Maintaining and preserving church records

August 03, 2021

By Heidi Heller

It’s likely your church has created a wide variety of records since it was founded, including membership records, financial records, and various meeting minutes. And over time, the question often arises whether all these records must be kept. While many of these records do not need to be kept permanently, others do. The permanent records help reflect the everyday business and activities of a congregation. They also help create the church's historical record, which often has a variety of uses beyond the individual church.
Some of the ways church records are used might surprise you. A prime example is membership records. Many individuals have not retained or have misplaced personal records for life events such as baptism or marriage. If an individual needs to provide proof of baptism prior to being married, they might seek the records from the church. Other times individuals need proof of marriage records for use in legal matters, such as obtaining retirement benefits or insurance. Again, they may reach out to the church in hopes that records have been kept. If the church has kept these records, it ensures that these individuals can get the information they need.
Genealogists also frequently use church records to find information on ancestors, including information on baptisms, marriages, or burial information. These records often cannot be found anywhere else and are extremely valuable to family members trying to learn the stories of their ancestors. Many family history researchers have contacted the Minnesota Conference archives looking for membership, baptism, or cemetery information we have for closed church records. Finding this information would not be possible if it were not for churches that maintained this information.
Additionally, various church meeting minutes can provide the necessary proof that certain actions have taken place. For example, if a church decides to sell a piece of property, the meeting minutes can provide the documentation of the discussions leading up to it and proof that a vote was taken to sell the property. Another example might be if a church changes its name or merges with another congregation; maintaining the minutes can provide a record of the steps leading up to the change. While these minutes may initially be used as an accountability tool for actions taken, over time they become proof that these significant events took place. And the retention of them can have legal implications for the church and/or other organizations.
To ensure that the necessary records are being preserved by a church, it is helpful to develop a record retention policy. The policy does not need to be elaborate, but it should reflect how long records are to be retained and which records are considered permanent. The General Commission on Archives and History (GCAH) has developed “Guidelines for Managing Records of the Annual Conference and the Local Church,” which is an excellent starting point for all churches looking to create a solid and easy-to-follow record retention policy.
The GCAH guidelines lay out the recommendations in an easy-to-follow format and cover most types of records created by a church. They indicate how long to keep records and when certain records can be tossed. Using these guidelines or creating a clearly written record retention policy can help ensure a church and church staff know what to keep and set guidelines for what periodically can be destroyed. 
It is also important that if a church closes, any permanent records come to the archives at the Minnesota Conference office. The archive maintains a wide variety of records including the records for many of the closed churches dating back to the late 1850s. If you have any questions about creating a records retention policy or which records your church should be maintaining, please contact me via email or by phone (612-230-6149).

Heidi Heller is the archivist for the Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church.

Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church

122 West Franklin Avenue, Suite 400 Minneapolis, MN 55404

(612) 870-0058