In Praise of Clerks

Outside of legal and ecclesiastical settings, the role of a clerk is rare. We think of clerks as rather Victorian: the old bachelor or young husband serving in the front room of an office in a Dickens novel. Through the 20th century, the role pretty much disappeared from everyday life, as secretaries replaced clerks as the lowest paid employees in a company. Times when men were not available to work these positions, as during the two world wars, had a lasting effect on our views of workplace norms. But maybe it’s time that churches and Christian business owners took a fresh look at clerks as workable options.

Now, don’t take this as a personal pitch against secretaries. I know some wonderfully efficient, capable women who serve as secretaries. They are a blessing to the institutions where they serve. They do a great job. And don’t take this as a patriarchal, male chauvinist rant, either. It’s not wrong for a woman to work. It’s not wrong for a woman to have an education. In fact, Christian women should be working hard anywhere they are, home or office, and they need all the education they can get. But we can easily fall into the trap of going along unthinkingly with our culture because evaluation of a societal norm can be uncomfortable.

There are many reasons that we need to rethink the position that women typically fill in North America. A clerk is a bachelor or a young man who does the paper/computer work, answers the phone, and takes care of the office odds and ends. Usually women are hired for these positions because they are lower paid, but the lower income should not mean that a man cannot work in the same position for the same salary. A clerk is a man who does not require a more substantial income because of family demands, whether he is in college and planning for a family or whether he is single and near retirement. Hiring a clerk in place of a secretary makes a lot of sense on many fronts.

1. In this economy, the role of clerk would give men a job. I know that it is controversial to give a man job priority over a woman, but let’s face it: in spite all the feminism, men are still the primary breadwinners in families, and they should be (I Tim. 5:8). What about single women, you ask? As primary breadwinners, shouldn’t they have jobs, too? Of course. But there are women working as secretaries whose income supplements their husband’s. I’m not saying that they don’t need the money, I’m not saying they should not work. I’m saying that where a man could support himself and maybe a wife with the job that is simply supplementing a married woman’s household income, then the man should get the job, competence being equal. No, this is not politically correct. But it would enable more men to provide for themselves and their wives.

2. The role of clerk also gives men the opportunity for job experience and training in a field in which they could serve more substantially later on. We’ve talked to several young men who say that nobody will hire them because they have no work experience, but they have nowhere to get it. If Christian business owners would take on unemployed men as clerks, they would be providing employment and preparation for future employment. I asked the manager of an American company what he thought of clerks: “The clerk position is so ideal because the young guys get to interact with management and see exactly what the day to day operations of the company are. Nowadays [they] just get sent to some cubical and it might be years till they get to see the management side of things.” Clerks would ameliorate this problem.

3. If churches hired clerks instead of secretaries, it would provide opportunities for evaluating gifts for ministry. How do you tell if a young man has what it takes to be in the pastorate? Stick him in the church office for a start, and see how he does. True, it will not tell you what he’s like in a pulpit, but it will tell you volumes about his willingness to serve behind the scenes, his ability to deal with people, and how he does under authority. When congregations are more concerned about the bottom line than they are about gospel work, secretaries often replace clerks. A friend from a seminary in another state pointed out that a “church used to have three [seminary] students as interns, who taught Sunday school, did counseling, and all sorts of things, but the church decided to hire one full-time staff member instead. So they discontinued hiring interns, giving young men who want to serve the church a harder time gaining any experience.” Clerks make a lot of sense in the church.

4. Replacing secretaries with clerks would also reduce the opportunity for work place adultery. Secretary jokes are standard in our world because people know it’s a reality. We know women whose husbands have left them for their secretaries. Think about it: having a woman who is not your wife helping you day in, day out opens up a huge avenue for emotional entanglements which often lead to physical ones. A clerk, while not removing the sin in your heart, will remove the opportunity, and that’s half the battle (Matt. 5:28-30). Of course, in our culture, there is the complication of homosexuality, but heterosexual adultery is still far more prevalent, and a much bigger concern for the average Christian man. While this is not an issue for every Christian man with a secretary, clerks would make it an issue for far less.

So I’m not asking anyone to fire their secretary. I’m asking the Christian community to rethink norms in ways that will help each other live more holy, useful lives at work in this day and age.