The Contemporary Journal for Youth Ministry

Youthworker, January/February 1999

E-mail Etiquette

Michael Woodruff

TO: Youth Workers (and Their Ilk)
FROM: Michael Woodruff
RE: E-Mail

We are now waging war on at least four fronts. I'm not talking about the stuff of the Screwtape Letters or anything else spiritual. I'm talking about the way we manage information. The daily kind. It used to be limited to phone calls, visitors, and the United States Post Office. Now it's all of that - plus e-mail. And that latter is just warming up. By some claims, the average white-collar worker is getting 100-plus e-mails a week. Others argue the number is much higher. But virtually everyone agrees that we ain't seen nothin' yet.

Actually, I like e-mail. As someone who lives or dies by his network, I find electronic mail a far better way to interact with lots of people than anything else. It beats the phone - which is the ultimate urgent - and it's easier to manage than voice mail. It's cheaper and faster than the post office, and it's a great leveler of organizations. (You can e-mail just about anyone, and only a very few people have others who answer their e-mail).

But my endorsement is not absolute. There are days when I can easily spend three or four hours in front of a computer screen sending and receiving e-mail, and I didn't sign up for ministry with that in mind. Clearly we need help managing this new medium. Here are some suggestions:


  • Be brief. The header and entire text of your message should fit on one screen. If you need to send something longer, only send it to those who absolutely must read the whole thing. Send a short summary - offering the entire e-mail - to everyone else. (In other words, this e-mail is way too long. But what do you expect? I get paid to fill this space!)
  • Lay off the colored fonts. I've yet to hit 40, but I've had to squint to read e-mails that use colored backgrounds and multicolored fonts. The first time I received one of these, it was novel. Now I consider anything in color to be the equivalent of a business letter written in crayon. So be clear—not cute.
  • Respond quickly. The value of this medium is that it allows for quick responses. Don't sit on e-mail for more than a few days. If you are out of the office and will not be checking your messages, let people know by setting up an auto-responder reply (e.g., "I'm out of the office and will not be checking my e-mail. If you are a thief, feel free to break into my house and steal all my stuff. Just be sure to feed my Rottweiler while you're visiting. He'll be hungry. If you need a reply right away, you can either panic or leave a message on my voice mail.")

The problem with setting up the auto-responder reply is that it only works if you're connected to a network that's on all the time. Twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. Most churches—and many businesses, in fact—aren't. So if you're going to be away for a longer-than-normal period (like more than a month) and aren't bringing your computer with you, it's a good idea to contact key people and tell them how long you'll be gone—and to hold off e-mailing you until you get back.

  • Don't rush your reply. If the issue at hand is dicey or if you're annoyed, compose your message—but don't send until the next day. Because when you reread it in the morning, you'll likely find that you were too harsh, too emotional, and too wordy—not to mention the fact that you misspelled key words and left out half of your main points.
  • Avoid emoticons. Sorry :o(
    but not everybody appreciates emotional icons. Some do :o)
    but alas, some don't :o(
  • Tell the story in the subject line. Generic headings such as "meeting agenda" or "follow-up" aren't much better than leaving the header box blank. So take 15 seconds to think about a precise description of your message—one that not only means something to you, but will also be clear to the receiver. InterVarsity Christian Fellowship staff use a few codes to tip everyone off (e.g., FYI—mtg agenda 1.15.99 doesn't demand a response, but FYA—mtg agenda 1.15.99 does.)
  • Be considerate. Don't copy long messages into your responses or forwarded e-mail—send only the relevant parts. And if you really, really, really must forward a 10th generation message to somebody, trim the 62 miles of headers from the top and get rid of all of the > signs on the left-hand margin.


  • Filter the spam. In case you don't know, spam is all that unwanted, mass-distributed, multilevel marketed e-mail that's sole purpose is to get you to buy something. By some estimates, as much as 15 percent of all e-mail—30 percent for America Online users—is spam. And while there is talk in the Senate of major e-commerce reform, it's safe to expect the Internet to resemble Monty Python ("spam, spam, spam, spam, wonderful spam!") for the foreseeable future. So what can you do?
      • Place a filter on your e-mail. Many e-mail programs have this capability, though free services such as Juno do not. (AOLers can go to the keyword JUNKMAIL for help, or send complaints to Web folks should visit
      • Set up two mail boxes—one for private correspondence with friends, family, and work, and the other for more public discourse (i.e., chat rooms.)
      • Never cruise the Web—where spam "robots" cruise to collect e-mail names—with your private address.
      • Never respond to the offer, "If you'd like to be removed from this list, send e-mail to..." Spammers place a high premium on "live" addresses. Your request to be dropped may actually place you on a must-spam list.
  • One touch. You should open your snail mail over the recycle bin—ready to discard what you can, respond to what you can't, and file what you must—and you should open your e-mail with the same idea in mind. Your goal should be to "touch" your e-mail message as few times as possible. Your options are simple: Delete it, respond to it, or file it.
  • FIFO (First In, First Out). If you scan the in-box for the e-mail you want to read, you'll be left with a long list of awfuls at the end of the day. Don't do it! Follow the First In, First Out rule.

And one last piece of advice. When you write for a publication like Youthworker journal and say something controversial, don't ever post your real e-mail address. But fortunately I'm past that scaredy-cat stage. If you want to yell at me for anything -anything at all - you can toss your brick bats to this address:

Can't wait to hear from you!

Michael Woodruff trains and consults with churches and businesses on management issues. Drawing on eight years in youth ministry, he publishes the Ivy Jungle Report, a quarterly newsletter for those who minister to collegians. He lives in Bellingham, Washington.


The above author bio was current as of the date this article was published.

© 1999 CCM Communications
Permission is granted to distribute Youthworker articles to other youth workers within your church, but may not be re-published (print or electronic) without permission.


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