Managing Mennonite Memory:
Mennonite Board of Missions, 1882-2002
(Eighth in a Series)
by Dennis Stoesz
Last year, Ethel Hoffman of the Mennonite Board of Missions
(MBM) at Elkhart, Indiana, initiated a push to work with its
older records. This was done to anticipate the completely new
organization, Mennonite Mission Network, which would begin February
1, 2002. The old had to go to make room for the new. This mission
organization also wanted to reflect on its 120-year history,
and some of this information was in those old files.
Dennis Stoesz is an archivist at
Mennonite Church USA Archives, Goshen, IN.
In the end, work was completed by four departments: Communications,
Global Ministries, Human Resources, and Services and Facilities.
Archival records were then transferred from these offices to
the Church Archives at Goshen, Indiana. This then gave me a chance
to write this report on the things I learned as I assisted this
mission agency to work through its inactive and archival records.
Decentralized Organization and Centralized Coordinator Role
Unlike Mennonite Central Committee with its centralized records
management system, the Mennonite Board of Missions was decentralized.
Each department was responsible for its own inactive and archival
records. Hoffman served as coordinator of office services, and
often took initiative to work with the older files of the departments.
I have found this centralized role of coordinator important at
MBM. Hoffman was the one who did all the paperwork connected
with the transfer of materials to the Archives. She also kept
a complete list (inventory) of the archival files found at the
Archives at her desk. In this way she knew where to look for
the historical documents, and how they had been organized. She
also directed the departments on how to prepare the files, and
how to type out an inventory listing.
I find it interesting that this coordinator role was housed with
the services division of the organization. This division looked
after finances, computers and personnel of MBM. Through the years
this department has also looked after all the facilities. And
I guess this could mean something as practical as knowing what
to do with all those filing cabinets full of old documents. At
Mennonite Media, in Harrisonburg, Virginia (a division of MBM),
it is the business manager who assumes this role.
The need to do something with the old files, however, is often
recognized first by the department. Sometimes the filing cabinet
gets too full or, as in this case, the organization goes through
In the end, the work of going through the files fell on persons
within the four departments mentioned above, and each story was
a bit different.
Services and Facilities Department, 1947-2001
It was Ethel Hoffman herself who culled and prepared the files
of this department for the Archives. She had been involved with
this office since the early 1980s, so she knew the files well.
This department began in 1980 and became separate from the executive
office. Maybe this beginning was a result of the increased responsibility
of managing the Mennonite Offices building at 500 South Main
Street into which MBM had moved in 1975. The building was purchased
in 1974 as a cooperative venture between Greencroft, a corporation
providing housing for senior citizens, and three program boards
of the Mennonite Church. The Mennonite Offices occupied the first
three floors, and occupying the top six floors of this former
hotel was Greencroft Center.
None of these files had ever been archived. Some that dated back
to 1947. Many were from 1974-96 which included records of the
"Greencroft / Mennonites Offices" relationship. The
files also showed the activities of the department in relation
to the office handbook, the social committee, the staff meetings
of the secretaries and administrative assistants, the library,
and the auxiliary of MBM. The files also showed how MBM already
had an archival policy in place in 1962 dealing with its records.
In the end, Hoffman kept one box of materials (1.25 linear feet),
and transferred it to the Archives on November 5, 2001. She also
prepared an introduction to the inventory list of files explaining
the history of the department from 1980-2001.
Overseas Personnel Files, 1899-1984 (Global Ministries)
A second batch of files that needed to be gone through were the
overseas personnel files. This job fell on Deborah Byler and
Diana Cook of the Human Resources Department. The files of North
American personnel had been transferred to the Archives in 1962
already, since most of these included shorter-term personnel.
And these personnel files had been sent to the Archives on a
regular basis since then. The files for the long-term overseas
missionaries, however, had been maintained by the Global Ministries
Department all these years. And they had not been archived. When
the management of all personnel files was centralized, it fell
on the Human Resources office to prepare the files for the Archives.
This work began already in August 2000, and the first thing the
staff did was to visit the Archives. They wanted to see what
was in those short-term personnel files, and wanted to get an
idea how one would go about this work. The work lasted over a
year, and eventually over 250 personnel files were prepared and
transferred to the Archives on November 5, 2001. The files filled
three boxes (3.75 linear feet).
Staff found that the files dated back to 1899, with persons like
Jacob Burkhard (1900-06) and his spouse Mary (Yoder) Burkhard,
1900-15, who served in India. The files contained such things
as application forms, doctrinal statements, pictures, and newspaper
articles about the workers. Staff prepared an inventory listing,
including each person by last name and first name, and gave the
beginning and end dates of the file. A short introduction was
The question was also raised about the policy governing access
to these files. These files remain Restricted, and any requests
for information need to be channeled through the Human Resources
Department. The personnel records are also found on a database
on the computer maintained by that office. Information includes
such things as name, address, location served and years served.
And the staff are continually trying to maintain an up-to-date
and accurate database on personnel, reaching back to the beginnings
of the Mission Board in 1882.
Global Ministries (Overseas) Files, 1985-90
It was on my visit with Rachel Good in October 2001 that I gained
the most insight into the work of culling and weeding files.
Good had already begun work on these overseas files a year or
two earlier since they filled quite a few file drawers. In the
end the final quantity of files filled five boxes (6 linear feet).
It was in July of 2001 that these files had been transferred
to the Archives. This inventory listing included the names of
all the persons who had worked in the Global Ministries Department
during that five-year period, 1985-90, including the dates they
served, and their area of work.
Back in 1995, I myself had tried to weed and cull an earlier
batch of overseas files, dating from 1980-84. I did well with
the list of file titles, the dates, and a brief introduction.
But I had trouble deciding what correspondence and reports in
these files were of long-term archival value. So when I saw these
1985-90 files come into the Archives, I immediately made an appointment
to have on-the-job training from Good.
She first gave me a tour of the Global Ministries offices, and
showed me thirteen drawers of inactive overseas files dating
from 1990-2000. Usually files were kept active for one year.
Then they were culled and weeded and transferred to the inactive
"Archive" drawers, where they continued to be accessible
to staff for nine more years. After the files were ten years
old, they were culled and weeded again, and then transferred
to the Archives in sets of five years.
These files contained correspondence and reports of the work
being carried out in various places overseas. The first rule
of thumb was "Does the letter provide a good description
of the work being carried out?" Second, "Does the letter
answer questions as to who (personnel) and their specific ministry?"
The persons could be missionaries or someone from the local church.
For example, a report of an administrative trip to the country
should be kept. But just as important would be a report from
a local pastor or administrator of that country. And third, "Does
the letter show any change to the program and personnel?"
This change could be a decision to start a new ministry, or it
could show the end or transfer of a program to another person
or organization. In the end, a good sample of the key correspondence
and reports are kept.
What then not to keep? A notice of a meeting, routine travel
arrangements, news articles, carbon copies of letters which are
not the main program of this Global Ministries department, articles
written on situations which do not come from primary persons
involved, schedules, and correspondence that does not add to
the letters mentioned above. Sampling is also a good method to
retain certain types of materials in the file, without having
to keep every one. This can pertain to newsletters, for example.
The only real question that came up was whether minutes of the
local church conference should be kept in the Global Ministries
files. Since the responsibility of keeping these records rests
with the church, these minutes were taken out of the files and
sent to the Archives to be placed in that conference's archival
collection: for example, the Argentina Mennonite Conference.
In the end, about 60-75% of the material is weeded out of the
files and 25-40% kept. This however, seems to me to be more of
an art than a science. It means one has to become acquainted
with the program and the people in order to know what documents
will have long-term value in telling the story of God's work
around the world, and who the persons were who carried out this
ministry. The hope is that some guidelines can be prepared for
staff whose interest and gifts are in working through old files.
Historical Photographs, 1900-1995
While the culling and weeding project was a challenge, I much
more enjoyed helping out in organizing the historical photographs.
This project was urgently needed because the Mission Board was
planning to publish two commemorative issues in their magazine
Missions Now. The Communications Department was also working
on a chronological time line for their web site, and needed illustrations.
Communications Director Tom Price had asked one of their staff
persons, Tim Voliva, to work with these photographs. Voliva was
a senior history student at Goshen College, and was doing an
internship at the Mission Board. Voliva soon called me for help,
and we were able to come up with a system to organize the photographs.
These photographs filled sixteen boxes (24 linear feet), and
included almost 1,000 files. The files were not in any order,
and the file labels did not include dates. There seemed to be
some files dating back to the late 1930s, with others from the
1980s. It seemed like the photographs had been filed alphabetically
by country or city, and that this had been kept up for 5-10 years.
But as the amount of photographs kept growing, and as only the
most recent photographs were needed for ongoing publicity, it
was difficult to keep the older sections in order.
Tim Voliva started by numbering each folder, giving it a title,
and indicating the beginning and ending dates of the photographs
found in each file. He entered all this into the computer. (This
took four months.) With the use of the sort function in the computer
word-processing program, he could then sort the whole section
alphabetically. The files were then physically rearranged according
to the computer printout. The historical photographs thus became
accessible to the Communication Department. They were transferred
to the Archives in January 2002.
I hope this report on the work of these four mission departments
shows how one works with a variety of records in an organization.
It shows how different gifts are needed to work with the older
files. And I have valued the role of a central coordinator, especially
in a decentralized organization, in continually reminding departments
to stay on top of their inactive and historical materials.