I read a story somewhere once about a church office manager whose job was so stressful that she left to start her own law firm – because it was easier.
I worked as an office manager at a tiny Episcopal church several years ago, and I sympathized with that poor woman many times during my years there.
I haven’t been Catholic for very long, so maybe there’s a lot I don’t know yet about how things run this side of the Tiber. Maybe your parish computers are personally maintained by the loving fingers of Steve Jobs’ ghost, your parish secretary has already been beatified, and Morgan Freeman answers your phones. (“It is my pleasure to lead you through this clear and present danger, Mrs. Simmons. Do tell me more about your sick cat.”)
Perhaps your priest reads minds, and perhaps he’s already perfected the art of visiting the beds of those who didn’t tell anyone they were sick. Maybe his coffee maker is scrubbed out each day by an army of hygienic and adorable singing church mice who live only to serve.
Or maybe not.
Here’s where you come in.
I think it’s more likely that your priest and his staff are overworked, over-stressed, over-caffeinated, and underpaid. And I bet it’s been a long, long time since anyone remembered to clean out that old coffee maker.
Fortunately, your priest doesn’t need magical mice, or mind reading, or even Morgan Freeman’s soothing voice (though that would clearly be an asset.)
He needs you. He needs me. However, sometimes getting our help can feel harder than teaching mice to sing.
Here are 5 simple things you can start doing today to make life easier for your priest and his staff:
1) Pray for them. This is the most important thing you can do to help your parish. If you aren’t already in the habit of doing this, start now. Like, right now. I’ll wait.
Done? Great. Pray regularly for your priests, deacons, altar servers, altar guild, parish office staff, and anyone else who keeps things running smoothly (or at least running). Now, take a minute to decide when you’ll pray for them next. Put a reminder on your calendar if you have to. This is important.
2) Get to know them. Yes, your priest holds the very body of Jesus Christ Himself between his fingers every time he says Mass. Yes, that’s a big deal, and yes, the uniform can take some getting used to. Don’t let that cause you to overlook the fact that he is also a human being who has a favorite food, a favorite movie, and a favorite way to relax on his day off.
In the same vein, your parish secretary may be the paragon of efficiency (or not), but she also loves to dish about Buffy the Vampire Slayer seasons 3 and 5 over miso after discussing Plato’s Phaedrus all night with friends.
OK, so that last example was about me, but you get the idea. Your priest and his staff are human beings. Treat them as such.
3) Respect their personal and professional boundaries. Parish offices can be busy beyond belief, and getting to know the people who work in them can often mean knowing when to leave them alone. Chances are, if you’re at Mass, you’re not at work—but they might be. Don’t take it personally if they can’t stop and chat.
If you suddenly remember as you’re leaving on Sunday morning that you wanted to point out all nineteen of the typos in the service book, stop and think: does Father really need to hear this right now? It’s probably safe to assume that you are about the fifth person to stop him that morning with an urgent message about something that’s actually pretty silly.
Of course, you should feel free to let he or his staff know if something important really does come up, or if you’d like to schedule a time to meet with him. Don’t expect him to visit you in the hospital if you haven’t told anyone you’re sick (true story)!
4) Parish staffers work very, very hard. Ask how you can help. Maybe you could fold bulletins, address letters, or run errands for the office manager. Perhaps you could offer to descale Father’s overused coffee maker. Churches often make do with old copiers, computers, and office spaces—so if you know how to fix things, that’s even better.
People like to donate extra office furniture and supplies to churches. Sometimes this is a great idea—and sometimes it means the staff has to sort through the clutter you no longer want. Instead of leaving stacks of old pens and white out on the receptionist’s desk, ask them what they need. That printer cart you no longer need might be just the thing in your parish office—or it might be in the way. Make sure the staff knows they’re not obligated to keep anything you offer.
5) Ministry can be emotionally exhausting. Find small ways to be encouraging. When I was a parish office manager, one friend used to leave anonymous cards, small gifts, and snacks on my desk. These small offerings had a fantastic double effect: I enjoyed them, and every time someone walked past my desk, I wondered, “Was it her? What about him? Oh, I bet it was one of them!” I was almost always wrong, but it was easy to act more lovingly toward those around me when I thought each might be my anonymous benefactor.
Another friend used to use her lunch break once a year to bring me a birthday gift while I was at work, and another always remembered my wedding anniversary. Birthday cards, flowers, small gifts, snacks, etc. can be great ways to remind your priest and his office that you’re rooting for them.
Ministry is stressful, and burnout is a constant danger. The people who run your parish need your prayers, your help, and reminders of your love and appreciation. Fortunately, there are many simple ways you can help keep your parish office a happy, safe environment where both staff and parishioners can flourish… or at least keep from daydreaming about how much easier it would be to start a law firm.