There’s not a senior pastor out there who hasn’t loathed the day email was invented.
What began as a tool to make communication easier has become the ministry equivalent of the ancient Trojan horse – a seemingly innocent messenger that can quietly sneak into our well-ordered world and wreak havoc.
If you’re feeling overwhelmed with email fatigue, here are three proactive steps you can take to make email work for you instead of against you.
Step 1: Choose Your Email Strategy
There are three basic models for how senior pastors can use email, each model having its own pros and cons.
Option #1: One email address shared publicly and privately (and managed by you).
This is where we all begin. We have one email address, and we share it everywhere – on the website, with family, with anyone at the church.
Option #2: Two Email Addresses. One public email address (that goes to an assistant) and a separate private email address (that goes to you).
This is the strategy I suggest for senior pastors I coach of churches 1,000 and under. Whatever email address you are currently using, end it. Give it a funeral. In its place create two email addresses. One will be public. One will be private.
For your public email address simply use your first name and your church domain: Seth@WestsideChurch.com. This email address is sent directly to your assistant, another staff member, or a volunteer. You will provide this person with a preset number of “If this, then that” responses (see below). The purpose of doing this is to quickly redirect the myriad of inquiries you get on a daily basis to the people and resources that can actually help them.
For your private email address pick a weird email address that no one would guess: i.e., lovelypickles@WestsideChurch.com. Anything. The more obscure, the better. This is for your family, staff, and leadership. No one is ever given this, nor is anyone on your team allowed to share it.
Once you implement the two email addresses strategy, you are only part way to overcoming email fatigue. You must commit to only checking email a certain number of times per day. I highly suggest reading Tim Ferriss’ The 4-Hour Work Week on how we turn ourselves into “lab animals pushing cocaine-releasing pedals for food” by the way we train ourselves to check email countless times a day. Pick three to four set times per day to check it, and then trust the world will survive when you don’t.
Option #3: No public email address, only a private email address
This is the option I suggest for senior pastors of churches 1,000 and above. Once you reach the size of a megachurch or emerging megachurch, you reach a level of diminishing returns. When I reached 1,000, I got 30 emails a day, usually from people selling stuff or asking questions that had been answered elsewhere. My public email address became a portal to redirect requests to other staff. I eventually just ended it.
Step 2: Own Your Email Strategy
Once you pick a strategy, own it. Don’t divert from it. Make it work for you. The best way you can make this happen is to let people know this is your strategy. Don’t keep them in the dark.
I know how strange it will be the first time you look someone in the eye and tell them they can’t email you directly; but you will do it, they will be fine, and the world will not end. I know they’ll accuse you of becoming a celebrity pastor, or not caring about people, but you’ll know differently.
You are doing this because you want to help them, and you are a person with finite resources. It takes people in your church mere minutes to fire off an email, but 15+ minutes for you to write, redirect, and/or secure a helpful response.
You, my friend, are called to prayer and the ministry of the Word, not to staffing a religious call center. When we reached 1500 I reached a point where I felt it was deceitful of me to put out a public email address knowing that I was never going to respond to that email. So I ended my public email address. I simply don’t offer a public email address anywhere.
Part of the reason I don’t use email is to protect my sanity. Part of it is to make sure the needs of the people I serve are quickly addressed (and that won’t happen when I can’t respond quickly). But the biggest reason I don’t have a public email address is because I’m a pastor, not a CEO.
Years ago I was deeply impacted by the work of Eugene Peterson, particularly his books Under The Unpredictable Plant and The Contemplative Pastor. Now one might think that if I was actually concerned with pastoring people, I would have unlimited access. I disagree. I think it’s the exact opposite.
Because I’m called to be a pastor, I have to free myself from frenetic religious activity to pray, to be with people, and to listen to God. My interest in efficient workflow scenarios stems from my desire to be freed to lead and to pastor people. I can’t do that when I staff a religious call center. I have Peterson to thank for helping me frame the problem this way.
So whichever strategy you choose, own it. Don’t apologize for it. Teach your people how they can get their questions answered, then move on.
Step 3: Supplement Your Email Strategy
There are a number of items that if you spend a little bit of time creating will save you and your parishioners aggravations and lost time.
Craft 10-15 Pre-Written Responses
Gather your 10-15 most asked questions and write pre-written email templates that your assistant and staff can send when those questions are asked in the future.
A Quick Word About Hate Emails
My encouragement is to never get into a war of words online. For one, doing so never solves anything. Second, it can be used against you later. Finally, it further reinforces the dysfunctional Christian subculture patterns that kill positive church life. Rise above that. Don’t engage. Better yet, make it so you don’t get those emails at all. Have another staff member filter them, and bring to your attention ones that warrant thoughtful consideration. The admonition to “guard our hearts” applies to senior pastors, too.
Doctrinal Position Papers
We minister in a highly Catholic area, but we practice adult water baptism by immersion. We get asked about our position a lot, so I crafted a position paper. It’s 80 pages long. Since we are a large church, we also get asked for money dozens of times a week. We do not distribute money, and instead, have chosen to financially support a benevolence organization in our area that does an amazing job of screening and supporting families in need. I’ve written a doctrinal position paper outlining why we have chosen this path. That gets sent out a lot.
Pastoral Care Procedures
When someone has a pastoral care need at CCV, we have them contact firstname.lastname@example.org. Once that happens, a whole set of predetermined steps go into action as to how we’ll respond to that need. The key in this is how the action starts. For other churches, it could be a phone number.
Putting a Frequently Asked Questions page on your website is the inverse way of dealing with the top 10-15 most-asked questions, only instead of being reactive you are being proactive. The only problem I have with most FAQ pages is they are text driven. I suggest you have one that you provide minimal written explanation supplemented by videos that your staff shoots to answer the questions. People would much rather watch a video than read any day.
Wedding and Funeral Procedures
We have a clearly written wedding policy on our website that outlines those for whom we are willing to perform a marriage ceremony, the rationale behind that, and how our church staff will be involved. This is both on our website and can be emailed out. We also have a funeral policy on our website that outlines how we handle funerals. FYI – Our team rotates wedding and funeral responsibilities, and I fit into that rotation in ways I can be most helpful. If parishioners have a CCV pastor perform their wedding, or a funeral for their loved one, they can request which staff member [OR staff pastor] they want to officiate. But they get the person they’re assigned.
Just this week a 42-year-old member at CCV suddenly died. It was tragic. Our entire community was heartbroken. Other senior pastors would have jumped to lead such a public event. I estimate a thousand people were at the funeral. Since I was already involved in supporting a person in hospice, I had another pastor on staff lead the service. Our team that handled the massive public funeral did an extraordinary job. I was also overjoyed at the chance to lead someone on their deathbed to Christ. The biggest compliment I received that week was from a CCV volunteer who pulled me aside at the funeral and said, “Jones, your team has done a great job.”
Overall, the biggest thing I can suggest that will help you is to pick a strategy, own your strategy, and supplement your strategy. Doing so will allow you and your church to harness the positive aspect of email communication without it becoming an unnecessary distraction.