Twelve Rules for Ministry Email Etiquette

by Sr. Susan Wolf, SND on October 11, 2010

in ministry, Uncategorized

 According to the Pew Internet and American Life Project, updated in May 2010, 94% of American Internet users send or read email. This number continues to grow and that means that people in responsible ministry positions need to be accessible by email and need to know how to use it properly. Every email contact is an opportunity to witness to the unconditional love of God. Each email needs to convey respect and care to those we serve. Here are twelve rules to facilitate that result:

1)      Parishes, dioceses, Catholic institutions, organizations and religious communities need to provide ministry email addresses to staff and employees.

2)      Ministry email should be used for ministry. A minister should have his/her own separate personal email address if he/she wishes to use email to communicate with friends and family or for other non-ministry tasks. (There are many free options: Gmail, Yahoo, hotmail, etc.)

3)      It is always safe to use the traditional letter format for email: greeting, body, closing.

4)      Always use correct punctuation, spelling, and grammar. Avoid using all caps or all lower case words.

5)      Keep messages brief and to the point. Do not overload an email with multiple subjects. If you need to cover more than one subject, send separate emails.

6)      Do not give out the email addresses of others without their permission. When sending an email to a list of people, put the email addresses in the BCC (blind carbon copy) section, so as not to inadvertently give everyone access to all of the other addresses.

7)      Respond to every email that requires a response in a timely manner (within 24 hours if possible). Either respond to everything in the email at once or acknowledge receipt of the email and let the person know when he/she can expect a complete response. If you are not going to be accessible by email for more than 24 hours, use the Out of Office auto-responder.

8)      As a courtesy, use a “signature” at the bottom of your email that includes your full name, title, organization, address (with zip code) and phone number (with area code), so that people can use other means to contact you, if necessary.

9)      Be mindful of your tone. Without having the benefit of your verbal and non-verbal clues, the reader could misinterpret what you are saying and even be offended. The more matter-of-fact you can be, the better.

10)   Never use email to criticize others and never reply in anger. Once you press send—you cannot undo your message.

11)   Always re-read your email before you send it in order to be sure that you have communicated clearly and politely.

12)   Do not use email when a phone call, a note, or a meeting is really what is needed. This is after all about ministry.

These are my twelve rules. Do you have others to add?

{ 11 comments… read them below or add one }

Lisa Hendey October 11, 2010 at 2:17 pm

I love this topic! With more and more of us doing business almost completely by email these days, the tone is especially important. In my office I have a note that says “respect, dialogue and friendship” – reminding me of the 2009 World Communications Day letter by Pope Benedict XVI. I try to glance at that note when I’m tempted to send an email or post a blog comment that is not charitable and Christian in tone. I also believe that professionalism and pride in our written communications is very important for all of us doing work to help spread the faith.

sr.marueen Spillane October 11, 2010 at 4:17 pm

Susan, this was a great topic! I especially liked the one about responding in 24 hours etc and remembering the tone one writes in..Thank you for sharing this with us.:)

Barbara Radtke October 11, 2010 at 4:55 pm

Sometimes email can overwhelm. It seems like it drives us rather than being a tool for our ministry or work. I just finished reading Hamlet’s Blackberry and appreciated his idea of a Sabbath from electronic screens. Auto-reply comes in handy as a way to communicate when one will be back online.

deidra October 11, 2010 at 6:54 pm

Great list. So much communication is happening in cyberspace, it’s good to have these reminders. Amen to number six. I have seen the repercussions of failing to bcc when sending to a list of people!

I’d add one thing: Be careful about hitting “reply to all” when responding to a message. When replying to everyone, everyone sees your reply. Only use “reply to all” when that’s what you really want to do.

Joyce Donahue October 11, 2010 at 7:34 pm

I love this. In our office, we try to do all of the above. I would disagree, however, with number 5. If a subject is important enough to merit a separate email, and some are (or the message comes loaded with links and info that would make it large) fine. However, one of the top complaints we get from parish leaders is the sheer number of emails they receive from the Diocese. Therefore, we will often combine two or three items of about the same level of importance rather than send out several separate emails.

Don McCrabb October 11, 2010 at 8:58 pm

Great ideas but a big question – how many Americans access the internet? Is the Catholic community ahead of or behind the national average?

I know in my own ministry among priests – who tend to be “somewhat” tech savy -that a few do not do e-mail and – more – do so reluctantly.

Why is this an issue? Many in ministry go to great pains to INCLUDE everyone. So, if only 10% do not use the internet, the ministry will either limit themselves to a 100% method of communication (bulletin, US post, phone) or drive themselves crazy trying to be sure all the bases are covered.

Sr. Susan Wolf, SND October 13, 2010 at 1:22 pm

Joyce, I noted that you mentioned that parish leaders complain about the number of emails from the Diocese. I am guessing that these emails are announcement type messages. Combining those announcements makes the communication more like a newsletter or bulletin which makes sense. I would call these broadcast emails.

The type of messages I am referring to in this article are the one to one or one to a group type of messages. They are more personally directed, responding to a question or looking for a response or further interaction. In these cases covering multiple subjects runs the risk of people losing focus on one or the other subject or not being able to find the information again because it does not appear as the subject of the email. In these cases, it can help to have one subject per email.

Sr. Susan Wolf, SND October 13, 2010 at 2:08 pm

Don, thanks for your questions.

An average of 79% of Americans (according to the Pew Internet and American Life Project) are internet users. Those from 18-49 have a higher percentage, those who are 65+ have a lower percentage and those who are 50-64 come in at 78%. 94% of these Internet users (or 74% of Americans) send or read email. There is no reason to suggest that these statistics would be different for Catholics.

In this article we are talking about ministry leaders. Those over 65 may, like others in their generation, be less inclined to use the Internet and there are ministry leaders in that age group. Another factor for resistance in the Church could be the cultural differences between a hierarchical structure and a horizontal structure. In the former, information is controlled and distributed according to position in the structure. In the latter, information is shared among equals. Discerning how to bridge these two cultures in communication can be challenging and for some too much to deal with in addition to the challenge of learning how to use the technology.

I am not sure what you are saying in your last paragraph, but the traditional means of communication: bulletin, U.S. mail and phone–do not reach 100% of parishioners. Less than 30% of parishioners are in Church on the weekend–only they get the bulletin. Mail is used less and less these days and I don’t know any parishes that phone all parishioners on a regular basis. The point of using email along with the traditional communication methods in ministry situations is to be available to the large number of people (more than 70% of Americans) who use it as a normal means of communication and may want to use it for Church related questions and activities. My point is that we should be professionals in using email, just as we are professionals in every other area of ministry.

Diane Vella October 14, 2010 at 9:25 am

Thanks for this article. One addition:

Never ever email a minor or respond to an email from a minor without copying the email to the parent or guardian,and letting the minor know you are doing this. If the minor is saying something like “Don’t tell my parents this but…,” you have to respond that you can’t make that promise. (This applies if the minor talks to you in person as well.) If there’s some serious issue, try to address it in person with the minor in the presence of another adult. The safest emails to minors are simply announcements of parish events, avoid any kind of personal communication. And of course, NEVER give your personal email address to a minor. That’s why it’s so important, as Susan says, to have separate professional and personal e-mail addresses.

Don McCrabb October 14, 2010 at 2:07 pm

Dear Sr. Susan –

Thanks for your thoughtful response to the questions I raised. Once again, this is a much needed conversation and we (Church) need to use e-mail to reach our people.

The point I was trying to make is our intentionality about communication to begin with – who is our audience, what is our message, and how will we deliver that message? Too often, in the rush of ministry, we do not carefully examine these questions. Consequently, since we do not “want to exclude” anyone, we fall back upon “normal” means without examining the very things you raised – how many people read the bulletin, open their mail, etc. So, ironically, in our effort to be “100%” inclusive, we are actually less effective in communicating our message.

Change is difficult for people. We are not confident about the new mediums and we have not examined our assumptions (about old mediums). We operate with assumed constraints and unexamined fears. Catholic organizations, and those who serve them, need to look closely at these issues. Our message is so important that we need to say it well, say it often, and say in through a variety of mediums.

Sr. Pat Sylvester, SND October 20, 2010 at 9:44 am

Dear Susan,
I really appreciate the articles you have been sending, especially
“Twelve Rules for Ministry . . .” .
I would like to share this article with our parish staff, and invite them to subscribe themselves to your web articles. Thanks for the opportunity to make comments and ask questions. A sign and model of great communication! Pat

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