One of my most common ongoing battles with congregational leaders I work with is the effective use of emails/Facebook messages, etc. The age of less-is-more, microwaves, and 140-character communication hasn’t just arrived; it’s made itself at home in the church. And though it might be rather convenient, I’m seeing an alarming rise in misunderstandings and conflict as a result.

It’s not that email is bad or that we should ban the medium from the church, but we’ve got to be a bit more discriminating in its use. The rise off misunderstandings isn’t a matter of poor word choice so much as it is a matter of poor medium choice.

Here’s an example I was recently called to deal with. A music minister emailed her choir reminding them of the upcoming special choir practice. But in her closing words, she reminded the choir that the summer slump had affected the choir too and that their anthem presentations were an important ministry of the church and that choir members should prioritize their time accordingly.

Less than a week later, the whole choir was embroiled in turmoil – sides were chosen, lines were drawn, and a battle raged.

We’ve probably all had to deal with misunderstandings in digital communication and know how a reader can project all sorts of hurt, pain, guilt, shame, anger, or their own “kick-th- dog bad day” into the most innocuous message. What starts out innocent enough can quickly devolve into an escalated war.

Digital communication via channels like email and Facebook lacks the warmth of face-to-face communication. In any event, email messages don’t carry facial expressions, tone of voice, or the luxury of noticing instantly that the message needs to be clarified. So it’s not surprising that they’re so often misconstrued, misunderstood, and misapplied.

Email messages are subject to misunderstanding and potential conflict, but there’s another reason to limit the use of email in church communication (or communication with anyone, for that matter). There’s an old saying that you can’t take back your words. If that’s true of words spoken, it’s especially true of email. There are some of us who archive the email messages we receive. For instance, I have some emails saved that date back earlier than 2004. I’m an electronic pack rat, and I’m not alone in that. Trust me. In addition, I’m a writer and I’ve come to understand something crucial to my own well-being – don’t put anything in writing that can one day come back to bite you.

Once upon a time, the advice was to write your feelings in a poison pen letter, put it in an envelope, and then leave it in a drawer at least overnight. But we live in an instant, Press Enter to Submit, world and too often the Send button is clicked before our words have checked into our brains. You may not be able to take back your spoken words, but your written words can last an eternity. Literally.

So, here are a couple rules of thumb for the appropriate use of email in church.

When to Use Email

In general, use email to provide informational items of a non-personal nature. For instance, it’s great to send out an email to schedule a typical meeting, such as a finance committee meeting. On the other hand, do not use email to schedule a “come to the principal’s office” meeting.

It’s great to use email to be 100 percent, over the top, encouraging. A quick note to say, “I heard of your accomplishment. Way to go!” is totally okay. But leave it at Rah! Rah! (BTW, consider an E-Card from someplace like … there’s nothing like a card to say Yay!)

Use email to deliver newsletters, committee minutes, etc. WITHOUT comment.

Use email to provide updates. “I arrived in Texas safely! Thanks for your prayers,” is great.

Use email to say thanks on a personal level. “Bob, I really appreciated your help moving my couch this weekend.” However, be careful about larger distribution list thank yous. Saying a public thank you to Sharon for her worship solo can be taken as a slight by Carol who recited a poem in that worship service – “In this church, you’ve got to be a singer to get noticed.”

When Not to Use Email

I wish I could say that everyone (or even most) people know the obvious misuses of email, but I see a lot of abuse of email… so here’s a list of what may seem obvious and not so obvious times to use email.

  • First, don’t use email to confront a personal issue or behavior or to offer a critique, unless it’s an over-the-top Rah! Rah! kind of critique (see above). No matter how nice or careful or constructive you may think you’re being, there will still be plenty of room for misunderstanding. And in my experience, if there’s room for misunderstanding, Murphy’s law will prevail.
  • Don’t send an email to discuss delicate issues unless both parties are totally neutral about the issue at hand – and I mean totally neutral. If there is any possibility that there is any bias one way or another, then step away from the keyboard.
  • Never send an email when you’re angry, frustrated, agitated, ticked off, displeased, unhappy, etc. If you do, somehow, someway your recipient will pick up on it and it will cause you grief.
  • Finally, don’t use email to reply to an email that violate any of the above rules. In other words, just because you got an email that has jangled your nerves, that doesn’t give you the okay to respond in kind. Instead, pick up the phone and make an appointment to further the conversation in person. And if you can’t see straight, then take the time to cool off before making the call (and imagine how ill-suited an instant email response would have been!).

Here’s a rule of thumb. With the exception of the When to Use Email list above, never press Send on a potential questionable email until someone with a cool head has eyeballed it first, or until you’ve kept it in your Drafts folder for at least 24 hours and then revisited it. And the former is preferable to the latter.

Personally, I LOVE the convenience of email… and I love hanging on to them for future reference. So, if you don’t want what you send to come back to bite you later, be very careful how you use this medium. Sometimes convenience is outweighed by wisdom.

Question: Where do you place your boundaries in using email communication? Share your thoughts in the Comments section below.