Email Caution Helps Avoid Damaging Situations

By Donald E. Skinner

When a longtime member of a congregation decided it was time for a new minister she started a derogatory email campaign against the current one. She sent multi-page emails to members of the congregation, listing all of the minister's alleged faults. The congregants quickly chose sides as emails flew back and forth. In the ensuing battle of words several staff and board members quit, and the congregation split.

A district executive who was later called in says that using email let the situation escalate out of control. "The person who started all of this used words in her emails that she probably would not have used face-to-face. The use of email allowed name calling and other bad behavior to happen."

Email increasingly is a culprit, says the district executive, when congregational conflict flares. "It allows situations to escalate to a much higher level than they would normally."

Deborah Weiner, the Unitarian Universalist Association's director of electronic communication, has advice for using email. "Email is great for arranging meetings," she says, "but not for dealing with complex issues or mediating disputes. Email can easily be misinterpreted because it's impossible to show nuance. I've seen some truly cruel and mean things done with email."

Her recommendations: If you're responding to an emotional situation, let your email sit overnight before sending it. Adopt a measured tone. Don't forward emails of others without their permission. Remember that once you send an email you lose all control of it; it can be copied, sent to others, and quoted out of context even years later.

Every congregation should have rules about email, she says. "We can't live without email these days, so we need to live with it. Using an email list is a privilege, not a right. There is no first amendment right to destroy a congregation with ill-considered emails. Don't assume that everyone knows how to act appropriately on email. People don't all come from the same place. You need to spell it out."

Other recommendations: Never say anything about someone in an email that you wouldn't want that person to see. If someone wants to have an email conversation about someone else or a complicated issue, invite them to meet with you in person.

Adds the district executive, "Every time I go into a congregation that's in conflict the first thing I tell them is to stop the email. Get face-to-face in a room and see the person you're talking to. It can be horrible to watch people who care about their congregation tear each other apart with email. And every time I say 'Stop the emails,' I hear an 'amen' chorus." Generally, she says, small to midsize congregations have more difficulty with email than larger ones.

Another congregation experienced problems with two church-sponsored email lists. One is for church announcements. The other is for open discussion.

A church leader explains: "The policy has been that anyone can post to the announcements list, and some people abuse it by offering personal items for sale. I wish we had restricted it to just having certain leaders post all the announcements, but to go back and do that now would cause an uproar."

The leader adds, "People misuse the discussion list in ways that are hurtful. They don't understand that humor comes across as sarcasm. Periodically things flare up and people get upset then it dies down. I wish we didn't have this list at all."

And sometimes people confuse the lists and post to the wrong one, the leader says. "As a result, many members have chosen not to subscribe to the church announcement list because they want to avoid hurtful emails. In essence, the church has lost an effective tool for publicizing church news. I'd like to see a church where people can discuss things face-to-face and be in relationship with each other."

About the Author

Donald E. Skinner

Donald E. Skinner was the founding editor of the InterConnections newsletter for congregational leaders and a senior editor of UU World from 1998 until his retirement in 2014. He is a member of the Shawnee Mission Unitarian Universalist Church in Lenexa, Kansas.

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