In this era of electronic media, clergy are faced with particular challenges in pastoral conversations — particularly those conducted by email. This wonderfully efficient means of communication can easily become a vehicle for spontaneous and reactive expression of thoughts and feelings that would never be said in person.
It is my pastoral practice not to reply by email or text to personal matters of a pastorally confidential nature. Let’s arrange a time to meet and talk.
For example, a church member seeking pastoral assistance sent me an email pouring out innermost concerns about a misunderstanding that had led to hurt feelings. After composing a draft or two of a response, I realized that the best way for me to respond was to reply:
It is my experience that important matters (especially personal and pastoral matters) are best communicated in person in confidential conversation. In this regard, email, texting, and social media are particularly unsuitable means of sharing private conversation with others given the less-than-secure nature of those media. Conversation in person is the best way to communicate the intention and content of discussions of a personal nature in a thoughtful manner. Words spoken in person to another, although not totally free of the possibility of misunderstanding, offer the best opportunity for immediate clarification and dialogue that printed words on a page or screen do not provide. For this reason it is my pastoral practice not to reply by email or text to personal matters of a pastorally confidential nature. Let’s arrange a time to meet and talk.
It is often the role of clergy to coach church members on the “etiquette” of appropriate conversation with one another, even as the “rules” of that etiquette are still developing in the culture. I have found it helpful to:
- Suggest that persons not email nor post anything that they would not ordinarily write in a personal letter or share on the telephone. A church member puts it this way: “Do not email or post anything that you are not willing to have published!”
- Advise people to avoid using uppercase words, bolded text, or the excessive use of exclamation points, question marks, and other symbols as they can easily be misinterpreted.
When instant communication de-personalizes as easily as it connects, the church can help show the way to genuine relationship and community.