You may be familiar with—perhaps even have participated in—”parking lot meetings.” Those unofficial conversations (often held in parking lots following official meetings) that tend to undermine decisions, complain about individuals, and stir up discontent. They are extremely effective forms of communication, but they are not always helpful. In some important ways, e-mail has become the new “parking lot meeting. It spreads information (accurate or not) quickly and widely, it is impossible to stop, and it can be very damaging.

Many of us could not do our jobs without e-mail, certainly not me. I depend on e-mail to schedule appointments, share documents and stay connected with various groups. The Internet, with its e-mail and blogging, is an important technological advance that helps us work more effectively and efficiently. Many churches are making excellent use of these new electronic resources in very creative ways.

However, when a congregation is in the midst of conflict, the Internet, and particularly e-mail, can become a serious problem. Just about every church I consult with these days is dealing with the downside of computer technology as they struggle with conflict.

Here are some situations I have recently encountered:

  • A pastor has a frustrating governing board meeting, goes back to her office and begins an e-mail addressed to the board and several members of the congregation. She knows that she is venting her anger about what has just happened, and she doesn’t really intend to send it. She pours out her emotions, feels her energy building, and in a final burst of triumph and relief, hits the “send” button—out of habit, and by mistake. Her “vent” instantly lands in 50 parishioners’ inboxes.
  • A recently retired member of the congregation decides that he is unhappy with the direction the church is heading. He has some time on his hands, so he begins to blog about the issues that distress him. Sometimes he writes from his own observation, but sometimes he passes on inaccurate, second-hand information and rumors. Lay leaders from the governing board visit with him, listen to his concerns, and ask him to follow the church’s behavioral covenant that outlines the agreed-upon ways of dealing with concerns. He responds by firmly stating, “This is a free country and I have the right to freedom of speech.”
  • A group of members feels unheard by the pastor and the governing board. The group has had several face-to-face visits with the pastor and with individual board members, but their requests for time at board meetings and at congregational meetings to ask questions and raise issues are turned down. They believe they have followed the accepted norms of the congregation for expressing their concerns, but they feel shut down and dismissed—sometimes in demeaning and disrespectful ways. They decide to start an e-mail campaign to gain support for their concerns from members of the church and the wider community.

Your imagination has probably already created a picture of the escalating conflict in each of these scenarios.

There are many things to be learned from these experiences, but one of the most important is: E-mail is not a conflict resolution tool. I base this statement on my observation of five characteristics of e-mail:

  1. E-mail makes it impossible to read the non-verbal body language of the persons with whom you are communicating. Likewise, they can’t read yours. I have occasionally made the mistake (perhaps you have, too) of trying to crack a joke through e-mail and having it fall flat. I can’t read the body language to tell how the joke is being received, and others can’t see the twinkle in my eyes when I am joking. When a congregation is in conflict, folks are already very emotionally reactive. Therefore, people in this situation are far more likely to misread or misinterpret what is being said under the best of conditions. Eliminating visual cues and vocal inflection further cripples the communication process and opens the door to misinterpretation and misunderstanding.
  2. E-mail appears to be fast, almost immediate, communication, when in fact the length of time it takes to deliver a message depends largely on the recipient’s personal habits. Some people check their Blackberrys or iPhones for messages every few minutes, and some go for days without turning on their computer to look at their e-mail. The uncertainty around when a message is received often adds to the confusion of who knows what and when they heard it—often a central communication issue in conflicted situations.
  3. Because e-mail language is often less formal than traditional written language, it feels much more like talking on the telephone, except that it is a one-sided conversation. Your e-mail message probably makes perfect sense to you. But it may contain unspoken assumptions, or even a typo that can change the meaning of the message for your recipient and complicate your effort to communicate. It can actually take longer to sort out miscommunication than it would to relay information in face-to-face conversations, one at a time. I frequently have to tell pastors to stop using e-mail when trying to deal with a parishioner’s difficult behavior, and simply go talk to them. A face-to-face conversation, with give and take, can often serve to sort out a complicated situation when a one-sided e-mail message only makes it more complex.
  4. E-mail is not confidential. No matter what kind of disclaimer or warning about confidentiality you include in your e-mail, anyone can forward any e-mail at any time. When I am about to send out an e-mail message, I always ask myself, “Would I feel comfortable if this e-mail were forwarded to someone else—even if it was accidentally forwarded?” If your answer to that question is “no,” don’t send it. And that is related to another practice you might want to develop: get in the habit of re-reading any e-mail message before sending it out. Usually, you will just catch typos and the occasional omitted word, but sometimes, you will hear a very different message than the one you intended. Train yourself to pause and re-read before you hit the send button.
  5. E-mail is not a constructive venue for important conversations. One of the strengths of e-mail is its ability to communicate details quickly and efficiently. Important conversations, and especially those that surround a conflicted situation, need and deserve richer and fuller interaction—one in which nuance and non-verbal communication is part of the communication process. 

Having said all of this, are there times when I actually encourage a pastor, lay leader, or member of a congregation to use e-mail or a letter to deal with an issue? Of course, I do. A letter or an e-mail is very appropriate when you need clear documentation of a decision or action. It is also useful if someone is actively attempting to misrepresent you and your views, but think through this scenario carefully first.

Let me close with a couple of positive stories—real examples of ways in which computer technology actually prevented conflict:

  • A pastor learned that one of the church’s staff members was interviewed on television at the local gay pride parade. This staff person said a lot of wonderful things about the church. Some churches might have viewed this as good advertising, but this congregation had not gone through a period of dialogue and discernment about their beliefs and values regarding the diversity of sexual orientations. When his inbox lit up, the pastor, with key lay leaders, correctly and quickly communicated to the members that “we are not going to deal with this via the Internet and e-mail.” This gave leaders the opportunity to form a plan. They were able to begin the dialogue and to work with the congregation to develop a broad-based, constructive process. As a result, they were able to help bring clarity to this subject and to support members of the church who had many different views and experiences.
  • A middle judicatory group felt the need to harvest the collective wisdom of their congregations and leaders regarding a controversial initiative. A team appointed to work with the bishop decided that they might get good feedback and encourage more creative thinking in the region if they were to create a blog on this topic. They spent time gathering information about the technological capacities and communication challenges involved in creating a blog. They developed policies describing what would be posted, how they would publicize the blog, and who would manage it. This strategy not only garnered good information and creative thinking, it became a helpful way of reaching younger people who were more comfortable with this technology and this form of communication.

Effective communication during a conflicted situation requires an extra dose of care and attention, especially if you are using an electronic, computer-based system to communicate to hurting, angry, or suspicious people. But, a word of encouragement: Just as a well-placed challenge, or a word of optimism can turn a parking lot meeting into a productive, constructive conversation, used carefully, the Internet can be helpful in conflicted situations.