By Patricia G. Duckworth, Associate Executive Minister, ABC-Northwest
In the first part of this article, we took a look at the foundation of Christ-like communication, electronic or otherwise. It is to be found in three key attitudes: 1) people are created in God’s image and have a spiritual dimension to them; 2) as spiritual beings, we are meant to be in relationship with God and with each other; 3) therefore, all forms of communication cannot help but have some spiritual dimension to them. In the second part, we looked at the nature of electronic communication and the implications for its use, especially as we seek to reflect the love and grace of Christ. In this final part, we will examine the best practices and boundaries for the use of e-communications.
Best Practices and Boundaries for the Use of Text Communication
With those realities and implications, how should followers of Christ use their e-communication capabilities? Again, I will offer some key best practices. It is my hope you and those you live, work and minister with will use these as discussion starters, as attitudes to be internalized, and as foundational for promoting good relationships.
When it comes to e-communications, these are good practices:
1. Generally we can use any kind of e-communications to:
· Talk of things that are less stressful or emotional, such as meeting arrangements and agendas, things that are not about “high stakes” for those reading the communication;
· Summarize or confirm the content of a meeting or understanding ALREADY agreed to with someone or a group in real time;
· Praise someone for his/her accomplishments, work or ministry;
· Communicate with a close, trusted friend or colleague who will not pass your email/text or a summary of its contents to others, especially when seeing or talking to him or her is not possible;
· Stay generally “connected” with people and share general life experiences and events, when the above items are also true.
It may sound somewhat dated but when using email/text communication, it also helps to create a positive atmosphere if we address the person by name and even use “hello” or “hi” or some other salutation.
2. We should avoid using e-communications when
· We are trying to avoid face-to-face or voice-to-voice encounters with someone.
Of course, there are the extreme situations to consider, but if we are meant by God to be in relationship with others, why are we unwilling to do so face-to-face (or ear-to-ear)? Yes, it can be messy and there are potential hurts because we are human. Yet we are created for relationship; we are called to engage with others. Face-to-face or voice encounters usually produce less venom because people are generally more civil to others when they are looking at or listening to them. Where we have weaknesses, we need to and can learn to do it better.
· We are angry for frustrated.
Real Simple, a secular magazine, advocates a person should WAIT before sending a clearly or potentially negative communication. I would take it a step further: if we are unwilling to say face-to-face exactly the same thing in the same tone we are writing, we should NOT send it. It takes a fair amount of personal honesty to determine that. The overwhelming majority of time we would not and do not say what we would and do write. If there is a question in your mind, wait three days—or at least over night. After his assassination, Abraham Lincoln’s political papers revealed what was for Lincoln an unusually harsh letter intended for General George McClellan after he repeatedly disobeyed Lincoln’s direct orders to engage the Confederate Army. Lincoln never sent it. He did find a way to deal with McClellan, mostly through personal visits. But Lincoln never sent the harsh letter even though historians agree he had every right and probably should have sent it.
· The content is potentially or actually negative.
One study said that 63% of employers check social media sights to find out what kind of person they might be hiring. If attitudes are consistently negative or critical of people, they may not get hired. Should we only be concerned about guarding our “e-tongue” when it comes to the workplace? Our families, friends and Christian witness deserve at least as much concern.
· We are with someone in a relational or face-to-face setting.
Maybe that seems obvious but texting/emailing someone else when you are conversing with someone right in front of us communicates that those before us aren’t as important as another who is only “virtually” present. To answer a call and make arrangements to call the person back is one thing; it is quite another to have a protracted exchange with someone while actually in the presence of another.
3. Other things to consider when using e-communications:
· Give others the benefit of the doubt when they send a fiery or negative communication. We all are capable of blindness and not realizing how our words may come across. Find out where the person is coming from before responding to the fiery content or taking it personally.
· Do not forward the emails of others without clear permission.
· Be careful in using lots of capital letters, exclamation marks, or even the ‘emotion icons.’
· Remember that what we put out in social media connections (Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, etc.) can be seen by virtually anyone. Our audience in those places is huge. Is what we share, post, or tweet reflecting Christ in us? Does it build others up? Paul directs us to “Be wise in the way you act toward outsiders; make the most of every opportunity. Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone” (Col. 4:5-6, NIV).
A Word to Boards, Committees, and Teams
In our busy lives it is very easy to turn to email or texts to communicate with others in our work or ministry groups. Three things that cause hurt and misunderstanding (and thus instantly erode trust) are a) to pass group communications to people outside the group; b) to exclude someone in the ministry/work group from the communication; and c) to make significant decisions via e-communications. Making decisions via cyberspace does not allow a full exchange of views and attitudes because it is very difficult to read the “heart” of people via the two-dimensional world. It does work well to confirm or verify decisions reached earlier from face-to-face or phone discussions of the entire group. It also works well to make decisions that are of a routine nature; for example, affirm the participation of adults in a youth event who have done the same thing before and where there were no concerns. It is a good practice to take the time to lay out a covenant for communication in any group so everyone knows the boundaries. When new people join the group, it is important to restate that covenant.
A Tool for God’s Glory
After having read all this, you may be tempted to say, “If we follow all this, we can never use electronic communications!” I am not advocating a return to the dark ages. E-communications ARE convenient and can be an extremely useful tool in ministry and life. However, as a culture we are much too quick to react via our electronic tools before we stop and reflect. Our culture pushes immediate reactions as not only acceptable but also desirable, even a sign of leadership skill. As followers of Christ, we need to use our electronic tools for good, reflecting the love of Christ in and among us.