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Records Management for the Local Church   Tags: administration, archives, records  

United Methodist Church pastors have a disciplinary responsibility to properly manage the records of their local church. This guide explores all aspects of a local church records management program.
Last Updated: Aug 7, 2015 URL: Print Guide RSS Updates
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  1. A Disciplinary Responsibility
  2. Terminology
  3. Introducing Principles of Records Management
  4. Vital Records
  5. Electronic Records
  6. Logistics
  7. Records Management and Archives
  8. Works Cited

Section One: A Disciplinary Responsibility

Who is responsible for keeping records in the United Methodist Church?  At what level are decisions made which affect recordkeeping policy?  The Book of Discipline allocates the responsibility for records at four different levels: the local church, the annual conference, the jurisdictional conference, and the General Conference.


Pastors in the United Methodist Church are mainly concerned with the first level, the local church.  The Book of Discipline (247.5a) strongly recommends the election of a local church historian.  Each local church should also form a committee on records and history.  The local church historian will serve as chairperson of this committee; provide an annual report on the ongoing care of church records and historical materials of the charge conference.  Also, the church historian, along with the pastor and the committee on records and history, is responsible for the preservation of all local church records and historical materials no longer in current use.


The local church historian and the history and records committee are to implement records policy.  The records of the local church include everything from the charge conference level to the church office generated records.  Examples include records from the trustees, administrative board, and any other committee of the local church.  Official church publications, such as bulletins and service programs are also included in this scope.  The creation of a records policy requires working closely with the pastor, as well as with various leadership groups within the local church.


The Book of Discipline requires the local church to properly manage its records.  However, there are other reasons for maintaining a records management program.  A records management program strives to achieve economy and efficiency in the creation, use, maintenance, and disposal of church records.  Removing older records from church offices frees time from unnecessary filing and searching, providing for administrative efficiency.  Also, for legal or fiscal needs such as litigation and audits, having organized records is invaluable.


Lastly, the United Methodist Church has an overall attitude toward openness.  In the Discipline paragraph 722, it states that the church disfavors closed meetings and the Discipline requires that a report on the result of all closed sessions should be made available immediately upon conclusion.  All church members have a right to view documents.


Section Two: Terminology

What is a record?

A record can be defined as a written or printed work of a legal or official nature that may be used as evidence or proof.


For the purposes of the local church, the term ‘record' should primarily connote non-commercial materials, rather than artifacts or published materials.  In order to appropriately understand what constitutes a record, it is necessary to understand that all records have three elements: fixed content, structure, and context.


Content is the information that makes up the substance of the record.  This information can be text, data, symbols, numerals, images, sound, or graphics.


Fixity is the extent to which the content is stable and resistant to change.  A record’s ability to “fix” information so that it can be repeated, recited, or recalled at a later date functions as an extension of memory and is at the heart of the concept of record.  Records are created to preserve memory and for accountability.  A record may be created specifically to preserve information over time or to prevent future misinterpretation of that information.  To preserve memory effectively, record content must be consistent over time.


Structure refers to a record's physical characteristics and to the internal organization of the record content.  Record structure is the form that makes the content tangible and understandable.  Physical characteristics include the components and methods of assembly, such as paper, ink, seals, and font families, or character sets, encoding, and file formats.  Structure also includes the intellectual organization of a document. A record’s structure may be very simple, such as plain text on a page; it may be organized into an outline or sections with headings; or it may be highly complex, including a preamble, the body, and the signatures of witnesses.


Context is the organizational, functional, and operational circumstances surrounding a record’s creation, receipt, storage, or use.  Context includes a record’s date and place of creation, compilation, or issue, and its relationship to other records.  Records may be in any format, including text, images, or sound. However, the concept of a record is ultimately independent of any specific carrier or format. Paper records may be microfilmed, and electronic records may be transferred from memory, to disk, and later to paper.  This will be important to remember once we begin discussing electronic records.


The term record is frequently used synonymously with document. To the extent the vernacular uses record to refer to any document, without specification, the terms are synonymous. However, again, the concept of record is independent of format, and it includes things that are clearly not documents. For example, an artifact may serve as a record if it is preserved to bolster human memory or to demonstrate accountability.


Records are sometimes distinguished from papers, with records referring to items that were generated as the result of routine organizational arctivities or transactions.  Papers refer to documents created on a more ad hoc basis, especially those of an individual.


What is a series of records?

A series of records is a  group of similar records that are arranged according to a filing system and that are related as the result of being created, received, or used in the same activity. In other words, a records series is a similar grouping of records or files.


Section Three: Introducing Principles of Records Management

What is Records Management?

Records management can be described as the systematic and administrative control of records throughout their life cycle to ensure efficiency and economy in their creation, use, handling, control, maintenance, and disposition.


Records management can be summarized as the task of retaining those church office records necessary for the function of active operations, disposing of those no longer necessary to daily active church operations, and to see that valuable records are appropriately preserved.


Essentially, records management is all about “What do I keep and for how long?”


Records Life Cycle

Records have life.  They are created, or born, mature during their use, and then are retired when there is no longer a need for their active administrative use.  At the point of retirement, a record can take several paths.  If a record has no enduring value past active use, it can be removed and destroyed.  If a record still retains some active value, but it is not used often, it may end up in semi-active storage at a records center.  However, if a non-active record has permanent value to the organization, it should be transferred to an archive.  The goals of archives differ from that of records management.  Records management concerns itself with records that are used for active purposes in organizational affairs, while archives are concerned with preserving inactive records of enduring value in an attempt to construct memory.


Records Appraisal

So, how do we determine when a record no longer serves a useful administrative function?  This is determined through a process called “appraisal.”  In the context of records management, appraisal has nothing to do with monetary value.  Rather, records appraisal helps determine when to retire the record and what to do with the record once it is retired.


All records can be evaluated along the lines of primary and secondary value.  Primary value is the active administrative value of the record.  Primary value measures the extent to which the record allows the local church to compete day-to-day or semi-day-to-day business affairs.  This is the primary concern of records managers.


Secondary value refers to the level of enduring value a record holds.  This enduring value is best characterized as how well the record preserves functional memory of an entity, for our purposes this being the local church.  This enduring value is what archivists are concerned with.


Again, it is important to clarify that records management concerns itself with the primary value of records.  An archive is concerned with the secondary value of records only.


The appraisal process is facilitated by a records retention schedule.  A records retention schedule is a document that identifies and describes an organization's records, usually at the series level, and provides instructions for the disposition of records until their retention period has ended.  The disposition of a record, as prescribed in a records schedule, may range from immediate destruction, to destruction after a period of time, or to permanent retention in the archives. 


The term "retention period" refers to the maximum and minimum lengths of time that a record must be kept.  Several different retention period designations can be used, such as: "Permanent", "Until Superseded", "Until Obsolete," or a specific number of years. "Permanent" indicates that the record series will be kept indefinitely. Records with a permanent designation should be sent to the archives.  "Until Superseded" is a retention assigned to records that are routinely updated or revised and where the previous version has no continuing value. "Until Obsolete" is assigned to record series that become valueless on a non-routine basis. Specific time period retention periods are based upon usage factors and legal requirements, such as audits. 


Fortunately for local United Methodist churches, a suggested records retention schedule has already been created by the General Commission on Archives and History.  The retention schedule is located in the “Guidelines for Managing Records” document located on the General Commission on Archives and History website.


Section Four: Vital Records

Vital records are those records necessary for basic church operation.  These records should be a top priority and not lost under any circumstance.  The best way to determine which of your records are vital is to ask the question, “If the building was destroyed, which records would be most important for getting the church back into operation? 


Vital records include:

  • Membership records
  • Baptism records
  • Marriage records
  • Financial records, including records of membership and tithing and records related to the financial management of the church, its staff, and programs
  • Any deeds or contracts


Copies or originals of vital records should be stored off-site of the church or conference, such as in a local bank.  Some vital records may exist in electronic format.Copies of electronic records should also be stored off-site, or in the cloud, and frequently updated by replacing older copies once they become superseded.


Section Five: Electronic Records

Electronic records in the local church office are vital to its smooth operation.  There are several proactive steps which must be taken that these electronic records remain accessible for the duration of their active use for administrative business.


Records must be migrated often, and church computer systems upgraded. Records on backup media, such as CDs, flash drives, or servers could be rendered unreadable after the upgrade. Therefore, it is important to test to make sure all vital file formats still can be accessed before an upgrade is completed.  If they cannot, then you must resave your records in a readable file format.


The computer file structure must also be organized. The same retention guidelines apply to electronic files as it does to paper files. It is important to understand that records that are not saved within a designated file structure will cause negative consequences. The foremost of these is being unable to locate a critical document related to church operations when the time is urgent. Storing electronic files haphazardly will also cause a degradation of hardware performance.  Folders which contain a large number of files are inefficiently processed on the computer.  You will want to replicate your paper records file structure on your computer.


Making backups is arguably the most important task when looking to preserve electronic records. It’s best to save on a network (in the cloud) as different physical media devices, such as CDs and Zip drives have varying degrees of longevity. You may want to backup another set of your vital records in this fashion.


Section Six: Logistics

Every office should have at least one person who is responsible for actually seeing that the records management policies are carried out.  In large organizations, this is the role of a full-time records manager.  This person can be the local church historian or someone on the local church records committee.


In some cases, records might be able to stay in their originating office until they are destroyed or are transferred to the archives.  However, if space is unavailable for the number of records that are still semi-active, these should be sent to an off-site storage center, such as offered by the company Iron Mountain.


For example, the Guidelines for Managing Records issued by the General Commission on Archives and History stipulates that local church financial records are to be retained for five years.  However, these are only fully active use for two years, and are desginated for semi-active storage for three years before disposition.


When the time comes to destroy records, you must be cognizant that records which contain personal information, financial information, or any type of information which can be considered private should be shredded.  There is no reason to not shred these documents under any circumstance.  Make sure that your church office has a shredder which can cut CDs as well.  If you have a mass of papers which need shredded, you may have to contact a company which provides secure shredding services.


Finally, a policy should be written which describes how to prepare records for temporary storage or for transfer to the archives.  This should include: information on which type of boxes to use, how to pack the boxes, and the creation of a list of the material in the box.


Section Seven: Records Management and Archives

At the end a record’s life cycle, the record should be transferred to an archive if it holds enduring value.  The retention schedule planned by the General Commission on Archives and History designates which records are archival.  Again, records managers are concerned with the maintenance of records which are actively useful for the functional operations of their organization.  Archivists are concerned with those records which are of enduring value.  Archivists usually advise records managers as to which of their organization’s records are archival.  This is then reflected in an organization’s records retention schedule.


United Methodist Church ministers must juggle a great deal of responsibilies in service to their churches.  Records management is a responsibility that could easily been seen as a "back burner" issue.  However, it is important that ministers dissuade themselves and others their working with from taking this viewpoint.  Records management is necessary, and each local church will face records issues.  Whether they choose to do so properly, or wait until an emergency situation occurs, the issues of records in the local church will arise one way or another regardless.


Works Cited

Works Cited for this Guide:

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