What Every Church Secretary Needs

By Kenneth Quick

My secretary keeps a small sign on her desk, SECRETARIES RULE THE WORLD.

She definitely rules our congregation’s world, not as the autocrat but as the crucial, hidden link in the chain of most church projects. Unfortunately, her value is often taken for granted – until the chain breaks or she goes on vacation!

Since our secretaries are such a vital part of the church’s ministry, we pastors are wise to use them well. However, I didn’t know how to do that. Nothing in seminary prepared me to work with a secretary. Nor had church management seminars addressed the subject.

Consequently, I’ve spent many hours talking with my present secretary, Janet Grishaber, trying to discover the pressure points and possibilities of secretarial life. Together we’ve come up with ten things I can do that not only keep her motivated but also help her do her work better.

1. Prepare her for reality. People regularly tell our secretary how blessed she is to work in a church office. She stifles her guffaws. She was fairly “worldly wise” when we hired her, but I think the incredible level of nit-picking, cattiness, and hypocrisy by churchgoers (not to mention the occasional scraps of the staff) shocked even her.
Too great a shock can shipwreck a secretary’s faith, so better to let her know that the church, in spite of some pious stereotypes, is full of very human people (and some inhumane). This is something I would have been wise to do as she began working in the church.

2. Highlight her work as a ministry. More than a secretary in a business firm, a church secretary performs a vital church ministry. She is the servant’s servant, ministering to the ministers and to the church in quiet ways. Few other individuals contribute to the success of the church’s programs as does the secretary.

Therefore, we try not to make distinctions between “ministry staff” and “clerical staff.” We let our secretary know we value her as ministry staff.

In addition, we invite her to our staff meetings. We don’t just bring her in as the note taker; she shares her views on a number of things we discuss. We consider her an essential part of our team.

3. Keep her informed. I begin each week by looking ahead to the week’s appointments and making sure my secretary’s calendar and mine agree.
Moreover, when I leave the office, I tell her when I plan to return. It makes her look foolish if she has to tell person after person she doesn’t know when I’ll be back.

Equally troubling to her is my underestimating when I’ll return. Again, if she tells five people to call back at 1:30 (as I told her), and I do not return until 3:00, it makes her look bad. When I can’t help being late, I try to phone her.

I also let my secretary know when I like to counsel, study, visit, and the like, so she can schedule people accordingly. I am a morning person, so she guards my mornings for study. She schedules my appointments in the afternoon.

When it comes to a new project, I don’t assume my secretary knows what I want or how I want it. I am continually learning to communicate my expectations more precisely. And if the project is touchy or important, I have her do it in stages, so we’re both aware of what is needed at each step. I don’t want to add “mind reader” to her job description.
4. Watch for internal injuries. On one Sunday my secretary was hassled by three different people: one griped that the sanctuary temperature was too high, one complained about not having holes punched in a handout, and one bristled at the special music in the morning service.
Unfortunately, she hears from such people with regularity. A good secretary shields the pastor from much of this-but at an emotional cost. She may not want to add to my burdens by dumping her load on me, but I want to be sensitive to what she bears and give her opportunity to ventilate.

5. Affirm her regularly. Church secretaries are often forced to live by the adage, “When I did ill, I heard it ever; when I did well, I heard it never.” Affirmation and encouragement create the proper kind of atmosphere for a church office. So I try to offer gratitude and praise for any job she does well.

In addition, I’ve found one simple suggestion helpful: remember her birthday and Secretaries Day. My secretary became unsubtle about this at one point.

One morning, I noticed a day circled in my personal calendar, with the words, “This is a special day.” I didn’t think I had written it, but I couldn’t remember. I asked my wife, and she did not know. I wandered around my office, scratching my head. Panic set in as the day drew closer. I had a responsibility to someone I did not know how to fulfill.

My secretary finally had pity on me and told me she had marked that day it was her birthday. Like an idiot, I wondered at first why she would do that. Only later did I realize that she (rightly) felt her birthday was a time for affirmation.

(By the way, Secretaries Day is the fourth Wednesday in April. Mark it!)

6. Trust her. The church secretary during the interim preceding my arrival at this church was not trusted by the board. They sharply questioned what she did with her time, suspecting, I suppose, she sat sipping tea and reading Harlequin novels! They actually sent men in to monitor her work.

While candidating, I wrote to this secretary to get her feelings about the church and staff relations. Though a discreet woman, she freely expressed her deep hurt at the way she had been treated. She never got over the board’s lack of confidence and left soon after I came.

7. Be aware of ALL her responsibilities. In order to understand all our secretary was doing, we asked her to list all her duties and do a time study of them. We were amazed to discover the number of things she did in addition to the items on her job description. Even though I work closely with her, I had failed to notice everything she accomplished weekly.

In larger churches, a secretary does many tasks that do not directly affect the pastoral staff, tasks such as bookkeeping, reporting to local authorities, financial accounting, banking, and the like. That realization has helped me know better how much work to give her, and when.

8. Support her publicly. At a minimum, this means I don’t announce her mistakes in public: “The secretary made a mistake in the bulletin this week,” or “My secretary failed to tell me about this appointment.” If she has made a mistake, then I tell her in private.

I’m also prepared to stand by her when she is wrongly accused. One person called the church a number of times during office hours one day only to get the answering machine. He immediately assumed the secretary was goofing off, or at least doing something less important than answering his call.

In fact, she had been at the bank to straighten out a mistake in the deposits, and then she had attended a staff meeting. When he left several sharp messages on the answering machine and then raised the issue at a board meeting, I strongly protested his unfair expectations for her.

9. Don’t put her on the spot. I don’t volunteer my secretary’s services to church committees or other organizations of which I am a part, at least not without asking her first. She may be at the breaking point, and one more thing would do her in. And I never ask her in front of the people who need the help. I don’t want to make her play the heavy, the one who has to say no. As her boss, I take final responsibility for what she does and doesn’t do.

10. Be a pastor to her. My secretary had a rugged last couple of years: she watched her parents’ marriage fall apart and then her father died. As a single woman and a private person, she had few people with whom she could share her struggles. In the office, as a professional secretary, she kept her hurt to herself.

When I discovered some of what was going on with her, I began asking her about her family. Only when I took the initiative, did she talk about her pain. Because I mistook her professionalism as a sign of complete emotional health, I hadn’t realized how much she needed pastoring during that difficult time.

These ten reminders have helped us both minister more effectively.