During the past year I have had both struggles and blessings when it comes to the way I have been able to approach and execute my job as Archivist for the Tennessee Conference. The biggest items in each of these categories center around the attitudes that local churches take towards their own role in keeping the evidence of their heritage of faith and the importance of that heritage to the churches.
In the blessings category, I rarely have a week go by that I do not receive a request from some church (granted, not always a Methodist one) for advice regarding the proper way to record and preserve their history, on methods for presenting the history of the church, or for suggestions on how to stir interest in that history. When members of some churches tell me that such things are not really that important, that churches rarely do or should spend resources in trying to preserve their history in a professional manner because they are not filled with history professionals, I am supported by the fact that for every one lay or clergy person who tells me such things I have requests for help from about two. Amen!
In the struggle category are not only those who suggest that professional and informed methods are a waste of resources rather than a ministry of the church, but those who are frustrated by the absence of records regarding their churches to be found in the Conference archives. They do not understand that the records that we have are what are given to us and that we do not have a staff to actively record the information on each church so that it will be here at some future date. If the church does not choose to keep it, and furthermore to give copies to the Conference, we do not have it, unless it has fallen into our laps by chance. That means that when, 40 years from now, one of the churches that does not now think much of the importance of keeping its records celebrates its bicentennial, we will not be able to fill in the gaps in their records for them.
Properly, the records of the various districts and the Tennessee Annual Conference no longer in active use but deemed to have historical value (hopefully through the criteria set forth in a good records plan such as that suggested by the General Conference) should come to us. We also should be available to take records that a local church cannot care for or to take copies they may wish to deposit with us for safekeeping. We are quite willing to do all of this. We are also supposed to receive the records of closed churches in the Conference. We do, however, rely upon the local churches and districts to provide us with their records. The Discipline gives the Annual Conference Commission on Archives and History the responsibility and authority to set up records management for the actual records of the Conference.
I would like to bring attention to a change in the wording of the Discipline over the last couple of editions regarding the role of the Local Church Historian. In the past, it was just suggested that the church have one and his or her duties were vaguely defined. In the most recent editions of it is still not mandatory for a church to have this position filled, but in the event it is, the duties are well spelled out. The Historian has “custodial” authority over historical records and objects. This is a specific, professional and legal term. I urge local churches to take their duty to preserve the faith seriously, and church historians to do all they can to exercise their authority in a faithful manner. This is not only their call and duty in a moral and ethical sense, but quite possibly in a legal one as well.
Keep the Faith.
Tn Conf. Archivist
Jim Havron is a Certified Archivist and currently serves as archivist of the Tennessee Conference of the United Methodist Church. The opinions expressed, however, are his own, unless otherwise stated. His education and experience is in history with additional focus on public history, archives and museums, religious history, oral history, user advocacy and where the craft of history meets technology. His primary historical research expertise is the history of communication and information theory and practice. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. He also blogs at other sites (his own and as guest or designated blogger,) under both his own name and pseudonyms.