By Keith Burden
Churches are notorious for being poor record keepers. Am I suggesting this is true of every congregation? No. Do I have a foundation for making such a statement? Yes.
I served as an association clerk on state and national levels. Through the years I experienced the frustration of trying to gather statistical data from local churches on our annual denominational report forms. On those occasions when I attempted to get a more complete report from a church clerk, I frequently encountered the same response—“We don’t keep records with that information.”
As the title suggests, keeping records is important. I’ll try to explain by asking a series of questions.
Is there a biblical basis for keeping accurate records?
In a word, yes! Several scriptural examples illustrate the importance of keeping good records.
In the book of Numbers the Lord ordered two numberings of the men of war in Israel. The purpose for the first census was to organize Israel’s military and assign religious duties. The second census was ordered to prepare Israel for the campaign to occupy Canaan and would serve as a basis for dividing the land among the various tribes. Moses found this information to be critical for bringing order and direction to the nation.
Another example is found in the book of Ezra, chapter 2. Ezra, the priest and scribe who led a group of deportees back to their homeland from Babylon, assisted in rebuilding the temple and restoring worship there. Because certain individuals were unable to produce appropriate documentation and valid family records, they were disqualified from ministering as priests (Ezra 2:59, 62). It was an unfortunate outcome that might have been avoided had proper records been kept.
In the book of Esther we read an intriguing story about a beautiful young Jewess, an assassination plot against the king, and a conspiracy to exterminate all of the Jews in the Persian Empire. Because certain events were recorded in the book of the chronicles, the sinister plot against the Jews unraveled and God’s people were spared annihilation. In all probability, this story would have had a much different outcome if accurate records had not been kept.
These biblical events convincingly illustrate the importance of keeping and maintaining complete records. There is nothing in scripture that would substantiate any claim that careful record keeping is anything less than prudent and profitable. God is a God of order and detail. Keeping and maintaining orderly records in the church reflects His character and nature.
What are some reasons for keeping records?
First, it makes good sense to keep records. It is impossible to remember everything. Even the sharpest mind is subject to information overload. Someone said, “It’s better to have a short pencil than a long memory.”
Second, keeping good records helps us do a better job, particularly in ministry. Without accurate records it is difficult to follow up on prospects or absentees in Sunday School or worship services. Unless we have sufficient data, it is nearly impossible to formulate realistic budgets or measure church progress numerically or financially. Complete records eliminate guesswork when it comes to setting goals and projecting growth.
Third, there are legal implications related to having detailed records. Those individuals who claim charitable contributions on their tax returns must be able to substantiate those claims with official records from the church. It may be necessary to produce written documentation if it becomes necessary to discipline vocational staff, volunteer workers or church members. Minutes of business meetings have been subpoenaed by the courts in lawsuits involving local churches. From a liability standpoint, a church can ill afford to neglect this vital practice.
Fourth, records preserve valuable historical data. Future generations will have no appreciation for the rich heritage of your church unless someone chronicles its history. It is easier to envision the future when you have a correct understanding of the past.
What are some important issues to consider when it comes to keeping records?
Start by taking steps to protect and preserve the records you now have. Old church minutes, financial records and legal documents should be catalogued, labeled and stored in a safe place. Membership information, Sunday School records and outreach data need to be formatted, organized and made accessible. This can be done using a standard filing system (i.e. file cabinet) or a computer database.
Steps should be taken to identify those individuals responsible for keeping and maintaining church records; never assume it is being done. Church clerks, treasurers, secretaries and others should be made aware of their responsibility in this area and given necessary resources and materials to perform this vital function.
Use church records to minister more effectively. Detailed statistical data can be of tremendous benefit to the finance committee as they prepare the church budget. Up-to-date records are vital to Sunday School outreach. Accurate membership information is a valuable tool for the nominating or personnel committee. Maintaining complete business meeting minutes enables members to make more informed decisions.
So what’s the big deal?
Incomplete or incorrect records can be costly, and in some cases, even deadly. Experts claim American businesses annually lose at least $200 million from misfilings, bookkeeping errors and incorrect phone messages. Pharmacists estimate there is a death a day because of incorrect medications or doses resulting from illegible handwriting.
The Lord’s work is the most important business on earth. Let’s give it our best effort . . . for the record!
About the Writer: Reverend Keith Burden is fwbpastove secretary for the National Association of Free Will Baptists. Article adapted from the October 2003 issue of Contact Magazine.