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Advice From The Archives: Your Church Ledgers

I received an email from a church administrator in New Jersey (Hi, Theresa!) who asked a question about maintaining records that others might well be pondering.

[[{"type":"media","view_mode":"media_original","fid":"495","attributes":{"alt":"membership list in a ledger","class":"media-image","style":"width: 150px; height: 137px; float: left; margin: 5px 10px 5px 0px;","title":"membership list in a ledger","typeof":"foaf:Image"}}]]This church currently keeps its membership records in a ledger, on index cards, and in a new-ish database. What do you maintain? They are interested in doing what's best historically speaking, but also don't want to maintain three different sets of records. What to do?

My suggestion in this case is to put all their current members into the database. A program that's worth using should be flexible enough to be searchable and to create reports that will hopefully make at least the cards redundant. In this case, there was even a fourth system: their newsletter mailing list. Ideally, they would import that newsletter list as a way to jumpstart the new database. (Then maybe you don't need that separate list, either!).

[[{"type":"media","view_mode":"media_original","fid":"494","attributes":{"alt":"database entry form","class":"media-image","style":"width: 150px; height: 102px; float: right; margin: 5px 0px 5px 10px;","title":"database entry form","typeof":"foaf:Image"}}]]Regarding the question, "What about preserving the ledger book?", I admit I do love a good ledger book. It's fool-proof against computer crashes. I have two suggestions for this:

  1. Print out a report on a scheduled basis -- once a year, quarterly, whatever suits your needs -- that will duplicate the information you'd put into the ledger and keep that with the older, historical records. Those who want to boost the lifespan of that printed report can use high quality paper and print at the finest settings.*
  2. All churches tend to come with a bevvy of interested retirees who are waiting for a task that's important, but perhaps a burden to office staff. Find someone reliable with nice handwriting, give him or her a copy of the latest members, baptisms, communion class, and s/he can transcribe that list into the old ledger.

I hope this advice proves to be useful not only to our friends in New Jersey, but to those of our readers who hadn't realized they could ask one of our stable of archivists what the best practice might be on this sort of thing. Please do keep asking us. It's what we're here for.



* Webmaster's note: You should also back up your database on a regular schedule and keep a copy outside the church. If the church has a safety deposit box, put the file on a flash drive and take it over to the bank when you make a deposit.

Alternatively, there are a number of free or inexpensive online storage services (You may have heard it called "cloud storage".) with servers farther away that can protect your backup copies from local natural disasters. Just be sure to choose one that has guaranteed encryption, since membership records usually contain some personal information. If you have a contract for IT services, they should be able to help you set this up.