Seven Reasons the Church Secretary Position Is Disappearing

I’m in trouble.

I just read the title of this post, and I know I’m asking for trouble. I might have offended some people already.

Hear me clearly. I am not diminishing the worth of church secretaries. I am simply noting a trend that few people are articulating. The position of church secretary is disappearing. Here are seven reasons why:

  1. Many of the responsibilities are being replaced with technology. The Latin origin of the word “secretary” means, “someone entrusted with a secret.” For the traditional church secretary, it means dealing with telephone calls, letters, dictation, and filing in an appropriate and confidential manner. But look at those items I just listed. They have been, or they are being, replaced with technology. There are not many letters these days, but there are a lot of emails.
  2. Assistants are replacing the role of a secretary. The typical nomenclature for such positions is ministry assistant, executive assistant, or assistant.
  3. Church leaders desire assistants who can navigate the world of blogs and social media strategically. These responsibilities did not exist just a few years ago. Some church secretaries can make the transition; many cannot.
  4. Most of the responsibilities of a church secretary were reactive. Pastors and other church leaders seek strategic help. The church secretary’s position has been historically fixed and clearly defined. Assistants must adapt to a world where the responsibilities can change every week.
  5. Preparing the bulletin and/or the newsletter is no longer all time consuming. I can remember the days when the church secretary used clip art and physically cut and pasted articles. Those time-consuming tasks are no longer necessary.
  6. Church leaders desire assistants with time flexibility. The 30 to 40 hour workweek with the same schedule every day is ending. This fast-paced world demands workers with flexibility.
  7. Virtual assistants are becoming more common in church life. There are so many reasons virtual assistants are increasingly in demand. Leaders can determine the number of hours they want each week from a VA. One pastor of a smaller church uses a VA 10 hours a week and loves the arrangement. They are also easy to change or let go without the drama of an assistant who is physically present.

Church secretaries have been important and needed employees of churches for decades. I am grateful for them. But the times are changing, and so is the need for church secretaries.

If I opened a can of worms, please forgive me. But this trend is a trend that cannot be ignored.

Let me hear from you,

Posted on June 29, 2016

With nearly 40 years of ministry experience, Thom Rainer has spent a lifetime committed to the growth and health of local churches across North America.
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  • I was just reading about this today in TD Jakes’ book “Instinc.” He used the example of his wife still buying groceries and cooking for a whole family of six even when all their kids had already moved out of the house. Apparently, it took them
    some time to realize it. Jakes then wrote, “We discovered that not being flexible [to the changes of times] is expensive and more times than not ineffective.” Then he added, “Suddenly, I realized that we were caught with our eyes closed to the fact that change anywhere means change everywhere!”

    Church leaders need to have that in mind, “change anywhere [sometimes] means change everywhere!” and not being flexible to the changes might end up being too “expensive and more times than not ineffective.”

    We gotta be open to changes if we really want to keep moving forward.

  • Becky D. says on

    I am an assistant for a lead Pastor in a large church. I read this article with an open mind, however I do disagree with you. And I know you can respect a difference in opinion.
    I believe you may misunderstand that this vital role, as a supporting position, is in fact a calling. What I do daily goes beyond typing, keeping confidences and taking phone calls. Those things are important. But with absolute confidence I am assisting in the work of something beautiful and significant- in hopes that I am an instrument in furthering His Kingdom. It’s a ministry. It looks different , however the impotance is real.
    I wear many hats. I am also blessed that I work for a pastor that understands my gifts. And he values my ideas. He understands the importance of a team and I can’t be more grateful.
    Thom.. I do agree that time is changing with technology, therefore the assistant to the Pastor changes with time. I want to walk through the door of opportunity and grow.
    I love my job. And people need to understand. This secretary/assistant is flexible to do what it takes to help a church run smoothly, so more people come to Christ and members can worship Sundays with few distractions.

  • Melissa says on

    I just celebrated my 30th year as Administrative Assistant at a small local church and believe me, the times they are a-changin’… and have been for a number of years. However, technology cannot replace holding the hand of a church member who has just lost a spouse of 50 years, or cover the innumerable “jobs” and “details” that day-to-day one-on-one interaction with parishioners brings. And with pastors reaching the world by being out in the community more & more, covering the office and the needs of 140 church members would be impossible without someone on the grounds each day. Being without a “church secretary” (or whatever term you choose to use) is do-able but I’d be interested to hear from the folks that sit in the pews on Sundays and have needs to be met throughout the week. And if I sound offended, please forgive me. Not offended, just surprised… and a little sad. It seems the churches are going the way of the world… less focus on “relationship” and more focus on “productivity”. Thank goodness we still serve a Savior who always took the time (and still does) to just “be” with people. Now THAT’S relationship… and in the end that’s truly productivity… for the Kingdom.

  • Thom,

    Thank you for the article. It is a dilemma all churches face – and all church secretaries/admin. assistants face.

    It would be great if a virtual assistant could take care of all the mundane tasks that come up in a church office.

    From a task-oriented angle, it could ideally work very well – from a ministry aspect, not necessarily the best solution.

    The roll has always been a catch-all and a balancing act between functioning as a business and as a ministry. Even if a virtual assistant could free up office tasks, it would not be as helpful with completing actual ministry needs.

    As technology rapidly changes, it is constantly evolving. I know even tasks such as putting paper into the copiers and printers and clearing jams are distractions to a pastor (misc. tasks that secretaries complete).

    Maybe a better title is ‘ministry assistant’, because neither the pastor, the assistant, or the church knows exactly what is going to come up next in ministry.

    Unless the information is inputted – a virtual assistant would not be able to complete that task (such as knowing exactly how to complete the task of dealing with all aspects of an elderly church member who has an emergency situation that the pastor needs to attend to).

    The secretary is the one who thinks, organizes, coordinates, then takes action to do all that is necessary to take care of the ‘needs’ (that are not just tasks) around those types of ministry situations. If it was left up to a pastor to delegate all those tasks, it would take away from what he needs to do to go to that church member as their pastor.

    I know as a long-time church secretary I often go between questioning what is my relevance to the church and two seconds later feeling swamped with the work load that is never-ending – since as they say, ministry never sleeps.

    Wasn’t Microsoft’s Cortana the ‘intelligent virtual assistant’ which we all have now? That is our ‘clever new personal assistant’ that helps us find things on our PC, manages our calendar, tracks packages, finds files, chat with us, and tells jokes. ‘The more you use Cortana, the more personalized your experience will be.’ 🙂

    We need to remember that technology is a ‘tool’ (like a screwdriver), that can greatly assist in completing simple tasks – but without someone actually doing the real work, it is nothing.

    And that a perfectly manicured lawn doesn’t just take care of itself. Someone ultimately has to be there to the work.

    Bible Gateway’s passage of the day: The Lord will perfect that which concerneth me: thy mercy, O Lord, endureth for ever: forsake not the works of thine own hands. -Psalm 138:8

    Sometimes, we just have to do the work ourselves.

    As always, the questions you raise are valid – ones to really think about beyond ourselves, our churches, our ministries, our walks – that apply to our lives in general with relation to technology.

  • Thom,
    I wonder if this trend actually points to a large issue? (see below)
    I agree that the typical “Secretary’s” responsibilities have been replaced largely with technology (not sure whether that is good or bad, but I have never had a secretary!). Our church’s (1 year old plant) administration is done by me + a volunteer + many volunteers doing administration within their own ministries. We are getting close to the point now, though, that someone at least part-time on staff would be helpful.

    However, our mother church fields a lot of phone calls still during the day – so I can see how they still need some kind of secretary.

    But on to the possible big problem: I wonder if we have gotten so focused on being well-rounded, knowing a little about everything, and having a varied skill set that we (as pastors) are losing the ability to focus on what they should be doing because of all the other things they are doing.

    For example, I respond to phone calls and emails and calendar events, etc. all day with my smartphone. I enjoy administration and feel like I’m pretty good at it – but at what cost? My sermon get’s put off till later in the week and my time sitting at a computer clicking away wins over so many other things. I’m thankful for my smartphone and calendar alerts and cross-platform syncing… but sometimes wish it didn’t consume my life as much as it does.

  • Bob Myers says on

    Interesting post and comments. I had to scan the many comments because of time, so I may have missed something.

    I’ve been an associate pastor, a lead pastor, and now an interim pastor. One of the roles that I did not see (could have missed it in my scanning) that an administrative/ministry assistant does is interpret the congregation for me. In all of my positions, the admin assistant was on site before me. When I need to make a call or a contact and I don’t know the person or the situation, the admin assistant is my go-to person. She would always give me back story and context so that I could do what I needed to do. You can’t really put a price tag on that invaluable information. I have also found my admin assistants to have lock-tite lips. They have been very professional in keeping confidence.

    As someone above said, a good admin assistant practically runs the place. I always make sure I cultivate a good relationship with that person.

  • As a church secretary and senior pastors wife I would not say the role is disappearing, but it is ever changing. Churches will always need someone to take care of the mail, return calls, send flowers to someone in the hospital, pay bills, order supplies–I could go on and on! The role of a secretary as it was once defined (taking dictation, typing letters, making appointments, etc.) is pretty much obsolete, but churches will always need someone to help oversee the administrative aspects of running a church.

    We have a total of 5 pastors on staff in various roles and I do different things for all of them and help to ensure that the right hand knows what the left hand is doing and nothing falls between the cracks. One of the biggest benefits of having one person “administrate” tasks that would maybe be considered more secretarial in nature is consistency. If everyone is doing their own thing then an organization gives the appearance of being scattered, unorganized, and just plain unprofessional. Regardless of what their title is, having someone oversee aspects like social media, print materials, and the bulletin ensure that the ministry presents itself in a cohesive manner that shows an attention to detail and desire for excellence in all things.

  • I’m a volunteer at my church, which is a large church. I think it all goes back to the size of the church in regards to secretaries…we have 6 full time and part time secretaries.

    • Thom Rainer says on

      Rick –

      Not always. I am familiar with a 2,000+ attendance church that has only three full-time assistants.

  • Gail Stacey says on

    Thanks for this – you have some great points!

    I’ve been a church administrator for more than ten years. I find the title fits better – facility administration and, as you noted, technical needs have become much more time-consuming. When I started in this role we had a bulletin and a bulletin board for communications. We probably used a fax machine. Now we have three social media outlets, and a website with graphics that need to be created regularly. We have moved from a print church directory to an online system that not only allows everyone to be in touch, but is a place where we can manage ministries, needs and schedules. As I do work onsite, hospitality and sensitivity are also requirements of the job – maybe the rare things that have not changed from the ‘church secretary’ days.

    We have encountered a few challenges. The changing demands have not always shown up in a job description, making it more difficult to evaluate both for myself and for other leaders. Another is trying to manage a work week that is far from typical, and keeping the 28 hours from becoming 50+. Flexibility is important in a loosely defined and changing role – but so are boundaries.

  • Craig Giddens says on

    I would say the role of the secretary in general (church, business…etc) is disappearing / has disappeared. In my workplace I haven’t had anyone type something up for me in over 20 years.

    • Thom Rainer says on

      That is an excellent point, Craig.

    • Where did people get the idea that typing and answering phones is the only role of a “secretary”? I have been a secretary, administrative secretary, and administrative assistant for over 30 years. I started with an Associate Degree in Secretarial Science (haha back in the 70s) and then went on to get a Bachelors in Business Administration. I started with nothing more than an IBM Selectric and a steno pad and have advanced to maintaining our website, monitoring our Facebook page, and working with out social media ministry. And in all these years of office experience, I have seen the role change through technology, but never have I ever seen the need for a living, breathing, person become more important than it is today. The church office is in the trenches of ministry to hurting people. To say that a secretary’s role is simply typing and answering phones is incorrect and an insult to the caring, compassionate work of the person in the church office.

  • The titles changed back in the 90″s
    No one is a secretary anymore everyone is an ‘administrative assistant’
    As long as there are phones and mail coming in the position will remain vital. Unlike business in the church world people will not tolerate a computer answering the phone.
    Our “administrator’ runs the place and everything would shutdown without her !

    • Thom Rainer says on

      Russ –

      Just as a side note: There are some great virtual telephone services that make it seem like you are talking to someone at the church.

      • Thom, I really need to check that out. Will a virtual service call members and remind them of their bldg fund pledges ?

      • Sure they will.

      • Can they show the person the love of Christ and talk them out of having an abortion or leaving their spouse? Will they take the time to encourage and pray with them? Hmmmm – don’t know about that.

  • Marcha Rushing says on

    Awwwww. You probably did stir up some stuff. I am retired from being a church secretary/ministry assistant/Pastor assistant. The role is greatly changing. Most days the things I did could have been easily handled from home. As already said, people usually don’t call the chuch office when they can reach the pastor direct. Even working for full time pastors, they were rarely in the office. My biggest quirk was church members calling asking where was the pastor. Things are changing. I did the church web site, membership rolls, church financial statements, logged tithes, bulletins, power points for 3 services, and many other duties. I have a Bachleor of Business Adminstration and the SBCs certification as Ministry Assistant. I loved my work and those servents I served–all 12 of them. Church members and pastors need to work together to formulate understandings of this role in the church. And church members need to realize church secretaries are not their private secretaries. I could write you a book and I guess I did. Sorry.

    • Becky Powers says on

      Often times, my pastor doesn’t want to be reached directly…he would really prefer complaints about the temperature in the sanctuary, the volume of the music etc to be handled through the office and not when he is visiting a homebound member, dealing with a grieving family making funeral arrangements, or when he has a moment to spend with his family. Therefore, I handle his calls. If it’s something he needs to deal with immediately and he is not in the office (although my pastor has a good balance of office/out of office time), I can just about always reach him via cell phone. After hours, I do get some calls at home, but most people then reach out to other staff members.

    • Thom Rainer says on

      Thank you for your ministry and comments, Marcha.

    • As Christians, we are not there to only work for our daily bread. We are to put show Jesus love in everything we are doing.

    • Julie Peters says on

      Yes, in our office the phone never rang – except for solicitors. The church members all called, texted, or emailed the pastors directly. Our members knew that if the pastors were indisposed due to a meeting or visitation, they simply needed to leave a voicemail.

      The church is located out on the edge of a country suburb, so we had no foot traffic showing up at our door. Even meetings were often held off-site at a coffee shop. Because the mail was usually delivered after office hours, it was the duty of “whoever” got to the church first to disperse any mail into the appropriate inboxes – whether that be latter that evening or the next day.

      After going 90% digital with our office duties, any updates could be done remotely & immediately in less than 5 minutes by anyone with a laptop or smartphone. It eventually got to the point where the only time someone had to be on-site was if someone had to unlock/lock the doors for a member without a key or to “babysit” a vendor/repairman.

    • Gail Jackson says on

      To Marcha, you might consider writing that book, changing names to protect the innocent – haha!
      People just don’t really know, do they?
      I can’t tell you the numbers of resumes I’ve done for church members, worked off the clock/after hours to accommodate the saints. And willingly, I might add. 🙂
      Being someone trusted, I was often the first to know months ahead of ministerial staff changes, because… They would have me type their resumes! All in strict confidence of course.
      No ma’am, no one knows unless they’ve walked in those shoes.
      Your book would be an interesting read, I am sure!
      Thank you for your servanthood to the kingdom.
      A “Sister Secretary”