Heading for the 21st Century
With this column, I want
to discuss with you the management of our current, inactive and
archival records. I want to explore the What, Who, Where, How,
Why and When of records. What are the records that we are talking
about? Who is working with these records? Where are the records
being kept? How do we decide the value of our current, inactive
and archival records? Why are we working with these records in
the first place? And when is the when? I believe the answers
to these questions are crucial for retaining our memory as we
head into the 21st century.
These questions are directed specifically to you as a) congregational
historians, as b) members of conference historical committees,
and as c) administrative assistants in various departments at
boards and agencies of the Mennonite Church. It is also directed
to you d) as records managers of several departments of an organization,
and to you e) as librarians and archivists at the regional archives.
I hope to hear your reflections on these questions, and publish
in this column reports of your work and experience.
Several tools have been developed over the years to help answer
these questions. Two that come to mind are The Task of the
Congregational Historian (1994), and Guidelines for the
Retention and Disposition of Records... for Mennonite Church
Boards and Agencies (1989). In my next column, October 1998,
I want to talk specifically about congregational records, and
give an example of how one church is working with their records.
Paper, Paper, Paper...
Each Sunday when I go to the church mailbox, I find more paper.
The Mennonite, a letter to congregational members informing
us of a new pastor, the Indiana-Michigan Conference Gospel
Evangel, a stewardship profile to fill out, and the schedule
for serving coffee. These papers are in addition to the church
bulletin with its "News and Notes" and inserts tucked
What is to be done with all this paper, when I have finished
reading through it? That question is important to me because
my work as an archivist centers on the long-term preservation
of important papers. In the items listed above, what would you
consider to be of archival value?
Who is in charge of keeping this paper, or making decisions about
its long-term value? I throw away all my mail from my church
box after I am finished with it. I look to the church secretary
and the congregational historian to decide what to keep for the
I must admit that I want to keep everything. I enjoy history
and know how valuable these papers can be for telling the faith
pilgrimage of a congregation. I also admit that I am frustrated
by having to deal with so much paper in this "information
age." Why do I receive so much information in my mail box
in the first place? I want to throw it all away!
My ultimate goal, however, is not to keep everything or throw
everything away, but to come up with a balanced view of the short-
and long-term importance of these records. This is the goal of
January 18, 1948, the Scottdale (Pa.) Mennonite Church issued
its first weekly church bulletin. The next Sunday, the bulletin
was numbered Vol. I, No. 2. I find that this use of a bulletin
in 1948 mirrored what a few other Mennonite churches were starting
to do. While some churches, like Prairie Street, Elkhart, Indiana,
began using bulletins already in 1942, it seems this was the
exception rather than the rule.
This event was noticed by Melvin Gingerich, custodian of the
Archives of the Mennonite Church. He wrote an article on "Church
Bulletins as Church History," in the May 31, 1949 issue
of the Gospel Herald. "As Mennonites, we have not
done as much as have certain denominations in recording faithfully
the events of our American church history." But now the
church bulletin can become a "permanent recording of weekly
local church history." Gingerich went on to encourage persons
who printed the bulletins to keep a complete set at the church,
and to send one set to the Archives in Goshen.
Today in 1998, we can celebrate the 50th anniversary of the use
of the church bulletin in Mennonite congregations. Through these
years, the Archives has received and filed these church bulletins
into individual Congregation Archive Collections. It is amazing
to see such a complete set of church bulletins, such as the set
from 1948-1990 from Scottdale Mennonite Church, housed in a few
archive boxes. In 1990, Scottdale began sending the bulletins
to the regional archives of the Allegheny Mennonite Conference
at Somerset, Pennsylvania, which had just been established.
Now as we head for the 21st century, I hear people asking questions,
such as "Of what use is keeping all these church bulletins?"
"Where do you have room to put all that stuff? Aren't you
soon going to be full?" "Aren't minutes of congregational
and council meetings more important to keep than bulletins?"
For some smaller congregations, the church bulletin is the one
regular piece of paper that the pastor and/or spouse have produced,
and so are extremely valuable. For other churches, the bulletin
is just one of many things distributed to members: newsletters,
"News and Notes," church directories, pictorial directories,
financial reports, and minutes of congregational meetings. In
these cases, the importance of the bulletin needs to be weighed
against these other papers.
It is these kinds of questions and answers I hope explore to
more fully in this column. Part of the answer also lies in having
each congregational historian examine what records the congregation
has produced over the last number of years. By making a list
of the materials, one can then see all these records together,
and can begin to make decisions on what is of value for the long
An Experiment at
the Boards and Agencies of the Mennonite Church, 1998.
In 1953 the Mennonite Church officially adopted the Guidelines
for Retention and Disposition of Records ... for Mennonite Church
Boards and Agencies. The focus of this policy was on the "retention
of records" hoping to avoid their destruction. It encouraged
church officers to be good stewards of their records, to kept
them as part of a sacred trust, and to see their correspondence
as part of the official records of the church.
Part of the reason for this emphasis on "retention"
was that some church leaders had destroyed their papers in the
1940s. This left a huge hole in the story of the Mennonite Church's
spiritual pilgrimage. The Historical Committee of the Mennonite
Church wanted to guard against such losses in the future.
The evidence of the success of these Guidelines is seen
in the well organized archival collections of the church at the
Archives in Goshen, Indiana. It is truly breath-taking to page
through the listings of these collections, and have the story
of the church unfold before one's eyes: Mennonite General Conference
(1898-1971), Peace Problems Committee (1917- ); Mennonite Board
of Missions (1882- ); Women's Missionary and Service Commission
(1915- ), Hispanic Mennonite Convention (1975- ), Mennonite Central
Committee (1920), La Junta Mennonite School of Nursing (1914-1958),
and so on.
Now years later, the need is to find realistic ways to handle
the mass of records being produced by the church every day. For
this reason the Guidelines for the Retention and Disposition
of Records were revised in 1989. The policy's focus shifted
to the "disposition of records." It starts by saying:
"Records are important. However, the long-range retention
of all records is not important." The Guidelines
then name specific factors that help determine their short-term
and long-term value: legal, historical, administrative and financial
functions of the records.
One very useful guideline for getting rid of paper is to "archive
by originating agency. Reports, minutes and other documents created
by one agency and used by another agency is archived by the originating
Recently, I have made contact with the program boards to ask
them to take these guidelines one step further by developing
a "Records Retention and Disposition Schedule" for
each organization. The initial step is to do a survey of their
current, inactive and archival records. From this survey, a schedule
can be developed for each board. Of course, this project will
mean hard work, and will take three to five years to complete.
How effective such a specific records schedule will be is hard
to judge, so I have called this an "Experiment at the Mennonite
Church." This column can be one place to discuss and report
how each organization is coming along in working with its records.
Heading for the
As we work on this specific task of managing records, I need
to keep in mind that the larger goal in all of this is "to
preserve our heritage, to interpret our story, and to proclaim
God's work among us" (mission statement of the Historical
Committee, 1995). With this statement of faith before us, I hope
we can become good stewards by developing workable guidelines
to manage our current, inactive and archival records as we head
into the 21st century.
Dennis Stoesz has been archivist for the Mennonite Church
Mennonite Historical Bulletin, April 1998