What’s a guy to do? With the advent of the internet, the ease of blogs, and the mass-distribution capabilities of e-mail, our ability to disparage people quickly and easily has risen to new heights…or rather, fallen to new lows. In fact, one could argue that e-mail is an online WMD (weapon of mass destruction). Should you decide to read on, let me note here that this blog is written from the perspective of an evangelical Christian, who accepts the Bible as God’s word to humanity. A few years ago, I served on the board of a large church (not Saddleback or Willow Creek-large, but large nonetheless – around 3,000 people each weekend). During my three-year term, there was some pretty significant conflict revolving around the new Senior Pastor and a small group of people (maybe 1-2% of the congregation) who felt he wasn’t doing a good job. The board itself was divided, as well – and more significantly, though it was still a minority (maybe 25-30%) who voiced concerns. Unfortunately, the board chairman led the charge. It was a rough time – for the church, for the board, for the pastor, and for me personally. The pastor ultimately resigned (under some compulsion) after only two years at the church. Several times during my three-year tenure on the board, I received e-mails that gave me great concern. Many of those were between board members who chose that medium to discuss the relative merits and demerits of the pastor and what we as a board ought to do about the situation. At best, I think those were unprofessional and unhelpful. At worst, they were malicious and sinful expressions of division and disunity – even to the point of character assassination. One of the biggest problems with e-mail is the ease with which a simple communication can be disseminated broadly and to an audience it was never intended to reach. Whether it’s in the church, business world, or personal life, each of us needs to consider the possible impact of what we write getting into unintended hands. A common slogan during WWII was, “Loose lips sink ships.” Maybe we need to update that for the 21st century and apply it to e-mail. The reputations of good people can easily be destroyed by “loose fingers” on the keyboard – even when what those fingers write is untrue. Fortunately, there are ways to deal with people who cannot or decide not to control their tongues and typing. In the business world, someone who sends an inappropriate e-mail can be reprimanded or even fired. In the church, there are also appropriate means (see Matthew 18 and others). But what if the e-mail is anonymous? Several times during my tenure on the church board, I received anonymous e-mails. On the plus side, they generally were calling out the board itself for not shutting down the few who wanted the pastor gone. In that regard, I shared their sentiments – perhaps feeling them even more strongly since I was continuously frustrated in my attempts to do just that. On the other hand, a couple times they accused the board in general – and by implication each board member – of being too full of pride and “power” to “do the right thing” and step down from the board. Little did the writer know how many times I had written my resignation, only to be talked out of it by my father, by others on the board, and even by the embattled pastor.
At least once I responded to an anonymous e-mail, inviting the sender into dialog, to a board meeting, or even to a non-anonymous discussion via e-mail. My responses were, it seems, in vain. I have a lot of problems with people hiding behind the veil of anonymity. Perhaps the biggest problem I have is that they seem to believe the lie that they will not be held accountable for their words. Yet Jesus was quite clear that we are responsible for our words (see Matthew 5:22 and context).
So the question is, how should we in the church respond – if at all – to “virtual hate mail”? Todd Rhoades posted this at his MMI blog, and it created a fair bit of discussion. I would offer a few options…and welcome others.
-Delete. Some people favor this carte blanche solution. If the e-mail isn’t signed, it doesn’t get read. But what if it’s a positive comment? Or what if there is both positive and negative? What if the negative is written in a truly helpful, uplifting manner? There has to be some leeway here, I think.
-Read and respond. This is at the other end of the spectrum and has similar problems. I can waste a lot of time just reading what amounts to so much trash, let alone responding. And what if the message I’m responding to is just plain irrational? I’ve found it virtually impossible to have a rational, electronic conversation with an irrational, anonymous writer.
-Send a “canned” response. For example, “We have received your e-mail and would like the opportunity to respond to your comments. However, your choice to remain anonymous precludes us from doing so. If you desire a response, please provide your name …” [and whatever other identifying information may be appropriate, such as phone number or mailing address].
-One pastor I know has delegated the job of “screening” his mail and e-mail to help him avoid hearing too much of the bad stuff. His intent is not to look at life (cliché alert!) through rose-colored glasses; rather, he understands about himself that too much negative will hurt his ability to minister. This goes along with the public figures who don’t read the newspaper reports about themselves – they know that not everything they would read (good or bad) is true. I wouldn’t recommend this for everyone, but there’s some wisdom in it.
-Another pastor who was facing pretty significant abuse from a handful of people in his church went so far as to read some of the e-mails from the pulpit. Again, this isn’t for everyone or every situation, but it could be a good start for dealing with extremely negative, anonymous notes.
I’d like to know how others handle the problem of VHM – Virtual Hate Mail.