This is really part 2 of some digital resources related to the WDC/SCC Women’s retreat that I spoke at on Sept. 12, 2009. The first part is the Digital Dictionary post which can be read by clicking here.
This post originated as an email that I sent to my entire congregation. It outlines a number of different key points that are helpful for writing emails in general. (As a side note, my name is Alan, our secretary’s name is Bobbie, and all the other names are made up.) I have changed some things slightly from the first email just to make it slightly less specific, but keep in mind that I was talking to a specific audience at one point.
How to write an email (to your church)
Hello Church Family,
mass emails. This is not in response to anyone or any specific situation. I’m presenting on “technology” at the WDC/SCC Women’s retreat this weekend and thought that this is a good opportunity to offer some of my thoughts.the scripture is from James 3:1-12 and stresses the need to be attentive to the words that we use and how we use language. As the world of technology increasingly shapes the world we live in and how we communicate with each other, it becomes necessary to understand how to communicate in new ways. One of the newer forms of communication that we in the church are using to communicate with each other is email. To help this form of communication go more smoothly, I’d like to offer some tips and suggestions for writing emails in general, but also in regards to how our church sends
The “Subject” line
The subject line is meant to give the receiver of the email a one line idea of the point of the email. It’s like the headline for a newspaper article. Subject lines such as “hey” or “this is neat” aren’t particularly helpful. When you’re scanning your inbox you want to be able to quickly identify what each email is about. Having a subject line that reflects the subject of the email is key. “Request for casseroles” or “prayer request for Alan’s surgery” are more helpful.
Especially in a mass email, identify which group of people that you are sending the email to. Some of us are a part of a variety of groups and it is helpful to know which group is being addressed, and why you are receiving this email.
There is much that is lost when we communicate digitally. The way we say things is often as important, or sometimes more important, than what we are actually saying. In an email you can’t really tell if someone is being sarcastic or serious, and it matters. Be aware of the ways that your words could be taken, even if you didn’t mean that way. That being said, there is one big no-no in the digital world. Even though you can’t hear someones voice, when you write in all capital letters and use exclamation points IT LOOKS LIKE YOU ARE SHOUTING AT THE PERSON!!!!!. Unless you really are trying to yell something, this is something to avoid. If you want to add emphasis to a particular word or point, try using italics, bold or underlining first. In addition the use of colored words can sometimes be confusing or problematic. For example; in our culture, the color Red is often associated with danger, anger, or a tense situation. Using that particular color may unintentionally communicate something that you hadn’t intended.
Unfortunately, some of us have a love-hate relationship with the written word and with spelling. I, for one, rely to0 heavily on spell check and other people for the correct use of the English language. (A big thanks to the church secretary here) It is very easy to simply type up an email and hit the send button before you have thoroughly checked your work. In the same way that you would read over a physical letter before you put it in the mail box, take the time to read over your email to make sure that it is really what you want to say. It is important to check for spelling and grammar errors but it is also important to make sure that your email actually communicates what you are trying to say. Could it be misinterpreted? Make sure the words on the page reflect what is actually going through your head.
Does everyone need to read this?
There are some things that are not appropriate for mass email. Especially emails that are connected to the church. The area of biggest concern is that of prayer requests. It is very easy to distribute information to a large number of people very quickly through email. In fact, it’s probably too easy. While we do want to hold people in prayer and genuine concern, we do not want to be contributing to gossip and distributing more information to more people that the person being prayed for wants. While Bill might be OK with telling his close friends about his recent surgery, he might not be OK with telling everyone in church or everyone on the email list. More importantly, once you send out an email, you really loose control over who gets that information. While you might send out an email in true Christian love, it might wind up getting spread around to a much larger audience than is appropriate. When sharing specific prayer concerns, make sure that the person whose information you are sending out knows exactly what you are doing and that they are fine with you distributing the information. It is also acceptable to ask for prayer without giving all of the details. Some people are fine with others knowing that they had surgery, but they don’t really want people to know what kind of surgery. God still knows what’s going on and that’s what counts.
For most churches, the email list is primarily meant to communicate upcoming events, important information, church news, denominational communication and prayer concerns. It is not a place to hold in depth public discussions, air personal grievances, or send email forwards. Large issues and interpersonal problems are things to be worked out face to face, not over the internet. Generic Email forwards, no matter how inspiring or gut wrenching, are best done through your personal email address book. The church email list is primarily for things that effect or draw on the entire church.
If you have ever received an email that has been forwarded multiple times you may have noticed that you will often have to scroll down through a whole lot of unnecessary information just to get to the original content of the email. This is not only annoying, it is potentially a problem. Each time you forward something, all of the previous email addresses get inserted into the body of the email. All that stuff that you always scroll through usually contains a very large number of email addresses, most of which are connected to people you’ve never heard of. On the flip side, they’ve never heard of your, nor have they heard of the people you’re about to forward that email to. If you do choose to forward an email, please make sure to delete all of those email addresses for the sake of your future readers, but also for the sake of the people who’s email address is now floating around the internet without their permission.
That went out to everyone?
The single greatest danger to email communication is the “Reply All” button. Everyone who uses email must learn the difference between “Reply” and “Reply All”. If you hit the “Reply” button it will send an email only to the person that sent the original email to you. If the original email went to multiple people and you hit the “Reply All” button, your response will be sent to everyone that the original email went to. This becomes a problem when you make a joke about your boss that was only intended for your friend in accounting but winds up going to everyone in the company, including your boss (or pastor, if applicable). A potential example from church: Let’s say Judy sends out an email to the whole church asking for people to bring pies for the bake sale. Sandy wants to let Judy know that she will bring 3. If Sandy accidentally hits “Reply All” everyone, including Fred who is only interested in eating pie, will now know that Sandy will bring 3.
When “Reply All” is your friend. (This is somewhat specific to Pleasant Valley Mennonite Church, but the principle is still important)
There is one specific time when the “Reply All” button is helpful for what we do here at church. Bobbie does have a list in her email account than she can easily send out a mass email. If you want, you can still send things to her that she can forward out. However, there are sometimes that she may not check her email for a couple of days and something needs to go out sooner. What do you do then? Not to worry. If you have received a mass email from Bobbie, then you have all the email addresses of the people in the church. Here is where you want to use the “Reply All” button. After hitting “Reply All”, simply delete all of the information in the subject line and the body of the email and, presto, you have a blank email ready to go out to the entire church. Use this information wisely and follow the rules above. It is always important to use good judgment as to what is appropriate information to send out.
Last but not least…..
When you close the email, make sure that you have included all of the correct contact information. At the end of every email that I send out I include my name, a contact phone number and my email address. This allows for people to come back later and find out exactly who they should be contacting and how to get in contact with me.
Postlude: How to read an email
When you are responding to a particular email it is important that you respond to the right person. Sometimes a church secretary will send out emails on behalf of other people or groups in the church. While it is easy to simply hit “Reply” to that email, the secretary may not be the person that needs to get it. Let’s say that Bobbie (our secretary) sends out an email for Judy who is organizing a church meal and asking for people to bring casseroles. If you hit “Reply” and say that you’ll bring 2, that will go to Bobbie and not Judy. At which point, Bobbie has to pass that information on and sometimes, due to scheduling, the information doesn’t get there in time. The best thing is to cut out the middle man and send an email directly to Judy.
The other key to reading an email is to read with a large amount of grace. Because of issues that I described earlier, it is sometimes hard to know what exactly someone is trying to say. If you receive an email that you could take either as negatively or positively, assume that they meant it in a positive way. I have had many encounters with people who misunderstood what I was trying to say that have led to much conflict and stress. Assume the best. If you still feel that there is tension, find a time to meet with the person face to face. Most conflicts can be resolved more easily and quickly when both people are in the same room, rather than online.
Well, I hope that this has been helpful. As the world changes my hope is that we can all build each other up and share the unique skills and knowledge that each of us have. For some, this is new information. For some it’s a refresher. I hope that it’s helpful for all. As I said in earlier in this post, I’ve been working on a short dictionary of digital information for the Women’s retreat. You can check it out at the following link.