June 2011

Email and Social Courtesies - E. Stanley Ott


An essential facet of vital congregational life is the way the people within the fellowship communicate with each other. While face-to-face conversation permits a much fuller interaction including all of our non-verbal cues; the use of email, texting and social media such as Facebook continues to increase every day.

Email and various social media can be excellent means of communication that develop group cohesion and facilitate the group’s work. On the other hand, it may also create unnecessary tension since the tone of an email or a Facebook messsage is subjective to the reader, and a reader cannot hear the “tone of voice” intended by the writer.

Use email and social media primarily for affirmation and information but not for confrontation and rarely for persuasion. If the group is small, email and social media may be effectively used for conversation as well. Although it is possible to carry on conversations with larger groups such as closed Facebook groups than with email, the challenge is getting full participation by the members of the group.


            “Thanks Marty – we really appreciate the exhaustive and outstanding work that you and your            team have offered us.”


            “We meet at 7:00 p.m. April 22, 1011 in the Gathering Space.”


            “Morgan, cut that out and get your act together.”

Confrontation happens when the email specifically addresses speech, attitudes, and behavior.  While such confrontation may be appropriate, email simply isn’t the way to do it because it doesn’t permit the range of facial expression and tones of voice that are essential to good communication. In fact, we may later discover we did not possess a full understanding of a situation; and a sent email gives us no way of adjusting our remarks based on the immediate response of the other party. Furthermore, we run the risk of making statements that will be forwarded to others.


              “Marion, we want you to head up the committee in charge of seeking pledges.”

Persuasion is a form of leadership in which we ask someone to do something or seek to win him or her to a point of view. While email works fine when we ask people to do something they want to do (go to a movie, grab an ice cream cone), it is less effective when we want to lead people to commit to that which is difficult, time consuming, requires an effort, involves some risk. If you want to ask someone to undertake some task or agree to some position, call that person or speak face-to-face. Use the power of non-verbal communication to facilitate your persuasiveness.


             “Dana, what do you think we should serve next week?” “I don’t know, Robin, but I am                             thinking chicken over beef.”

The upside of conversation by email and with social media such as Facebook is its capacity to enable good communication when meeting physically or by conference call is a challenge. The downside is that for groups larger than seven to twelve, success in getting everyone to participate in the conversation is tenuous at best. Some people won’t participate; and if the issue is “hot,” with the use of email you can assume it will be forwarded to people outside the group.  

Finally, when using email among members of a group, keep the concept of boundaries in mind. Use email to communicate matters relevant to a group only to the group’s members. To include those outside the group’s conversation requires consent from the group’s leader and perhaps from the whole group. When people who are not a part of a group are copied on emails, they are included in a private conversation. Such recipients find themselves inadvertently eavesdropping. Real possibilities of misunderstanding surface because they are not a part of the conversational loop.

May these words apply to your use of email:  “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly; teach and admonish one another in all wisdom; and with gratitude in your hearts sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God. And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.” Colossians 3:16-17 NRSV 

E. Stanley Ott, Ph.D. is president of the Vital Churches Institute and consults with denominational regional areas and with congregations. His books include Twelve Dynamic Shifts for Transformation Your Church, Transform Your Church with Ministry Teams, and Small Group Life.



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