"All of us could make more money and get more benefits working as secretaries outside the church," said Peggy Trotter, a secretary for 27 years at Columbia Baptist Church in Falls Church. "But I think there's more in life than money and benefits. I can't do some of the things I would like to do, but I can live comfortably."

"The atmosphere is congenial," said Trotter, one of six full-time secretaries at the church. "I feel like there's a ministry involved in my work."

"A church secretary's work is different from other secretaries' work," said Joanna Shipp, a secretary at Fairfax Circle Baptist Church. "Our boss is different in that He has an eternal purpose. Christ organized our church and therefore Christ is our boss."

Mary Elizabethe Conklyn, 55, has been a church secretary for 17 years and a church youth director for five years. "I felt like God called me to be in a church vocational ministry," said Conklyn, who has worked at McLean Baptist Church for the past 10 years.

"I feel this is my calling. It's been very happy and fulfilling here . . . and I hope I'm here for the next 10 years."

The women are three of the 25 Baptist church secretaries who attended the recent Mount Vernon Baptist Association secretaries' workshop. The workshop is held annually to give the secretaries a chance to meet and discuss common problems.

The most common complaint of the secretaries - other than low salaries - is that they are not being treated as professionals.

"Church members are always asking me what I do!" said one secretary. "They have no idea what the job entails." Another secretary said: "It used to take me hours to address a few hundred envelopes because the machinery needed repairs. But it was never fixed until someone else from the church saw it and spoke up for me."

Unlike others in their profession, church secretaries are often called upon to do church-related work seven days a week. "Even when I go to church on Sundays, I come out with a handful of notes and work," said another secretary. Others nodded in agreement, adding that they often get phone calls at home in the evenings and on weekends.

"I don't know any church secretaries who are not overqualified for what they do," said Betty Hastey, a secretary at Westover Baptist Church in Arlington, "Most of us have been offered better jobs. But we love what we do. I was a medical secretary and a library assistant before this and this is certainly more rewarding."

Westover was without a pastor for 22 months recently, and Hastey was called upon to perform many of the pastor's duties. "Because I was the only full-time staff member, you might say I was forced into the status of being a minister. But I was happy to do it. I ministered to grieving people, hurting people and sick people both mentally and physically."

Ministering to distraught people - or "listening" to them - when the pastor is unaviable, is another way church secretaries differ from other secretaries.

"One time someone called and asked me to pray with them right then over the telephone," said Shipp, "I said, 'certainly.'"

Although the secretaries at Baptist churches in Mount Vernon began meeting formally at an annual workshop only four years ago, they've been gathering at casual luncheons for 20 years, according to Trotter.

But now the secretaries will meet quarterly and have decided to organize formally under the Mount Vernon Baptist Association.

"We need this organisation," said Shipp, who is acting as chairwoman for the group until it elects officers. "A number of the secretaries feel we can be helpful to each other. I helped some churches save money when I found out about a company that sold paper cheaper than the paper I was using," Shipp said.

"It's someone else to talk to about work problems," she said. "We have common goal, common ideas, and common problems."