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
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
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
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
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
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
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
Email etiquette for
• 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
• Be careful when using Reply-to-all.
• Be careful when selecting from similar names on your contact
• 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
• 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.