A Model for Navigating Public Presence

Public, Private, Professional, Personal- Part Two

One thing seminarians hear regularly is that a minister is, in some sense, always a minister: that there is no completely setting aside the ministerial role – except in situations where the people you’re interacting with don’t know you’re a minister. I can report there’s some truth to this: on more than one occasion I’ve said “grad school” rather than “seminary” and changed the subject to avoid having to listen to people fall all over themselves apologizing for using profanity, or not going to church anymore.

(Just so you know: That gets old, FAST. Whether or not you go to church? That’s your business. I haven’t met anyone past their first year in seminary who doesn’t cherish the opportunity to talk about anything other than church stuff. If one of your personal friends is in seminary or active ministry – and you aren’t – talk to them about the ball game.  Your favorite new TV series.  Art.  Gardening. Cat pictures. Something you saw on the internet. Whatever you would talk to your other friends about. I promise your clergy friend will be cool with that. If they aren’t into cat pictures, they will change the subject.) 

The other thing we seminarians keep hearing is that ministers need to keep good boundaries between their professional and personal lives.

“Don’t overshare.”

“Preach from your scars, not from your wounds.”

This advice is absolutely true – for the health of both the minister and the congregation – and also deeply challenging in a vocation defined less by specific tasks or context than by the simple presence and person of the minister. Our tools are our selves. When we show up, we’re on. Could be any hour of the day, any day of the year – but because we are also human, we can’t be available all of the hours of every day or all of the days of every year. And so we must draw a line somewhere, carve out a few spaces for being just us.

For my whole adult life the internet has been one of the spaces where I can relax and be human, free from job and family expectations. But I’m increasingly finding that this freedom and familiarity goes against the emerging conventional wisdom I get from my colleagues – students and otherwise – for whom the online sphere is a kind of pulpit, inherently public and therefore automatically and exclusively part of the professional realm. I suppose that’s one way to do it: arranging your life so that all things public (including your online life) are only professional, and all things personal are kept private – and offline.

But I’ve been online for as long as the internet has been available to the general public, since the early-mid 1990s. Online presence has been part of my personal life since way before my call to professional ministry – this blog is only the latest iteration of that. Having a personal life that’s entirely unplugged is not an option for me: that train left the station over twenty years ago. And I expect the same is true for many Gen Xers and Millennials, especially the younger folks for whom there has never really not been an internet.

Those of us with long digital trails can’t separate things the easy way – Professional – Public – Online on one side and Personal – Private – Offline on the other. Instead, my model looks something like this:


Square divided into quadrants: top left (purple) Public and professional; top right (orange), Private and Professional; bottom left (green), Public and personal; bottom right (yellow), private and personal.


In the purple box, we have the Public and Professional. This is the work – creative output, writing, speaking, even just presence – that happens for a broad audience, online or offline. Sermons and worship services. Public advocacy. Social media ministry. An online professional page or digital resume. Appearing in public as a minister – or an actor, politician, teacher, artist, author or any other public figure.

In the orange box, we have the Private and Professional. This is the work that happens for or with a narrow or closed audience. Chaplaincy and pastoral caregiving. Spiritual direction. Collegial conversations. Closed professional groups. Rough drafts. Prayer. The parts of our professional lives that hold the stories which are not ours to tell – or which are not ready to be shared with the world just yet.

In the green box, we have the Public and Personal. These are the parts of our personal lives that we share with the world – or at least the part of the world that’s interested. Pictures of our pets and children and gardens, on FaceBook or Instagram or in the local newspaper. Playing in the recreational softball league or the community theater. Posting on a personal blog. Reviewing a new local restaurant. What we wear when we’re mowing the front lawn on Saturday morning. The parts of our personal lives that are out there for the noticing.

And in the yellow box, we have the Private and Personal. These are the parts of our personal lives we don’t necessarily share with everyone – for a variety of reasons. Information that could cause harm – to us, or to someone else – if it got into malevolent hands. Things that are just nobody else’s business. Things that are tender, or uncertain, or awkward. Finances. Health concerns. Relationships. Silliness. Vulnerability. Failure. Intimacy. Our hopes, our fears, our grief, our deep joy. The stuff we hold close.

In our diagram above, I’ve drawn the boxes with bright solid lines between them, but the truth is that each of these pairs is more a spectrum than a binary. Someone sufficiently motivated might map out on a grid the coordinates of any particular data point in their life story. It’s only a model.

But it’s a model that I’m working with to see if it’s useful.


Next Post: Discerning the boundaries within our lives

This entry was posted in Reflections. Bookmark the permalink.