May 19, 2016

Registrar, Clerk, Or Secretary?

Our by-laws stipulate that one of the officers of the vestry is a person called ‘registrar.’ This person records minutes of vestry meetings and makes them available to the group. “[S]hall keep or cause to be kept true and accurate minutes of all meetings. …Copies of vestry minutes shall be made available to each member prior to the next regularly scheduled meeting.” The duties of the registrar as found in our by-laws are just as straightforward: “The registrar shall record the minutes of all vestry meetings and all-parish meetings in a suitable minute book, which shall be maintained in the church office.”

Our parochial report asks us every year to provide the name of the clerk of the vestry, which we assume means our registrar. And our diocese, meanwhile, asks us every year to update our list of parish officers, and specifically they ask us to provide them the name of the secretary of our vestry.

Registrar? Clerk? Secretary?

All of these titles are talking about (roughly) the same job. They’re referring to the person who records and, as needed, revises minutes of vestry meetings and, from time to time, meetings of the parish. I get it, and so do you. I wouldn’t waste your time with a blog post about different names for the same basic job. I promise.

The question I want to leave here for the church is whether we might want to look at enhancing, expanding or making more useful the job of registrar / clerk / secretary?

The fact is that, decades ago, the clerk or secretary or registrar was not only the minute-taker but also the primary record keeper and a true officer of the congregation. The registrar signed cemetery deeds, as, in our case, she still does. The registrar/clerk probably kept and updated the parish register, probably keeping it at his or her own home, recording marriages and baptisms and various other services.

Over those same decades, however, we created a job in the church called ‘secretary’ and we installed offices in our parish halls. This position was often a paid job and, in time, it turned into a more expansive position, now frequently called ‘parish administrator.’ Over those same years, we’ve reduced the expectation of what we want or need from the clerk / registrar, leaving him or her to pretty much take minutes of vestry meetings. That wasn’t so much our own doing as much as it was our response to a changing world: over those same years, lifespans increased, financial resources increased, distractions in our everyday lives increased, and the freedom to travel more increased – all of which have made relatively impossible the re-creation of a local church that is completely volunteer-run. We had to bring all those operations ‘in house.’

A cost went along with these changes. And that cost isn’t only dollars and cents.

For as the parish church is changing, mostly from the inside out, we’re at a point now where raising spending will not, most likely, result in increased productivity or giving. We need, therefore, to start shifting back to historic practices and patterns of how a community organized and, indeed, how a community truly ran a church – all the while understanding and respecting what life is like in the 21st century, including all of the gifts and struggles technology brings. A parish administrator is a great thing – I say this personally; I’d be lost without our current parish admin, who is such a great asset – but the church cannot continue to add more responsibilities and more tasks to the position called parish administrator and expect that person to thrive, let alone expect that congregation to develop.

Perhaps we need a new approach to older practices, a 21st century both/and approach to the old registrar / clerk / secretary job.

We still need someone who is, technically, the minute-taker at vestry meetings and all parish meetings. Call that person the secretary or clerk of the vestry. Call that person whatever you wish.

If that’s the secretary of the vestry, perhaps we need a more robust understanding of the duty called ‘registrar’. Perhaps we need another person – or a team of persons – to help our office infrastructure with those things registrars of old once did, all the while respecting people’s time and gifts, what we can and cannot ask of them today. Maybe this new team can help the priest maintain the parish register? Even though it’s relatively ancient technology, computer databases still need that old leather-bound book to be updated. 

Maybe this new team can work with the treasurer and the parish administrator to reconcile all the membership lists? (Honestly, have you ever tried to figure out who, exactly, is a “member” of your church? Pro tip: Don’t go ‘scrubbing’ the list!) Maybe that person or that team of persons can help develop a pictorial directory for the church? Maybe that person can help prepare and distribute the certificates people deserve to get when they get baptized or married? (As a full-time parish priest, I really want to think that I have tons of time to prepare and print and sign and hand deliver those lovely certificates to baptismal families. But that’d just be me living in an alternate universe called the 16th century. For just as soon as the baptism is done, I have Mrs. So-and-So wanting me to consult with her on the floral design for the next wedding, and then I’ve completely forgotten about the baptismal certificate!) Maybe that person or team of persons can help with the annual stewardship drive? Frankly, in order to see where your congregation is in terms of generosity and giving you need accurate databases and reconciled lists.

Maybe this “back to the future” approach can bear even more abundant fruit as the church strives to move forward, not only devising creative responses to current issues but also drawing from our past potentially helpful practices and ideas. We do need, of course, to respect people’s time and allow technology – if only the opportunity to work from remote locations – to work for us, not against. But perhaps a season of necessary pruning in our institutional life is but one step on the way towards more abundant growth? 

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