As a pastor I have a love-hate relationship with e-mail

Dos & Don’ts of Good E-mail Communication

As a pastor, I have a love-hate relationship with e-mail

by Gary Combs

Dos & Don’ts of Good E-mail Communication
As a pastor, I have a love-hate relationship with e-mail

by Gary Combs

ON THE ONE HAND, I can’t remember what life was like without e-mail. I use it everyday. E-mail represents a large percentage of my communication with our church members and staff. I don’t know what I’d do without it.

On the other hand, I hate e-mail. I sometimes wish it had never been invented. Discovering 97 e-mails in my inbox on Monday morning, after not checking it on Sunday, fills me with dread. Just knowing they’re in the inbox, waiting for me, I can barely work on anything else.

And I’m sure we’ve all opened the e-mail bomb that blows up our attitude for the day. It’s just too easy to press “send” on a critical comment that wasn’t given enough thought.

So, I’ve developed some “do’s” and “don’ts” of how to use e-mail. I even teach these to our staff and church leaders so they can maximize their communication too. Here they are:

DO: Use e-mail to keep everyone informed. We use weekly e-mail newsletters, or “e-zines,” to keep our people informed. Many of our ministry teams — the youth, the worship team and others — put out weekly e-zines. We send out a church-wide e-zine every Thursday that promotes the upcoming weekend events and sermon series. It offers news articles, calendar information, prayer concerns and other items of interest to our members. We try to keep the e-zine short so people will read it.

We also use the e-zine to promote our church website by putting only the first paragraph of an interesting article on the e-zine, with a “Read more…” tab. Readers can mouse-click to continue reading the item on our website.

We use a professional provider for our church-wide e-zine. It offers special templates, ease of use, multiple-contact-list storage, and usage tracking. It’s helpful to see how many “opens,” “bounces” and “click-throughs” our e-zines get. Although it might be discouraging for the pastor to learn that of the e-zines “opened,” only 25 percent “clicked through” to read his article, it’s still good information to have for improving communication.

DON’T: Assume e-mail keeps everyone informed. E-mail is just one form of communication. You can never over-communicate. People are always down on what they’re not up on — so keep them “up” on everything. Use e-mail, but don’t forget to use the church bulletin, pulpit announcements, scroll PowerPoint announcements before and after the service, mail fliers, etc. People often don’t ‘get it’ until they’ve heard something multiple times. Plus, as strange as it might seem in this modern age, not everyone has e-mail.

DO: Use e-mail to share facts. E-mail is great at this. Use it to attach the minutes from your last board meeting to all the board members. Send your sermon notes to the small-groups pastor, so he or she can write the facilitator questions for next week’s groups. (These will be sent out to all small-group facilitators via e-mail, too.) Attach recent photos from church event when you e-mail to the webmaster so they can be posted to the website.

DON’T: Use e-mail to correct or criticize someone. E-mail is terrible at this. It just doesn’t work well with anything that has the potential for emotional misunderstanding. I’ve made the mistake of offering criticism via e-mail. I thought I had mixed in the appropriate number of “warm fuzzies” before delivering my “cold prickly” by email, but the recipient totally misunderstood. They sent a very angry e-mail in response.

Rather than continue with a string of ever-escalating replies, I chose to phone the individual. Just adding the tone of voice to the context of the conversation changed everything.

That’s the thing: e-mail has no tone of voice and no visual cues. Communicating by phone — or better yet, in person — is much more effective when offering correction.

DON’T: Use e-mail when you’re angry. This seems an obvious addition to the above suggestion, but it’s just too easy to hit the “send” button. Letters have to be licked and stamped, but not e-mail.

Plus, e-mail has a dangerous second life. The recipient might decide to keep the e-mail and read it over and over again, constantly stirring them up. Or worse, they might decide to forward it to others in the church without the sender’s permission. (By the way, if you ever receive an angry e-mail, the “delete” button is just as easy to reach as the “send” button.)

DO: Use e-mails to get urgent information out quickly. We use e-mail “blasts” to quickly notify our members of something that needs their immediate attention. For instance, we’ll send out a very short e-mail that reads like a press release to inform of a member’s death and funeral arrangements. This keeps as many people as possible in the loop when something like this happens during the week.

DON’T: Let e-mail control you. Designate a portion of your day to e-mailing. Many e-mail providers and programs have an e-mail notification that includes a “ding” sound, like a bell, followed by an onscreen message that says, “You have a new email in your inbox. Would you like to open it now?”

One of the best things I’ve ever done to improve my time management is to turn off that automatic e-mail notification. I have a secretary for my phone calls (and an answering machine, too), but why do I have to read every e-mail as it arrives? I don’t. It can wait until the time I’ve allotted to reading it.

When properly used, e-mail helps me save time by letting me budget when and how much time I want to devote to correspondence that day.

DO: Add e-mail as an important tool to your communications tool box. E-mail is a wonderful tool when properly used. It’s great at keeping people informed, sharing factual information, making everyone aware of urgent needs quickly, and it can be a great time management tool, too. Just remember: It shouldn’t be the only tool in your tool box.

Some things require a different touch. A hand-written card is always more powerful when we want to communicate our care. A conversation over a cup of coffee is always preferred when offering a gentle correction. E-mail should be used where it works best. Don’t overuse it, or use it inappropriately, just because it’s easy to use.

For those of us in the ministry, we recognize communication as one of our primary jobs. When we learn the proper use of e-mail as one of the many tools at our disposal, we can use it to greatly improve our task of getting the word out and keeping the people informed.

Gary Combs is the founding/lead pastor at Wilson Community Church in Wilson, N.C. He has a master of divinity degree from Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary with an emphasis in Biblical Languages. Combs is also one of the founding members of North Carolina’s Innovative Church Community and serves as one of its directors, providing church leaders and planters with coaching, consulting, conferences and learning communities.

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