A church secretary can be like the hub of a wheel. All good things revolve around her well-organized, dependable, and caring center.

“A good secretary is important in a church setting because she is on the frontlines is the first person the public sees or talks to,” says Bobbi Linkemer, an author and expert in business communications. In that sense, the secretary becomes pastor, church, and denomination to visitors or callers.

It’s important, then, that a church secretary does everything possible to represent who she works for in the best way possible. Four traits no church secretary should be without include:

1. Discretion. The wisdom to refrain from indiscriminately sharing information IS critical in a secretary. For example, when the pastor is out, a wise secretary will say to a caller, “I’m sorry, he’s not available” or “He’s not in at the moment; may I take a message?” That’s greatly preferred to “He went to pick up his daughter from aerobics class” or “He’s not back from lunch yet.” Even if the latter is true, that’s really no one else’s business.

Even more important is the ability to handle confidential information. A secretary who talks openly about giving records or the personal problems of church members can cause serious problems in a congregation.

David Borst, director of the master’s-level church administration program at Concordia University in Mequon, Wisconsin, says confidentiality is the number-one concern he has with clerical staff. “As a test, I will let a secretary in on something, ask for privacy, and see how long it takes for me to hear about it via a third party,” Borst says. Typically, he hears the information from someone else within an hour.

Lack of discretion can cause disruption, embarrassment, or something worse. So a secretary’s ability to refrain from sharing private information is a major plus in a church office.

2. Willingness to Learn. If a secretary’s primary tools are a typewriter and correction fluid, your church office may be in trouble. Today’s church secretary must be proficient in word processing and familiar with using modern office equipment.

At the same time, exceptional technical skills aren’t necessarily a prerequisite to the job. More important is the flexibility and willingness to acquire new skills as needed.

For example, Ruth Chuvala, administrator of First Baptist Church in Brewster, New York, says that traditional typing skills are way down the line in qualifications for a church secretary today. More important is that a church secretary is “articulate, verbally economical, and able to work effectively with desktop publishing and multi-media communication,” she says.

At First Baptist, secretaries (who are called staff assistants) spend more time creating flyers, posters, brochures, and slide presentations than in straight typing of correspondence or other documents.

“They honestly don’t need to type very well at all,” Chuvala says. “They do have to know how to spell, proofread, and use correct grammar, though.”

According to Gayle Hilligoss, president of Success Systems in Lee’s Summit, Missouri, and editor of PROfile, a newsletter for church office professionals, the willingness to keep learning new skills is key. “The work of the church secretary grows more challenging each year as technology advances and expectations increase,” Hilligoss says. “Continuing education should be a constant in the life of the office professional. Seminars, magazines, and newsletters all play an important part in keeping the secretary updated and motivated.”

3. A Caring Attitude. While secretaries in any field need basic technical skills, those in the church have an additional responsibility. They need the kind of caring attitude that will help a pastor and other church leaders fulfill the church’s mission.

Linkemer says church secretaries should have two qualities, which on the surface may seem mutually exclusive but can actually co-exist: empathy and detachment. “A person in this job must be able to truly understand what parishioners or congregants are feeling, while at the same time remaining separate from the problem,” Linkemer says.

The ability to empathize, yet keep emotional distance is not as difficult at it seems. “Empathy can be cultivated by simply remembering some problem you have had in your life that is even remotely similar to the one someone else is having,” Linkemer explains. “If you can remember how you felt, you can empathize.

Detachment, on the other hand, is not cold or heartless, she says. It only requires that you tell yourself, “This isn’t about me. It isn’t my problem. I can’t be of any help if I dive into the middle of it and make it mine.”

Chuvala says a positive attitude is also vital in a church secretary. “One might think that a secretary’s primary qualification would be paper skills, but those can be fairly basic and improved on the job if need be,” she says. “A genuine and biblical servant attitude is more important.” She says that a servant attitude should include the ability to graciously handle unexpected or difficult situations, cranky or demanding parishioners, and pressured pastors.

4. Dependability. Finally, a good secretary is reliable. That means she (or he) meets deadlines, remembers important details, and routinely completes assigned tasks. Effective secretaries get to work on time and are at their desks when expected. They are also diligent about following up on various tasks of office management.

That doesn’t mean that secretaries can’t be sick or take vacation days or that they must perform flawlessly. It simply means that they should do their jobs consistently and reliably. From simple tasks, such as remembering t pass on phone messages, to more involved projects, such as assembling documents in time for an important meeting, reliability is a must.

Integrity is an important element of reliability. “The most important attribute a church secretary can bring to the job is not technical skill but a Christ-centered life,” says Hilligoss. “Lack of know-how seldom causes serious problems in the church office; of integrity often does.”

The Hub of the Congregation

A secretary who is discreet, willing to learn, caring, and reliable can be a real asset to a church. As Chuvala says, “There’s no wheel without a hub.”

Some churches fail to hire adequate support staff, such as church secretaries, because they don’t recognize what it takes to run a church smoothly and effectively. They may think that working in the church office means answering the phone a couple of times a day and running off the Sunday bulletins.

Others know better. “If a church is doing any real ministry at all in any area, adequate office support for all that ministry is indispensable,” Chuvala says.

Mark Rowh is a freelance writer based in Dublin, Virginia.