October is both National and Tennessee Archives Month. I have spoken with a good number of church historians (sorry if I haven’t gotten to you; feel free to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org) and encouraged them to establish records management programs and archives if they did not already have them. I have also encouraged them to use this time to make a concerted efforts to recover the church records that were in “Granny Williams'” trunk and celebrate their return. I also noted that the Conference archives will gladly take copies of such records for preservation or keep the originals, if the charge has no ability to do this.
One thing I found, (not surprisingly, actually) was that many folk do not see the importance, in the grand scheme of things, of keeping all that stuff. Will it help feed someone? Will it bring someone to Christ? Will it support someone’s faith as they deal with the death of a loved one or some other tragedy? Is it that important?
As someone who wrestled long and hard with the idea that a person could be called to “memory ministry,” I answer unequivocally, “Yes!” (I will cover this idea later in another piece, as I have written a more extensive document on the subject and will extract passages to make it appropriate for this forum.)
There are many reasons I give this answer, but below I have a sort of “Top 10 List. They aren’t necessarily the top reasons, but they are quick, easy to understand, and cover several areas of use of records. They come, with the exception of number 10, from the conversations I have had with church historians and staff of different kinds, secretaries, clergy, and laity, regarding this topic. I particularly like the last one, which is just a quote, but which I use frequently enough to have printed on a business card. So here they are. For Tennessee Archives Month:
“Ten Reasons Why Methodists Should Actively Pursue Keeping Records and Preserving Their History”
1. Records and church documents are testimony. Can you imagine the Bible without the testimony of Peter and Paul through the Epistles? Our historical documents are the testimony of saints.
2. What is not history today will be tomorrow; what is not important or unusual today, may be tomorrow.
3. Preservation of our history is a gift to our descendants. I have seen tears of joy in the eyes of many people when they found evidence of the activities of their ancestors or the early days of their congregation.
4. Documents may help us discern and explain the truth. In a world where our youth (and older folk as well) are bombarded by opinions about all manner of things, through all manner of media, there must be some place that they can go to see original sources, allowing them to base their opinions and beliefs on less filtered information. It is amazing how many people get incorrect ideas about Christianity and other things from the opinions of other people whom they have never met and about who they know little.
5. Record preservation helps resolve disputes. More than once in the past few years disputes regarding past actions of the church were resolved by consultation of records. By the same token, I have seen the absence of records leave arguments unresolved and seen dissension grow.
6. Historical documents show our relationship with the Methodist Church as a whole and the Church Universal. They also help us see our relationship with the world at large and how we both affect and are affected by it.
7. Maintenance of church records is part of our tasks as Methodists, outlined in the Discipline and further defined by the actions of various Commissions and Committees.
8. Maintaining our records is a good idea for very practical reasons. As of this writing, 3 times in the last 6 months, I have been asked as conference archivist to search for records that would prove changes in the structure of a congregation or support actions they have taken with distinct legal and monetary repercussions. In none of the 3 cases had the records been deposited with the archives, so I was unsuccessful. In 2 cases we were able to find some things that helped, but in 1, there was nothing.
9. In many cases, records maintenance is required by law. In many more cases, a well implemented records management program may save a church from severe consequences in a legal action. The presence of such a program is a defense, its absence a tool for a plaintive against the church.
10. “Biblical faith takes history very seriously because God takes it seriously” – Frederick Buechner
One last thing. I work in the secular world of archives. In the past several years I have had the pleasure of doing outreach, helping people with their own programs, and just generally working with folk regarding history on different levels. In a secular world (e.g. working for the Nashville Public library, my former employer) if someone looks at you and thanks you for your ministry, you know it makes a difference.
Tn Conf. Archivist
Jim Havron currently serves as archivist of the Tennessee Conference of the United Methodist Church. He holds a Masters in History and is a Certified Archivist, working in the public sector in addition to his work with the 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, and with practice focusing on religious history, oral history, and user advocacy. His primary area of historical expertise is the creation, preservation, perpetuation, dissemination, and use of information and technology, as well as religious history. He can be reached at email@example.com. He also blogs at other sites (his own and as guest or designated blogger,) under both his own name and pseudonyms.