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Although I'll use the pronoun, not all secretaries are she; I know, because twice I have served as one.
I have also been on the other side of the boss-secretary equation, ministering alongside the senior pastor in a large congregation. Presently I manage a full range of associates at Seattle Pacific University.
So I know what it is like to be handed work, and to assign it; I have been pastored by my boss, and I have cared for my associates. Seeing office life from both sides, I realize good relationships don't come easily.
It is particularly challenging to work on a church staff-in any capacity. The work itself may not make the job difficult; answering phones or sending correspondence or doing custodial work is really no different in a church setting than it is (or at least should be) in the business world. It's the nature of the boss that may create difficulties, for the workers' boss is also their pastor. The one who proclaims God's Word to them and serves them Communion also monitors their performance and hands them assignments. Where does a secretary go when she wants prayer for her job? Where does a custodian seek counsel when things are strained with his boss? Most can share their difficulties with a pastor. But what if the boss is the pastor?
And that boss, the pastor, faces this prospect: how to maintain a professional relationship with a coworker in a pastoral setting. This is as true for the pastor who receives voluntary help from parishioners as it is for the pastor who has a dozen on staff. Integrating those two relationships-the pastoral and the professional-proves a difficult task. As a result, sometimes the church staff-which spends more time with the pastor than nearly anyone else, and works most closely with the pastor-goes without pastoral care.
One of the ironies of this situation is that we are only as good as our support staff. Typing that report for the deacons, laying your hands on a copy of that letter sent seven months ago, sprucing up the sanctuary for a special gathering, finding out what other churches are doing about a specific problem-the pastor doesn't have time to do all this. The pastor can look only as good as his or her assistants allow.
It becomes critical, then, that the assistant appreciates the church product-pastoral care. The secretary needs to experience the same pastoral care pastors give to all the other consumers. That's why I, as a Christian leader, try not to get caught giving work and not care to my associates. I don't want to leave them hurting, only to have them hear from some student how understanding I have been.
What kind of encouragement are our assistants looking for? In what shape will pastoral care come? Let me offer a few suggestions from my experience wearing both sets of shoes. Given the wide range of tasks assistants face-clerical, program, ministerial, custodial-these suggestions are surprisingly universal.
People like to be told they're doing a good job. Yet many staff members toil under the unspoken axiom, "Work for the Lord is its own encouragement." There certainly is a sense of satisfaction peculiar to church work, but this doesn't negate the pastoral effectiveness of kind words along the way. Often the best time for affirmation is when the person least expects it.
I recall my first day at a new secretarial job. My boss wanted me to type a complicated survey on the office's word processor. I had never used a word processor before, but eager to show I belonged there, I set upon the survey with a vengeance. I worked and worked, and three drafts, fifty-seven pages, and two weeks later, I finished the survey only to hear my boss had decided to abandon the whole project.
How did I feel? Not particularly overjoyed. But a few words from my boss rescued me from the land of the livid. After apologizing for his change of mind (wonderful from a boss!), he told me he had never before seen work done so quickly and professionally in that office. He welcomed me to the team and looked forward to our working together. Believe me, I well remember that survey and my boss's praise, and I enjoyed working for him.
Now that I'm a boss, I try to retain that lesson. About once a month, I write half-page notes of appreciation to my secretary and assistant. I make sure the affirmation in the notes is sincere. When my assistant told me he has saved all his notes over the year, it affirmed me!
I've heard people say it takes ten words of praise to balance one word of criticism. If this is true, then those of us with assistants want to add to the affirmation side of the scale as often as possible.
We appreciate affirmation all the more when it is spoken in the hearing of others. Brian, my first assistant at Seattle Pacific University, was such a crackerjack worker that I told him several times I ought to quit so he could have my job. As it turned out, I did shift into another area, and Brian assumed most of my old work.
Whenever we would go to conferences and be asked about our jobs, I would respond: "Brian does all the work, and I get all the credit. " In truth, I did do a good deal of work, but that little tongue-in-cheek answer opened up the conversation so I could communicate that my assistant was one of my most treasured resources.
Think of what happens when we affirm an assistant publicly: we model affirmation; we encourage the assistant; we minister to the hearer-three doses of pastoral care in one serving. How apt, therefore, is a timely word of praise.
I would not be very pastoral if I allowed people to think I do everything myself. (I'm most tempted to act this way when everything is going smoothly.) It's my job to make it clear that I have help, I appreciate it, and I am not threatened by it.
I once dropped in Brian's lap the responsibility of determining the feasibility of a disability awareness week at Seattle Pacific. From that one suggestion, he produced a torrent of ideas and plans for a three-day emphasis on issues surrounding the needs of disabled persons. He even found a way to make the week pay for itself. So off we went, and the three days were a solid success.
A week or so later, one of my colleagues thanked me for the events our office had planned. What should I have said? After all, a disability awareness week was my idea. I thanked my colleague for his kind words, and then I added, "Be sure to thank Brian. He did it all."
I didn't deserve the credit; Brian did. I wanted him to receive the credit he rightfully earned. Since all glory ultimately belongs to God, I can afford to step aside and give credit to my assistants. Besides, an occasional tip of the hat in the direction of an assistant encourages and inspires others to lend their help.
One pastor I worked for would often initiate a conversation with the question, "How's your soul?" I knew exactly what he meant. He wasn't asking, "Were you in the Word today?" He was saying, "I want to know how you are doing today. Tell me."
I felt free to tell him-whether I was feeling on top of the world or the world on top of me-and he took the time to hear my heart. More times than not, he would pray with me. I was always eager to give that pastor my best.
In our office, 2 P.M. on Tuesdays is set aside for my secretary, my assistant, and me to get together. We rotate who leads that time, and we normally include some time of affirmation as well as a time for sharing prayer requests. We've had fun together. Once we had a picnic in my office, complete with a checkered tablecloth. Another time we wrote our official office song. We've bled together, too, sharing the pain of relatives who are far from the Lord and of relationships gone sour.
On those Tuesdays, we're working on being fully human in our workplace-laughter, tears, and all. We marvel at how much lighter our work becomes at 2:30 when we have succeeded.
I don't want to be the type who has no clue to the difficulties-personal and professional-my assistants endure. Considering we major in expressing love and concern in our ministries, I plan to start with my own staff.
Paul says he would not have known what sin is unless the Law had told him (Rom. 7:7). Paul was grateful for the explanation of what is acceptable and what is not. The law set up boundaries against which he could compare his performance.
Employers sometimes find their assistants guilty of "sins" of which employees were unaware. I had a friend who enjoyed a new secretarial job immensely, only to be reached at home one morning and told not to show up for work anymore. Apparently her boss did not take kindly to her asking him when he would return from outside appointments. The sad thing was, her boss never told her he disliked this practice. She didn't know the boundaries, and when she crossed them, she crossed him.
As bosses, we need to set boundaries within which our assistants can move with confidence. For example, do I expect my secretary to open all my mail? Under what circumstances is an associate allowed to interrupt a counseling appointment? What is my understood deadline for a long-term project?
Little practices gone wrong cause much unnecessary friction. It is a matter of pastoral care to let an assistant know what is expected of him or her in an assignment. If we leave the boundaries unclear, we need to be mature enough to take the blame when failures result.
Even when boundaries are given, assistants sometimes will goof. The letter is not mailed in time. That crucial phone call is not made. Your explicit instructions are lost. The information that Mrs. Tipton is ill does not get to you. To err is human; to forgive, hard.
Here's where I must retain a view of the product: pastoral care. Since that product involves the dispensing of forgiveness, to be a pastor to my staff, I must offer forgiveness when wrong is done.
Yet, implicit with forgiveness there needs to be correction. Correction is not punitive, like the action of my friend's boss. To correct means to make right. To forgive and forget sounds nice, but it sets up the likely possibility of running into the same frustrations later. Therefore, I try to lay out a scheme to avoid such pitfalls, so that both my associate and I can walk away confident about the future.
In my first secretarial job, I worked for a wonderful, godly man who owned a small pharmaceutical company in Southern California. One day I received a phone order from a customer in North Carolina for fifty boxes of one of our products. In checking our inventory, I discovered we had only four boxes to send. After verifying with me that this was a bona fide order for fifty boxes, my boss corralled every worker he could find and strained to manufacture the needed medicines with all due speed. Two weeks later we sent all fifty boxes across the United States to fill our customer's order. Everyone was elated, and I was the most elated of all. After all, I took the order.
The next week our customer from North Carolina called. "What's in all these cartons?"
"It's the fifty boxes of medicine you ordered."
"It is? Well, how many items are in each box?"
Right then I knew I was in trouble. Each box contained twenty-five vials of medicine. Our customer wanted fifty of those vials-two boxes. We had sent him 1,250 vials. My mistake caused us to spend money on chemicals, manpower, and shipping-both ways-that our little company didn't have. I was quite shaken.
If my boss was equally shaken-and he had good cause-he didn't show it. Instead, he looked at me with my tail tucked between my legs, and he shrugged it off as a learning experience, a 1,200-vial learning experience.
Together we worked out procedures to insure that kind of mistake would be unlikely to happen again. The memory of those fifty boxes still lives in my mind. So does the memory of a boss who was kind enough to forgive me and help me do a better job. I have a bias here: forgiveness must precede correction. Many assistants-like myself in the pharmaceutical company-will condemn themselves long before the boss gets a chance. I find it intriguing that Jesus forgave the woman caught in adultery before he corrected her ways.
Church work is filled with routine. Bulletins come out every Sunday. Boards and committees meet on the second and fourth Tuesdays. The ministerial association gathers for lunch on the third Wednesday. The church crew faces a bushel of monotonous work. If this were the only fare an assistant digests, the level of indigestion in the Lord's work would shock no one.
But the work of the Lord is supposed to stretch people. If I want my assistants to experience this, every now and then I need to plot some tasks that break them out of the rut of routine goings-on in the office, even if it means incorporating an element of risk.
I once worked alongside a secretary who had to master the church computer when the pastor gave her an assignment that relied on the computer's resources. After an initial period of What in the world am I doing? she took to her task with relish. In fact, one day I caught her after hours practicing all the new things she had learned.
I'm not talking about busywork. On the contrary, every worker needs the sense that what he is doing is of vital importance. Neither am I talking about intimidation: "Do it on the computer or else!" But I do need to sit down and evaluate the workload of my helpers for possible revision.
Are there any new responsibilities he can assume? What would be some useful skills for her to learn? Would a professional seminar be of value? Providing such novel additions takes planning and foresight. I have to want to do it or it won't get done.
It also involves risk: What if the employee wants to leave to explore these skills further? But risk is, in a way, the essence of pastoral care-the act of laying down one's life for another. I want the best for my associates, and I think I'll benefit in the long run as they develop new and interesting skills. If I extend pastoral care to my support staff, it involves the inclusion of nonroutine tasks.
It is most difficult to see a valued assistant leave for another post. Although we may sometimes entertain ideas of being betrayed at times like this, how much better it is to view this as an opportunity to release an individual to grander things.
I worked for over a year as the administrative assistant to the senior pastor of a large church. From him I received many helpful lessons, but I eventually outgrew my responsibilities. Lateral movement was impossible, so I had two choices: stay on and endure, or leave and risk. I did not want to leave the church; I had grown up there, giving thirteen years of my life and love to those people. But it was time for me to go.
My boss, the pastor, helped nudge this fledgling out of that secure nest into a wide world of promise and opportunity. At the time I didn't much appreciate that nudge, and my boss was not all that happy to see me leave, but we both are the richer for our letting go of one another. We still keep in touch, valuing one another's ministries and appreciating our friendship.
There are times when love hangs on. There are other times when love lets go. We may hate to see key parishioners move, but if it is for good reasons, such hate is mingled with love. So also there comes a time to let go of our assistants, as painful as this is.
To know when that time has arrived is a matter of prayer for both parties, but when it comes, the result will be growth for the assistant-and for the pastor as well.
Yes, I believe a boss can be pastoral and a pastor can be boss. They are two separate roles, but with a little thought and compassion, one person, guided by the Holy Spirit, can fulfill both functions.
But now that I've written it, I'm in real trouble: my secretary is bound to read this article.
Steve Swayne is director of student ministries at Seattle Pacific University in Seattle, Washington.
Copyright © 1987 by the author or Christianity Today/Leadership Journal.
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