Slave to Email

Nov 29, 2022

By Bishop Michael Rinehart

When I started in this role 15 years ago, I was astounded by the crushing amount of email. And it has only increased. I’ll bet yours has too. Studies show people spend 28% of their time on email. We need to communicate, but that’s a lot of time. Some people check email every 15 minutes on the average. Management by email is remarkably inefficient and chaotic.

Some of us are old enough to remember life before email. The mail came on today. You checked with it and dealt with it if you’re on top of things. Once a day. Granted, we now live in the era of amplified communications, but if we are constantly checking email, we are not fully present in the room, and it’s hard to lean into tasks that take longer times of deep focus. Also, constantly responding to email means we become very reactive, rather than strategic. Our day is taken over by others’ demands.

The last thing I want to do is check email first thing in the morning, or the last thing at night. If I check it first thing in the morning, I go racing into the day without thinking about what is most important to get done. If I check it late at night, I might stumble across something upsetting, and then can’t get to sleep. Good boundaries suggest reading and sending emails only during business hours.

Some suggest checking email every 45 minutes, like in this Forbes article. That still feels like a bit much to me. This Jobble article recommends five times a day. I could live with that, but my preference would be twice a day. Once in the morning and once in the afternoon. That’s enough. Email need not be treated like texting. We all receive a host of communications: Facebook messages, Microsoft Teams, WhatsApp, texts, tweets, emails, what else? Do we really want to be driven all day by notifications? Is that healthy? How do we establish good boundaries?

There’s a ditch on both sides of the road. I think if we are a quivering mass of availability, we create more problems than we solve, and we work inefficiently. On the other hand, if we are unresponsive to communications, we send a signal to those we serve that we are not available. Best to establish a pattern and talk to your leadership team about it, so everyone is on the same page.

The bishops have a covenant that when another bishop calls, we pick up the phone if we can, we step out of the room if we can, or we call back as soon as possible if we can’t pick up the phone now. This is a commitment we make to one another. You can’t have this with everyone, so decide who is in the inner circle. In my world that’s family first, then staff, pastors and deacons, bishops.

As a friend used to say to me, we need to learn how to prioritize our crises. Prioritize everything on a scale of 1-3. One is urgent, two is important, three is something that can wait a little bit. Know which is which. The challenge for pastors and deacons is you know too much. If somebody wants the door unlocked, or wants to know when the meeting is happening, they may call you for no other reason than they figure there is a higher probability that you will know the answer. If you take all of those calls, you become the answer person. It’s also harder for a church to grow if there’s only one answer person. I have discovered that problems often get solved on their own if people work on them a little bit. Sometimes I return a call at the end of the day and discover the problem took care of itself.

Synod staff have discussed communications numerous times. It’s hard to constantly receive communications through multiple platforms. If you’re looking for some information someone sent you and you have to go back through emails, texts, tweets, and a host of apps, you may not be able to find what you’re looking for. How will your team communicate? When is a text invasive? What hours will we contact each other? Under what circumstances? We have decided that email is generally for non-urgent matters. If there’s an urgent email, we will send a text alerting one another to check it. We have been trying to use Microsoft Teams for most of our communications. Email when necessary (because others outside the team are using it), and texts or phone calls for immediate needs.

Figure out your inner circle (staff and council) and other major teams. Negotiate patterns of communication given your unique context and people. Communicate the values, so people know what to expect.

Finally, establish some boundaries for yourself around Sabbath time. There should be a day when you don’t pick up the phone at all. Have a system set up so that you can be reached if there’s a dire emergency. Set aside vacation time and continuing education time for 2023 right now. Arrange protocols for how emergencies will be handled in your absence. Have a colleague on call for you. Now is the time to start thinking about 2023, and healthy boundaries.