May 2011
Caring for Each Other

Tone Matters

A few years ago, I nearly lost one of the best lay leaders in the parish I was then serving. This leader and I had worked together well for several months. In the midst of a critical project, we exchanged a long chain of emails. In response to one of them, I wrote a one-sentence note: “Can’t it be done faster?” He replied with what seemed like a blistering email in which he said he was working as fast as possible and offered his resignation if I wasn’t happy with his leadership.

Fortunately, I had a good sense to follow the rule about letting some time pass before replying. The next morning I re-read our email exchange. I could see how he might have thought I wasn’t happy with him. I had misinterpreted his brevity with license to be terse. After a carefully crafted apology and clarification, our productive email exchange resumed. The next time we saw each other in church, we shared mutual apologies.

Crisis averted? Yes. Lesson learned? I hope so.

The trick with communication, especially in a parish with so many kinds of personalities and numerous volunteers, is to strike the right tone. Email might be the trickiest medium, but the challenge is there in all communication. I’ve developed a few principles that I try to remember with my communication in all media.

Gratitude matters

It’s easy to feel that we are being taken for granted, or even to act as if we are taking others for granted. Nearly every email I send to someone in parish ministry ends with a thank you for something. “Thank you for your leadership.” “I am grateful for your faithful service.” Writing this helps me maintain my sense of gratitude, and expressing it lets people know that their ministry matters.

Along those lines, I try not to start emails with “the business” of the note. Starting with “I hope you are well” or “It was good to speak with you yesterday” keeps the work anchored in relationship. These beginnings and grateful endings avoid the problem of one-sentence emails, so easily misconstrued.

Pleasant beginnings and endings are necessary in spoken conversation and other media too. It’s just less tempting to cut them out when you’re looking someone in the eye. Starting and ending carefully is polite, and it’s good Christian practice to treat others with care.

Context is everything

It seems that there are more and more ways to communicate with each passing year. Just when we’ve mastered email, along comes Facebook. Then Twitter. Who knows what is next? While we’re listing ways to communicate, let’s not forget the telephone or the increasingly rare handwritten note.

Terse writing is lousy on email, but it’s essential on Twitter. Flip remarks seem out of place in a handwritten note, but they’re almost essential on social media. What you say in the pulpit will probably be different than what gets said in the coffee shop. Common sense will help here, but it is vital to remember the audience and the medium.

Staying on message and on mission

Every one of our messages in the church should express our mission. When I ask the Altar Guild to take on a task, it’s an opportunity to talk about how important worship is in our life together. Our treasurer can use every vestry meeting to talk about how we are living our mission with our budget and our financial generosity. There is no “business” apart from the mission of the church. The mission is our business. Period. Staying focused on mission will help us craft better messages. And a mission context will help our hearers be inspired and grateful to be involved.

Speak the truth, but begin with love

When the rich man told Jesus he had followed all the laws, he then asked what he needed to do to inherit eternal life. The Gospels tell us that Jesus looked at him and loved him, and then told him to sell his possessions and to give the money to the poor.

Jesus had some hard news to deliver. He didn’t beat around the bush, and he didn’t even soften the blow too much. But he began with love.

Most people can tell when we’re holding something back. We gain respect and credibility by speaking truthfully, even when we have hard news to deliver. But we must always begin with love, not anger or fear or jealousy. In other words, say what you must say, but do so with love.

Get a second opinion – from yourself if necessary

Getting the right tone in our communication is tricky. What seems funny to me may be snarky to someone else. Another writer’s quick note might seem rude to me. One obvious fix is to either ask someone else to have a look at what we’ve written or to listen to what we’re about to say. A good alternative to asking someone else is to sit on something for a few hours and read it with a fresh eye. This extra step can save embarrassment and preserve good relationships. And that brings us to the last principle.

Practice reconciliation

Inevitably we’ll get it wrong. Words come out differently than we had intended. We misunderstand someone’s meaning. Being ready to apologize, or to share our hurt feelings, can make a world of difference. The church is a great place to practice our reconciliation skills. With time – and hard-won lessons – we can learn to use the right tone to get our message across.

Scott Gunn is an Episcopal priest and in his own words, a “certified technophile.” Resident in the Diocese of Rhode Island, he serves on the Diocesan Council, various diocesan committees, and as the Province I representative to the Episcopal News Service Advisory Committee. His blog, “Seven whole days” is found at

[Editor's note: Scott Gunn is now executive director, Forward Movement]

This article is part of the May 2011 Vestry Papers issue on Caring for Each Other