Several years ago an honorably retired colleague of mine admired how lucky our generation is to have email as a tool for ministry. Although he was not much of an emailer himself, he understood how convenient it is to be able to send out meeting reminders to a whole group or attach a document for discussion with a simple click. Email truly is a great tool, but I couldn’t help but be surprised by his enthusiasm! For many of us, email so often feels like a huge drain on our time and a constant source of frustration.
So I offer for your consideration my top four personal email commandments. I often wish I could chisel these on stone tablets for my ministry colleagues of all generations, but perhaps blogs are the stone tablets of our day! I would love to hear your recommendations for what you would add to make it a full set of ten.
1. Thou shalt never hit send in a moment of anger.
Just as with the biblical commandments, this command comes first on the list for a reason. You know that feeling when that heat starts creeping up your neck, warning you to stop and take a breath before hitting that send button. Righteous anger can be healthy, but email clap backs are rarely as satisfying as we think they are going to be, and they can do real damage to your relationships and level of respect within the congregation. Not to mention that after you hit send, there is nothing to prevent those nasty remarks from getting forwarded around the church. If you need to write down those snarky comments to get them out of your system, fine — but leave them to sit in your drafts folder for at least an hour to give you that space to reconsider. Taking a few minutes to get your perspective back can save you a lot of long, headache-inducing email chains and regret.
2. Thou shalt not read or reply to email on your Sabbath day.
Often the way we live our lives offers the strongest witness to our congregation and the world around us. If you preach against the all-consuming busyness of our culture but are constantly answering emails on your day off, your hypocrisy is not going unnoticed. Plus, haven’t you ever noticed that the resentment you feel over the interruption always seems to sneak through? It is always those times when you are responding hastily from your family beach vacation or getting one last message off before you turn off the light at bedtime that your tone comes across a bit too terse, or you make an error in judgement that you would not have made while calmly sitting at your desk. Keeping the Sabbath holy is not just on this tongue-in-cheek list of email commandments — it is a real commandment! Get yourself a good out-of-office message, offer a clear way to get a hold of you in case of a pastoral emergency and then turn off that phone.
3. Thou shalt not email when a phone call is needed.
My fellow millennials will hate this rule because we are often very phone averse. Yet, if there is one thing I hate more than gritting my teeth and making a phone call, it is getting swamped in an email exchange that takes hours of back and forth when a simple five-minute conversation could have cleared the muddy waters in no time. Any topic that involves dealing with conflict requires real discernment — or necessitates sensitivity that is not suited for email. If you can’t abide the phone, then make an appointment to meet in person.
4. Thou shall always speak in complete sentences.
Of course not every email requires a full salutation or formal address, but the way you email represents you and the church just as much as the way you behave and speak on a Sunday morning. Increasingly, much of the time spent interacting with our congregation and community partners is over email. If your email style involves a lot of ellipses between half-formed thoughts, you need to consider that you may be coming across as someone who only has half-formed thoughts! If you feel the need to include multiple question marks or exclamation points at the end of every sentence, perhaps you might want to consider that you sound as if you are yelling. Please, I’m begging you, don’t be this person.
CAITLIN THOMAS DEYERLE is pastor of Southminster Presbyterian Church in Richmond, Virginia, where she lives with her husband James, their cat Calvin and a very rebellious puppy named Molly.