Here’s a statement I’ve never heard from anyone serving in ministry: “I love email!” Pastors commit their lives to serve God and his church for numerous reasons. Some love preaching the Gospel; some love offering pastoral care in nursing homes, hospitals, or prisons; others walk alongside students through teenage and college years. No matter the vocation in ministry, communication with others is central to our work. Yet too easily secondary things, such as email, can replace primary things, such as prayer, scripture, and face-to-face conversations. If you’ve had successive days of emailing for several hours throughout the day, you probably feel something has to change.
Having begun in ministry in the early 2000s, I’ve always known ministry with email. But I often wonder what parish ministry would be like without email. When I’m drowning in an inbox full of messages, I’ve had drastic thoughts about pulling the plug on email altogether. I was probably reading Wendell Berry when I had those thoughts, too.
But instead of drastic moves to rid myself of email altogether, I’ve sought ways of keeping email rightly ordered in my life as a priest. I’m still tempted to be a Luddite on some days, but what I’m really seeking is practical wisdom with technology as I communicate with others.
My goal for checking email is twice a day–at the beginning of the day and the end of the day. I don’t always meet this goal, but it’s been a good baseline for me.
I’ve noticed that when I check email before prayer in the morning, I’m distracted by messages requiring my response. If my inbox is really full, I know anxious thoughts will begin stirring: how am I going to answer all these emails today? Then comes the interior battle between choosing prayer or being responsive to messages. I don’t want to entertain that question because prayer is the foundation of my life as a pastor. That question doesn’t agitate me if I don’t login to my email first thing in the morning.
I believe that one morning session with email is important for the day or week ahead. I’m able to respond to conversations from Sunday or any messages that were sent overnight. I try to keep the morning email session brief (10–15 minutes) because my focus for reading and sermon writing is best in the morning hours.
Unless there is an active emergency or an evening meeting, I try to end my work day around 5pm. I observe the rule of not checking email when I’m done with the day. It’s a personal rule, not a law, which means that there are exceptions to the rule. But on the whole, I shut down my email app (Airmail is great!) when I head home for the day.
These two email sessions mean I write and respond to emails in a batch method. Batch emailing means I can be fully engaged with messages when I’m in email mode. It also brings freedom for the rest of the day. I can be fully engaged with the person I’m meeting. I can be focused on tasks and projects without email interruptions. I don’t have to worry what’s in my inbox because I’ve set aside specific times to write messages in batches. There’s even a Gmail extension for batch emailing here.
Some of the best practical wisdom I’ve found regarding email is the five sentence rule. Again, this is a personal rule, not a law. Once you write more than five sentences, you probably should ask if a message needs a phone call or a personal meeting instead. It’s not easy to follow the five sentence rule, but having this limit in mind has helped me be more concise in emails.
You may fear that you’ll sound curt or rude by keeping your replies to five sentences. Don’t risk rudeness by legalistically following a rule, but recognize that most people won’t think you’re rude if you write a brief reply. Remember that most people find email draining, too. They will probably appreciate a brief and courteous reply.
Where Email Helps and Where It Doesn’t
Email works well as a medium for sharing documents, scheduling meetings, or providing quick updates about how things are going. But all that changes when you get caught in a never-ending thread of reply all messages. Most pastors and churches still rely on email, but there are other communication tools that may help pastors and ministries, such as Trello (my personal favorite) or Slack (increasingly everyone else’s favorite). Email need not be the only hub for communication.
Email is a good medium for functional communication, but it seldom works well for relational communication. Where matters of the heart are involved, a back-and-forth email response can often create problems or misunderstandings. At least with a handwritten letter you can infer tone, voice, and meaning from a person’s script. With email, the ALL CAPS and bold features just make people sound loud, and maybe more angry than a person intends.
I once heard someone suggest a good response when you receive a long email and matters of the heart are at stake. Simply reply that you’ve received the email and you’d be willing to discuss the matter further over the phone or in person. Take the conversation to a venue where you can listen and respond well to one another. Email is no substitute for good verbal conversation.
When You’re Away, Be Away
Stanley Hauerwas once said that today’s pastors perceive themselves as nothing more than “quivering masses of availability.” It’s a good feeling to offer help and support in people’s lives. It’s a sacred trust to walk with people through the seasons of their lives. But that good feeling can come with a cost in your relationship with God and others. If you’re constantly checking your email, especially during vacations and weekly days off, you cannot possibly have the space to fully engage with God, your family, and your closest friends. Time away from email can be a regular practice of remembering that Christ alone is the chief pastor of the church you serve. You are the under-shepherd of the Great Shepherd.
Practically, this commitment requires conversations among the leaders of your church, both clergy and lay. If your church has other clergy members beside yourself, then you can plan times away in advance and discuss the conditions in which you should be contacted, such as a serious illness or death. If your church doesn’t have another ordained person present, then you might ask for help from fellow priests in a neighboring town or city. It’s also important that the laity are included in pastoral care. Priests and deacons are not the only persons with pastoral gifts in the parish.
On Being Responsive and Inbox Zero
In the pastoral life, responding to messages is very important, but responsiveness to messages need not be a chronic urgency or emergency. Email etiquette shouldn’t disappear in a ministry context. Current email etiquette suggests that a person should be afforded 24–48 hours to respond to an email message. Some weeks that’s a difficult standard for me to keep. But I try to keep track of my inbox so that my response time is usually within 1–2 days. On the whole, my response time to emails has become more efficient because I’ve devoted less time to email, not more. That’s the paradox of email efficiency.
I believe pastors can reach inbox zero on a regular basis. It takes work and unlearning some bad digital habits, but I know it’s possible. The first time you reach inbox zero at the end of a week, you may want to make that feeling your new normal. Probably because you feel the freedom to be a normal human being, living life away from screens, turning toward God and the people you love most.