For the last several years I have been lamenting the fact that I seem to have less and less time for worship preparation, frequently finding myself finishing my sermon on Saturday instead of Friday. I had ruminated about the cause of this time shortage a number of times, but had been unable to come up with any definitive explanation until one cold Sunday at the end of February when I was listening to the Sunday Edition on my MP3 player as I walked to church.
The feature story that day was about the decision of Richard McFadden, the deputy minister of Citizenship and Immigration Canada (CIC), to ban BlackBerries from all department meetings and to call for a blackout on their use by employees between 7 p.m. and 7 a.m. McFadden had also urged employees not to use their BlackBerries at home on the weekends. As he explained in a memorandum to CIC employees, these measures were a way of “‘attacking’ some of the stresses around work” and to attempt to achieve better “work/life quality” by balancing work and personal responsibilities.1 McFadden reported that the response to his edict had been mixed, with some commending him and others reviling him for separating them from their 24/7 information lifeline. Another guest on the show, Linda Duxbury, a professor in the Sprott School of Business at Carleton University in Ottawa and an expert on work/home balance, provided additional insight into the use of BlackBerries and e-mail in our work lives.
As I listened to their discussion I began to get the clues to solve my own mystery. When was it that I had started to notice the challenges to my work week? When had I started to feel the stress of constant interruptions? When I stopped to consider it, it was around the time the church went online and I could get e-mail in my office.
For the next two weeks I kept track of the amount of time I spent opening, sorting, answering, and deleting e-mails. What I discovered shocked me. In those first two weeks the average was five and a half hours a week! No wonder my sermon was getting finished half a day later than usual!
My curiosity was now piqued. I e-mailed 15 colleagues serving in churches across Canada, asking them the following questions: On average, how much time do you spend dealing with e-mail at your church each week? What impact has e-mail had on your work week? Has it affected your pattern of sermon preparation? Is it taking you longer to complete your regular tasks? What strategies do you use to handle your e-mail?
I received eight replies, some of which came back within hours. This in itself says a lot about how answering e-mail has risen in our workplace priorities.
In terms of the positive side of e-mail, the results of my mini-survey mirrored my own experiences. The advent of e-mail has a direct impact on how much time we spend on the telephone or playing phone tag. Information can be transferred quickly and reliably. Many spoke of how valuable e-mail can be in managing church administration since it can reduce the number of meetings and cut back on the use of paper. Others spoke of how helpful it is in responding to pastoral concerns. In my own case, I have had people contact me via e-mail for weddings, funerals, and baptisms after finding my contact information on our church website. Those e-mails can be important opportunities for congregational outreach.
However, all of those responding to my questions also reported that there are negative aspects to e-mail. In speaking about its downside, Peter Short, the former moderator of the United Church of Canada, described e-mail as “a pernicious corroder of the blessing of time.” Several of my other colleagues also spoke about how e-mail encroaches on their time, identifying it as both a distraction and an interruption. As one said, “It’s hard not to check it, and if you check, you respond—and that distracts.”
The Urgency Factor
These comments affirm Duxbury’s assessment of one of the effects of e-mail. As she noted in her radio interview, e-mail has increased our sense of urgency. When our computer or phone signals that we have a new e-mail, we are urged to answer in a nanosecond. This means stopping whatever else we were doing. One of the pitfalls of this instant-response environment, Duxbury says, is that it is causing us to lose sight of how long it takes people to do good work. It is also taking a huge toll on our management skills and productivity. As she writes in materials from her workshop Getting Serious about Work/Life Balance: Managing a Changing Workforce:
E-mail is widely used as the primary method of communication with employees at all levels; however there is a universal expectation that everyone reads, clears and responds to all e-mails on a daily basis (actually a constant basis). This is unrealistic. Memos sent in late afternoon are expected to be read by morning for discussion. This is unreasonable. Everyone needs to understand that communications need to be managed. Time must be allowed to read, understand and respond.
The Impact of Overload
The sheer volume of e-mail that lands in our inboxes each day presents new opportunities but also new challenges for every minister. The responses I received to my mini-survey revealed that handling e-mail was taking my colleagues an average of eight hours per week. That’s one full working day devoted just to e-mail each and every week! Many of these clergy also remarked on the cumulative effect of e-mail. For instance, after a holiday or a few days of vacation, the task of clearing one’s inbox can take days. In a profession where study and reflection are critical elements, it is easy to see that the advent of e-mail, with its presumption of immediate replies, sharply challenges how we undertake our work.
The impact of information overload was the topic of another radio show I listened to recently—the July 3rd edition of the CBC Radio show “The Current,” with host Margaret Evans. Some sobering facts were offered on that broadcast that suggest that we in ministry should pay close attention to what is happening in the workplace. Jonathan Spira, chief analyst for the technology research company Basex and a guest on the show, claimed that 28 percent of our workdays are lost to interruptions. He noted that a 30-second e-mail interruption can take us five to ten minutes to resume our focus.
Another guest on the show was Maggie Jackson, author of Distracted: The Erosion of Attention and the Coming Dark Age (Prometheus, 2008). What she had to say was startling for me as a minister—a profession that prides itself on being reflective and relational. She suggested that “the climate of distraction that we’re in has put us on a steady diet of snippets and glimpses of each other.” The result is that we are less able to connect deeply with other people. Technology has robbed us of the ability to have rich connections with others. In addition, she notes that it has compromised our ability to think and be attentive. Multitasking, which is often held up as a prized skill, has caused us to fragment our focus at the cost of our ability to fully engage in an activity
Clearly each of us in ministry must take careful aim at this problem that threatens to cripple our productivity, add to our stress, and impinge upon our ability to develop and maintain meaningful relationships with the people we work with and serve. I would be the last person to suggest that we get rid of e-mail; it has been an incredibly useful tool in my ministry. But it is a tool that calls for us to use it wisely and faithfully so that it never becomes what Duxbury calls the “electronic leash.”
I now understand that the issue of e-mail is far more complex than having to finish my sermon at home on Saturday afternoon. It is about establishing healthy work/life boundaries, using better time management, and clearly communicating what constitutes a reasonable expectation for responses to e-mail queries. It is also about Sabbath. Everyone needs time away from work—even ministers! We need time to read and reflect. We need time to nurture our spiritual lives. We need time to write and create without interruption. Mostly we need to develop and protect the spiritual rhythm of our lives. Extended work weeks are not evidence of a successful ministry. They may, however, be a sign of twisted priorities and onerous demands. (As Duxbury notes, “Hours at work is a lousy measure of productivity.”)
The Good News
But there is much good news and reason for hope in spite of the statistics and research findings. Technology analyst Jonathan Spira is a founding board member of the recently formed Information Overload Research Group, which is made up of representatives from a broad range of technology companies. Their website is full of advice for dealing with the evolution of technology in our workplaces and churches. Especially helpful is the Tips Archive (www.iorgforum.org/TipsArchive), which includes these five practical ideas:
- Turn e-mail notifications off. Save yourself from being constantly interrupted as new e-mails arrive.
- Read the entire thread before responding. Ensure you are responding to the latest posts and not repeating points already covered.
- Set aside time for e-mail. Designate blocks of time in your day to focus on processing your e-mail.
- Limit your cc’s and replies to all. Only copy people who really need to get the e-mail.
- Be concise. Write clear and concise subject lines and have each e-mail focus on only one topic.
Some of my colleagues are actually pondering the merits of scaling back on their use of e-mail. One, for instance, has already chosen to return to greater use of the phone and more handwritten letters. By and large, however, the strategies my colleagues use to manage e-mail involve several simple rules:
- Open only what you want to read.
- Don’t access work e-mail from home or outside of regular work hours.
- Don’t leave your e-mail on all day. Select two specific times each day to check it.
- Delete all those forwarded slide shows, stories, inspirational verses, and jokes that congregation members love to send.
- Sort e-mails into those requiring immediate response and those that can wait, and choose a time in the week to deal with the non-urgent ones.
One strategy that did not get mentioned is to advise the congregation, and especially the church board, of the realities of e-mail, and to set reasonable expectations for how they are dealt with in the church. In only one case among my respondents was a church in the process of developing a policy around e-mails, and it focused on how church leaders would use e-mail in decision making. They are currently weighing the benefit of using e-mail to reach consensus rather than calling the church board or one of its councils to a meeting. As for the mountain of inspirational stories that bounce onto our computer screens, most of my colleagues simply inform people that they never open them and they say that is usually enough to get them to stop sending them. As one said, “I found that if I don’t play along, I don’t get much.”
Author Maggie Jackson had two suggestions for dealing with the attentional side effects of e-mail: (1) develop policies or strategies to allow for a renaissance of attention, such as setting aside time/spaces where distractions will be eliminated and thinking can be facilitated, and (2) employ the latest insights from neuroscience research for developing the three kinds of attentional skills: focus, awareness, and decision making. She maintains that if we work to nurture stronger inner resources we will be better able to cope with new technologies rather than being dependent on emerging software to address the problem.
My Own Liberation
My exploration into the effects of e-mail on our lives and work has turned out to be quite liberating for me. I’m learning to set parameters that really make a difference for me. I approach Sunday morning feeling much less rushed since I am more confident about turning off the sound on my computer so it doesn’t interrupt me with its chirping. I liberally and joyfully employ my delete key, knowing that my time is valuable. Like several of my colleagues, if the subject line is blank or if it is clearly a non-work related item, it is immediately deleted. I forward without reading material that falls within the purview of church committees, such as announcements of events in the community or the larger church, and encourage them to determine their priorities.
I continue to marvel at how much e-mail enhances what I am able to accomplish when I set clear limits on how much I use it each day. The information I have gleaned in these last few months has shown me the importance of being aware of what impacts my life, how to exercise good Ethernet manners, and, most vitally, how to cherish the time and attention it takes to have the kind of faithful life I value for myself and my congregation.
The good news is that I am getting my time back. My routine of worship preparation is returning to my comfort level. It feels good not to feel as if I’m always behind. I suspect I will still have days and weeks that will challenge me, but I feel better prepared to tackle them as a result of the input of my colleagues. They have assured me that this problem is quite real for pastors and that the solutions will require a good deal of collaboration. Like so much of life, it is a discipline that must be practiced with patience and flexibility.
NOTES1. Richard McFadden, “BlackBerry blackout,” Ottawa Citizen, January 31, 2008.
2. Kathryn May, “‘BlackBerry blackout’ imposed on PS” Ottawa Citizen, February 1, 2008 (http://www.canada.com/ottawacitizen/story.html).
See also: The Current,www.CBC.ca, July 3, 2008; The Sunday Edition,” February 24, 2008; Jonathan Richards, “Tech firms act to counter ‘information overload,’”www.timesonline.co.uk, June 16, 2008; “May We Have Your Attention, Please?” Business Week (www.businessweek.com), June 12, 2008; and Matt Richtel, “Lost in E-Mail, Tech Firms Face Self-Made Beast,” New York Times (www.nytimes.com), June 14, 2008.
Questions for Reflection
- How much time a day do you spend reading and answering e-mail? How much of that time is spent deleting or otherwise addressing unwanted e-mail?
- What parameters might you set for your staff and congregation concerning e-mail so that you do not receive unwanted or unnecessary e-mail?
- Which of the suggestions offered in this article are you willing to try to help minimize the negative aspects of e-mail?
- When you consider the relationships that exist in your church, do you see evidence that the depth of relationship has eroded? What actions can you take to make your staff and congregation more aware of the potential for overdependence on technology to produce this effect?
- Where do you perceive that the boundaries between your work and home/family/leisure have become blurred? What steps are you willing to take to establish healthier work/life boundaries?