I remember when email first came onto the scene.  Wait, I can send this message and my friend will get it right away?  It’s like writing letters, but without the lag-time!  

Fast forward to now, and there are few pastors, including me, who don’t wrestle with how to manage email in a way that prevents it from controlling our lives.

Think about it, we can get in the rut of doing nothing but responding to hours of emails every day. It can rob us of our sermon prep time, our staff nurture time, and all around productivity.  As fast as I return one email, two to three (literally) come in to replace it before I push “send” – often requiring some action on my part.  Or, if they don’t “require” it, it is frequently “expected” due to the nature of being a pastor.

A few years ago I came across a website calling for a disciplined way of dealing with email. I took the challenge. The idea was simple: keep email replies to five sentences or less. Short replies are the way to keep up with the onslaught of emails we receive in a day. While some emails require many more than five sentences, the majority can be kept short-and-sweet to save time for both the sender and the receiver.  I implemented this system for a while, but have since gotten away from it, only to find my previous email overwhelm quickly return, so I’m reimplementing this system into my life and encourage you to give it a try too!

I realize that sometimes short can seem impersonal and not pastoral. I try to be sensitive if the reply calls for a more personal (and longer) dialog. However, I know that if I stay in my email all day I will neglect my primary calling to be with people and to study my Bible well.

Here are some reasons I recommend short replies for most pastor emails:

1. Short emails allow you to give people the “bottom line” quickly. Most of the time people just need a quick piece of advice or an approval of some kind. To keep the momentum moving, get to the bottom line and allow you and the recipients to keep moving forward.

2. Short emails don’t feel overwhelming to read or write. When you see over 200 actionable emails in the inbox (which often happens in a week), you’ll be more able to sit and knock them out in an hour or so.

3. Short emails can help you get to “Inbox Zero” quickly. Personally, it is my goal to get a cleaned out inbox every day. That doesn’t mean that every email is replied to, but it is filed correctly (I have a “24 Hour Response” and a “25-72 Hour Response” folder that I use primarily). I strive to reply to emails I can handle in 2 minutes with five sentences or less, never filing them for a later reply.

4. Short emails will keep you out of your inbox. You need to be out working on things proactively, not just responding to things reactively. If you keep the emails short, you will spend less time in your inbox and more time leading, shepherding and preparing to preach.

To uphold these ideas, you may have to free yourself from a few mental roadblocks, as I have had to do. Here are a couple of the mental roadblocks I faced when I finally accepted that “Five or Less” would be my new norm:

  • Your reply doesn’t have to match the length of the original email received. Sometimes I receive very long emails. I used to feel like my reply had to match the length of their original email. I don’t feel that way anymore. That was probably a people-pleasing expectation I put on myself. I’ve never had someone say, “Your reply was way shorter than my original email.” As long as they get what they were looking for, they are happy.
  • You can’t feel that “short” is harsh or mean. I make sure to say, “I am not trying to be terse, but efficient..” in my auto signature for “Five or Less” replies. I had to release the personal pressure to be fluffy and long for the sake of avoiding being sharp. I can be kind and quick at the same time (it is a good discipline and challenge). I was typing thousands of words of fluff just to say something I needed to say in a few sentences; this needed to stop.
    So here is what my email signature looks like for “Five or Less”:

Simple and to the point.  Strive to keep moving and not let the urgent replace the important things in your daily life.

If you want to create a signature like this, you are welcome to link to this post or use http://five.sentenc.es

So here’s to getting out of our inboxes and using our time to lead, counsel, shepherd, sermon prep, and pray for the people in our sphere of care.


Still feeling overwhelmed?  Consider hiring a professional, confidential virtual assistant.  This assistant can filter through your emails ensuring that you are only seeing the ones that only you can respond to.  I use and trust the placement services and VA’s contracted through BELAY Solutions*. Connect with BELAY and see how they might be able to match you with the perfect virtual assistant to lessen your overwhelm.

*read my disclosure here



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