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From The Rev. Dr. Dennis S. Tierney, Diocesan Property Manager:

Photo by Wesley Tingey on Unsplash

In the 1960 musical comedy, The Fantasticks, the opening song is entitled, “Try to Remember.” It is a song about nostalgia and remembering. It was made famous by the Brothers Four and other popular singers. The third verse says this:

“Deep in December, it’s nice to remember the fire of September that made us mellow,
Deep in December our hearts should remember and follow, follow, follow.”

As we move into December, this song came to my mind but in the service of encouraging all congregations to create and maintain institutional memory both to honor those who have gone before us but also to help those who will come after us. Caring about the history of one’s congregation, retaining its organizational decisions and memories matters far more than mere nostalgia. Remembering is essential for all organizations to prevent the recurrence of poor decisions and to build on the hard and good work done by others.

It is critical to create and maintain accurate records of decisions made by bishop’s committees and vestries. It is essential to maintain church records about baptisms, marriages, and burials. It is enormously helpful to maintain blueprints and building plans. It is important to maintain records of when appliances were purchased and the manuals that came with them. Calculating future maintenance costs depends on accurate records of when maintenance was done and what was repaired or replaced. Buildings have biographies and need to be updated so that newcomers know what the old-timers know.

Photo by Maksym Kaharlytskyi on Unsplash

It is remarkable how fragile church memories, and their records, can be. Without a commitment to maintain archives, churches quickly can lose their memories and end up in a Groundhog Day loop, endlessly repeating the same errors. Some of the problem comes when vital information is retained by members of the church leadership but on personal computers or personal files kept off-site. When that person leaves a leadership position, the information ends up in a file in a garage or in the local landfill. It is then lost to the congregation. Some portion of the problem is that the congregation does not have a uniform filing system for its critical records. As clergy come and go, as parish administrators come and go, filing systems get abandoned or re-started again and again. And when that happens, vital information is lost.

The rise of computers and smartphones means that fewer paper records exist. When congregations do not have policies about electronic records, vital information is lost because the information exists outside the congregation, residing on personal computers, smartphones, and other electronic devices. When congregations have legal challenges, being able to track down critical information is essential to prevailing in a dispute. The cost of not having accurate information can be very high.

Happily, the diocese has an archivist to advise congregations about their record-keeping practices. Many of you knew Diane Wells, who served the diocese for many years in that role. Now we have Erik Bauer ably filling that role. I can tell you that both these talented and dedicated individuals have saved the diocese and many congregations a great deal of grief and money by being able to produce critical documents.

Photo by Mr Cup / Fabien Barral on Unsplash

So, I urge all congregations to start 2023 with a commitment to remember, to keep a clear and accurate record of the work being done to build up the kingdom. Leave your campsite better than it was when you found it by ensuring that your mistakes won’t be repeated by others.

To help, here is a list – not exhaustive but merely representative of the sorts of records I mean:

  1. All titles and deeds to property
  2. Any survey data on the property owned – clear evidence of boundaries and easements
  3. Insurance documents
  4. Church records as required by Canon law
  5. All use agreements with renters or other users of church property
  6. Blueprints and other architectural and building plans
  7. Maintenance records for all buildings and their systems – HVAC, etc.
  8. Records of purchases of computers, phones, AV equipment, and the expected replacement dates for these systems
  9. Records of major purchases of other equipment or furniture and expected replacement dates, especially roofs, gutters, driveways, sidewalks, and outdoor lighting
  10. Records of donated items – their history and importance to the congregation
  11. Burial records if the congregation has a burial area
  12. List of who has keys to the buildings
  13. List of contacts in cases of emergencies
  14. Location of all these records, preferably in fire-safe storage
  15. Off-site location of critical duplicated electronic records with regular updating

This Christmas, give your congregation the gift of self-knowledge by helping to create, maintain, and improve your congregational records. Keep the fire of September alive as we follow, follow, follow our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ.

Try to Remember Because Institutional Memory Matters: An Occasional Paper on Property Management in the Diocese of Olympia Series

One thought on “Try to Remember Because Institutional Memory Matters: An Occasional Paper on Property Management in the Diocese of Olympia Series

  • December 9, 2022 at 7:25 pm

    Another great sermon, Dennis.
    I hope the people responsible for the church buildings around the diocese are listening to the rain falling on their roofs and are remembering the recommendations they received from the building inspections conducted a few years ago.
    All the Best, Tom Wilson


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