A Time to Weep

Ecclesiastes 3 tells us “to everything there is a season” and the current season we are in is Lent. But most of the conversations I’ve had about Lent miss the underlying meaning of this season and focus only on what’s been given up. While Lent does incorporate the practice of giving up, also called fasting, the underlying purpose of Lent is to set apart a time for the purpose of grieving. So when I’ve been asked, “What are you giving up for Lent?” I’m not upset because I know one part of Lent is the practice of fasting, but another part of me also feels the loss in failing to connect fasting to the overall purpose of entering into a time of grief.

From the conversations I’ve had about Lent, grief and fasting are not often linked together, and this is understandable. At first glance, the acts grieving and fasting seem fairly distinct; one focuses on sorrow while the other focuses on self-discipline. However, Lent does not separate these practices but intertwines them. So what is the link between grieving and fasting? One answer may be that both grief and fasting allow the believer to learn how to let go of things belonging this world and to learn how to hold on to things belonging to God

Before diving into the link of grieving and fasting, it is important to first clearly understand what each process entails. Grief is not just an emotion but the recognition of loss, and while the specific examples of loss may vary, the characteristics do not. Loss is a combination of the inevitable, painful, involuntary and disorienting, and while we can’t control loss, we can control our response. When responding with grief, change is directed by the reason for grief. If grief is centered around the self, loss causes despair since it can only focus on what has been lost and the inability of man to reclaim. But when we grieve in the context of the Christian life, loss teaches us to face our mortality, values, and fears. For the believer, this lesson from loss is possible since life is not contained only on this earth but is sustained for eternity from God. Thus for the believer, grief should not cause us to spiral inward and downward but should instead lead us outward to express, embrace and explore.

While grief involves the emotions, it is also not a short or passive experience but a strenuously active processing of loss. This is because part of the Christian life is the long-term process of learning how to acquire and how to let go. Job reflects this process when in his grief he declares,

“Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return. The LORD gave, and the LORD has taken away; blessed be the name of the LORD.”  Job’s cry stems from the knowledge that his life was not grounded in what he possessed or what he lost but rather founded on his relationship with God. This perspective exemplifies the Christian grief which recognizes the loss on earth but simultaneously understands our lives ultimately rely on God.

So during Lent, fasting similarly reminds us our sustenance isn’t found in what we gain or lose but in the eternal relationship we have with God. Often times, fasting is merely seen as a way to practice endurance or self-discipline. However, its deeper meaning is revealed through abstaining from one form of sustenance such as food which then points to the greater sustenance of another such as God. The remembrance of and reliance on God through fasting then allows believers to focus on the renewal of a relationship with God. It’s a self-imposed loss which similar to grief should not cause us to turn inward or despair but should instead lead us to explore and embrace the relationship we have with God.

Grieving is difficult and at times overwhelming but it is also a process which ultimately allows for growth. While growth can be found amidst loss and grief,  “we do not grieve as others do who have no hope.” Likewise, when we fast, we don’t fast eternally but in preparation for feasting. Instead, we learn how to properly give things up with the belief they will eventually be replaced with things far better. So in this season of grief, let us patiently and somberly grow in the process of loss but let us also be encouraged in the hope of what is to come.

“And When You Fast:” Thoughts on Food in Preparation for Great Lent

‘All things are lawful for me,’ but not all things are helpful. ‘All things are lawful for me,’ but I will not be enslaved by anything. – 1 Corinthians 6:12

As we approach Great Lent every year, a common question pops up in online articles, during coffee hours after Sunday services, and in casual conversations among Christians and non-Christians alike:

“So, what are you giving up for Lent?”

Some may give up an activity like engaging in social media or watching television. Others may pick a single food item, such as candy, or soda, or french fries. It’s good to try and purge things from your life that are unnecessary or overly time consuming, even if only for a temporary period.

But I want to speak of my personal experience in the practice of significant dietary fasting and why I’d like to encourage evangelicals (and all Christians) to consider a somewhat larger-scale food fast this year for Lent.

(Of course, everything I say here is based on my personal experience and should not be taken as a substitute for medical advice. Anyone who wants to try fasting or make any significant change in their diet should first consult with their doctor and consider their personal medical and dietary history and needs.)

I was raised in an evangelical tradition, and while I grew up accustomed to the notion of fasting, the extent of my experience with and knowledge of fasting and other Lenten practices was limited to my observations of Catholic acquaintances. I knew that people commonly gave something up for Lent, and many of my (Catholic and non-Catholic) friends talked about giving up something specific and limited, like their favorite junk food. Chocolate was a popular choice.

I didn’t try fasting until I was in college, and I went pretty large-scale, compared to the kind of fasting with which I was familiar. For Lent during my freshman year, I gave up all animal products: meat and dairy, essentially. This is the fast I have kept (not without slip-ups, of course) for Lent since then.

Fasting has taught me some important lessons about my relationship with food. I’ve learned that I use food to to self-medicate, to improve my mood, and to indulge myself when I’m having a rough day.

One of the biggest lessons I’ve learned is that when it comes to food, easily and often, I am not in control: rather, food controls me. When I suddenly can’t reach for my favorite comfort foods, I get frustrated, sometimes depressed.

The tagline of many Snickers commercials is “You’re not you when you’re hungry,” with the implication that eating a Snickers bar will help you feel more like yourself. But is it really good for us to believe that we are somehow not ourselves and out of control unless we can always immediately satisfy our cravings and fill our bellies the instant we feel the pang hunger?

An acquaintance once responded to the idea of fasting by saying, “I don’t need to fast because I’m free in Christ to eat whatever I want.” But it’s not good to always eat, or do, or say, or think whatever we want. Acting on every impulse and desire is not freedom.

I’ve also heard people balk at the notion of giving up food in any sense because they simply “love” food too much. If the only reason a person resists fasting is because they truly cannot fathom giving up certain foods, or they enjoy certain foods too much to abstain from them even temporarily, that is no mark of freedom, either. It is more like gluttony. Fasting has taught me that I far too easily turn food into an idol, something I worship and rely on in order to feel satisfied.

I never knew how much of a slave to food I was until I tried fasting.

Another benefit I’ve realized from fasting this way is that it enhances the celebration of the resurrection at Easter. Fasting, followed by feasting, enables us to celebrate with all aspects of our being. Humans are not merely intellectual or emotional creatures; we are physical as well. I think many people like to believe that our bodies are not really part of who we are, or they are at least a lesser part of who we are, but that’s simply not true. God created us spiritual and material, and He cares enough about our bodies to redeem them through Christ’s incarnation and restore them in the resurrection we are promised after death.

After all, if our bodies weren’t an important aspect of who we are, fasting would be no big deal.

Further, by indulging in certain foods out of celebration rather than out of necessity (because we “can’t” give them up), we practice mastery over our food instead of letting food master us.

Fasting also inspires thankfulness by reminding us of the true purpose of food, on its most basic level: survival. When food is no longer about what I want or what sounds good and is instead just about nourishment, I am reminded on a visceral level to be thankful for such nourishment, even when it’s as simple as a bowl of rice and beans or a piece of fruit.

It’s also crucial to keep in mind that fasting is not about maintaining perfect abstinence in order to make ourselves “worthy” to receive God’s grace. It’s about freeing ourselves from any unhealthy relationship we may have with food (or anything else) and finding our satisfaction in God alone.

Food, Faith, and Fasting, a podcast hosted by Rita Madden (a Registered Dietician who also holds a Master of Public Health degree), is a great resource for anyone interested in learning more about fasting and spirituality, as well as gaining some practical tips on the topic. She has some good thoughts on the relationship between hunger and spirituality during a fasting season:

Now it’s important to mention something here, because when hunger goes up, frustration goes up. So when we feel hungry, we also get frustrated. Blood sugar goes down; irritability goes up. So be aware of that: there are going to be times when you’re going to feel frustrated more. Turn to prayer…When you’re feeling hungry, and you turn that hunger into prayer, whether it be at a service or in your prayer corner at home or just taking a five-minute break and just clocking out of your workday and having prayer, this is a good thing. This is how this tool of fasting can help us to deepen our prayer life and our walk in faith.

Again, the practice of fasting helps us master our hunger instead of being mastered by hunger. Instead of turning to food in our hunger, we can turn to God.

This year, I encourage Christians who have never practiced a Lenten fast, or who have never practiced it on a larger scale, to consider doing so by giving up something significant in your diet. Of course, one beauty of the fast is that there is no “right” way to do it; consult with your pastor or priest (and your doctor) to discern what is appropriate for you. It’s okay to start small, especially if you’ve never fasted before.

Try and choose something that will be difficult to give up, because it is largely in the daily work of the fast that the greatest blessings are revealed and that we are reminded to look to God alone for our true satisfaction and sustenance.

Mixing and Matching: Do It for Your Own Good, Not for Mine

Christianity does not exist apart from being expressed in specific people at specific times. There is no version of Christianity so “above” culture that it can be pulled down and plugged into a new setting without adapters. With that, mixing and matching Christian teachings and traditions is very healthy for the life of any given denomination or tradition. Investigating other Christian traditions gives a good idea of the essence of “mere” Christianity, saves theologians from intellectual inbreeding, and restores atrophied parts of a Christian’s own tradition. Continue reading Mixing and Matching: Do It for Your Own Good, Not for Mine

How to Read a Miracle by a Pope when You Aren’t Catholic

You may have heard: the Vatican has confirmed a second miracle by the intercession of Pope John Paul II. Details pending, the news release assures us that the investigation into the miracle has proven that the healing was permanent, instant, and not explained by science.

While we are used to the idea of various Christian creeds being saved and having personal relationships with Christ, the witness of a miracle may give us more pause. What does this mean to those of us who are not Catholic? Attractively tidy explanations present themselves: perhaps this miracle is a hoax or a misunderstanding. This seems an uncharitable reading of events, and I steer away from it. Or, perhaps this means that Catholicism is the one true creed, and we had all better convert. This seems a hasty reading of events, and I steer away from it, too.

So, upon hearing the news of a confirmed miracle, while the Christian naturally rejoices that someone, somewhere has been healed of a physical affliction (thank God!), she might also pause for a moment to consider how to read a miracle. I don’t particularly know, but indulge me as I venture a few exploratory thoughts.

Biblically, miracles offer evidence of a person’s relationship to God. The blind man who receives his eyes from Christ says to the teachers of the law: “Now, we know that God does not hear sinners; but if anyone is a worshipper of God and does his will, he hears him.” (John 9:31). So, it appears that answered prayers, especially on the scale of miraculous events, offer evidence of a right relationship to God. And right relationship to God, especially to the Evangelical mind, rests on right knowledge of God. Doesn’t it? To my thinking, the argument snags on this point: the link between right thoughts about God and answered prayers.

After all, it’s manifestly impossible to deny that God answers some prayers while the praying person lacks knowledge of God or even stands in error. Knowing God more is a primary prayer of the Christian, as we pray with the psalmist that he would grant us understanding of his statutes. Logically, at some point we must be praying for correct knowledge while we are in a state lacking that knowledge; we can’t achieve correct doctrinal knowledge without God filling our void or correcting our errors, as we pray he will. Therefore, absolutely correct doctrinal knowledge can’t be a prerequisite to answered prayers.

In short, when a fallen man or woman prays to know God, God answers the prayers of someone in error. Someone worshipful. Someone doing God’s will. But, someone whose mind contains errors, all the same.

Nevertheless, the fellow born blind in the gospel notes two qualities of the man whose prayers God will hear: 1) he worships God, and 2) he does his will. These two things do not have to indicate perfect knowledge of God (though the specific Person to whom the blind man refers does have perfect knowledge of God), but they do indicate a love for God, an understanding of the relationship between the praying person and God, and a submission to His will. There is biblical basis to make the argument that Pope John Paul II has a worshipful relationship with God and does his will. Regardless, I’m really not in a place to judge that.

This line of argument leads to the conclusion that a worshipful relationship with Yahweh and a genuine submission to his will may form more accurate prerequisites to answered prayer than does doctrinal understanding. Of course, right knowledge is necessary to worship, since knowledge and love tend to go together (for instance, I’d be miffed upon getting a love letter admiring my brown eyes, given that they are blue).

But, God seems to be willing to hear and answer our prayers where we are, if we stand in a state of worship, a state ready to learn truth even if we lack it. As convenient as it would be for him to reveal doctrine simply by confining his prayer-answering to those who know him without error, it would also confine all miracles to that short-but-glorious 33 best years of world history. God does not seem to like confining himself and his healing to the perfect, but prefers to perfect us with a scandalously broad generosity that allows answered prayers to those who want to know him more.

Miracles of physical healing have a strong scriptural tendency to be united with spiritual healing. Christ forgives sins and tells people to walk, revealing His status as the Healer and the One capable of forgiving sins. The miracle reveals his nature and his authority. However, when others perform miracles in the name of Christ, they prove not their own authority, but Christ’s authority and power. Thus, healing miracles reveal correct doctrine by revealing that Christ is the healer, rather than by suggesting anything about doctrine which is not naturally part of the miracle, itself.

Historically, correct articulation of doctrine has a stronger tendency to be proven by miraculous harmony in the body of Christ (i.e., his church) than miraculous harmony in a physical body: for instance, the faithful at the ecumenical councils united in one voice, saying that a true creed was indeed the faith handed down from the apostles.

So, it seems reasonable to hear that someone was healed when they asked Pope John Paul II for intercession, and think “Thank God!” and even “What a beautifully worshipful and obedient man of God,” without finding that a lack of allegiance to the Roman Catholic Church’s doctrine is necessarily challenged. God can go anywhere He wants.

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Tradition and Theology: Why I Love the Wesleyan Quadrilateral

I love the Wesleyan Quadrilateral because it is honest. Citing the four main sources of a Christian’s theology—Scripture, tradition, reason, and experience—it describes reality and lays a foundation for Christian leaders to prescribe how Christians should do theology. The Quadrilateral is true to history, what people do with their heads, and what people actually live through while confirming the chief place of Scripture in the making of theology. Although teachers have to be careful when diagramming the Quadrilateral, it is far better than waving around a bald “sola scriptura!” Continue reading Tradition and Theology: Why I Love the Wesleyan Quadrilateral

In Defense Of The Pope

I am a Protestant.  Not only a Protestant, but an evangelical.  And not only an evangelical, but a Calvinist.  In short, I have no love for the Papacy.  I do not believe that the Pope is the Vicar of Christ, nor is he in any meaningful sense the successor of the Apostle Peter.  When it comes to Christian doctrine, especially the gospel, the Papacy obscures rather than illuminating the truth of Scripture.

Having established my Reformation bona fides, however, I do believe the Pope serves a different kind of role in modern Western culture, an important role that he is uniquely suited for.

Due to all the papal fervor in the news after Benedict XVI’s resignation I started reading one of his many books, Christianity and the Crisis of Cultures.  In it, then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger carefully lays out a cultural and philosophical critique of the Enlightenment and her children, modernity and secularism.  He makes a persuasive case for Christianity as both a philosophical grounding for science and ethics and a cultural powerhouse, enabling creativity and promoting a freedom that is not self-destructive.

This is the sort of apologetics that many Christians, especially evangelicals, are becoming accustomed to.  Events and programs geared toward “defending the faith” are on the rise, spearheaded by institutions such as Biola.  The difficulty that such programs are encountering today is that fewer people are listening.  Increasingly people inhabit niche entertainment bubbles that are difficult to break through.  Between Netflix and RSS feeds, daily media consumption is made to order.  Major news outlets such as the New York Times or NBC, which still have some residual power to cut into these bubbles, are not likely to cover the latest William Lane Craig debate.  And yet one thing these same outlets cannot seem to get enough of is the Roman Catholic church.  This isn’t surprising.  Left leaning news organizations love to hate Christianity, and Catholics provide the easiest target.  The Catholic church is the largest and most visible single organization that claims to represent Christianity.  Moreover they are monolithic, such that a reporter can reasonably expect to get “the Catholic answer” to some question.  In contrast, you can speak to 100 different Protestant pastors and reasonably expect 100 different answers.

In short, the unique standing of Roman Catholicism on the world stage provides its leader, the Pope, with a unique platform;  the true bully pulpit.

Again, I would not actively promote Catholic dogma, but when the Pope is addressing the entire world, especially non-Christians, he tends to speak more broadly and philosophically, and not dogmatically.  In Crisis of Cultures, Ratzinger does not address at length the bodily assumption of Mary, as that would be counter productive.  He instead focuses on the common heritage of the West against modern secularism and Islam, which includes some ancient Greek and Roman thought as well as “Judeo-Christianity.”

And this is what I have in mind for the Pope’s unique role.  Rather than the actual head of the Christian church, which he is not, I view the Pope as a kind of figurehead of Western civilization.  The bar for this position is set decidedly lower than for the head of the church.  Just as I don’t worry too much about the specific doctrinal beliefs of the US President, It doesn’t matter much whether the “Head of Western Civilization” is a Calvinist or Arminian, Paedobaptist or Credobaptist.  Basically, he only needs to be a Trinitarian and a Platonist (to some extent) in the vein of Thomas Aquinas, Jonathan Edwards, or C. S. Lewis.  Even the Trinity is not strictly necessary, since the broader Western tradition includes Jews and some of the ancients as well as Christians, but I would argue that it was Christianity specifically that produced the art, science and political thought of the modern Western world.  Popes also tend to have the benefits of first rate intellects and educations, else they aren’t likely to be elevated to such high positions.

All of this, then, gives us a man who has a solid grounding in the best philosophical aspects of the Western heritage, combined with social and moral teachings that all traditional Christians and Jews agree with, and he has the largest and most visible platform of any public figure in the world.  There are obvious drawbacks to a monolithic organization like the Catholic church, as the recent sex abuse scandals make clear.  Such problems can be overcome, however, and the moral and intellectual authority of the Pope does not rest on any supposed claim to perfection.  Instead, this authority rests upon the power and persuasiveness of the ideas to which the Pope appeals and seeks to defend.  The ideas of the West.

Thus, when we consider the cultural battle lines being drawn between the heritage of the West and the forces of postmodern secularism, atheism, radical feminism, etc, I think evangelicals can recognize the important role of the Pope on a cultural and sometimes political level without giving into the error of trying to erase all doctrinal distinctinves (or pretending that they do not matter), undoing the important work of the Reformation.  We can join hapily in the public square with Roman Catholics on issues like abortion, just as we would with Orthodox Jews or Muslims, without pretending that we are all one church with an identical gospel.  And we do so recognizing that the Pope provides us all with a powerful voice;  one that Western culture desperately needs.

The Story of Civilization: A One Stop Shop for Western History

In 2012, I started working my way through The Story of Civilization by Will and Ariel Durant. It’s an eleven-tome series on the history of Western civilization, going from Eastern influences on the West in volume one and Greek civilization to Napoleon in volumes two through eleven. I got through the first six volumes of this series last year, and this year I will try for the remaining five. This series is one that I have wanted to read for a long time, and I am very pleased to have read what I could. Continue reading The Story of Civilization: A One Stop Shop for Western History

On Evangelicals Practicing Lent

The Gospel Coalition argued this week that Lent is primarily about Jesus, and so can (and perhaps even should) be practiced by those of us who aren’t in denominations that currently practice it (Roman Catholics, Orthodox, and Anglican churches, if my counting is accurate). Personally, I stand in a place where I’m open to and eager to learn from practices like Lent, the liturgy (of which I suspect Lent is functionally an extension), church history, and the church calendar, regardless of my status as a staunch protestant evangelical. Perhaps it was my education–reading believers throughout history, particularly before the reformation, will lead anyone to be a little more open to thought that used to sound rather Catholic to my ears–or perhaps it is something in my disposition, but I think that it is likely that many of us could learn a thing or two from certain ancient practices.

My reasons for this are more complex than what I’ll offer here, but briefly, here is an outline: our lives are such that we think and pray differently depending on our posture (and I don’t mean posture simply as ‘how we sit,’ though that is a part of it; I also mean the sorts of things we do with our bodies and minds daily), and so it follows that sometimes we should seek to change our posture to encourage us to think and pray better. Christians have sought to do this for a couple thousand years now, and some of our practices are directly Scriptural (communion, or the Eucharist, comes to mind, as does fasting itself, and baptism), while others are perhaps more cultural, rather than strictly Biblical (reading your Bible daily, for instance, is probably cultural: not everyone could read in history).

My point is simply this: if protestants want to practice Lent, at least to some degree, I’m certainly not one to stand in the way. The Gospel Coalition agrees, even if the Lenten model they suggest is one that makes a few odd moves (I’m not so sure I want to advocate using Lent in the same way that people use the New Year, as a way to list things they desire to stop, and then fight them for a period of time. Likewise, suggesting that we “Do not worry about whether or not our sacrifice is a good one” strikes me as missing the point, as well). But for the most part, when done with prayer and reflection, Lent can be a reminder for us of the time Christ spent in the wilderness, suffering temptation as we do. Beyond that, participating in Lent during this season puts us in fellowship with millions of other believers, acting in ways that we believe will help us worship and glorify our God all the more. There’s something to be said for recognizing that you are not alone in this world, and that something is that fellowship is encouraging.

But many disagree with the practice of Lent for the Protestant. The comments suggest as such, saying things like “If Catholics can’t perfect themselves via Lent, why should we follow it?” and the more cheeky:

What does it matter if you use the word “lent”–words matter– they mean something and you don’t get to make up your own definition and call it “redeemed”. What’s next a devotional on redeeming Monkery? I know, I know it is probably already out there. Really, do you need Lent to get you to turn the TV off?

Where is Jenny Geddes when you need her?

As for me and my house we will be serving up a large platter of sausages.

There are good thoughts here, and I wouldn’t dare deny it. Of course, I hope we are capable of turning off our televisions and praying, even if I don’t think there is anything intrinsically wrong with watching television. I won’t comment directly on the practices of monks, because I’m afraid of digging too deep a hole for one day.

But some go further: one pastor called the post “destructive” and suggested that TGC should offer an apology for it. His complaints, at least the ones that he voiced, are twofold: first, he argues that taking John the Baptist’s ministry leading up to the declaration of the Messiah and turning it into something we can practice is problematic, theologically, hermeneutically, and practically. The second complaint is the comparison of fasting during Lenten season to Jesus’ suffering in the wilderness, particularly the language of “…entering into the Wilderness with Jesus.”

On the first, I think too much is being made of the comparison. Of course, we all know that John’s mission was fulfilled, Jesus came in fulfillment of Isaiah, and we do not need to do so again. We also know that Jesus died and rose again, but we still celebrate those yearly on Good Friday and Easter, respectively. Preaching the cross and the resurrection may be a different sort of celebration than a Lenten fast, but I don’t think the comparison is all that far fetched. Much like we need the reminder of the Gospel, so do we sometimes need to prepare our hearts–which often look more like a desert than a garden–and perhaps Lent can function as a regular time of renewal.

On the second, my response is similar. Of course we do not need to enter into the Wilderness, in that we do not need to suffer that we may be saved, for Jesus already fulfilled that for us. But our fasting is, among other things, a denial for the sake of the glory of God. Fasting functions as a a time to set aside what would normally comfort us to pray, and so remind us where our ultimate comfort lies. In fact, we should probably partake in fasting far more often than we do, and following Lent is just one way that believers have attempted to keep the reminder in their lives.

I’m not convinced Lent is a requirement for all believers (this alone probably solidifies me as an Evangelical), but to dismiss it outright seems to ignore the way Evangelicals tend to use Lent: as a reminder during a set time of year that we rely on Christ for everything, even in times of plenty. If we can remember Jesus’ birth during Christmas and the resurrection at Easter, I have trouble seeing the problem with suggesting Christians partake in Lent.

Scholarship, Roman Catholics, Evangelicals, and the Use of Doubt

Before beginning, yes, that is an Oxford comma in the title. While some have done away with it, I find it still has merit. So sue me.

Today, a friend of mine brought this article to my attention. The title told me that I would likely disagree with the article. While I land decidedly not Roman Catholic (*cough Evangelical Outpost cough*), I instantly had a predisposition against what I was about to read. For starters, I am relatively certain that Roman Catholic scholarship is something that I am glad exists, even if I ultimately do not agree with a large portion of it. But aside from that, the definition of scholarship that the author takes strikes me as empty. For his definition, I find it best to quote rather than attempt to paraphrase: Continue reading Scholarship, Roman Catholics, Evangelicals, and the Use of Doubt

On the proper care and feeding of a church secretary

Hello, my name is Rachel, and I am a burnt out former church secretary.

The Stuff Christians Like blog had a post on the church secretary, the most powerful person in the church some time ago.  It’s eerily accurate, but I laughed especially hard when I read this in the comments section:

When the only church secretary I ever knew concluded her job was too stressful, she decided to take it easy and go to law school. Then run her own law firm. That pretty much tells me what I need to know about the craziness of being a church secretary.

I don’t doubt it.  I’m in my twenties, but it only took a few years in a small church office to burn me out—and I worked at an especially healthy church, full of good people who cared about helping me thrive.  Not every secretary—and certainly not every pastor—is as fortunate as I was when it comes to interacting with co-workers.

Even so, now that I spend much of my time writing about terrorists and the people who fund them, I find that it’s a lot less stressful than working at a church.

Burnout does not have to be inevitable, however.  With proper care your church secretary can provide you with faithful service, administrative magic, and (if you are especially lucky) entertainment for years to come. Here are a few tips for pastors interested in hiring and properly maintaining a church secretary of their very own:

Church administration is more than just a job.  It’s a very specific ministry, a ministry that not everyone is called to. (My early burnout probably means I’m not. I can’t be the only one!

Don’t think of your secretary as a mere employee, but as a fellow minister of the Gospel.  As such he or she can be a tremendous resource, uniquely equipped to lend a caring hand and ear to both you and the rest of the congregation.  She may notice things about the congregation that you don’t, because people may tend to treat her differently than they treat you.  Pay attention—this can help you understand your flock a little better.

On the other hand, church administration is more than just a ministry.  It’s also a job, and a very challenging job at that. Research what other administrative management positions in your area pay, and match or exceed that number. A good administrator will more than pay for himself by saving your church time, money, and other resources—he’s an investment you really can’t afford to scrimp on.

Be prepared to evaluate both her administrative prowess and her ability to work with people—do the people in your church feel comfortable approaching him?  Can she be trusted with confidential information?  Can she think on her feet when a hungry drug addict wanders into the office?  How will he respond when a new widow calls and asks how to plan her husband’s funeral?

Pastors, you already know how demanding your position can be—your church secretary will face some of the same emotionally-charged challenges. How well can he bounce back?  And how will you recognize and reward him for good work done in both the office and the reception room?

Some churches hire all their employees from outside the congregation, while others prefer to work with their own parishioners.  Will you hire a member of your congregation, or an “outsider”?

Whichever you decide, this decision is much more important than you may realize.  A member can bring a convenient amount of background knowledge to your office, but an outsider tends to command more respect.  A church member may know all about each family’s unique needs, but an employee who attends church elsewhere will be less troubled by those needs when she goes home at the end of the day.  Either way, make sure your congregation understands that they must respect the secretary’s days off—just as they must respect yours.  This isn’t as easy as it might sound.

Jon Acuff was right: in a way, the church secretary really is one of the most important people in your church.  She’s probably the only person who knows about the dozens of tiny, unseen tasks that keep your office moving.  And the only one who understands the copy machine’s myriad idiosyncrasies.  And no one else can remember how to print the church bulletin—you get the idea.  More importantly, though, she’s the public face of the church to a lot of people—Christ’s representative to your neighborhood. Make sure she has the resources to be an able representative, and then treat her with the same dignity you would treat Christ himself.  You won’t regret it, and neither will your congregation.

My boss at the church understood this last point especially well—will you?

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