Your secretary: a partner in ministry

After the pastor, the very next staff person a church should acquire is the secretary, says the author, who has worked with many secretaries. You cant afford one? Start with a volunteer. You re afraid you cant keep a secretary busy? Relax! Your job isn't to make work for her but to let her make you more effective in your work. The author describes what secretaries have done for his ministry and how best to utilize their skills.

Donald L. Bubna is pastor of the Salem Alliance church, Salem, Oregon.

A friend was assuming greater responsibilities in a Christian organization. ''Don,'' he said to me, ' (my superior thinks I need more secretarial help! But some things! just like to do my way, and I've never been able to commit them to a secretary. ! see ! need to shake loose of that attitude in order to grow as a leader. " I suspect that's where many pastors are: deeply committed to ministry, but bound by numerous tasks which they have never learned to delegate. Our . primary work as pastors is studying God's Word and equipping people for ministry. A competent secretary can free you and extend your ministry as nothing else can.

The first staff person a church acquires is generally the pastor. The second should always be the secretary—before the janitor, Christian educator, or youth person!

How do you begin?

At pastors' workshops when I discuss subjects such as time management and secretaries, I often hear, "But we can't afford a secretary!" So begin with a volunteer. Then build a core of volunteers. Our church now has several paid secretaries who serve the staff pastors. But we continue to have volunteers; these remain valuable supplements we could not get along without. They fold and mail bulletins, answer the phone, type letters, assist with big mailings, and perform many other necessary (though often mundane) tasks. From this pool we are sometimes able to draw staff secretarial help.

My first secretary was a volunteer, as were a series thereafter. Some typed; some did not. I asked them to guard the church phone several mornings a week:

"Pacific Beach Alliance church; this is Suzy Joy. May I help you?"

"Is Pastor Bubna in?" was the invariable question.

"He is in his study in prayer this morning and asked that calls, other than emergencies, be held until 11:30. May he return your call, or may I help you?"

Three out of four times the caller asked something like this: "Is there a nursery Friday night?" or, "Is such-and-such on the calendar?" or, "Could this announcement go into the bulletin?" My volunteer could easily resolve many such requests, and my own prayer and study time continued undisturbed.

Sometimes I have spotted talented high school girls in the congregation. "We need to supplement our office help with a volunteer," I might begin. "We can't offer you any pay right now, but we can provide you with valuable experience! With the office skills you gain I believe you can always find a job." A young wife and mother in our church has worked part-time in the office for about thirteen years. She started as a high school volunteer, gained proficiency in secretarial areas, and has long been a highly valued employee.

From volunteer to paid staff

I hold a general philosophy about paying people (not only secretaries): pay those who need financial support to free them for the greater exercise of their gifts in the church body, or those who can offer more consistent service than volunteers. I prefer working with the known rather than the unknown whenever possible. If I have observed an especially dedicated volunteer, I will approach that person about employment. If necessary, however, we do advertise through our church bulletin or work with an outside agency, such as a state employment agency.

Here is what I look for in a prospective church secretary:

Attitudes and commitment: I want my secretary to have a commitment to Christ. I also request a commitment to ministry. The job must not merely be a stepping-stone to another career.

"If you are looking for short-term work," I tell prospective secretaries, "I would appreciate your not pursuing this job. I really believe in what we are doing. I have given my life to it, and I'm trying to fashion a team to work with me. I am not requiring you to sign up for a ten-year sentence, but I do ask for commitment." This is an important approach to working with people, and I find it slows down staff turnover.

Skills: The secretary in the church office must be as highly skilled as any secretary in any office. Outsiders are frequently unaware of the intensity of our workweek, ranging from busy to chaotic! Each secretary must be able to type, operate copiers and other machines, and in more and more churches to work with computers. My secretary needs shorthand knowledge as well. I generally use the dictaphone, but sometimes I may need to dictate some thing quickly when we are passing in the hall!

Home situation: It is important that my secretary have a stable marriage and home situation. This is a protection from  transference of affection between two people who work closely together. In addition, the secretary "carries" the pastor. She is the "right hand" that supports him and frees him to minister. It would be counterproductive to reverse this situation, especially if she needed his constant counsel arid support to keep her going.

Naturally, periods of stress and emergency occur in every life. As part of God's family, we are all called upon to offer loving concern and aid when one member hurts. We pastors, routinely responding to people with needs, also need to be sensitive to those who serve in our own support system.

The secretary's duties

You have acquired a secretary. Now what do you do? A fellow pastor, a good friend of mine, wrote: "A secretary used to make me feel uptight. I lived in constant dread that she would run out of work to do. Soon the concept of my job had degenerated into keeping her busy. I was thinking of letters I ought to write and memos that ought to be gotten out and schedules that ought to be developed. And I thought I was doing the right thing if I kept her busy. Instead of being a pastor, I had become an office manager."

Many of us feel that way. I used to! But it's an unreal problem. A secretary develops and finds things to do. If she is not constantly busy when you start out, relax! It's better for her to have a little time to waste than for you to feel you have to manufacture chores for her.

My secretary has worked with me through the years as our church grew from average size to relatively large. Together we have written down the typical duties of a secretary, first in the smaller setting and then in the larger church.

In the small church, the secretary does everything! She has to because she's the only one in the office. Daily chores will include phone and receptionist duty, opening mail (my secretary has always opened and read all my mail, other than that marked "Personal" or "Confidential"), preparing the bulletin, ordering supplies, duplicating papers for commit tees, taking dictation, and trying to keep the pastor on his schedule. Obviously she must be versatile and able to work with interruptions. Looking back fifteen years in our own situation, we find the secretary also prepared visitation cards, took mail to the post office nightly, kept the bulletin board updated and the literature table stocked, dusted and straightened the office, maintained an orderly file system, and welcomed and dealt with all office callers.

In the larger church a multiple secretarial staff serves together. A receptionist fields incoming calls and visitors. Another person prepares the bulletin. The administrator and his .assistant worry about the supplies and literature table. The janitor cleans the office. The secretary to the senior pastor finds her work changing, until in some ways she has become his assistant.

Representing the pastor

To an increasing degree the secretary's major role is that of freeing the pastor to concentrate on greater matters. She will be constructing part of his calendar, returning some of his calls, and. making his appointments: "I am calling for Pastor Bubna. He has asked to have lunch with you next week. When could you get together?"

Very often she might jot down a few of the pastor's remarks during conference and then write letters for him. She can assist with sermon research and some times write an article for him. She certainly represents him and the church he serves as she responds to the public. Her voice and manner may be the first impression some people will have of the church. While the secretary will not take over the pastor's discipling ministries, she very often will minister to hurting people over the phone or even in her own office—listening, counseling, and praying with them. She can be a strong encouragement to the church's volunteers, perhaps showing appreciation in little ways such as thank-you notes or lunches out together.

The pastor's secretary works primarily for him, not for the entire church, the board, the committees, or the children's departments. Our secretaries are flexible and graciously help church people to a great degree. At the same time we have made available the copiers, the folder, and paper cutter, and encourage people to prepare and reproduce their own materials as much as possible.

Guidelines for a secretary

In the unusual setting of the church office, "people problems" of variable magnitude are everyday business. The pastor is dependent on his coworkers. I have prepared a list of necessary secretarial attitudes and other guidelines which enhance a working relationship:

Loyalty: I need absolute confidence that my secretary is loyal to me, will represent me, will not make me look bad, but will in fact do all she can to help me look better than I am! Carrying loyalty to an extreme, I'd even like her to laugh at my jokes.

Confidentiality: "I trust you," I periodically tell my coworkers. "You must keep what I do and even whom I do it with in absolute confidentiality. If you ever have reason to doubt my ethics or morality, come and tell me. If you think I do not hear you, then go to any elder in the church. You must do that instead of telling even your husband."

One secretary was married to an elder on our board. "You will have to work this out with your husband," I told her. "He needs to understand that there are things he should not know about your work." The pastor may be preparing reports and studies which he does not yet want the governing board to know about. His secretary has to know what he is doing, but she also must have the discipline to keep that knowledge to herself.

Team Concept: The pastor and his secretary serve as a team. They are privy to information that other people do not have. The secretary has to know when a certain home is in crisis or when an elder is frustrated. Her knowledge enables her to know when she must interrupt the pastor with a phone call from a particular person.

In these areas of confidentiality and teamwork the pastor has crossed the difficult hurdle of being open and vulnerable to his secretary. Their effective partnership depends on mutual commitments in trust and integrity.

Memory: Even with the best filing system in the world, the pastor will not remember everything. The secretary who has worked with him over a period of time has developed her own memory bank; she often remembers things for him and rescues him. It is an ideal situation to find a coworker who will think the job along with you, remembering, planning, and keeping you on target. This person is now functioning as an executive secretary!

My secretary is well aware of the "peak" seasons on the church calendar. She knows not to plan her vacation at Easter, in early fall, or other times when she will be most needed. She thinks and plans ahead, laying out projects with me weeks and months in advance.

"You have a board meeting the week after next," she'll remind me. "Where are we with the agenda?" She knows I want the agenda prepared this week; she is keeping me on track.

Dress: I believe the way we dress communicates the value we place on what we are doing and on the people we are serving. Dress seems to me to communicate "know-how." I don't object to slacks in a casual setting, but I strongly urge professional clothing in the office. Expensive wardrobes are unnecessary; flashy or suggestive outfits are inappropriate. I believe the women who represent Christ and the ministry of His church appear at their best in simple and classic clothes.

What the church can offer a secretary

Many churches cannot offer pay or retirement benefits like industry does.

We do offer flexible schedules, interesting work, and the opportunity to share in this avenue of the Lord's service. Most paid secretaries in our office begin at minimum wage. I prefer to start someone below her worth and tell her that in ninety days her salary will be reviewed—and at that time, and each year thereafter offer a significant raise—rather than to start high and be forced to remain at that point.

I strongly advocate showing gratitude to a secretary in a variety of ways. Praise her in the presence of others. Your governing board might authorize a small Christmas bonus. Most weeks I try to write my secretary a little note of appreciation. Some days on the way in from lunch I will drop a mint on her typewriter. My wife and I give her a gift for Christmas. My secretary is an invaluable asset to my ministry and a personal friend as well, and I want her to feel that.

Before changing my weekly schedule, I used to work Fridays, and would deliver what became known in the office as my "Friday speech." Sometime between 3:00 and 5:00 P.M., I would go out into the secretaries' office and announce something like this:

"Well, it's Friday, and I want to tell you what I think of you and this week. It's been a terribly full week, but you have made it tolerable. You have come through and you are amazing people!"

They'd respond with mild giggling and sputtering that I was conning them again, but those brief Friday afternoon minutes were memorable. We generally had worked hard all week—and some weeks were uphill all the way—but we knew we had all pulled through together.

The church secretary is a unique and priceless coworker in God's vineyard. Her role lacks visibility or personal glory. Her purpose is to help another succeed—the true definition of servanthood.

I like to think that the day of rewards will hold a few surprises for us. Wouldn't it be great if the more prominent Christians of our age were asked to wait a little while until God could call forth for honor and regard all His unnoticed saints—the humble people who had served Him lovingly and labored faith fully without glory for the coming of His kingdom? High in their ranks I'm convinced would be our church secretaries,

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Donald L. Bubna is pastor of the Salem Alliance church, Salem, Oregon.

July 1984

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