Usually about the only time records management is discussed in a church staff meeting is when some crisis has occurred. Either files cannot be found, records are lost or have been destroyed, or all of the filing cabinets are full and no more storage space is available. Unfortunately, churches seldom initiate actions to manage their records in a more effective and efficient manner.
Records management can be defined as "the application of management techniques to the creation, utilization, maintenance, retention, preservation, and disposal of records undertaken to reduce costs and improve efficiency of recordkeeping." The entire program of the church can benefit by improving its control of the records it maintains and creates.
The world we live in revolves around information recorded on paper, film, tape, and disk—this includes the life of the local church. Correspondence, invoices, contracts, minutes, reports, financial records, and hundreds of other records provide the information that moves the wheels of our institutions.
Today the volume of paper records—a fair share of it generated by computers, fast printers, copying machines, and other advanced methods of duplication—shows no sign of decreasing. Just to keep pace with the information explosion, an average company or institution today may double its entire volume of records every 10 years. This same statement applies to churches. With growth such as this, it is essential that church records be handled efficiently.
Regardless of their type, records pass through a lifecycle of three stages:
A period of active use when reference is frequent and immediate access is important.
A period of storage during which the records are retained for occasional reference and for legal reasons Those records scheduled for permanent retention should be identified for placement in the church archives or a permanent records storage area.
Final disposition of the records involves their transfer to the archives or their destruction if they are no longer needed.
This is the life cycle of all records whether an institution is big or small. It is imperative that all records flow smoothly through these three steps on a planned time schedule. If they do not, the organization will be faced with one or more of the following problems any of which can be a severe strain on resources:
- an unmanageable tangle of papers within the office
- wasted clerical effort searching for information
- loss of important operating information
- extravagant use of high cost office space and equipment
- loss of valuable historical records through destruction or neglect
On the other hand, with a well-planned records control program you can–
- save 40 to 50 percent of the space now occupied by records
- avoid costly paper accumulation by systematically disposing of records that have outlived their usefulness
- protect your church from accidental or premature destruction of records
- speed retrieval and save administrative time waiting for needed information
- avoid purchasing excessive office filing equipment
- identify and preserve those records that have enduring value
The following three steps are required to initiate a records management program.
Inventory Existing Records
This basic survey of the church’s records will tell you what records are maintained, where they are located, in what quantity, and how they are organized and arranged. This overview is essential for records management. It also establishes official record titles for all files, thus preventing the costly storage of several copies of a single record under multiple titles.
In making such an inventory, you likely will find many records— duplicates and dead records—which can be destroyed immediately. With the annual cost of operating a single four-drawer file averaging over seven hundred dollars, this savings in space and released equipment represents the first dividend of the three-step records control program.
Develop Record Retention Schedules
Record schedules specify how long each type of record is to be held in the office for active reference, in the records center or records storage area for semi-active reference, and when it may be destroyed or transferred to the archives or some other location for permanent retention. A written and approved retention schedule assures that records will cycle on a fixed calendar; it also establishes an authorized program for regularly destroying or transferring to the archives those records which have completed the retention period. It might be helpful to establish a church records committee or staff committee to establish and review record schedules. Input from the church’s attorney and auditor would be needed.
Store the Records Conveniently and in the Proper
The efficient and proper storage is the key to an effective records program. For example, the use of floor-to-ceiling storage for semiactive records still can provide ready accessibility while freeing more costly office space for more productive uses. The records storage center must be planned carefully to permit uniform box size and quick systematic referencing. Prudent records storage requires durable equipment specifically designed for this purpose, and which offers the greatest amount of filing space per square foot of floor space while furnishing pinpoint reference conveniently and economically. Care needs to be taken that the records storage area is environmentally safe from vermin, fire, water, the extremes in temperature and humidity, and other potential hazards that damage and destroy records.
These three steps—taking an inventory, setting retention periods, and designing a records center—are not difficult or highly specialized tasks. They can be undertaken inexpensively, usually using the staff of the church.
Other factors to consider in initiating a records management program involves the development and establishment of guidelines for a filing system. It is useful to slot or identify records into major divisions, such as:
Subdivisions could be developed and filed in an alphabetical sequence An example might be: Financial – Purchase Orders, 1989-90
Be sure that all church staff members understand and follow the filing system guidelines. A central file room is usually a good idea.
A policy statement with adequate procedures is needed for the records program. It is important that such a policy state clearly what records are "church records" and which ones are "personal." This will help avoid confusion about who owns the records when a staff member leaves the church.
Churches need to investigate the need for microfilming certain vital and historical records. Some Baptist state historical programs will microfilm records at little or no cost to the church. The Southern Baptist Historical Library and Archives will microfilm church records and other historical materials at cost and provide a film copy of the records to the church. The Southern Baptist Historical Library and Archives will maintain the original negative film. Microfilming records is an inexpensive method to preserve the historical and vital records of the church. As stated earlier in this article, a good idea is to establish a records committee to develop policies and procedures and review record retention schedules. Lay members with special skills, such as a lawyer, auditor, historian, and business manager, could provide valuable insight to the work of the records committee. An important decision is the designation of a person or position that has responsibility and authority to carry out this assignment.
The records committee needs to work with the church history committee for providing the proper storage of historical records and materials. A good idea is to designate a room or even a section of filing cabinets as the church archives. This area or room should be secure and free from any hazards that might damage the records. Some type of inventory or card index should be developed to assist in access to the church archives materials.
Don’t wait for the crisis to occur. Take the time now to control the church’s records. Once established, a records management program will continue to benefit the church and all of its programs.