Email etiquette


Most of us are used to corresponding by email. Quickly, it has become the primary form of communication for most of our congregations. And, of course, we may not have thought of all the fine points of etiquette for church email yet. So here’s what I’ve come up with:

First, keep bulk emails to a minimum. People don’t enjoy email spam, and if an organization keeps sending out frequent electronic messages, then the receiver will begin to delete the message before opening it. In order to keep this from happening, avoid using a bulk congregational email more than once per week. When using bulk mail, put the list on blind copy (bcc).

Second, be considerate with prayer requests. Although email can be a powerful force in getting prayer requests out to a large number of people, there is some danger involved. If you have a large, exhaustive email list that includes people who are not members of the congregation, you may want to rethink before sending out a message that an elderly woman is in the hospital again. The information could be disseminated to people who are not trust-worthy, and you may be putting her in possible peril.

Third, respond quickly. We live in a society where a person can call a utility company and expect to spend forty-five minutes on the phone, waiting for a human being to answer. Even when they try to mesmerize the caller with muzak and the hypnotic message, “Your call is very important to us. Please continue to hold. It will be answered in the order in which it was received.” The person who is holding knows clearly that their call is absolutely not important to them, or else they would hire more people to answer the calls. The utility company can get away with this because they do not see us face-to-face.

As a society, we’ve learned that evading people can be simple when using impersonal forms of communication (whether we mean to or not). So, as pastors, we can answer emails immediately, whenever possible. Of course, on our days off, we cannot be expected to answer them, but on all other days, a good goal is to answer them immediately if we’re at the computer, and within twenty-four hours if we’re not.

Fourth, when receiving a bulk email that needs a response, reply only to the sender. You wouldn’t want to crowd everyone’s box with superfluous information.

Fifth, a pastor can claim email bankcruptcy. What do you think about this one? When a pastor comes home from leave or vacation, and our inbox is completely filled with thousands of letters, and we know that there will be no conceivable way to catch up, should we be able to declare email bankruptcy? In others words, tell the congregation that we’ll read the email, but we won’t be able to respond? Or something like that… I’m not sure of the details….

What would you add to the list? Are there some you disagree with? What is it about email that drives you crazy? What do you like about it? Should it always be treated as personal correspondence between the sender and the receiver? If so, what about forwarding? Should people be allowed to forward indiscriminately?


17 thoughts on “Email etiquette

  1. Good stuff.

    I would amend the list slightly though.

    We often plan for our praise team, for example, by e-mail. The steering committee for lay ministry training in our presbytery often works in this way as well. In this case, REPLY ALL is important so that everyone is in on the conversation fully. Getting to the point where folks are doing this has substantially improved communication among us.

    Now… you’ve reminded me of an e-mail I’ve neglected…

  2. I believe there is a Presbytery committee you work with that has a problem with the “Reply All” feature of e-mail. There are too many emails that say “please reply to all” and they don’t, and even more when there is no need for all to see that the ominous button is hit. Argh.

    From a Presbytery perspective – we have rules in place, and most certainly maintain separate lists. Our church, unfortunately, has a “congregation@….” address that gets used on a whim, and people really have begun to tune it out. An email at 5:00 on a Friday night saying that the Bingo Night is still on (at 7) does not do enough good to have sent the email.

    We have begun a weekly e-newsletter in the last year. I find it incredibly helpful, and it has allowed us to virtually eliminate the need for a monthly newsletter. We do have some in the congregation that want the print version, and our staff basically pull info from those weekly emails. To keep those without email up-to-date, we print a few copies and have them on a table on Sunday morning.

    Separately – I absolutely agree that e-mail bankruptcy can be claimed, and should be.

    Now I feel like I have committed a blog-etiquette violation, blabbered on a LOT, and not completely on topic. Sorry about that.

  3. Bingo! You’re so perceptive Rob. I was thinking about the reply-all tendencies of a certain committee which crowds my inbox with 20 replies every time a meeting’s announced….

    And wow! You were able to eliminate the monthly newsletter? We have a weekly email, but I don’t see the monthly going anywhere. Not that I would want it to, necessarily. It’s just that the editor may not be the editor in a couple of months, and I have sleepless nights imagining how we’re going to replace her….

    You know what I would like to go though? The paper phone directory. I PDF’d mine, put it on my computer desktop, and now I always know where it is.

  4. The reply-all function can make a girl crazy. Or a boy. Or even a grown adult. I was just invited (along with 100 of my closest friends) to a retirement dinner at work. I’ve had my inbox flooded with people writing back to inform me–in excrutiating detail–of why they cannot come. Tell the inviter! We don’t all need to know!

    My additional email pet-peeve, though, is email as a passive-aggressive form of communication. If there is a real problem, send an email and set up an appointment–then come in, or I’ll go to you, and we’ll hash it out. Long, angry emails cannot substitute for a real conversation.

  5. Disclaimer: I was email before email was cool, and have been using email for 18 years. I use email a whole bunch, and check my email constantly.

    In my opinion, email is best for giving information to groups not for making group decisions. Email is an unequal medium. It favors people who are comfortable with it and check it often.

    I’ve been involved in group decisions by email that are made in the space of a morning or afternoon. This happens when 2-3 people in the group check their email often and have a conversation amongst themselves and arrive at a conclusion before the other members of the group even check their email.

    Email is also not a great medium to handle group decisions/conversations that may involve a certain level of disagreement. There’s just too much communication and clarifications that can’t happen through email.

    I also am not sure that I agree with “respond quickly.” I get way too many emails to set up an expectation that I will get back to everyone right away or even within a day. I will always answer emails promptly, but that means some get answered right away and others a couple days later. I’ve also found that people expect me to answer work emails on my days off, and I think this is reinforced by answering emails right away.

    If people need to hear from me within a short time frame then they know the church phone number. This is how I operate as well, I email people with most things but if I need a quick response then that’s what the phone is for (or texting).

  6. Nope! Not my toes. They do look like them… but I only reserve toe polish for summer.

    Our church is totally reliant on email. The secretary takes all my messages on email, etc. I am definitely a respond-quickly person most of the time, because if I don’t I’ll feel utterly swamped. Also if I take time to think about them, I’ll forget to answer them. The typical D.C. person’s pretty uptight about email, so I have to keep on my toes.

    So, what are your expectations? When you send an email, how long do you expect it to take for a response?

    Susan O, you’re so right about the passive aggressive email. It’s entirely not fair.

  7. We send out a “This Week at FPC” on Mondays with 3 things 1) Bible verse from upcoming sermon lesson, 2) a prayer concern/thanksgiving/celebration re: a church member (to avoid the whole “please pray for my brother’s wife’s father’s sister”) and 3) a calendar for that week’s activities. We try not to send more than this.

    Another interesting feature re: email – it has forced the church into a “younger” mindset. We require elders to have email and so all our elders are technologically savvy – at least to a minimal extent. Not true for our deacons who are not required to have email and it shows. They are often “behind” on everything from information to ecclesiastical culture shifts. In the attempt to be inclusive of those w/o email/computers our ministry, IMHO suffers.

    PS I do toenail polish year round.

  8. My church is, by Presbyterian standards, youngish (mostly 30-40-somethings with young kids). They are totally familiar with email, and addicted to it. But email has its limits, and when the “Reply-All” thing gets going, that’s an indication the limits are being pushed. This is the perfect time to move the congregation over to a social networking site like Facebook, which is ideally suited to handle interactivity, planning, and threaded responses. Or even, at the very least, a blog with comments.

    But no…they won’t have any of it: “We’ll stick to our email, thank-you-very-much. Social networking is for teenagers. Email is for grown-ups.”

    My dad (a computer programmer) used to say that when you have 38 columns and 7 macros in your spreadsheet, you should have switched to a database long ago… It’s the same with emailing and social networking. Use the right tool for the job.

  9. Yep. Our church is 50/50 membership, but younger in attendance/involvement (due to college students, D.C. interns, etc.).

    The “social networking is for teenagers” crowd will do yahoo groups. And they send evites for the church picnic, pub nights, and everything else. But… there might be hope. I’ve heard in the halls that “Ning is social networking for grown-ups.” I haven’t seen Ning exactly catching on like wildfire though…

    In our new web design (which has been taking a really long time…), we’re adding a blog feature to the page where our sermons now reside, so people can talk back to the preacher. I think that’ll get them used to the blog medium more.

  10. It’s a good list, my only issue is the respond immediately one. Because of the ease of email communication it can become a real distraction. I suggest having a set time in the day during which you work on emails. If something is really urgent, and emails rarely are, then people will find other ways to get hold of you. There are real benefits to being so accessible but there is also a very serious downside to it and we need to manage that carefully.

  11. As a pastor who lives/works in a different state from my church, I use a lot of email. I echo the caution about “availability” of reply. I sometimes wait to reply, on purpose. We are in the process of hiring a new Admin Asst and a chief critera for me will be: can she write a brief email?

    We have replaced our monthly newsletter with a monthly e-newsletter, it works great. I discourage prayer concerns email (unless it is literally life and death) because I don’t want people to quit opening church email. I have said this in church: I promise not to send something unless it’s important, please let me know if you feel like it’s too much. They don’t hear from the church more than 3 times a month, usually only twice. But that is a relatively lengthy newsletter, with a contribution from each elder.

    Also, I am wondering how to incorporate my personal website and blog with the church website (under construction). So far it is just linkages. Also there are my sermon podcasts. Ay Yi Yi. This is a growing edge, isn’t it?

  12. Sermon podcasts aren’t too hard. Although (forgive me for sounding like part of the cult), everything’s easier with a Mac….

    So, I’m surprised that many of you don’t respond to email quickly. I’m usually right on top of those bad boys. That’s very interesting…

  13. I just started a ning network and man, it’s good stuff. It’s like a combination facebook and bulletin board system, with rooms for different clubs, etc. I can see this really working well in a church setting–maybe not with college kids because they’re pretty facebook committed, but a church group–I’m digging it.

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