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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  • Dr. Ranier, I find your comments condescending. I also notice that you only agree with someone who parrots what you say, otherwise you refer people to your response to “Rich”. I am a secretary/administrator/what have you. It IS all semantics. Having worked as a secretary, legal assistant, paralegal, and now church “what have you”, it IS all semantics. If you had ever worked as any of the above, you would know so. I talk to countless people every day, mostly by email and in person. My pastor does not want to talk to anyone – I am the gatekeeper. He will contact people as he has time – not on their time. A virtual assistant cannot know the congregation, who’s sick, who’s mentally ill, who’s moving, who’s new to the membership, to know the homeless population, who is living in the church parking lot, which outreach group serves lunch, which one breakfast, how many homeless beds are there tonight at our church. I pray that you think outside of your own head. Thanks for everyone’s responses.

    • Marguerite Colson says on

      Teresa –

      I find your comments both condescending and defensive. There is nothing about Dr. Rainer’s (not Ranier as you incorrectly spelled it) article that is condescending. He is noting a reality, not diminishing anyone’s worth, including your own. And he refers to Rich on more than one occasion because some people are making the same comment obviously without reading the others.

      I have no idea what you mean when you say he should “think outside of (his) own head.” Your writing lacks clarity.

      Your knee-jerk reaction is off target and far more condescending than your accusation of him. He is on target. How do I know? I am a former church secretary who suggested the pastor move to a virtual assistant. I worked with him to show how much of what I did could be handled by volunteers, and how much more efficient a VA could be. I was right, and the church and the pastor are better for it.

  • Marie King says on

    I’m an office manager for a small parish, and I would love to be able to work virtually from home most of the time. Nearly everything, except for printing bulletins, can be done via the Cloud, including phone calls.

    The parish office has undergone a cultural shift, including dispensing with the term “secretary” and replacing it with “office manager” since it’s gender-neutral and has a more contemporary ring to it. Along with the updated nomenclature are more updated skills: social media management, website management, computer knowledge (or the ability to learn new software quickly). I honed those skills in the secular workplace and was able to walk into my current position with little downtime for training and getting up to speed.

  • I was promoted to Church Office Administrator after our Church Secretary of 30+ years retired. Many of the things she did by hand are now done digitally. I have set up new processes and I am on the hunt for new ones all the time. I agree that a 9-5 position is going the way of the 8-track tape player. In our church of about 800, the needs are changing communication is by email and website.

    I say all of this while praying that our almost 80 yr old receptionist, while faithful, would retire. Is this mean? I don’t think so. I manage one other receptionist who is 28 and the difference in ability and willingness to learn is astronomical. We also employ a Treasurer who is well over 70 and has been doing this for 40 years. How do I get leadership to realize we need to make some changes? How do we step into the next frontier of church management without hurting the feelings of the faithful?

    I’m all for virtual work, saving money and utilities. But the process is a slow one, for us at least.

    Thanks for the great article!

  • If everyone in the church is either employed or totally disabled, then I suppose it’s not a mark of hypocrisy for the church to rely on Cortana–though I certainly wouldn’t want my personal concerns broadcast into “the cloud”! If anyone in the church is able to do the office work, and the pastor is doing it (with or without Cortana) rather than pay these people, and these people are depending on some sort of handouts, that smells like hypocrisy (and disrespect of the people who could/should be making a real contribution) to me.

  • Great, thought provoking blog post. Although I find many of the points very well-sustained (as are many of the comments already posted), let me add my two cents to #5. Years ago I began to help teachers, secretaries, churches and businesses digitize their newsletters and bulletins. In the process, what I found is that those in charge rarely understand a few of the essentials. 1. One of the most time consuming processes for those is the gathering of information. Gathering information via email, phone, snail mail, in person, takes times and organizational skills. This can be enhanced somewhat by technology, but someone still has to do it. 2. Learning and keeping up to date with software and hardware takes time. What desktop publisher will the newspaper be completed in and what classes are offered to keep the person who is tasked with this current? Many a church newsletter frustrates readers who wonder why print is shrunk and tightened to fit and pictures are pixelated, routinely because the person just isn’t skilled in doing this, or is rushed because, after all, this should be quicker. 3. What information is being offered to the person in charge of the bulletin or newsletter as far as copyright law or fair use? In this new digital age, churches and non-profits regularly disregard copyrights and claim ignorance. This is simply not correct. 4. Finally, many of our congregations simply expect much more than a simply constructed black and white (bulletin or newsletter) and believe that like our beautifully appointed sanctuaries, our updated bookstores, and our ever-changing communication landscapes — the church’s communication tools can be top notch and excellent. That requires time and skill. Our secretaries deserve a break, and the benefit of the doubt that they are doing the best they can in a climate that demands more than the old mimeographed, fold-over newsletter with the black and white graphic and basic information about last week’s offering. — Joni

  • Julie Peters says on

    I can attest to the validity of this article personally. I just resigned as our church secretary after 1 year of service due to many of these very reasons. When I came into the position, there was a ton of work to be done. Everything was done the “old fashioned way” with tons of paperwork and multiple steps in the procedures often producing redundancy and inaccuracy. I spent my first 6 months working well beyond my scheduled hours in order to move the church office forward by transitioning everything to a digital format and creating hundreds of templates for quick and easy use. Just last month I notified the staff that I had ultimately worked myself out of a job as everything could essentially be done by anyone from any remote location with WiFi. So, I advised that they reconsider the need for a secretary at all.

  • The gift of administration is so minimalized in the church.

  • Thom,
    I am a retired Pastor (still working of course after 8 years of retirement) and my wife is still the Church Secretary. Her duties as outlined in the church by-laws have definitely decreased over the years but this has allowed her to take on new responsibilities thus increasing church ministry capabilities. I am the Administrator of the Church and Academy and have done some research on the VA companies. They certainly have some good prices but I only found two out of fifteen that were based in the USA (most had sales offices here but their working offices were in India, Pakistan, El Salvador, Philippines, Ghana and Bangladesh. I want the people in those nations to have jobs but not as a replacement for an American worker. I think the better solution is to expand the responsibilities of the ‘Church Secretary’, keeping the ‘live person’ on the phones or email for better ministry.

  • I agree with Dr. Rainer. The same thing has happened with campus churches. The message is piped in by way of video feed. The campus pastor is basically an administrator.

  • Murray Phillips says on

    How soon will it be before the church embraces the “virtual pastor”. This just seems to be the logical progression to the obvious.

    • Gail Jackson says on

      Have we not?
      With television and web feeds, etc.
      But your response made me gasp a little, then giggled.

      We all know, we all just need people.
      Live, in person, breathing, smiling people.

      I’ve enjoyed this virtual conversation immensely.

  • Hi Thom,
    I totally agree with you! As a speaker for Christian women’s events, I am in the process of calling 1,000 churches to find out the name of their women’s coordinator so I can send a postcard of my speaking info to the church with attention to that particular person. Many churches had a church secretary answer the phone. Every single one of them were not only professional, helpful, but kind connecting us in Christian ministry. However, SO many had a recording to check out their website for more information.(which didn’t have the contact info I needed). Many didn’t even have a recording to leave a message for someone from the church to call back. While I see this role changing based on my experience, I do believe people (like myself) still prefer a real person fielding individual questions. Website do not always have the info needed or are updated regularly. The challenge is make people feel welcome without a person saying “Hello, This is _________. How can I direct your call?”

  • Rick Faulkner says on

    Great post – and great comments as well. Indeed, you have struck a nerve with people who serve in the trenches, and the insights are excellent. As an individual who served as the “ministry assistant” to Navy Chaplains for almost 20 years, retired, and now as an Executive Pastor with 3 different churches for the past 17 years, I believe the issue at hand is all about “context”. The position of church secretary is definitely disappearing, but depending on the ministry context – the position’s title, role and impact will be determined by location, size, history, and overall vision of the church. Right now at the church I currently serve in, we have 9 full time/9 part time and only 1 office manager (who is not full time). No assistants to any of the full time pastors except for the lead pastor. We outsource most of the work that secretaries did, and supplement that with volunteers. For us, (our context), it works great, and frankly this arrangement rounds out the skill set of our team.