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October-November 2023

Forging Ahead


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Does your church need better records?


Just a Minutes!

By Eric K. Thomsen


Our Christian heritage is quickly and easily forgotten. What may seem important now—even unforgettable—may soon become an afterthought. One of the saddest verses in Scripture is found in Judges 2:10: “And there arose another generation after them, which knew not the LORD, nor yet the works which he had done for Israel.”

We have a responsibility to tell the story of our faith. It’s good for us, and it’s good for those who come behind us. As a church, the creation and preservation of good congregational records is a key part of telling that story. Sadly, many churches have been poor record keepers, and as a result, the story of how God has worked in their congregations is lost to the passage of time.
So, how can a church effectively create and preserve good records?


Find a System

Establish a system for keeping records that works for you and follow that system. While there is not necessarily a right or wrong way to keep records, it is important the church establish the system of recordkeeping rather than a clerk or some other individual. Encourage church leadership to determine what will be kept, how it will be kept, and where it will be kept. Then teach these expectations to each new clerk, treasurer, or historian. Record this simple policy within official church documents to avoid any confusion about the wishes of the church.

With a system established, what should church records include? Historian Robert E. Picirilli offers a simple, one-sentence formula: “Include the minutes, and then include anything that helps clarify those minutes—committee reports, treasurer’s reports—anything not included in the minutes themselves.”

Keith Burden goes into greater detail, suggesting four broad areas for recordkeeping:

  1. Up-to-date membership records

  2. Records of business meetings and proceedings (church minutes)

  3. Careful financial records

  4. Statistical records (attendance, births, deaths, and marriages)


Composing Minutes

The content of church minutes varies according to the bylaws and requirements of leadership. In most basic form, church minutes should record all official actions and decisions taken by the church. Most church minutes fall into one of two types. The first creates detailed minutes of the meeting; the second provides a summary or overview. The process can be simplified with the following suggestions:

Make it easy. Make sure minutes are dated, readable, identified well, and easily accessible. Robert E. Picirilli shares, “I can’t tell you how often church minutes start with no date, time, or occasion, just ‘The church met Sunday night....’”

To avoid creating confusion, carefully identify the date of the meeting, the type or purpose of the meeting, the number of eligible voters, and the time the meeting begins and ends. Matt Pinson, president of Welch College, suggests clerks carefully record events of the meeting by noting who made each motion and second and by putting as much information about each motion as space allows.

Keep it brief. Record the meeting completely in the fewest words possible. Capture a brief snapshot of what happened. In this quest for brevity, remember it is not necessary to record discussion about decisions. Record only specific actions taken by the church. Remember, the clerk’s job is simply to record facts and decisions. When necessary, describe responses to the decision. But avoid inserting your own opinion regarding the decision.

While some churches do not record motions or resolutions that do not pass, at times failed motions and resolutions are helpful to piece together the history and personality of a congregation. Don’t forget the spiritual side of the meeting. Who opened in prayer? Who led the devotion and regarding which passage?

Keep it consistent. Find a simple formula or structure for creating minutes and stick to it. Over time, this consistent style will streamline minutes and make it easier for future clerks or historians to locate needed information quickly. Keith Burden suggests the following structure for each action: Motion to...Seconded by...Motion passed. Others reduce this even further (and perhaps too far) by using MSC, a concise acronym for Motion, Seconded, and Carried that omits the names of those making the motion and second and reports only on the motion itself. Once again, be careful not to omit important facts. Any reporting structure chosen should adopt the goal of providing maximum historical data in the briefest form possible.

Record them promptly. Don’t wait to complete the minutes. Record details immediately, while they are still fresh on your mind. Thanks to new technology, meetings can be recorded easily on smartphones. Don’t fall victim to a faulty memory!

Suggested Content for Minutes

  • Date and type of meeting (regular, called, annual, etc.)

  • Start time and finish time

  • Official actions and decisions

  • Motions and resolutions, including who made and seconded each motion

  • Treasurer’s reports or additional financial reports

  • Committee reports

  • Significant staff actions (hiring, resignation, etc.)

  • Membership decisions


Make It Yours

You can’t keep everything. (I’ve tried.) Many pastors and church leaders become frustrated with rows of large filing cabinets filling the church office and overflowing with everything from local newspapers to denominational brochures or pamphlets. A good rule of thumb to keep the church office from looking as though it is run by hoarders is to keep only those items produced by (or about) your church. Trust district, state, and denominational archives to preserve broader associational literature. Rely upon the local newspaper office to archive back issues. Don’t feel it necessary to house the history of every church or organization—just yours.

Keep the extras. Retain the full text of resolutions, motions, and official decisions. When a decision or resolution is mentioned in minutes without accompanying details, the full text of the item may be lost to history. Matt Pinson suggests each church clerk create an annual notebook of church minutes that includes a heavy-duty cellophane sleeve or envelope. Throughout the year, the clerk should accumulate in the sleeve any items that might further explain the minutes to readers. “Low tech is not a bad thing,” Pinson advises. “These days, we tend to dismiss anything not done on a computer, but paper and plastic are your friends when it comes to preserving records.”

Well-organized notebooks, with clear labeling as an official supplement to the church minutes, make it more difficult to discard important records.

Find a Place. Determine a place to keep and organize church records, preferably in at least two locations: one inside the church and another outside the church to prevent loss in case of fire or flooding. Other simple safeguards for records include:

  • Invest in water-resistant filing systems.

  • Use acid-free archival boxes and folders to protect documents.

  • Store records off the ground to protect against minor flooding.

  • Use climate-controlled storage.

  • Never display records in direct sunlight.

  • Never add moldy or mildewed records to a “dry” collection without treatment.

  • Organize and label carefully.

  • Use common sense.

Take advantage of new technology. Computers and scanners make preserving church records easier for us than for previous generations. If your church copier does not have scanning technology, invest in an inexpensive flatbed scanner, and make it your goal to scan and store everything electronically. (If nothing else, digital apps turn any smartphone into a surprisingly high-quality portable scanner.)

While digital copies should never completely replace physical records, they make organization and preservation easier. Follow the same guidelines for digital records you would for physical records. Keep a backup in the church library or archives and another offsite. Flash drive, external hard drive, or Internet cloud storage—the type of storage is not as important as ensuring the collection is safely archived in multiple locations.

Update annually. To avoid an insurmountable backlog of files, set aside a specific time each year to organize, scan, and add records to your archive. Think of it as a necessary seasonal activity like changing out batteries in smoke detectors.

Understand your role. Few people are more valuable to local church history (and ultimately denominational history) than a conscientious and organized clerk. If you are a new clerk, make up your mind to do your part to preserve history. If you have been a faithful church clerk for decades, thank you. Please find someone to mentor. Share the tips and tricks you have learned and instill the importance of good recordkeeping in the next generation.


About the Author: Eric K. Thomsen is managing editor of ONE Magazine and the secretary of the Free Will Baptist Historical Commission. Learn more about preserving the history of your church in his new book, To Honor Our Heritage.


©2023 ONE Magazine, National Association of Free Will Baptists