Look, we all hate email.
The inbox, she hounds us. Messages seem to never stop piling up. Most of them are useless. And the whole email affair seems to be this never-ending time-suck. No sooner do we beat back the inbox beast than it’s back with another newsletter, urgent request, or CC/Reply All to crush our spirit of progress.
But like it or not, email is a form of communication which is here to stay. But for Christians, and especially for ministry leaders, we are communicators. Therefore, we must be reachable, be that by appointment, phone call, and—yes—even the dreaded email. Despite all of the distractions, the truth is email is an important and valuable communication tool.
Just as an urgent voicemail left without reply makes the caller feel unloved and forgotten, so your lapse in responding to emails from your staff and congregants makes you seem both uncaring and disorganized as a pastor or ministry leader.
But how do we tame this beast called email? From whence will our deliverance from the great email deluge come? Here are five simple tips for how to manage ministry email overload.
1. Read Your Email
Tough news: You are an adult. That means you cannot ignore your email inbox.
I know I shouldn’t, but I always peek over people’s shoulders to check the number of unread emails they have. I have seen multiple people in high-level positions in companies (and churches) with well over 20,000 unread emails! And, no surprise, these were the same people who had a reputation for being unreachable via email. People just knew their inboxes were a black hole, so may as well find some other way to contact them.
That’s not okay. That’s not a reputation you want to have as a Christian, an especially not as a leader in your church. You need to make a point of actually reading your emails and responding to them.
You object, “But there’s so much spam in there it’s too hard to sort out the real messages!” Then fix that! Because real emails from needy sheep are getting lost between your Groupons and Target adverts.
2. Remove the Spam
If your excuse for not checking your email is that there’s too much spam, then here’s how to get rid of the spam:
- Get your IT guys to put a good spam filter on your church’s email server.
- Alternatively, host your email with someone who has a good spam filter built in (Gmail, for instance).
- Unsubscribe from unwanted mailing lists.
I know you signed up for that cool sky-diving company’s mailer 5 years ago, but let’s be honest, do you really need to know about their monthly tandem specials? Just unsubscribe.
Here’s what you do.
I recently ordered a pizza online. And doing so much have signed me up for weekly adverts from that restaurant chain. So, guess what I did when I got the first email? That’s right, I unsubscribed and deleted the email. It would have been easier in the moment just to ignore it at leave it in the inbox thinking “maybe I’ll want that coupon!” But that indecisiveness is what leads to an unmanageable inbox. You need to cut the serpent off at the head. You need to unsubscribe from all email lists which aren’t essential.
If that task seems too daunting, check out Unroll.me. This free service allows you to mass unsubscribe from all of the email newsletters you are receiving, and combine the ones you want into a single email that is sent however often you want it.
3. Use Your Inbox Like an Inbox
Now you’re reading your emails and you’re spam free, but what do you do with what’s left in the inbox? The real stuff. How do you make sure you don’t forget to get back to people in a timely manner?
In Tim Challies’ excellent book, Do More Better, he asks his readers to imagine if they treated their real mailbox like they treat their email inbox. What if we opened our bills and letters, then crammed them back in the envelope and returned them to the mailbox to be dealt with later. After a just few days, the box would be spitting rivets and the mailman would be plotting to bomb your house.
But that’s exactly how we treat our email inboxes!
Tim also offers a helpful thought process to go through when you open an email.
- Does this require a response?
- Yes? Then, if less than 2 minutes, do it now!
- More then 2 minutes? If takes more time, or requires some research, set a reminder for yourself.
- Yes? Then, if less than 2 minutes, do it now!
- If it is something that doesn’t require response, but you want to be able to locate the information later, save the contents in a special folder or notebook to get it later. Still not sure? Just archive it, you can always search your archives later.
- Date to remember? Add to Calendar.
- Task to Preform? Add to task manager.
- Spam you don’t want anymore? Unsubscribe from list and archive the email.
This is that whole “Inbox Zero” thing everyone talks about. It’s honestly not that tough. Inbox Zero just means treating your inbox like an inbox.
How do you start this if you have 20,000 unread emails?
Honestly, just archive them all and begin. Archiving on a service like Gmail is not the same as deleting. You can still go back and find all of your old stuff. Don’t kid yourself that you’ll sort through those 20k emails “one of these days” and get back to your dentist two years after he contacted you. If you try to go through all of those old emails, you’ll never make it.
You’re making a fresh start.
4. Read the Entire Email
We’ve all had this happen to us, and we’ve all done it to others.
You send an email with two or more questions in it to a colleague or family member, but in their response they only answer one of your questions. How does that make you feel about the person who did that to you? You find them frustrating, incompetent, and a time-wasting rube, don’t you? Well that’s what everyone thinks about you when you do it!
Read the entire email.
Read. The. Entire. Email.
Pastor, if someone has taken the time to write out an email to you seeking your advice, you need to write a thoughtful response, or if that would take too long ask for a phone call or meet up to discuss their email.
If you do respond by email, please just do me this one favor. Take the time to read over the original email a second time after you’ve written your response and before you hit send. In this way you can ensure that you’ve responded to everything they have asked, not just the first question.
Its just rude not to, and it makes you look like a bungling doofus.
But what if you really, truly do not have the time to manage your own email?
5. Get Someone to Run Interference for You.
Do you have a secretary, intern, or associate who can help? Consider making your public facing email (i.e. the one listed on the church website/bulletin) go to that person instead of you. that way he or she can sort what needs your attention and what does not.
Bonus: that person can also protect you from the unsigned hate mail that will just ruin your day, and about which you can do nothing since you don’t know who it came from.
If you do go this route, make sure you can trust that person to do a good job. Also keep a private email for very personal correspondence and counseling. Give this address out sparingly.
I hope that you’ll consider adopting some or even all of these methods to make yourself a more effective ministry leader. We owe it to our people and we owe it to our Lord to whom we must give an account of how we lead His sheep (Hebrews 13:17).