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A Pastor’s Reflections: Don’t Counsel or Debate Over E-mail

May 28, 2013


In the digital age communication is as convenient as ever. We can make a phone call from our cars or the remotest of locations, send an e-mail, or even twitter away till our thumbs get numb. But just because we can do something doesn’t automatically mean that we should do it. As easy as communication is, avoid any serious communication with members of your church via e-mail, twitter, or Facebooks (yes, I know it’s Facebook). Why is this the case? There are three major reasons.

First, digital communication is incredibly impersonal—you lose a lot. There is no eye contact, no voice inflection, no audible form by which a person can determine whether a questionable phrase is intended as sarcasm, compassion, or anger, for example. Second, digital communication is frequently done on the fly. In days gone by people would be very careful about what they wrote because paper was expensive and writing or typing something could take a lot of time.  In other words, digital communication is cheap, which means that a person might not give a whole lot of thought to the words that he’s writing before he hits “send” or “post.” This means that someone might quickly fire off some insensitive or thoughtless regrettable words. Third, if you’ve ever been involved in an e-mail discussion or debate, you know that the message thread can get very long and convoluted. In the thousands of words that get splattered onto the computer screen, a person can become lost and confused very quickly, which provides much grist for the anger mill. Bottom line, digital communication is not optimal as a venue for serious communication.

On the other hand, there are a number of reasons why counseling and debate should be handled in person. First, eye contact and body language are crucial in difficult circumstances. A seasoned pastor will be able to tell, for example, when a person is lying merely by reading body language. There are certain “tells” that can alert a person to deceit. Second, in some circumstances, physical contact is crucial. Giving a man a brotherly embrace after serious loss or significant disagreement can be vital to conveying compassion or genuine forgiveness. Third, in debate sometimes forgotten words are best left forgotten rather than “entered into the e-mail transcript” where they fester and cause people to hold on to bitterness.

Yes, digital communication is convenient, but in counseling and debate situations, it’s best to conduct these face-to-face. Sit down over a cup of coffee and counsel or engage in debate. In some circumstances, digital communication may be the only option, though I would sooner resort to a phone call. Leave logistical matters to e-mail (time, place, dates, etc) and conduct serious matters in person.