How to Handle Mean-Spirited Email

We’ve all received hurtful emails.

We’ve all received email that makes our mouth drop open and say “What?!” Here’s a real email I received a few years ago.

Thanks so much for canceling church services on Sunday 12/25. You’re helping me win the war to make Christmas just another day. Why let that Jesus guy get in the way of presents and Santa? Great decision. Now if I can get the Baptists and Catholics on board!

In your debt,


Yes, this is a wildly “out there” example, but it’s a real email. And it’s my only one from Satan!

If you had been sitting beside me at that moment, you might have said: “Dan, this is an easy one, it’s a ridiculous email. Just press delete. It wasn’t even addressed personally to you. It came to 12Stone, and you were asked to respond.” That would have been wise counsel.

This email didn’t cause me to lose any sleep, but I was part of the team that made that decision about services on Christmas, (and having a gazillion Christmas Eve services instead). So oddly perhaps, it felt just a little personal.

But what about the email that really gets to you? When the hurtful email is serious, real, and from someone you know, it requires a response.

We are tempted to fire off a retaliatory shot. Or end up hurt and shrink back in our leadership, especially if the email is from someone with authority. The email that really hurts are the ones that come from someone you know, even a colleague or friend.

What do you do?

5 Action-Steps to handle a mean-spirited email:

1) Wait for 24 hours

When you get an overtly critical or hurtful email, don’t do anything for 24 hours except pray. It may be difficult, but at all costs resist acting on your emotion. Resist responding defensively. And above all, do not be the one who escalates the situation.

2) Take a moment of self-examination.

I received a few attacking or hurtful emails over the course of 2017. It’s interesting how we remember three or four ugly emails out of many thousands of good ones, but we do. And we often keep them. Why is that? Because like a deeply meaningful email of gratitude or encouragement, it marks us.

Some “rough” emails we receive are well written, and the sender owns it. Though unnecessarily harsh, and with a few intended zingers, there may be something for you or me to hear. There may be something we need to learn. Take a moment in those first 24 hours to reflect.

3) If it’s anonymous, ignore it.

If an email message is anonymous, don’t respond. Ignore it. John Maxwell coached me on this subject nearly 30 years ago. Of course, back then, we received physical mail, actual typed letters. There was often no return address, and that made it easier. But today, nearly all emails can be responded to, however, if it’s set up as anonymous, let it go.

If the person doesn’t dare to take ownership, it’s not worth your time.

4) If it’s someone you know, give the benefit of the doubt.

You have probably been in a hurry and fired off a quick email that wasn’t exactly warm and fuzzy, I have. We assume the person will understand. But when we are the recipient of that email, it’s different, right?

Always give the benefit of the doubt. Assume the best. If the person is clearly upset and possibly even attacking, please, do not respond by email.

It may be a vendor, a volunteer, a fellow staff member, or even a family member.

Do anything you can to talk with them in person.

5) Respond by email only as a last resort.

This is similar to the last point, but referring here to someone you don’t know, and perhaps it would be highly inconvenient to talk to them in person.

You can always call them, and the majority of the time the person softens when they see you have the courage to talk, and that you are not responding in retaliation mode.

If you must write back, respond with the kindness and consideration you would want to receive if the roles were reversed.

11 thoughts on “How to Handle Mean-Spirited Email”

  1. I’ve fired off many an email taken the wrong way since they were written in a hurry, not re-read, not asking another “hey, how’s this sound?”.

  2. Woo! Great topic! I’m sure I’ve delivered a few harsh emails — haven’t we all? Thanks for the helpful tips, Dan.

  3. It could be interesting to initiate a “metoo” kind of hashtag for pastors to post the mean-spirited emails they have received. How about #pokes@pastors or #emailsfromhell or #justtryingtohelp? ;>)

      1. Ha! The comment was actually a little “tongue-in-cheek” to give you a little chuckle. I’m sure it would be disappointingly funny to read the responses so we’ll just leave well-enough alone.

  4. All great thoughts, but one thing I would add to the list, it is to consider if your response makes you feel better. If it does, don’t click “send”. I’ve saved myself and ministry a lot of grief by following this suggestion from a friend of mine.

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