of theology.

Followers in spirit, online

In the first few hours, the pope's tweet on Dec. 12 picked up more than 38,000 retweets and was tagged as a favorite by almost 13,000 people, according to

"He seems to have a nice, light touch with this -- very personal," Cahoy said of the pope's Twitter account, which had 20 tweets but almost 1.4 million followers as of Monday.

Questions about faith were sent to the pope using the hashtag #AskPontifex. Last year, he tweeted after the launch of the Vatican's Web portal, but his first few tweets last month were under his own official account, which was set up only recently.

The head of the Roman Catholic Church had trouble sending out his first tweet, so an archbishop of the Vatican's communications department assisted, according to

"We would educate priests and other people preparing for positions of leadership in the church," Cahoy said.

Students at St. John's School of Theology/Seminary in Collegeville have attended presentations on how they might use social media and "the implications on religious life in America," according to Cahoy.

"What does it mean for community, for instance, how do people communicate with each other?" Cahoy said, giving examples of presentation topics.

"It's a great case where, for the most part, the students are ahead of us and bringing it to our attention for reflection."


Bishop John F. Kinney of the Diocese of St. Cloud does not have a Twitter account, but the Catholic diocese does have a Facebook page.

"I think that the pope and the Catholic Church are moving in the right direction when it comes to those things," said the Rev. Paul Hennings, lead pastor at Love of Christ Lutheran Church in St. Cloud.

Hennings does not have a Twitter account, however, because he is "not a big social media guy," nor does he have time to maintain an account, he said.

"Secondly, I'm not sure many people would follow me on Twitter. But I think a lot of people would follow the pope," Hennings said.

"The pope has a great opportunity to reach people with the message of Christianity through Twitter. ... My hope would be that he would use it to welcome people to faith and not ostracize them."

Teresa Hirst, director of public affairs for the St. Cloud Minnesota Stake of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, said the organization doesn't have any "tweeting" clergy.

"The general church leadership of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints encouraged members to use social media to share who they are as Mormons," Hirst said.


University Lutheran Church of the Epiphany/Lutheran Campus Ministry of St. Cloud no longer has a permanent place to call home, but the church maintains a Twitter account.

"That is more for the campus ministry congregation," said the Rev. Jayne Thompson, pastor of ULCE/LCM, which now meets at Atwood Memorial Center at St. Cloud State University to save money.

"I don't have a Twitter account of my own -- not that I'm opposed to it. I just do a lot more through Facebook, and my students do a lot more through Facebook rather than Twitter.

"Facebook, for me, was a wonderful way to keep in touch with people. Originally, I could tell if a student was having a bad day if they did a status update about how they did terrible on a test ... whether grandma died," Thompson said.

"Twitter has its own usefulness. I just think it's easier to post photos, videos on Facebook, and also I'm a word person, so 140 characters isn't a lot to work with on Twitter."

The Rev. William Meier is lead pastor of First United Methodist Church, one of the oldest churches in Central Minnesota. He also does not use Twitter. The church has a website and Facebook page.

"We are always kind of looking at what's going to be the most effective communication tool for us, and what we're comfortable maintaining at a level of quality, and -- I suppose -- dignity," Meier said. "And we've decided not to go the Twitter route."

Communication tool

Cahoy said he once heard that a pastor quickly learned of a parishioner's brother's suicide through social media and was able to attend the funeral to support the parishioner in his grief and loss.

"By the time he would have learned of it in other ways, the funeral would have been over, so this person's comment was that social media gives him 'longer arms' for reaching people with the Gospel," Cahoy said.

St. John's School of Theology/Seminary, "rooted in the Roman Catholic and Benedictine traditions and the ecumenical and liturgical heritage of St. John's Abbey, fosters study and prayer in a community of learners," according to its mission statement.

"We, as a faculty, are beginning to explore this tool; social media is a tool, like any other communication tool, and communication is one of the major ways that humans build community," Cahoy said.

"Communities are at the heart of the church, so we need to think about social media in the same way that we thought about preaching and other kinds of outreach and teaching as ways to build community ... and we just need to learn how to use it effectively."

Source: (c) 2013 the St. Cloud Times (St. Cloud, Minn.) Distributed by MCT Information Services

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