Professional Boundaries,Ministry,
And Email May Not Mix

Ministry requires professional boundaries defining how communications will take place. When there are no boundaries around communication between minister and congregation member, the minister is on the high road to burnout...and other difficulties.

Effective time management is impossible when a congregation member can communicate with the minister at any time and in any manner they wish.

Giving out an email address is like giving out your telephone number.  You are inviting people to communicate with you.  However, there are no professional boundaries defining the time, context or location of these communications.

You may do this because people pursuing you adds to your own sense of importance. Or because you believe must be constantly available to members of the congregation. Or you may give out personal contact information for some other reason.

The point is that who we communicate with, and how we communicate with them is always meaningful and important to both parties.

In terms of boundaries, email communication between a minister and a congregation member presents several difficulties.

First, it violates time boundaries.

People who can't sleep,as one example, may send the minister emails at midnight. A minister who checks email regularly during the day and the evening may feel compelled to respond at some inappropriate hour.  Needy congregation members will expect and even demand fast responses to their emails.

Second, email confidentiality is non-existent unless it is encrypted.

  • Email can be intercepted and read anywhere along its transmission route. 
  • Emails can be rewritten by other parties enroute to their destinations. 
  • And email addresses can be hi-jacked so that it looks like you're sending emails to people you don't even know, and may not want to know.

So, essentially there is no email privacy.

This is not good for maintaining professional boundaries.

[As an aside, the Framers of the American Constitution believed that privacy of one's papers was so essential to liberty (i.e. freedom from government intrusion) that they said so in the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution.]

Third, the meaning of what is said in an email may become distorted and misunderstood and there is no chance to explain what was meant or to check out what the other person understood by what you wrote.

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How Father Ron created a serious problem with email

Father Ron was counseling a married woman in spiritual direction.  

Unfortunately for him, the woman, and her husband, there were no professional boundaries in this email distinction in the counseling between spiritual direction (which would be about the woman's marriage covenant) and marrige counseling (which involves strategies for communication and problem-solving between the couple).

Father Ron encouraged the woman to contact him by email as needed. And he gave her his private email address.

She did as suggested and she did it often.  She wrote emails to Father Ron impulsively...and her feelings dictated.

Father Ron tried to be comforting and pastoral as she emailed her marrige frustrations to him.  At one point he wrote back "I love you and am here for you."  

Huge mistake!

Father Ron meant it pastorally...but the woman took it romantically...and the husband took it badly.

The gospel warns us about using words carelessly (Mt 12:36).  In this case the priest was 'condemned' by his careless use of the word "love".

So, even a word taken out of context by emailing it can make it seem as if there are boundary violations.

The husband was able to create the impression in the bishop's mind that all of his marital difficulties were the direct result of the priest's "love" for his wife.

The priest was removed from ministry.

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