The Most Important Person In the Church Office

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The receptionist–the one who greets the public–is in many ways your most important staffer.

She is the first person most people see when they walk in, the voice they talk with on the phone, and the only one a lot of outsiders will deal with from your church.

Pastor, she can make you or break you.

She can be a light to someone coming in from the dark, lift the spirits of a visitor who ran out of hope miles up the road, defrost the spirit of Jack Frost himself, and protect the beleaguered pastor who desperately needs an hour of study time without interruptions.

She can do all these things and more. But she can also run people off faster than Sunday’s lousy sermon or Wednesday night’s cold ham and peas.

Where does one find a receptionist sent from Heaven?

Answer: Heaven.

Ask God. He knows them all, has full resumes on each person on the planet, and runs the best placement service ever. Pray.

For some reason a quarter of a century ago, I began getting invited to speak to meetings of church administrative assistants, a catch-all phrase that encompasses secretaries, receptionists, bookkeepers, and anyone else on the office staff. I’ve been to Alabama’s Judson College more than once addressing that state’s church secretaries, done the same at Louisiana’s Tall Timbers Conference Center and Mississippi’s Garaywa Center. But best of all, for many years, the National Association of Southern Baptist Secretaries (NASBS) invited me to attend (to address them, hold conferences, and sketch everyone) their bi-ennial gatherings, sometimes at one of our conference centers (Glorieta in New Mexico or Ridgecrest in North Carolina, at other times at Lifeway in Nashville and the First Baptist Church of Dollywood. Oh, excuse me. Sevierville, Tennessee. (insert smiley face here!)

This is not to imply that I know a lot about their work, only that I spend a good deal of time with them and treasure the difference these ladies–they’re almost always women–make in the church’s ministry.

Sometimes I tell them my favorite Lou Holtz story. Sports fans know Holtz as the former football coach at Arkansas, Notre Dame, and the NY Jets. These days he’s a commentator for ESPN. He’s also a popular speaker at motivational seminars, and that’s where he shares this story.

Holtz was scheduled to speak at a convention being held at a Chicago hotel and the night before, flew into the city. The taxi dropped him off at the hotel in the wee hours of the morning and he made his way inside the empty lobby.

At the desk, Lou banged on the bell repeatedly, trying to summon the front desk clerk. He knew what had happened. The clerk was asleep in the back somewhere.

Eventually, this big bruiser of a guy came out of the back, rubbing the sleep out of his eyes. “All full up!” he said. “No rooms.”

Lou said, “Sir, I have a reservation for this hotel.”

“I don’t care,” the clerk scowled. “I told you we don’t have any rooms!”

Lou said, “But sir, I have a confirmation that guarantees me a room in this hotel this night.”

The clerk said, “Mister, I don’t care what you’ve got! I’ve got the keys and I’m telling you, there is no room in this hotel for you tonight. Got that?”

Holtz being on the smallish side and the clerk being twice his size, Lou decided not to press the matter further.

So, Lou Holtz picked up his bags and walked out into the cold dark Chicago night with two things on his mind: 1) how to find a bed in the middle of the night in Chicago, and 2) for the rest of his life, never to miss a chance to slam the Chicago O’Hare Hilton Hotel.

He tells that in seminars and everyone laughs.

That clerk is the nightmare of every hotel owner and manager. He deals with the public, often when no one else sees, and he can make or break the establishment.

As followers of Jesus Christ, in a sense you and I are on the front desk for Jesus. People look at our lives, watch how we handle stress and problems and frustrations, and come to conclusions about the Lord whom we profess.

We don’t like that. We say to them, “Don’t look at me. Look at Jesus.” But to no avail. They’re going to watch us.

It’s a heavy burden.

It’s also an opportunity, if we do it right.

Anyway, back to the receptionists.

A receptionist is on the front desk for the church. How she does her job will win friends for that ministry or alienate the very people the ministers are trying to reach.

Here are my suggestions on How to find a great receptionist for your church.

1) Ask the Lord to drop one out of Heaven.

I’m not joking. Ask Him to send just the right one, no matter where she is at this moment–already on your staff in another position, in the process of moving to your city at this moment, or even possibly unsaved and needing to be led to Christ and discipled and then introduced to ways of using her spiritual gifts.

2) Get the rest of the church staff involved in the search.

The other ministers and office staff know more people than you do, pastor. And know them in ways you do not. They’ll have ideas.

3) Look around on your own church staff.

Does one of the other ministers have someone working for him who would be ideal? The advantage here is that this individual is well known and time-tested.

4) Invite church members to volunteer without knowing they are auditioning.

In any church there are women who quit good jobs to bear children and raise a family, but who now are ready to re-enter the job market. They can be a wonderful resource for a church needing office workers. One advantage, too, is that they’re not already making a great income and thereby priced out of the market.

5) Find a great prospect and train her.

Mac Chandler taught me a valuable lesson here. As a college student, my weekend job was as a clerk-typist at the Birmingham office of The Pullman Company, near the railroad terminal. One day, Chandler, passenger agent for the Seaboard Railroad, called to ask if I would work for him the following summer taking train reservations over the phone.

I have no idea at this distance how much training his staff provided. Not much, probably. But after a week or two, Mr. Chandler walked across the office to my desk and handed me a little booklet titled “Tact.” He said, “Joe, I think you would find this helpful.” Inside, I found a wealth of practical suggestions on dealing with people graciously and effectively.

What strikes me about that little event was how, in giving me the booklet on “Tact,” Chandler did it with great tact.

6) Whether you train her or not, as soon as you put her on the payroll, tell her how you want things done. A few days later, tell her again.

How do you want her to answer the phone? Don’t assume that just anyone can do that well.

How should she handle people walking in off the streets looking for help? If you do not have an answer, pull the rest of the staff together and create one. Again, do not put her in the position of having to read your mind or invent the wheel.

7) Arrange for additional training.

Have an understanding with her–and with all the office staff–that there will be periodic training opportunities which they are expected to attend. On those days, arrange for volunteers–or even the ministerial staff–to cover office duties.

In our denomination, almost every state convention provides some organization for church secretaries, and they conduct annual meetings. Additionally, frequently, they will bring in professionals for one-day sessions with office staffs.

Put money in the budget for this. If you have to convince your financial people of the importance of this, then do it. You’re the leader, so lead!

All you are doing is enhancing the ministries of your people, strengthening the church, building greater bonds between the support staff and the ministers, and blessing every person who walks in the door of the church. Not a bad deal for a few bucks.

8) Then, once you get the receptionist made in Heaven, never let her go.

The only way you’ll be able to keep her is by magnifying her ministry in word and deed. Do everything you can, pastor, to see that the support staff is paid well. You do not want to be competitive with other churches; you want to set the standard.

Speak well of her, and encourage the ministers to show her proper appreciation.

Got time for a funny story or two about church receptionists?

Larry Fields is the former chaplain of the University of Tennessee Volunteers football team and the retired pastor of nearby Central Baptist Church, Knoxville. One day, his receptionist took a call from a young woman wanting to know if Larry would perform her wedding. She wanted to be married on the football field at Neyland Stadium, during halftime of a UT game, and she wanted star quarterback Peyton Manning to give her away.

They don’t ask for much.

Tuscaloosa’s Barbara Smith received the occasional call from an out-of-towner wanting to know if someone on the church staff could get them tickets to the Bama showdown scheduled for the following Saturday night. She says, “As if!” and laughs. In some cases, tickets go for a thousand dollars.

Barbara says one person called to ask if First Baptist Church will be providing child care for those attending the football game that night.

Never a dull minute.

I will never forget a morning in November of 1970 when the pastor of the First Baptist Church of Jackson, Mississippi, was about to interview me for a position on his staff. I’d driven down from Greenville that morning, and was waiting in the reception area where Mickey Brunson was plying her craft. That morning, I saw the gold standard of church receptionists. This lady was warm and sweet to every soul who walked in, sharp and professional and knowledgeable, and as pretty as a movie star. After I joined the staff, the Brunsons and McKeevers became great friends, and over the years when she learned we would be back in Jackson even for a night, Mickey always made it a point to call, saying “The Brunson B & B is available.”

After she left the employment of the church, Mickey did the same work at the Baptist Medical Center up the street and became their greatest employee. Some years later, I did the funeral of this precious friend. And no matter what people say about “St. Peter at the Golden Gates”…..

I’m betting it’s Mickey Brunson there. And I can’t wait to see her.

In fact, I hope it’s her. Because she won’t turn anyone away.

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