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Church emails: handle with care

15 May 2015

Electronic messages present particular pitfalls for Christians, says Adrian Low


EMAIL, texting, messaging, tweeting, and social media are part of everyday life for many churches. There are dangers, however: it is easy for the plain and hastily sent words to stir up misunderstandings. But implementing some simple suggestions can help avoid vexatious misreadings and email warfare.

Some people choose emails rather than face-to-face communication because speaking directly to a person can be too time-consuming or awkward, or it might be hard to find a place and time to meet, or the subject might be one that leaves people too vulnerable.

Yet emails and texts can never be a direct replacement for speaking. Face-to-face, all the cues are available: facial expressions, gestures, intonation, variable delivery speed, pauses, musicality, laughing, or crying. Research suggests that 50-80 per cent of what is conveyed in a meeting is non-verbal.

In text-only emails, SMS texts, and tweets, however, everything except the basic word is dumped. Even snail-mail-posted letters have a smell, a writing style (which can be careful or not), a design, colour perhaps, and usually a real signature. Letters also tend to be well-framed and considered - after all, they are more trouble, and come with the cost of the envelope, postage, and time.

Emails, on the other hand, are often rushed, sometimes last thing at night. They are essentially free, and so often receive the least careful consideration. Texts or emails from phones are worse. They are briefer than from a computer because many people find it harder to type on a phone.

In face-to-face communication, there are indications when a phrase is unclear, so that the speaker can immediately go back and explain. In emails, there is no instant feedback. You must choose words and phrases all the way through, so that you explain everything fully. This usually takes much longer than simply saying it.

UNFORTUNATELY, emails also seem to encourage people to be particularly frank. This is dangerous. Press "Send", and you are committed. You go to sleep on your fulsome message, and gingerly open the reply only when you feel stronger in the morning. Emails, texts, and tweets are data at their most raw, and as such can easily be misinterpreted either accidentally or mischievously. Christians, particularly, should take note.

Frame an email badly, and people with an ounce of malice are given the privilege and opportunity to put whatever emphasis they want on particular words. The result can be a disaster. For example, here is a message from a vicar to a churchwarden: "Hi Jen, Did you take the Sunday collection last week? Carrie."

What the vicar meant was: "Were you the one who walked around the church receiving the collection last Sunday, because if you were: thank you for doing so." Had this been voiced, it would have been delivered with intonation and a smile.

Jen, however, can now put whatever emphasis she chooses on one or more words, and this changes the meaning dramatically. If the emphasis is on "Did", it implies that Carrie thinks that she did not, even though she has said that she did. If the emphasis is on "take", it could imply that Jen has walked off with it. An emphasis on "Sunday" could mean that Jen had taken all the others, but Carrie is implying that Jen failed to take the Sunday one, and so the church lost out.

Or how about: "Les, Can you play 'Teach me to dance' on the organ? Vic." What the priest meant was: would you mind playing "Teach me to dance" on the organ, when we get to that point in the service?

Putting the emphasis on "Can" or "Can you", Les could take it to mean that Vic is implying that he has not the necessary musical ability. Yet an emphasis on "organ" could mean that Vic is implying that Les is a fool if he thinks that playing such a song on the organ is even possible.

AMBIGUITY is the problem, particularly if recipients are being vexatious. Some emails, however, contain real ambiguity, and can be interpreted in many ways, leading to disastrous unforeseen consequences, even with the best-intentioned recipient.

Ambiguity can be removed with emphasis, if this is available. For example, HTML emails give you a chance to add emphasis - although what you mean by italics or bold, red or capitals may not be what the recipient means. Also, many people do not wish to open HTML emails because of concerns about security. In practice, it is better to add more words to clarify.

So, when discussing a draft order of service, this message can be read in at least four ways: "Jo, I really didn't want that prayer on page 2. Best wishes, Baz."

1 Please put the prayer on another page instead (with an emphasis on "2").

2 Dump that prayer entirely, and don't put another prayer in its place (with an emphasis on "prayer").

3 Can't we put a different prayer on page 2 instead (with an emphasis on "that")?

Or even, with an emphasis on "I":

4 Fair enough, keep it on page 2, if everyone else wants it there. I just wanted to make my point.

IF YOU would not want to stand up in public and argue, it is best not do it by email. If someone sends a complaining email and then copies in half the congregation, the rural dean, bishop, and archbishop, then you know you are up for a fight. Don't be hooked into having a shouting match on email by using the "Reply to all" button, even if the arguer keeps plastering everyone with copies of new emails to you. The CCing of everyone just shows what an idiot the person is.

Instead, meet for coffee, or, if you don't fancy doing that, reply only to the individual, suggesting that this is not the way to conduct a debate.

Getting the email subject line right is also important. If you use an old email that you have received, and click on "Reply to all" simply because you have all the email addresses in one place, then the subject line will be "RE:XXX", where "XXX" is the earlier subject. If you don't change it to the new subject, then it might be opened only by people who are interested in following the old conversation, or filed later under the wrong subject.

"Reply to all" also provides unfortunate opportunities for accidental global responses that are embarrassing and do can no end of damage. Here, for example, are two responses to the rural dean who is inviting you to deanery synod when you accidentally press "Reply to all": "Thanks, Sam, but I see Drew is on the list and if he's going to be there, I'm not going" or "Thanks, Sam, can't make it. Pocketed the offertory and am taking the kids to Mexico (lol!)" (lol is internet slang for "Laugh out loud").

USING email as an alternative to pastoral visiting is also full of pitfalls. The important work done by Professor Stella Mills (www.splat.co.nr/email) suggests that email can be useful in some circumstances in non-crisis pastoral care, but she emphasises that if the person is depressed or seriously ill, then a visit is essential.

Consider the innocuous: "Hello Jen. Are you feeling better now? Sam." Sam had meant to say: "How are you feeling now: are you feeling better?" but it could be taken to mean: "You were particularly argumentative and unpleasant when I visited last week. If I visit this week, are you going to be polite to me?"

Pastoral emails are especially dangerous if people accidentally select the wrong email address - for instance, if you have three J Smiths in your contact list, and you pick the wrong one with: "Hi Jan, Happy to keep your new relationship and the sensitive operation entirely confidential. Best of luck with the new masseuse!"

WE ALL know that email, texting, and other messaging is essential for advertising and keeping the church administrative show on the road. But in an environment where there are sensitivities, confidentialities, interesting personalities, and smoul-dering arguments, these tools need to be used carefully.

Can you imagine St Paul doing a brief email on his phone to St Peter, cc'd to the rest of the Jerusalem church, saying that Peter had to accept Gentile Christians; or Jesus trying to text what he wanted to say to the woman at the well? I rest my case.

The Revd Adrian Low is Assistant Curate, Abbots Bromley, Blithfield, Colton, Colwich, and Great Haywood; he is Emeritus Professor of Computing Education at Staffordshire University.


Email etiquette for churches

• If there is a single recipient: if you can phone it, phone it; still better, if you can say it to someone's face, say it.


• If you email it (perhaps because you have a great deal to note or need a written record), consider it carefully. Use HTML rather than raw text to give emphasis, or add extra words so that the meaning is clear. If it is to a group of people, send it to yourself and use BCC (blind copy) to avoid everyone's getting a free address list.


• Don't emphasise using capital letters. IT LOOKS AS IF YOU ARE SHOUTING.


• Be careful when using Reply-to-all.


• Be careful when selecting from similar names on your contact list.


• Choose a sensible subject line, preferably using a new one for a new subject.


• Don't Reply-to-all with emails that are up for a fight; try replying only to the sender.


• Avoid emails for sensitive pastoral care, unless there is no real alternative. For some, it can do more harm than good.


• Remember: emails stay not only in your inbox, but the recipient's inbox, for a long time. Time does not necessarily heal.


• Emails are not necessarily private. People print them out, leave them on the screen for others to read, and - on a whim or accidentally - forward them to others.

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