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Topics of interest to Clerks of Session, Session Moderators and others who are interested in Presbyterian local-church governance.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Help for Ecclesiastical Hoarders

Here's a question that just came up in our local church, so I thought it might be a good idea to pass the answer on to colleagues from other churches in the Presbytery.

Our Buildings & Grounds chairperson was up in the church attic a few days ago, and came across a number of old cardboard boxes filled with church financial records: check stubs, accounts-payable documentation, bank statements and the like.  The boxes all had years written on them, and some of them, he says, go back quite a while.

I knew immediately where these boxes came from.  Sometime in January or February of each year, our church treasurer fills a box with financial records from the previous year, writes the year on the outside in felt-tip marker, and asks that it be carried up into the attic.

"When is it safe to start throwing out some of this stuff?" our Buildings & Grounds chair wanted to know.  (He was starting to get worried about how much weight is accumulating up there on the rafters, not to mention fire safety.)

I guess it has been a long time since we went through that old stuff and got rid of some of it.  Fortunately, I was able to direct the person who asked about it to a place where a definitive answer can be found.

A Stated Clerk colleague from another presbytery reminded me of some helpful information from the Presbyterian Historical Society on the subject of records retention.  The PHS, located in center-city Philadelphia, is a wonderful resource not only for presbyteries, but also for each and every PC(USA) congregation.

Quick digression: Did you know the PHS will archive and store your church's historical records in a secure, climate-controlled environment in their large, professionally-managed underground storage facility?  Historical material of this sort that's been entrusted to the Society continues to be owned by the local church, and can be reclaimed anytime by the Clerk of Session or other authorized representative.

Records less than 50 years old are typically stored on a restricted-access basis (if someone shows up and asks to see the item, the PHS will first contact the local church to obtain permission). Beyond 50 years, they're fair game for historical researchers (but always under the guidance of the PHS staff, in their closed-stacks system).

It's strictly a holding-for-safekeeping sort of arrangement.  Not only that, but if a question comes along from a local church requiring research in its archived documents, a phone call to the PHS will send one of their professional archivists into the stacks to look up the answer.

How much does this service cost, you may ask?


Yes, you heard me right.  Nothing.  It's free to PC(USA) councils (what we used to call "governing bodies") - sessions, presbyteries and synods.

Well, it's not free, exactly - it does cost something, after all, to keep the archive staffed and open - but let's say the cost has already been paid.

It's been paid by per capita.

Yes, per capita!  The operating expenses of the PHS are provided by the General Assembly, out of the annual apportionment your church has been paying through Monmouth Presbytery.

Look at it this way: you've already been paying for the PHS' archival services, so why not take advantage of them?  It's an ideal arrangement for those old minutes books, registers and the like, that may be sitting in the back of a file drawer or storage-closet shelf (or maybe even in a cardboard box in the attic).

Now, back to our original question: those boxes of old financial records in the church attic.  Can we safely send those old bank statements from 1991 to be shredded?

According to the PHS, the answer is yes.  Their website includes a helpful guide to records retention, including specific recommendations for different types of records.  If you take a look at that guide, you'll see that bank statements can safely be disposed of after 7 years.  For deposit-slip receipts, it's just 3 years.  Old W2 records for church staff?  Keep 'em around for 7.  Better hang onto those annual audit reports and finalized financial ledgers, though: the PHS recommends that these be retained permanently.

For a fuller treatment of this subject, download the PHS' booklet, Managing and Preserving Official Records for Congregations.

There's a very popular TV show called Hoarders.  I've seen an episode or two.  The typical Hoarders show focuses on a person who just can't throw anything out.  These are pretty sad cases, typically rooted in severe psychological problems, and the TV show's team of experts seems well-equipped to address those.  Often, fear is at the root of it, as well as an inability to definitively answer the question, "But what if I need it someday?"

Well, when it comes to those old papers stored in your church's attic, there's no reason for hoarding.  The PHS' records-retention guide - not to mention their free archival services for the truly important stuff - gives you, as Clerk of Session, all the information you need to answer the "Can we throw this out now?" question.

Happy excavating!