For over seven years now, I have been the secretary at a small church in my hometown. It is a small church with a big heart. They put that big heart into every aspect of their church life, including the management of staff. So often, I have heard sad stories about people going into a church office to be coldly or brusquely treated by an overworked, underpaid staff member. These minor annoyances leave a sour taste and a bad impression of the Church as a whole. If these annoying situations happened at a grocery store, one might easily forget about them, even expect them. But a church staff is supposed to be fulfilling a different role.
What is the purpose of office staff in a Catholic Church? Ostensibly, it exists for the administrative functioning of the parish, religious education program and perhaps the school. Everyone has their place and their duties to keep things running smoothly so that the priests and ministers can take care of the flock and ensure a vibrant faith life. But is there a spiritual aspect to being a secretary, bookkeeper, business manager or anyone else in a parish office? The answer, I believe, is YES! Though it might not be recognized by the parish leaders, nor the staff themselves.
When someone who has been away from the Church for decades has to plan their parent’s funeral, who will they interact with initially and mainly? The parish office staff. When a young couple who hasn’t practiced the faith in years is looking to get married, or baptize their first child, who will they interact with? The parish office staff. When someone comes in off the street hurting or in need, angry or confused, who will they interact with? The parish office staff. Doesn’t this all point to the fact that this staff’s function has a spiritual aspect that is vitally important?
x + y = Humanity
The tiny church where I work recognizes this and builds it into the job description and budget. The functional duties I have require x hours per week. But the church budgets for x+y hours to allow for the human interactions that necessarily come from being the person seated at the desk by the door, and the person answering the phones, emails, etc. They value the people who come through the door and give permission to the secretary to minister by the simple act of listening and taking the time to try to solve the problem or issue, even if it has little to do with the church itself.
This little church sees every interaction as an evangelization opportunity, and an opportunity, as their motto says, “to show and share the love of God in Christ Jesus.” It is not a big deal. There has been no special training. It is acted out by hiring service-oriented people in the first place. It is acted out by giving the staff permission to stop doing whatever functional task is being done in order to be present to the soul standing in front of them.
If a staff member feels like they are going to get in trouble for helping instead of filing, they won’t help. If they feel they are somehow shirking their “real” work, they won’t help. If they know they are already under crazy pressure to get an impossible task load done, they won’t help. But given permission and time, most people will gladly help the people who come through the doors and call on the phone.
The service given can be as simple as helping a handicapped person to the lavatory, or listening to the rotten morning someone just had, or connecting a person with an agency or ministry for just the problem they are sharing about. It is all about recognizing the human soul at the end of the phone line or in front of the desk and doing whatever small thing can be done for them, with a smile, with joy of service, and with the permission of the “boss.”
The difference this makes to how people view the church is amazing. People come back to say how they remember something tiny you did several years ago and how it moved them to investigate coming back to their own church. People engage in service themselves, get healing for a family member, pass on the good deed to others … all from the simple act of doing the small service opportunity put before the office staff.
Aside from the way this “shows and shares” Jesus’ love, the permission to do this sort of work adds a deeper aspect to the job itself, making it so much more satisfying. This simple job I have had for the past seven years I enjoy more than any other job I have ever had, because I am allowed to serve and make a difference in the lives of the people who come through the door and call on the phone. It takes the “mundane” right out of what could be rather dry work. You never know what someone is going to talk to you about, how you are going to be able to help someone, pray with someone, or who knows what! I feel valued by the church leadership because of this, and it energizes the rest of the work that I do, week in, week out. In a way it allows the Holy Spirit to be my “other boss” at the job, and who wouldn’t want that?
On a cold winter day, when I halt my “real work” to open the door for the umpteenth time, I smile at the frozen person and think of the saints who spent time as doorkeepers in life. St. Josephine Bakhita, St. André Bessette and St. Faustina Kowalska to name just a few, made sure that each person at the door felt Jesus’ love for them, and in turn these saints were able to draw nearer to their beloved Lord.
So, next month when your parish’s bulletin displays the church’s annual budget, remember that what those office dollars and cents actually represent are divine appointments between souls. Church staffs often do small things, but when they are done with love, they can leave ripples that last eternally.
St. Josephine, St. André, St. Faustina and all you doorkeeper and secretary saints, pray for us!