Managing Mennonite Memory: In Pursuit of a Congregational
(Sixth in a series)
by Gordon Oyer
One records retention schedule for over 250 separate organizations?
Responses to a "customer service" survey have evolved
into that very goal. The Central District Conference Historical
Committee distributed the survey in mid-1999 to help identify
needs of congregations we serve. Its results highlighted "guidance
with record retention policies" as their greatest need,
and we began to consider how we might meet it.
Dennis Stoesz, in his timely introduction of this MHB series,
has aptly put forth systematic records retention and disposition
as key to "Managing Mennonite Memory." The series has
demonstrated that effective retention/disposition efforts are
best guided by thoughtful parameters, usually expressed in the
form of a records retention schedule. These schedules help creators
and managers of records determine which documents to discard
and which to retain in often-limited space. They work best when
tailored to an organization's specific circumstances and backed
by a central "authority" capable of assuring implementation.
Our committee enjoys neither benefit. We obviously could not
design schedules specific to each congregation, and we fill only
a limited advisory role. Adding to the task's complexity, we
decided to pursue it jointly with the other regional bodies (Ohio,
Indiana-Michigan, Illinois conferences) that may soon constitute
the Great Lakes Mennonite Conference, rather than issue a conference-specific
schedule on the eve of planned merger. With the help of Dennis,
we are also testing the current draft among a few congregations.
Now, our quest for better information and feedback turns to readers
of MHB, as well. After reading this article and reviewing the
schedule, please share your thoughts and concerns.
When I volunteered to draft a schedule for discussion by the
Historical Committee, I anticipated drawing upon several eclectic
experiences spanning the past fifteen years. During the mid-1980s,
as a University of Illinois staff accountant, I coordinated our
office's retention space, overhauled the campus accounting retention
schedule (under university archivist and State Records Commission
guidance), and attempted to monitor our compliance. I quickly
learned that getting administrators to take records retention
seriously is no small task, even when backed by state statute.
They often receive retention initiatives as annoyances that interfere
with their "real" work in the organization. Pressure
to complete projects and meet goals can make it seem more effective
to adopt "stash-and-purge" records management, followed
with pleas of ignorance and/or mercy.
Starting in the late 1980s, research for history graduate
studies and co-authorship of a congregational history taught
me the value of centrally-retained, well-maintained records for
historical inquiry. I also discovered how the quality of a single
congregation's records can fluctuate dramatically depending on
the inclinations of successive pastors.
Regarding church records, my parents' work as congregational
historians exposed me to congregational record keeping at an
early age. Later, stints on two conference historical committees
(Illinois Mennonite Conference (MC), 1993-1996; Central District
Conference (GC), 1998-present) added new perspectives on church
records. Here, I helped organize a congregational records workshop
and followed up with churches failing to centrally deposit records.
Together, these experiences illuminated the diversity of record-keeping
interest and practice across congregations.
Finally, though I have never worked as an archivist, I gained
insight on the profession's theoretical framework from two 1999
archival courses at the University of Illinois.
Given these various experiences, one might conclude that when
the opportunity arose to draft a retention schedule to accommodate
so many different congregational and denominational interests,
I should have known better than volunteer. Still, the emerging
document can hopefully mature into a beneficial resource.
Several documents designed for congregational archivists and
historians already exist. Although they have been available to
congregations for some time, the survey responses suggested that
an additional niche in records guidance needed filling. Consequently,
I approached the schedule mainly with those who actually create
and file active records in mind, i.e., ministers and secretaries,
especially of smaller and understaffed congregations. Also, we
anticipated the greatest incremental benefit by accommodating
those congregations now disinclined toward retention practices,
since those with a stronger interest would already have obtained
guidance from existing resources.
At my job, I had encountered views of records retention as
a hindrance rather than an aid. I currently perceived similar
vibes from some target congregations who hinted that questions
about retention practices at best addressed irrelevant busywork
that benefits only "historians" or at worst reflected
Our challenge, then, was to communicate that basic retention
practices benefit local congregations here and now-that it could
reap programmatic, administrative, and legal (not just historical)
benefits. We also needed to convey that the effort would not
require enormous resources or impede pastors' pursuits of their
congregational mission. In addition, while a schedule should
not overwhelm with unrealistic expectations, neither should it
imply a standard that would discourage congregations already
employing excellent practices. Nor should it interfere with or
contradict the efforts of regional archivists to encourage deposits
in their repositories.
The ultimate success of the schedule, however, hinged on whether
we could encourage otherwise disinterested congregations to simply
save important records, regardless of where they retained them.
Further, if the schedule had much hope of actual implementation
by those least inclined, its length should not exceed a two-sided
sheet of paper. In short, we sought content specific enough to
be useful, yet broad enough to be widely adaptable.
Constructing the Schedule
I began to prepare the draft by consulting several existing
guidelines. These included, among others, my file copy of a schedule
for financial records (unattributed); The Task of the Congregational
Historian (Historical Committee of the Mennonite Church: Goshen,
1994); Heritage Preservation by David Haury (Historical Committee
of the General Conference Mennonite Church and Historical Commission
of the Mennonite Brethren Churches: Topeka, 1996); "The
Creation and Preservation of Church Records," by Melvin
Gingerich and John F. Smith (typescript, n.p., n.d.); "Caring
for Church Records," by Lawrence Klippenstein (typescript,
Conference of Mennonites in Canada, n.d.). They provided a basic
sense of what records were considered important and how long
they were typically needed for administrative and legal purposes.
This process helped identify groupings of records: those documenting
program details and decision making processes (reports and minutes),
publications that portray and disseminate congregational information
(bulletins, newsletters, etc.), financial documentation (ledgers,
statements, etc.), facility records that document ownership and
structural design, and organizational records that address legal
status. Groupings like these might offer additional guidance
for retention of similar documents not specifically listed. Recommended
retention periods often reflect subjective estimates as to how
long a particular record might be regularly accessed by administrators.
Appropriate disposition of some records remains unclear, however.
For example, should donation records be destroyed when no longer
needed for legal documentation? Should they be retained and/or
passed on to a regional archives? How do privacy concerns balance
with historical value?
In the first draft, I tried to incorporate at least two concepts
that were later abandoned. First, I sought to rely on archival
language and concepts, discussing the life cycle of a document
through active, semi-active, inactive, and disposition stages.
Second, I recommended the ultimate "archiving" of a
document either in the congregation or a repository.
Feedback from the joint Great Lakes committee indicated this
approach was too confusing and unclear about exactly what we
expected. Spelling out specific measures seemed preferable to
permitting each congregation to derive its own definition of
what "archiving" entailed for them. Further, it seemed
that we could put limited text space to better use than explaining
the theoretical life cycle of documents. Most users simply want
to know when it is safe to throw something away.
The second and current draft, then, employs simpler language
and explicitly recommends a "two-prong" approach to
retention-keep one copy locally and, when appropriate, send a
second copy to a regional archives (see schedule). It also encourages
ongoing consultation and collaboration with regional archivists,
a key relationship we hope all congregations will eventually
embrace. This approach of offering generic guidance coupled with
regional archival consultation hopefully provides encouragement
without contradicting specific deposit practices that regional
archivists develop. Toward this end, the document also supplies
names and addresses of regional archivists (see box), and lists
additional publications offering more detailed guidance.
The document also incorporates short narratives to address
problematic areas such as audio-visual materials (in need of
special storage conditions), excessive memoranda (some of which
can be weeded), and confidential material (saving and restricting
is better than destroying).
We also provide brief guidance for considering electronic
records (see box). From an archival perspective, this area poses
special challenges. Maintaining records electronically provides
enormous benefits. Administratively, word processing and electronic
spreadsheet capabilities substantially improve productivity and
effectiveness. Email and web-based communication dramatically
accelerate our interaction and decision-making. For archives,
these media can greatly expand access to documents that previously
were limited to a select few with time and money to visit repositories.
Without question, electronic media are here to stay as irreplaceable
tools and documentary sources.
The archival profession remains cautious about the role of
electronic processes for long-term preservation, however. Rapid
changes in software and hardware can quickly render some forms
of electronic records virtually inaccessible if they are not
converted to new formats. Original electronic records can be
altered-intentionally or otherwise-more easily than paper or
microfilm. They also require special environments to minimize
deterioration, which occurs at a rate faster than acid-free paper
or microfilm. The dangers of fire and silverfish that plague
traditional records are replaced by those of magnetic fields
and hardware crashes. Only experimentation and passage of time
can reveal the ultimate potential for electronic record preservation
Archives themselves have varying capabilities for investing
in and supporting access to the various electronic records now
being generated by our congregations. One effort toward a solution
within the world of Mennonite records involves collaboration
between mennonite.net and the Archives of the Mennonite Church
to provide web-based archiving and electronic records management
guidance for congregations. Because of their diverse practices
and complexities, we especially invite readers' feedback on the
electronic records implications of our schedule.
In conclusion, I have found the effort to develop a congregational
schedule educational and rewarding, though still incomplete.
Its development continues this fall as the Great Lakes committees
renew discussion of the schedule. Please join us in the process
by sharing your perspectives.
Gordon Oyer is an Assistant Director of Accounting
for the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and serves
on the Central District Conference Historical Committee. Comments
on the retention schedule may be sent to him at 110 Flora Drive,
Champaign, IL 61821, or email@example.com.
Mennonite Historical Bulletin, October 2000