When I proposed to my girlfriend several weeks ago, I chose to ask her that important question in person. When I discovered the Rocks Aroma Festival, I chose to send her an email with the link, asking if she’d like to go along. For my sister’s birthday on Saturday, I chose to phone her and wish her all the best. Each day we make choices as to how we will communicate particular things to particular people.
The same is true of ministry, but I feel in this context, email is too quickly selected as the best means of communication. It’s understandable – email communication is just so convenient. It doesn't take long to write an email – and in fact, it takes the same time to send an email to one person as it does to send to your whole congregation. There are lots of efficiency gains to be had.
However, I think we need to be more discerning with when we use email to communicate. Not necessarily because of the disadvantages of email (though there are many!), but because of the advantages of personal (face-to-face or voice-to-voice) communication.
I’ve put together some guiding principles for when email should be avoided (based on my own observations and mistakes) – what do you think?
1. Avoid email when you are asking someone to serve.
Inviting someone to participate in ministry is a special interaction. You are recognising that they have gifts and abilities that make them suitable to serve, and you are inviting them to use these gifts to serve the Body. It’s easy to think of asking someone to serve as simply filling a gap, but by making this a personal conversation (phone or face-to-face) you have the opportunity to encourage them (by noting the gifts you’ve seen that God has given them), and by painting a picture of the vision you have for the ministry, with their involvement.
2. Avoid email when you need a quick response.
If you need to confirm that Suzie can read the Bible at church on Sunday, if it’s less than four days out, a phone call is the best way to confirm. A phone call enables instant confirmation (rather than waiting for a response, or wondering if they even got the email!), and if they are unable to serve, you’ve still got time to find a replacement.
3. Avoid email when you want to encourage someone.
Think of the difference if you were to receive an email encouraging you for the good job you did praying at church on Sunday, or if you received a phone call to communicate the same encouragement. The effort taken to make the phone call, plus the personal nature of the conversation, makes email the lesser option.
4. Avoid email when you are upset.
I’ve sent emails when I’ve been upset, and this was foolish. I’ve said things that I would never have said in person. I’ve reacted to things that would have easily been clarified if I’d picked up the phone or met up in person. It’s easy to fire off an email when upset, but it’s a foolish option.
5. Avoid email if there's any chance your email might be misunderstood.
The written word is easily misunderstood – either because the writer may not have written clearly, or because the reader may have read with his or her own bias. Regardless, if there’s a chance that a misunderstanding might occur, the potential time spent in damage control dealing with the mis-communication will soon overtake the time you should have spent making the original phone call.
6. Avoid email when you are canceling or apologising.
It’s not easy to tell someone that you can no longer come along to an event, or can no longer (or would no longer like to) be involved in a particular ministry. Email is an easy way to communicate this, but I think it’s a cop-out. I think this is a simple issue of courtesy (and the same goes for cancelling via SMS!). Similarly, it’s much easier to apologise over email than in person. To apologise in person displays humility, plus you have the advantage of being able to ask for forgiveness, and for the other person to offer forgiveness, thus restoring the relationship.
7. Avoid email when you want to provide “constructive feedback”.
When you send an email, you don’t know how the recipient is going. They could be having a terrible day/week/month. Your feedback could be the straw that breaks the camel’s back! Giving feedback in person allows you to see how the other person is going, read the visual cues, and communicate gently where necessary!
8. Avoid email when you are rebuking.
Similar to the example above, delivering (and receiving) a rebuke isn’t easy at the best of times. In personal interactions, facial expressions and body language count for a lot (this video gives a good explanation of non-verbal cues). When rebuking, responding to these cues is important. Therefore, I would go the further step to suggest that the best way to rebuke is face-to-face, not even over the phone.
9. Avoid email when the interaction will be back and forth.
Email isn’t the forum to converse – it takes time, it’s prone to misunderstandings and it’s not immediate. If you want to have a conversation with someone, have a conversation.
10. Avoid email to share private information.
When you are sending an email, like it or not, there is the potential that the contents of the email may be shared with others. This isn’t always a bad thing (e.g. you can forward an email with prayer points), but private information that would be harmful if distributed beyond the recipients of the email should be discussed in person. Therefore it’s safe to assume that the contents of an email may be made public, and communicate in person where necessary.