Beacon Street Diary blog

Thinking of Starting a Church Records Retention Program?

by Zachary Bodnar, Archivist

In past years, the Congregational Library & Archives has offered a workshop and booklet dedicated to helping church communities establish, develop, and maintain their own records management programs. I am happy to use this blog space to announce that we are currently working on a newly revised versions of these important resources. Over time, the information described in previous incarnations had become outdated and obsolete prompting our current endeavor. It is hoped that a new booklet might become available in the coming months, and that an in-person workshop will be developed shortly there-after.

In the meantime, though, I wanted to use this space to discuss some actions you and your church community can do to setup a records retention program. First though, it is important to note how a church records program is different from a church archive. While both hold your records, only the records program contains what are considered “active” documents. Active documents are living records which are maintained for legal, business, tax, or administrative purposes. These include everything from tax forms to employment records to board reports to policy documents. Anything that is an active record is something which may need to be quickly and readily retrieved as part of your organization’s daily operations. When they become inactive records, and are therefore no longer part of a records program, they are either destroyed or permanently placed into the archive.

A records retention program, simply put, is a set of policies which determine what happens to today’s records after they are produced. These are the records your church organization produces daily and may include everything from the Parish Committee’s meeting minutes, to the employee manual, to financial audit forms, to an email from the office admin to the head deaconess. It can be daunting to think about the plethora of documents you make year in and out, but by creating policies now, you can ensure that important records, and memories, are kept forever more. Below is an overview of steps your church can take to begin thinking about, and drafting policies for, your records retention program.

Step 1 – Create a Records Committee:

Establishing a Records Committee will be an important first step. More heads are better than one, especially when it comes to trying to get a handle on your church’s records. The committee should ideally include members of your church organization’s administrative staff, ministerial staff, volunteers, and parishioners. If your church has a history or archives committee, the records committee should include someone from those committees, but should otherwise be a separate entity which works alongside the archival program.

Step 2 – Audit your Records:

This will be the most difficult and time-consuming step. The records committee should, over a period of 1-3 months, establish a protocol to systematically determine the types and volume of records your church organization regularly produces. This audit should also determine how those records are stored, either physically or digitally, and if there are any current policies in place which affect the storage and preservation of those records. It may be best to assign record types to broad categories, such as financial records, administrative records, building records, board records, and activity/social records, to help break down this task into smaller parts and to help further contextualize your records.

Step 3 - Create a Draft Retention Schedule:

One of the most valuable tools for a records management program is a retention schedule, a broad policy document which uses the information from the audit to specify how long each record type is kept and maintained as an active document before either transferring to the archive or being destroyed. Every state will have slightly different rules for employment and financial records, but the MissionBox Global Network has a simple guide for how long most record types should be maintained for non-profit organizations which may be adapted for use by churches: Document Retention for US Nonprofits: A Simple Guide. May records created which do not fall into business, legal, and tax related categories may be able to be retained for short periods of time, less than a year, before transferring to an archive.

Step 4 – Create a Records Storage Policy

With a draft retention policy in place, the next step is to create a singular repository to store those records. This can be as simple as a filing cabinet or as complex as a storage closet, depending on your church’s physical space and resources, but in general, the goal is to create a policy which clearly states where records types should be stored while they remain active documents. This policy should also cover electronic records; one easy method to create a central repository for digital records is to purchase an external hard drive upon which copies of all digital records may be transferred. It is ideal, when handling digital records, to create a policy on how digital files should be named and to create a well-documented file folder structure into which digital files are placed.

Step 5 – Create a Transfer and Destruction Policy

Simply put, not all records, digital or physical, can be kept permanently. Using the audit and retention schedule, the records committee, in dialogue with the archives committee if applicable, should determine which records, after they become inactive, should be preserved, and transferred to a permanent archive, and which should be destroyed. There is not a perfect formula to determine this, and every church community will have different standards and practices that best fit their needs. As a starting point though, I find it helpful to think about which record types tell a story. For example, while board reports tell a story about the happenings of a church at specific moments in time, IRS forms typically say little about a church organization’s daily life that is not documented elsewhere. Another general rule to think about is that records which include personally identifiable information, such as bank account and social security numbers, are generally safer to destroy rather than keep permanently as part of an archive.

These five steps are broad and without much detail, but my hope is that they can become a starting point as you and your church organization think about creating a records retention program. And during this time of remote work and zoom meetings, much of this work can be done remotely. Of course, the CLA is always happy to help too; please always feel free to send us an email. Our goal is the preservation of your memories, regardless if your records are held with us or not. And of course, we look forward to going into more detail with our newly revised booklet in the near future.

Further Reading:

3 Steps to Establishing a Record Retention Schedule

Document Retention Best Practices & State Guidelines

Fundamentals of Records Retention Schedule