Church records are vital to the life of every congregation. Not only is the church’s story told in its records, but the current work of the church is also recorded. Often churches do not think about their records until a significant anniversary is celebrated, a church profile needs to be developed, or a disaster destroys the records. The retention, organization, and preservation of records enables the church to respond to these events. Records are also vital for the church’s understanding of itself. For churches to understand why they currently have a particular mission or what their current ministry is, they need to understand their history and follow what has happened in the past that influences the present and helps to plan for the future.   

As an aid for churches to begin the process of gathering, organizing, and preserving their records, this guide provides both a method of organizing local church records and standardized terms to describe the various types of records usually found in local churches. The list is not exhaustive and records will probably be found which do not fit exactly into this suggested scheme.  In such cases a new term can devised or the records can be placed as a subgroup under one of the larger headings.  In any case, a note should be made describing how the records were handled.  In addition to suggesting this list be used by local congregations, the Evangelical and Reformed Historical Society uses the list when organizing and describing local church records in its collection.

Particularly important for local churches is the need to identify and preserve vital records. Vital records are those needed to conduct the life and work of the church if a disaster should occur. Although the definition of vital records may vary from church to church they usually include: constitution, charter, current deeds, membership and giving records, current budget and financial report, baptisms, confirmations, marriages, funerals, list of bank accounts with account numbers, current insurance policies, consistory or council minutes. To insure the availability of these records they should be copied and the copy stored off site in a designated repository. Copying can be in any of a number of formats: photocopies, digitizing to a CD, or microfilm. If digitizing to a CD is the selected method of preservation, the information should be migrated to a new CD every five to seven years because the long-term viability of CDs has not yet been determined. Also be aware that technology changes rapidly and hardware in the future may not be able to read CDs made today.

The Evangelical and Reformed Historical Society is the designated repository for all records of the former Reformed Church in the United States, Evangelical Synod of North America, and the Evangelical and Reformed Church as well as its local congregations founded before 1963. The archivist is available for workshops on church records and to consult with churches on an individual basis. The Society encourages churches to take a records inventory and send a copy to the Society to be included in your church’s file. In addition, we are always willing to discuss housing your records onsite at the society archives. Download a copy of the Arrangement of Local Church Records below.

Download the following article:
Wright, C. (1981). The local church and its archives. Historical Intelligencer: Historical Journal of The United Church of Christ, I(1), 20-22.