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Pro Tips for Preserving Local Church History

Doris Wills leads the preservation team at her church, First United Methodist of Topeka. The group created a permanent timeline on a wall to share highlights of church history with members and visitors. Wills has taken special training in preservation of church documents and photos. She offers these pointers to help local churches start saving pieces of the past.

United Methodist churches celebrate Heritage Sunday each year to remember our roots. Celebrations like this are a good time to share and collect photos, bulletins and other items for the church archive.

Visit the General Commission on Archives and History website for guides to basic archiving which include tips on preserving photos, collecting an oral history, and even making your own humidifier to restore historic documents. 

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(Topeka, Kansas)

Every church has stories worth preserving. At First United Methodist of Topeka, a permanent history wall brings events from 1855 through the present to life.

Doris Wills: "I like this picture."

Doris Wills leads her church's archive team. She knows well the challenges.

Doris Wills, First United Methodist of Topeka: "Just time and someone to work on it. Another is funds. I think the sometimes the church says, 'We'll have a historian.' But they don't provide any financial support for that historian to do the work."

The United Methodist Commission on Archives and History provides a variety of tools for local churches.

Dale Patterson, United Methodist General Commission on Archives and History: "Who hasn't opened up a box in your house and found a whole bunch of photographs stuck together? How do we unstick them? Well, we've got an archival leaf that talks about that."

Doris Wills: "Boxes like this are available. They're not as costly as you might think. And they will preserve the documents for you."

Churches should hold on to vital records like baptism and membership rolls, deeds and financial records, as well as bulletins and publications.

Mark Shenise,United Methodist General Commission on Archives and History: "It actually makes the local church office run more efficient. And when you have an efficient office more ministry gets done."

Copies of checks should not be kept.

Mark Shenise: "Make a notation about how much the check was and from someone, but don't photocopy that bloody check. You're just asking for trouble down the road."

Photos are a treasure you can never have enough of.

Mark Shenise: "They take pictures of special times, maybe a Christmas program. It might be a wedding. You should be taking occasional pictures of the mundane, a typical worship service for example. None of that ever gets recorded."

Doris Wills: "If you save pictures, please identify the people or the activity. Because 50 years from now, there's no one there to know what that activity or person was."

Best practices include cost-saving tips for storing photos...

Doris Wills: "Do you know that a local source in almost any town for acid free tissue paper is the dry cleaner that dry cleans and preserves wedding gowns?"

…and avoiding metal paper clips.

Doris Wills: "Plastic paper clips are very available. You will not have them rusting and damaging the document. Never staple." 

Dale Patterson, Chief Archivist, United Methodist General Commission on Archives and History: "You have some recordings of your pastors' sermons from the past. You can probably find a friend who can digitize those for you. Or you may have some images. And you don't know a lot about them. Take 'em to your next potluck. 'Who are these people?' People will pay more attention to that than they will the fried chicken."

Local churches are discovering that sharing stories brings them closer to the people whose passion and vision influenced the church we know today.

(Congregation sings) "We are marching in the light of God…"

The Rev. Alfred T. Day, United Methodist General Commission on Archives and History: "Churches that are celebrating anniversaries get a renewed sense of what was the spark that got them started. For churches in times of conflict or in watershed moments, time to not just remember the past, but to witness and recognize the spirit of God that has been faithful through changes and transformations from past to present, leading on into the future."

The church's General Commission on Archives and History has a variety of resources for those interested in preserving the stories of local churches. 

This video was produced by United Methodist Communications in Nashville, TN.
Media contact is Fran Walsh, 615-742-5458.

This video was first posted on February 1, 2017.

United Methodist Communications is an agency of The United Methodist Church

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