Managing Church Records

Introduction

Organizing church records is often a daunting task — but it can be done. This section provides basic information on:

 

Writing a Policy

A written policy provides a rationale for deciding what materials to keep or discard, and how long they should be kept. It is indispensable for the person responsible for organizing and discarding records, but also provides a common understanding for others, including committee chairs and church staff.

Although some items may seem valuable because they are old, a good policy will help you distinguish between what is important in the long term and what is not. Keep three basic criteria in mind:

  • Some items are important to keep for legal reasons
  • Duplicate copies are not necessary
  • Keep only what you create, i.e., no need to archive denominational newsletters, magazines, or published books

A good policy is a cooperative task. We suggest enlisting an ad-hoc committee or one or two interested individuals to help with the writing. Then it will be important to explain the policy to the congregation’s leadership and the staff members who will be carrying out the work. However good your policy may be, it will only work when it has the full support and understanding of all the people involved.

Download a sample policy document [MS Word format]

 

Weeding and Organizing Paper Documents

Tools of the Trade

Before you start, make sure you have these materials:

  1. Pencils. All new folders should be labeled in pencil, since they will likely be updated regularly.
  2. Good erasers. Since most pencil erasers inevitably smudge, we suggest using the Staedler or Magic Erase brands.
  3. Archive quality folders. Don't skimp on good materials — you will need folders that will not speed up the deterioration process. These are available at a standard office-supply store.
  4. Acid-free/buffered copier paper for making archive copies. Please note, that once the buffered paper is out of its packaging, it is all but indistinguishable from normal copy paper. The "good stuff" is usually less brilliantly white and has a water mark. You will need to order this from one of the archive-supply companies listed at the end of this booklet.
  5. Boxes or file cabinets. The average church file cabinet works just fine for long-term storage, though some archive quality boxes may be necessary for odd-shaped materials

 

Weeding

Gather up everything

Most — but not all — of the materials you will be organizing will be found on church premises. But some will have gone home with committee chairs or staff, and will only return if you issue a general alert. At this stage of the project, try to stay flexible. You may well end up with more material than you want, or have to convince a well-meaning member to release missing files.

At this point, you will want one or two long tables in an out of the way place that will be undisturbed — perhaps locked — while you are not working.

Identify what to keep

Our retention chart lists the different kinds of records most churches produce. The largest and most important include annual meetings, membership list, and minutes of standing committees, but you will also end up with many newsletters and bulletins. As you begin to sort them into piles, don’t worry about getting all your categories right the first time. You will likely be evaluating and sorting new material throughout the entire project. When in doubt wait, and the decision may become clearer as you keep working.

Download a sample retention schedule [MS Word format]

Start discarding

In most cases, one copy is enough. You can also discard all canceled checks, out-of-date monthly statements and bills, and weekly giving envelopes. From there, deciding what is "historically valuable" gets trickier. If you just can’t decide, we suggest designating one box for questionables, until you have a clearer sense of their value.

Shredding

Not all discards should be thrown away or recycled. Be prepared to hire a company to deal with shredding sensitive documents, i.e., financial statements and anything with personal information (addresses, phone numbers, social security numbers).

 

Organizing

Establishing order

Your ultimate goal is a method for locating documents without wasting time and energy. Whatever order you decide upon should be intuitive, clear, and consistent — in other words understandable to others beside yourself. It should also prioritize to allow quicker access to records you will be consulting regularly. Overall, a simple chronological or alphabetical listing works best, depending on the type of records. Ideally, committees should be arranged by title and minutes by date.

Labeling folders

You will definitely be making changes and adjustments as you go deeper into the material being organized, and so it is best to use a pencil. Keep the label descriptions consistent and simple: a good formula for labeling folders is <general topic>, <specific topic>, <YYYY year>.   

Create an inventory

We suggest using a mainstream, easily accessible software program like Microsoft Excel to create a spreadsheet, one that you can edit and change as you go along.

Share

Once you have a list, share it with those who are most likely to need to find items.

 

Safe Long-Term Storage

Identify hazards, reduce risks

Much of preservation is simply identifying possible dangers and avoiding them. For example, storing materials near a kitchen or fellowship hall — places associated with food, in other words — may lead to problems with insects looking for a good snack or place to live. The real key is minimizing the risk to historically relevant materials by animal pests, fire, flood, and of course theft

Climate & environment

A standard file cabinet is perfectly fine for storing records. In every case acid-free archive boxes and folders will guard against deterioration.

Basements and attics are fine for storage too. In the first case make sure to store everything a foot or two off the ground, to avoid damage by flooding. In attics protect records from potential roof leaks with polypropylene sheets.

The steadier the temperature and humidity level, the safer your records will be. Extreme heat and humidity encourage mold growth; fluctuating conditions can make paper brittle. A good dehumidifier will be a wise investment as mold is potentially dangerous for human beings as well as church records.

Avoid storing records in direct sunlight. Wood pulp paper is filled with acidic compounds which turn the paper brown and brittle as a matter of course, but sun acts as a catalyst. We recommend UV filters on nearby windows and over fluorescent light bulbs, which can also over-expose delicate paper to UV light.

If you are rescuing records from wet or humid storage, definitely check for mold. Water stains on boxes or a musty smell are tell-tale signs, as are black speckles or splotches. If you suspect mold, quarantine the material immediately and consult an expert. (The Northeast Document Conservation Center provides a good summary of procedures.) The material may need to be thrown away, to avoid infecting the entire collection.

 

Digital

Managing your digital files is just like managing your paper files — except when it's not. As seemingly unhelpful as this phrase may be, it's actually quite true. Just like paper, with digital files:

  • Appraisal is key — you don't have to keep it all.
  • Proper labeling will save time later on.
  • All files should be made of "stuff" that is sturdy and durable.
  • Files should be stored in an appropriate environment.

 

Appraisal

Every file kept on a computer (personal or office) that is made by a church employee or officer and pertains to the running of the church is part of a church's digital record. Remember that it is not necessary — or advisable — to keep every digital file. Those you do keep should reflect your overall records retention strategy and/or help you tell your church's history. Keep the files that the assigned archivist or records manager has deemed worthy of long-term preservation, and keep the ones you are required to retain by law for the mandated retention period. If files do not meet either of these requirements, you do not need to keep them after they have ceased to be actively used. In other words – digital appraisal is just like the appraisal of paper records.

 

Labeling

File names that are short and descriptive will go a long way toward making files easy to find. Add some sort of date information to the file name, and finding the right versions of documents becomes much easier as well. To help with this, consider adopting a file naming convention — a pre-defined structure for creating file names that accurately describe the file’s contents. The goal is to be able to know what the file contains without having to open it.

Your file naming convention should be simple, easy to follow, and understood by everyone needing access to the files. With that in mind the office manager, pastor, and other staff should have significant input in the process.

A few tips on naming conventions:

  • File names should be short, but adequately descriptive
  • Spaces are generally not your friend. Use dashes (-) or underscores (_) where spaces are required
  • Capital letters are also not your friend. Use all lower-case letters
  • File names should contain no special characters other than dashes (-) and underscores (_)

 

Structure Formulation Template Example
File name + Date of creation filename_YYYYMMDD bulletinchristmaseve_20121220
File name with hyphens and year file-name vbs-press-release-2013
Committee name + file name + date committee_filename_YYYYMMDD diaconate_homecommunionlist_20130615
File name + revision status + date, if useful filename_status sermon20130728_final
    churchhandbook_SMedits_20130729 (SM being editor's initials)
    stewardshipletter_draft3_20130429

 

File Format

The Right "Stuff"

Saving your files in "good" formats will help ensure that you have access to those files over time , that others will have access to those files (common file formats mean easy sharing) and that your files won’t deteriorate when you aren't paying attention.

File Type Recommended Format When to use recommended format
Document (text) .docx If using Microsoft Office 2007 or newer
  .doc If using Microsoft Office 97 or older
  .pdf When you no longer need to be able to edit a file, and need to retain it for reference purposes only (old drafts, last year's bulletins, last year's annual reports, etc)
  .rtf (rich text) If needing to easily share any text document created with another word processor program
Spreadsheet .xslx If using Microsoft Office 2007 or newer
  .xsl If using Microsoft Office 97 or older
  .csv When you no longer need to be able to edit a file, and need to retain it for reference purposes only OR when using any other spreadsheet program
Presentation File .pptx If using Microsoft Office 2007 or newer
  .ppt If using Microsoft Office 97 or older
  .pdf When you no longer need to be able to edit or present the file, and need to retain it for reference purposes only
Image .jpg For image files you intend to share (via email, cloud, or social media)
  .tiff For high-quality images to be used in printing, or that are to be archived and kept (Note: tiff files take up a lot of storage space)
  .png For images that are to be archived and kept (Note: PNG files are smaller than tiffs)
Database files .csv For back-up exports of data (to be archived) (Note: Assuming you are using a proprietary database software, a CSV export of the raw data will allow for the raw data to be put into another database system if necessary)
  Native file format Use whatever format your database program naturally saves in for the working copy of your database.

 

Storage

Storage of digital records matters, because how and where you store your files impacts their likelihood of being usable in three or five or ten years. While digital files aren't subject to mold or insects like paper records, they are subject to other perils. When storing your digital files, take the following points into consideration:

  • Lots of copies keeps stuff safe. Multiple copies in multiple locations (physical locations) help ensure that a sudden power surge doesn't wipe out your only copy, or that a flood doesn't take out your entire server. Maybe this means that you save a copy of your most important documents to an external hard drive or a USB flash drive and keep in in a bank vault. Or maybe it means you take a look at cloud storage
  • Storage media have shelf lives. A data CD will typically only allow access to items stored on it for 2-5 years, an external hard drive for approximately five. Keep in mind also that some storage media will become inaccessible when technology changes (i.e., floppy disks and zip drives).
  • Sometimes the easiest long-term storage for an important digital file is in hard copy. Paper stands up to "benign neglect" — meaning you can put it on a shelf and leave it and be able to read it 20 years later — in a way that digital files don't.
  • Sometimes the best and most accessible solution to long-term storage of digital files is a combined approach: print the most critical documents (the files that you would absolutely need in order to recover from disaster, or if you lost computer service for a significant amount of time), back up the next level of important documents to multiple storage media (CDs and a flash drive) and store them in different locations (maybe put one in a bank vault), and send the third-most important files (that do not contain sensitive personal information) to the cloud.[1]
  • No matter what, you should at least have a regular back-up of your digital records. These back-ups don’t have to be permanently archived, but should be enough to be useful to recover any documents lost in the event of computer failure.

 


[1] "Sensitive personal information" in this instance is subjective. Types to consider include Social Security numbers; information on confidential pastoral interactions, prayer requests, or financial assistance; credit card or bank account numbers; personnel records; tithing or donation information that has not been made anonymous; contact information that does not appear in a phonebook (unless you have permission to distribute). In all instances, when storing on the cloud, or on unsecured external media, ask yourself about the information contained in the files, and what the consequences would be of that information becoming public.

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