by Ed Scheuerman
Email is a tool that can, when combined with other relationship-enhancing activities, augment what the leader does to demonstrate true care to others.
Member care is the responsibility of everyone, beginning with the missionary him or herself. However, the field leader is entrusted with the responsibility of ensuring that each missionary under his or her care is well looked after. It is a challenge for even the most caring of field leaders. As a former area leader over Mainland Southeast Asia for PIONEERS, one of my responsibilities was the care of the agency’s missionaries in that part of the world.
Member care takes many forms and is done in multiple ways. One of the tools available to the field leader is email. Email in and of itself is an insufficient tool for caring for missionaries on the field; however, in combination with personal visits, phone calls, and other relationship-enhancing tools and activities, email can play an integral role in caring for missionaries. Unfortunately, many field leaders are inadequately prepared to make maximum use of email as a tool for member care.
The Internet has drawn the missionary community together in many ways. Email forums exist to assist those serving from all parts of the world to all parts of the world. Websites that provide valuable resources to the missionary community abound. As countries develop their infrastructures, missionaries are better equipped to keep in touch via email, Skype, Facebook, Twitter, etc. Social media is a great touch point and resource, but is insufficient for more substantive communication.
Mission agencies need to develop protocols to help field leaders and missionaries to determine which media to use. For example, when is social media appropriate, but when would email be a better vehicle? And when does the situation warrant a personal visit?
Email provides three strong benefits over social media: (1) it is asynchronous—that is, a person can reply at his or her own discretion; (2) it is secure (when using a secure server); and (3) it creates a permanent record of the communication.
Additionally, each mission agency that values member care should develop an email protocol so that those leaving for the field would have a basic understanding as to how email can be used positively. Some of these basic understandings would include:
• Care about using informal communication tools (e.g., emoticons)
• Awareness of how miscommunication takes place (e.g., flaming—using all caps)
• Basic writing skills, including (a) proper grammar, (b) sensitivity to the level of formality needed for each particular situation, and (c) proper spelling
Taking Responsibility for Communication
Relevance theory emphasizes the fact that senders make decisions that affect the receptor’s ability to receive the intended message. The goal is to have the missionary feel as though he or she has been cared for by his or her field leader. When using email, the field leader should make decisions that increase the likelihood of this goal being achieved.
What can be done to better ensure that the message sent is not only the right message for this receptor, but also that it is being delivered in a way that reflects an understanding of how that person will best receive the message? If the team leader recognizes that one of his or her goals is to help each team members feel a greater measure of care, he or she will strategically consider team members individually when it comes time to writing emails.
While Charles Kraft (1991) asserts that the receptor is the one who determines whether or not communication takes place, Daniel Shaw and Charles van Engen (2002) argue that it is the sender who must bear responsibility. The team leader attempts to make accurate assumptions about the field member. These assumptions, along with the use of feedback, then impact the likelihood that appropriate communication happens.
One makes decisions about what level of formality to use with somebody based both on the relationship and the situation. The team leader needs to assess the current level of relationship he or she has with the team member he or she is about to email, as well as the situation about which he or she is writing.
The team leader seeks to establish a trust relationship, a safe haven, credibility, and relevance. To the extent that these are felt to exist, the team leader will enjoy greater opportunities to enhance the perceived level of care each team member feels. With cross-cultural teams, the field leader has an additional factor to consider.
The Field Leader as Learner
For part of my doctoral dissertation, I sent an online survey to five mission agencies. Each agency sent the survey to a minimum of one hundred members. We processed 286 responses. Factors examined were both objective (e.g., age, gender, nationality) and subjective (e.g., Myers-Briggs type). The primary goal of the study was to identify specific email communication techniques that could be employed to enhance the level of care provided to missionaries by their field workers.
Perhaps the best piece of advice that a field leader can receive as related to this study is that he or she needs to be a learner. Missionaries have long been told that they need to be learners of the host language and culture. Field supervisors need to recognize that they should also constantly humble themselves and to be learners.
They need to be learners of those whom God has called them to serve as a team leader, area leader, etc. Most field leaders receive some measure of paperwork from the sending agency as part of the screening and appointment processes. But so much more is needed if the missionary, his or her teammates, and the field supervisor are to enjoy good working relationships.
If the field supervisor takes time to get to know the new missionary early on, it will pay dividends for a long time to come. Part of that introductory time should include getting to know how best to communicate with the field worker and letting him or her know how best to communicate with the field leader. A simple, short questionnaire with the following questions would go a long way toward helping the missionary feel that he or she is more than adequately cared for by the field supervisor:
• How do you use email?
• How often do you check email?
• Do you use secure email?
• How reliable is your phone line?
• Are you able to receive large files as attachments?
• How would you rate your level of knowledge with the computer: minimal, moderate, expert?
• What do you see as being some of the advantages of using email?
• What do you see as being some of the disadvantages of using email?
• Whom do you foresee as your primary source of member care while you’re on the field?
Please rank, from first (most important) to fifth (least important) the following in terms of what you value: frequent emails from me, lengthy emails from me, a short response time to your emails from me, emails initiated by me, the tone of my emails.
• How frequently would you expect an email from me?
• How quickly would you expect an email response from me?
If the field leader has each team member fill out this simple questionnaire, he or she will be in a better place to make accurate assumptions and to help team members feel a higher level of care. To be clear, the field leader cannot meet every need of every team member; however, it does not take much to raise the level of felt care. Below are five examples of what the field leader can do.
Consider the response time. Responding within three days will be sufficient for most people. If there is some reason why this cannot be done, the field leader could send a quick email saying that he or she received the email and hopes to respond soon.
Increase the frequency of emails. Sending an email to each of his or her team members as often as once every two or three weeks would let the team members know that they are valued.
Initiate emails (not just responding to those that are received). Being the first to send an email speaks much to team members.
Assess the tone of emails. Even emails that send information carry a tone. Just as the field leader might do a spell check or a grammar check, it would be wise if he or she also does a tone check to see how it will come across to the team member. This can be done by doing a periodic assessment with the team members to ask how his or her emails are coming across.
Consider the length of emails. Writing long emails is not necessarily seen as a measure of the field leader’s care for the team member, although some team members will be disappointed with an email that is shorter in length than the one sent to the field leader.
Of course, the field leader needs to know him or herself well enough to know how much he or she can reasonably handle, both in quantity and in quality. Not all field leaders will be able to process emails as quickly or as well as others. It is up to the team leader to communicate his or her limitations to the team members so that they are able to have accurate expectations and can better extend grace as needed.
Findings from the Research
My research of how team members feel cared for by their field leaders has yielded much information. The data from the research makes it possible to draw some conclusions. However, people are individuals and need to be treated as such, and thus, the applications and conclusions drawn from this study are no substitute for taking the time and effort to develop relationships by means beyond simply using email.
Among the results related to age, younger missionaries in their 20s spend more time online and expect more online interaction from their field supervisors. When it comes to member care issues, older people (those 50 and older) indicated that they see their primary source of member care being either themselves or one of their family members. However, the field leader should not neglect the older people under his or her care.
Gender plays a much larger role in how one uses and views email than age does. For example, female field workers tend to expect more communication from their supervisors by means of email than do their male counterparts. Therefore, field supervisors might need to be more proactive in initiating email contact with the females under their care.
In response to the question related to uses of email, 53.7% of females saw the social aspect of email (“for keeping in touch with family and friends”) as the most important use. But only 21.1% of male field leaders agreed with this choice. For 56.3% of them, sending information was most important. The contrast is less dramatic when comparing female field leaders’ choices with those of the total male respondents’ choices. Clearly, male field leaders need to be aware of this information, as it will help them to recognize that the amount of time spent on email means different things to different people. In this case, it might mean that using social media over email is a better choice.
In examining how the male respondents and the female field leader respondents differed in response to the question about the biggest disadvantage to using email, a very important contrast arose. While 44.6% of male respondents recognize that “it is easy to misunderstand intended meanings,” that number was much higher (71.4%) for female field leaders. When one sees this as the number one disadvantage to email, it is more likely that two things could happen: (1) the sender may become more (overly?) cautious in what he or she writes, and/or (2) the receiver may read emails through a filter (either positively or negatively) that shades the intended meaning.
Certainly, the level of trust is a relevant factor. Therefore, the field leader may need to practice active listening techniques (repeating back to the writer what the reader understands the other has just said/written). For some member care issues, email might be used for information gathering. But the field leader may need to quickly move to phone calls or a visit, depending on the urgency and depth of the issue.
When it comes to response time, the percentage of female field leaders who desire to hear from their supervisors within two or three days is far higher (60%) than the average for men, whether male field leaders (51.5%) or the total male respondent population (45.2%). For area leaders with female team leaders (and similar situations), this is helpful information.
As with any other aspect of an individual’s make-up, psychological type (here, the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator) is not to be taken on its own. Each individual is unique, owing to a large variety of factors. Each of these factors (age, gender, psychological type, family, culture, etc.) impacts the person’s worldview, behavior, etc. Having a good understanding of how psychological preferences impact an individual (e.g., as it relates to decision-making), will assist the field leader in being more effective in his or her care of others.
One of the keys to utilizing psychological type is to look for the imbalances between sub-groups. The field leader needs to do two things: (1) see what is true about him or herself and (2) learn what is true about those under his or her care. When this is done, considerations and adjustments can be made.
This is seen most clearly in the judging-perceiving dichotomy. With the knowledge that three-fourths of the missionaries surveyed have a preference to judging, the wise team leader will actively seek to balance his or her team with those who have a preference to perceiving. However, those who prefer perceiving are more likely to not be good email communicators for two reasons: (1) their spontaneity might make it difficult to feel pinned down to something put in writing, and (2) their wanting to be flexible may make it difficult for them to be forward thinking, preferring to respond rather than to plan.
Likewise, the field leader will benefit by knowing the make-up of his or her team when it comes to the combination of the introvert-extrovert dichotomy and the sensing-intuiting dichotomy, which results in the ability to compare how individuals use information. The field leader will need to seek out those who will balance each other. Innovators will need to be encouraged to express their creativity, and email can be a great way to do this, especially for those who are introverts.
However, realists sometimes tend to be seen as putting a damper on creativity and new ideas and can be encouraged to do so through email. By using email to share these feelings, leaders can increase the possibility of shielding team members from developing feelings of resentment toward each other. The field leader can become a type of incubator or filter for both the innovators and the realists. As this preliminary discussion takes place with the field leader, the realists have an opportunity to process thoughts and to feel valued.
The combination of the judgment and external orientation presents a barometer for leading/following styles. As this includes the judging preference, there was a high percentage of decision makers, whether based on logic (TJs) or values (FJs). That there was such a small percentage (5.1%) of supportive coaches (FPs) indicates the need for field leaders to be more encouraging in their support of team members. It also shows the need to monitor how decisions are made and implemented.
This is where email can be a valuable tool. The field leader can initiate emails to the team members to inquire as to how they are feeling about a particular decision or plan and how it will be implemented. The field leader should also take care to ensure that the problem solvers (TPs) are given the freedom to express their thoughts. Writing emails that emphasize why they should be interested in a particular issue will encourage them to be involved.
The above applications are potentially helpful, but the extent of their help rests upon the shoulders of the field leader. He or she needs to constantly be aware of how each team member responds to emails and how each best communicates, whether through email or other means.
Indeed this is a challenge, for field leaders typically have many demands, not the least of which is his or her email load. And even the most capable of email communicators has other duties and commitments to which he or she must attend. Understanding needs to not only be given by the field leader, but also received from team members.
The information presented is not designed to simply provide short-cuts that allow for the field leader to neglect putting in the time and energy of developing relationships with those on the team. Email is not sufficient to initiate and/or develop relationships. It is a tool that can, when combined with other relationship-enhancing activities, augment what the leader does to demonstrate true care to others.
The wise field leader will also encourage those on his or her team to do the same with regard to their teammates and, yes, their field leader. If a field leader, educated in how to better utilize email as a tool to enhance the giving of care, in turn educates those under his or her care to do the same, the effort will have been well spent and will pay rich dividends.
The goal of providing the best care for missionaries is to help them to be what God wants them to be so that they can, in turn, do what God has called them to do. May God be glorified through the efforts of field leaders seeking to serve him in the Great Commission.
Kraft, Charles. 1991. Communication Theory for Christian Witness. Rev. ed. Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books.
Scheuerman, Edward. “E-care: Using E-mail as a Tool for Effective Member Care.” DMiss dissertation. Biola University. Ann Arbor: ProQuest/UMI, 2007. (Publication No.164908)
Shaw, R. Daniel and Charles E. van Engen. 2003. Communicating God’s Word in a ComplexWorld: God’s Truth or Hocus Pocus? New York: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.
Ed Scheuerman and his wife, Carol, served with PIONEERS in Southeast Asia for twenty-three years. They returned to the USA in 2010 for Ed to take up the role of coordinator of the Intercultural Studies major at Lancaster Bible College.
EMQ, Vol. 50, No. 4, pp. 276-283. Copyright © 2014 Billy Graham Center. All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMQ editors.