“User Unknown” -the problem of keeping church email lists up-to-date

Over the past few years churches has been moving towards EMAIL as the first communication of choice, rather than postal mail.  This is a good thing, unless that email address goes dead, …and they often do.  Postal addresses rarely had this problem!  Thus, churches are now in a period not only of of learning how to collect emails, but how keep them up-to-date as well.

Problem is….  Our church members and staff are changing their email addresses more often than they change their phone numbers, postal addresses, and oil in their car. This is a real problem for those who’s job it is to communicate and try to maintain current church member information.  The validity of your collected member emails can depreciate as much as 10% to 20% a year, and be completely hosed in a few years if you don’t have an active mechanism to update email addresses. 

If you are the pastor or program staff reading this, then you need to talk to your church techies about this, because they aren’t the one’s who’s important emails are BOUNCING!

If you’re the church techie reading this, then you need to ask the staff about the process for updating email addresses so they are not WASTING YOUR TIME.

I have church pastors/teachers/volunteers opting-in to my Sunday Software email newsletter, and within a year about 1 in 6 of those email addresses are bouncing back to me as “undeliverable”.  If you have a church member email address contact list, this is a management and communication problem.  And if you have a GROWING DEPENDENCE ON EMAIL to communicate with your members, it needs to be addressed.  See my tips below!

Two Reasons Why People Change Their Email Addresses Often

1. Changing Service Providers
Many of our members use the ‘free’ email address provided to them by their internet service provider, such as, Comcast, Verizon, or AOL. Others give us their work address.  And then it happens:  people change jobs or switch cable providers, …and away goes their email address. This has given rise to the second reason why keeping email lists up-to-date isn’t easy.

2. The Rise of Gmail
With the rise and improvement of online email services like GMAIL and Yahoo! Mail, people have been creating MULTIPLE email addresses for work, home, online shopping, Facebook (oy), and/or switching from their internet/cable/paid email service.   What fun!   In my experience, many people don’t check all their accounts (or have them all linked like I do). So which email address did they give the church?  And how often do they check it?



1. Always ask your members for their “real” Email Address, –the one they’re likely not to be changing anytime soon.  Many members maintain several email accounts for various purposes.

2. Avoid using their work email address for your contact list.  Not only do people change job, but company’s change email policies.

3. Put the ability to EDIT the church’s master contact list in the hands of the people who are SENDING the email addresses, and receiving the “bounces” from undeliverable emails.     Too often the church secretary or a techie is in charge of the list, but not the person receiving the bounce back notices.

4. FORWARD undeliverable email addresses to the person in charge of maintaining the list, or SAVE undeliverable email notices into a folder for later updating.  This is great advice.

5. Provide for a way for members to update their OWN contact data with the church. Cell phone numbers and addresses change too!   My church uses Church

Community Builder dot com —which allows members to access their contact info online.  They can even add their own profile pic. There are many such ‘cloud’ or online church administration tools out there and they make a lot of sense.

6. About three times a year invite members in worship to tell you if their email address has changed in the last few months. Have them write their name and new email address on a slip of paper and put it in the offering plate.  Include this announcement in printed communications. While you’re at it, ask them for PHONE NUMBER UPDATES as well, …as more and more people are dropping their landlines in favor of their cellphones.


Many churches have staff email addresses, such as, “pastorBob@2ndPres .org” and the email address is CONTROLLED by the church techie.  However, I recommend staff members have the church’s email address FORWARDED to the staff member’s ‘real’ address (pastorBob@gmail. com for example) at their own email server, rather than being stored/controlled at the church’s web/email service provider.

And I also recommend that church staff email addresses be PERSONALIZED rather than generic. Thus: “pastorBob@1stchurch .org” AND NOT SIMPLY: “pastor@1stchur

Why? Because inevitably the staff member will leave, and email sent to their church address will bounce, –or email sent to Pastor@1stchurch will be received by their successor, and that could be embarrassing.

Create personal staff member email addresses, and then have it FORWARDED to the staff member’s personal email provider account (such as Gmail) so that emails sent to you are sitting on your personal email server RATHER THAN the church’s email server –which one day you no longer have access to because one day you no longer work there. The church techie can always CHANGE the forwarding address or delete pastorBob@ ‘s email address if needed.

The idea here is to make sure the staff member has control over what was sent to them while they were on staff.  (These operations are all really easy to do for a web techie too, so no big deal. And one big benefit is that the church’s web service provider probably has file size and storage limits on their email service, but Gmail and Yahoo give you all you need. This is handy when someone is sending you a mass of youth group photos.)

[If you don’t think this is important, then you haven’t yet been downsized or let go

 from a church like some have, and haven’t had been denied access to your old emails because you are no longer on staff.  It happens! Protect yourself by insisting that all email sent to your pastorBob@yourchurch .org account be forwarded to an email address YOU control.]

See my next post in this topic for an important note about the LACK OF PRIVACY regarding the pastor’s email account.  (Yes, it’s possible for a web administrator to read your emails, pastor. My post shows how they could do it and gives you tips on making sure they don’t.)

Have a suggestion?  Add it below via the ‘comment’ feature.

A Sorry Side Note:
Over the past three years I’ve noticed a large number of email addresses from my Christian Educator database going dead because the staff person has left, or been downsized.  What church techies SHOULD BE DOING is putting an “auto-responder” on that defunct address which replies with the person’s new address. It’s polite.

A Second Side Note:Church staff should not use “auto responders” to let people know they are “out of town for two weeks on a mission trip”.  This is unsafe.

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