Vital records are those which are essential to the continued functioning of an organization and are records from which duplicate copies should be produced. In a practical sense, however, a church probably has no records that are truly vital in this respect. Numerous church buildings have gone up in flames or suffered another disaster that destroyed all the congregation’s records, but continued to exist in spite of the calamity. Churches that have suffered such a loss faced inconveniences and a diminished understanding of its heritage, but they did survive.
The safe retention and placement of the church’s vital records make the continuation of the congregation and its work much easier in case of a disaster. Some records would be impossible to replicate, extremely inconvenient to lose, and vastly time consuming for the staff to reduplicate. Therefore, it is important and prudent to identify vital records and see that they are properly stored and copied in case the originals are lost or destroyed.
Identifying Vital Records
Membership records do not have the same significance to a church as a customer list does to a business; however, whether a church is 25 or 200 years old, the destruction of these records is a tragic loss. From a practical point, the redevelopment of the membership list would be extremely time-consuming for the church staff and perhaps even impossible. Generally, the loss of membership records would cause a nightmare for the church clerk.
From a historical standpoint, the loss is much greater. Membership records often show when individuals joined the church and when and by what method they left the fellowship. In some rare cases, Baptist churches have marriage and death records. These also should be viewed as vital records as they can be of interest to family historians, as well as a help in documenting church and local history.
Membership records also provide clues to the ethnic makeup of the church, where the early members came from, division or unity in the congregation at certain points in time, and other interesting and vital information about the congregation.
Legal documents are valuable to individuals and to organizations. The church’s deeds, mortgages, property abstracts, incorporation documents, and perhaps insurance policies fall into this category. In addition to these papers, some churches might have copies of bequests, annuities, trusts, or wills. These records document and describe legal and financial obligations related to the church. In case of legal action or the need for clarification on certain matters, these records or copies of these records should be accessible. The absence of these records could result in a financial loss to the church.
Usually legal documents for a church are not voluminous and are best suited for placement in a safety deposit box or bank vault. Photocopies can be made and placed in the church office where they can be available for reference.
Minutes of the church’s business meetings are the core of the congregation’s history. These records not only have historical value, but may contain certain actions of the church related to property, governance, and affiliations. Therefore, they may include essential information related to legal or financial matters. Related to minutes are copies of the church constitution, by-laws, and covenant. Minutes and related records should be copied and stored separately from the originals.
Most financial records have a short, useful life span; but some have vital significance. The original journal entry records and general ledger are permanent records. Copies of completed budgets and audits should be retained permanently as well. These records have both current and historical importance, but may not be essential to the continued functioning of the church. Some financial information is more vital to current operations, such as bank account information (account names, account numbers, signers, and banks); securities (bonds, pension plans); and tax documents. Duplicate copies of the most important financial records should be made.
Some churches, especially those with an adjoining cemetery, have cemetery records. These records are essential for locating the grave sites and providing information on the individuals buried there. The need to relocate cemeteries or the damage suffered by grave markers makes the survival of these records important to family members and the church. As gravestones deteriorate, an awkward confusion might develop if the written record of cemetery plots is lost. While most cemeteries are well kept, more than a few rural cemeteries have been abandoned. When this happens, the church records may be all that survive. Cemetery records are usually good candidates for microfilming.
Architectural drawings and blueprints of church buildings merit special attention as well. Their significance in many cases will be more practical than historical. The lack of a complete set of blueprints can complicate many repairs or renovations.
Unfortunately, older buildings, especially from the 19th century and earlier, probably were not built from an architect’s drawings, or the plans have rarely survived. In some cases, a congregation might consider hiring an architect or architectural student to create a set of plans and accompanying sketches or photographs to thoroughly document the existing buildings. Some churches are in their third or fourth buildings, and having plans of their earlier buildings would help document their heritage. Congregations occasionally display modes of their buildings in exhibits, and producing scale models from plans would be easier than from photographs. If only the exterior photographs survive, then the plans would add to understanding the functioning of the inside of the building and activities and ministries of the congregation during a given time period.
Another record not typically viewed as vital is a copy of the Annual Church Profile form (formerly the Uniform Church Letter). Usually a great deal of effort and time has been expended to gather the information and complete this form. Some information in the form appears in associational annuals and state convention annuals, but most of the information is not recorded in a published format. LifeWay Christian Resources maintains recent data from the Annual Church Profile in a computer format, but churches may find it difficult to retrieve copies or earlier forms. Keep copies of these forms in a safe and accessible location. They are also good candidates for microfilming.
Photographs, although vital documentation media, are not even considered as church records. They do not have vital significance from a legal, business, or polity point of view; but, historically and even spiritually, they are immensely valuable.
Churches often display photographs of former buildings and special events. These visual images graphically link the membership to their forebears and their heritage. Members need to be reminded that the church did not appear out of nowhere, but that faithful members of the past provided the resources and leadership for the church to continue in its mission.
Photographs of former pastors adorn the walls of many churches. Usually great effort was made to collect these photographs. Good quality negatives should be produced of these special photographs, stored in archival quality sleeves, and placed in a safe and separate location from the originals.
Duplication of Vital Records
In most instances, vital records and documents should be duplicated and stored separately from the originals. Church minutes, vital financial records, blueprints and architectural drawings, membership records, the Annual Church Profile, and cemetery records can best be duplicated on microfilm.
Microfilm, proven to be a stable format, occupies a minimum amount of space, is economical, and is easily retrieved. Some Baptist state historical collections microfilm church records at no cost to the church. The Southern Baptist Historical Library and Archives (901 Commerce Street #400, Nashville, TN 37203, 615-244-0344) assists churches in having their records microfilmed. It provides this service on an at-cost basis. The Library also retains the microfilm master negative in its environmentally controlled storage room and provides a microfilm copy to the church, which ensures the preservation of the information found in the records.
Legal documents are best photocopied. The originals should be placed in a bank vault or safety deposit box and the duplicates placed with other valuable records in the church office.
General Guidelines on Record Storage and Preservation
The preservation of vital records should be incorporated into an overall records management program for the church. A good idea is to establish a records committee to develop policies and procedures and review record 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.
The records program should start with an inventory of existing records and the development of retention schedules for all records maintained. The schedule should identify the types of records, the length of retention, and the final disposition of the records. The schedule also should include recommendations on the duplication of vital records.
Remember that all church information is not maintained in record books or on paper. Today’s offices include data found in a machine-readable format. This information is usually located on computer disk or computer tape. As computer hardware systems change and software programs are replaced and upgraded, some information may be impossible to retrieve. If vital information is maintained in a potentially obsolete format, consider converting this data to paper copy and then microfilming. Some computer information can be converted directly to microfilm. Microfilming vendors can provide more information on the computer output microfilm (COM) process.
The church should have a safe place to store certain vital and valuable records such as minutes and legal papers. A fireproof filing cabinet or safe is an important asset for preserving this material.
Usually the idea of preserving vital records for the church comes after a disaster, accidental destruction, or the loss of material by simple neglect. Don’t wait for the crisis to occur. Take the time to properly identify and care for the vital records of the church. This action could save you or your successor countless hours of work and much grief trying to duplicate records. More importantly, such a loss could even hinder the effectiveness of the ministry of the church.
For additional information on church records consult the following literature:
Donna Gandy. Fundamentals of Filing (Nashville: Convention Press, 1990).
"The Development of Records Management
Program at the First Baptist Church, Tuscaloosa." R. L. Guffin. Alabama Baptist Historian January 1992: 23-31.
Bill Sumners. "Records Management in the Church." Church Administration February 1990: 30-31.