Combative Emails: How Do We Respond?

Last Sunday you preached a real challenging message, taught a Bible class that really challenged a long-held traditional belief on a particular passage, made an announcement that is not appreciated by everyone, etc… Now you open your church email account and in your inbox is one of those emails. You know the kind of email I’m talking about… The email comes from a church member who means well but nevertheless is chocked full of emotion and criticism, correcting your wrong interpretation of scripture with enough proof-texts to create a topical index of the Bible.  I call them combative emails because they’re usually the critical kind of emails that are screaming for a combative response.

Don’t!

Let me say that again: Don’t!

Sympathetically, I don’t envy you one bit. I’ve received my share of combative emails during my ministry. It’s easy and very tempting to fire back a response, defending your message and correcting this person’s take on things. That’s a natural reaction because for many people, including myself, our response when challenged is to go on defense. But I have learned that this is normally a poor-defensive strategy and one that is likely only to create further problems. So what should the response be?

There are several things to consider before making any kind of response:

  • Wait awhile! The first and most important thing you can do is wait. Give yourself some time to think and reflect on what the person is and is not saying. This way you avoid making a reply that is emotionally reactive and likely only to make matters worse.
  • Let it go! Not every battle is worth fighting. This is true of any relationship, like our marriages and it is certainly true for ministry as well. Some issues are not worth the time it takes to discuss them and sometimes, the battle is not worth the price it will cost in the end. Furthermore, there’s not much wisdom in discussing a matter with someone if that person has proven themselves to be unreasonable and close-minded.
  • Tell ‘em thanks! In most cases, the writer of an email like this would at least like to know that you received the email and read it. So a short and simple reply telling the person “Thanks!” will help a lot. You might even suggests that after having some time to think about their concerns more, that perhaps they would like to get together and talk over some coffee or lunch. In all likelihood, the person who sent you the email just wanted to be heard and this will oblige him or her while defusing something that could become very disastrous. And use discretion about any further engagement by emails.
  • Talk face to face! There are occasions where things are said and done that must be addressed. Whether it’s a misunderstanding, an accusation, or else, if it is possible then the best way to handle the matter is to arrange a time to sit down and talk face to face. Generally, I think it’s ok to arrange such a meeting by email or phone but that is it. Save the discussion for some conversation over a good cup of coffee or a warm bowl of soup. In this way, by seeing each others face, you remind each other that this is a conversation between two Christians and that allows you to speak in ways that builds each other up.

These I have learned the hard way… And I’m still learning.

There is one more suggestion I have and it has to do with fostering immaturity. I have found that these combative emails of reflect immaturity on the part of the sender, especially when the emails are accusatory and are full of incoherent arguments that proof-text the Bible at will. It’s unfortunate that such immaturity exists among Christians but the greater tragedy is to foster such immaturity by resorting to the same tactics in response. My suggestion is don’t! By doing so, you are simply telling the other person that it’s ok to act this way and it will not serve any purpose except to create more problems… including a giant headache. There have been a couple of occasions, where I refused to even respond and acknowledge my receiving of an email, choosing instead to go directly to that person. If they can’t handle that then there isn’t any conversation to have on the matter they want to address.

So what suggestions do you have for responding to people who send combative emails?

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3 responses to “Combative Emails: How Do We Respond?

  1. Thanks for sharing this. This morning I am going to send my friend and the minister of our church an email telling him that his sermon last Sunday was life changing. It was relevant to so much of what I needed to hear. It was painful but heart changing. He was talking about how to handle conflict. He talked about how we use our weapons to try to get our way with others when the real issue is about letting God do the necessary work in our lives. I think when we strike out at others it really is a reflection of some deep emotional need that only God can heal. Sure, we have issues with each other but when it becomes confrontational we are demanding that others see it the way we do. That’s not always possible and nor should we expect it to be. I think you offer some really good advice. Unfortunately I think preachers often see the worst in people. Just know this, from me, it doesn’t matter if you are right or wrong on any given issue. You are loved regardless, by the Father you serve, and at the end of the day that is what we need to hear from each other. Thank you for your pursuit in getting the gospel to the community you are able to reach. May our world see that we can handle confrontation with love and grace. It so needs to see it.

    • Now that is an email which your minister will appreciate more than you may ever realize. Take it from another minister, when I receive word from someone on how my sermon has spoken to their heart, helping to change their life… Priceless!

  2. Isn’t is wonderful to know that you have people in your corner. People who will be your champion:) I love it! All good advice no matter who you are…. God’s light is painful sometimes if it is shining a light on flaw that needs work and so I will try ever harder to see what God is trying to tell me and be less combative with others. Keep doing your thing Rex!

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