Archived Records are the DNA of United Methodist Churches

Mark Lambert
March 17, 2023

Sunday bulletins, old congregation directories, tithing envelopes – churches accumulate a lot of stuff. Inevitably, someone must decide what to throw away, what to keep, and where to keep it.
Chris Brown can help.

“I’ve heard plenty of horror stories from churches who stored a lot of important records under bleachers in the gym, and some volunteers came in to clean up, and they threw it all away,” said Brown, who serves as archivist for the Louisiana Conference of the United Methodist Church and Centenary College in Shreveport. “Whenever local churches are not sure what to do about something, they should call me.”
As the Louisiana Conference’s archivist, Brown is the official custodian for all conference records and documents. Notably, he has archived every published journal from every annual conference, going back to the first session of the Louisiana Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church, South, held in the courthouse in Opelousas in 1847. The journals and other important documents are accessible to anyone on the Louisiana Conference archives website.

Brown also receives all records from any Louisiana United Methodist church that is closed to ensure the full story of the church’s life and death are preserved.

A church’s records are more than documentation of past transactions. Records form the narrative of when a church was born, how it related to its community, who it welcomed, who it shunned, who joined, who left, and in some cases, how the church died. A church’s records are its DNA, a sum of all its members, ministers, policies, finances, and decisions.

Brown has seen a lot of Methodist church records, and some are fascinating.

“One that jumps out at me is a very early record, from the 1830s, of Methodists in New Orleans,” he said. “It was written into a blank ledger book that someone provided. It says, ‘We came to town because New Orleans was our appointment. We couldn’t find a Methodist ledger book, so we used this.”

The pre-Civil War document shows that “white and black people were Methodists in New Orleans in the 1830s,” Brown said, but it does not indicate if the black members were slaves or free.

Brown also has meeting minutes from a church in New Orleans from 1918. Part of the minutes states that “we would normally see high attendance on Sundays, but attendance is down because of the outbreak of the flu.” The “flu” was the 1918 H1N1 pandemic, commonly referred to as the ‘Spanish Flu.”

“There’s some amazing stories once you crack them open,” he said.

Local churches should hold onto its important records, such as church membership rolls and directories (old and current), and any records of births, baptisms, weddings, and death, Brown said. Once those records are not in active use, they should be stored somewhere for safekeeping.

However, not all records are created – or destined for history – equally. Canceled checks, old utility bills, “and those hundreds of little tithing envelopes that are empty – don’t need any of that,” Brown said.
“The reality is that not everyone has the financial resources or the time or personnel to launch an intense archives project,” Brown said. “It can just be a room in the church or a closet where we keep all the old stuff.”

The United Methodist Church has published a guide for local churches on which records to preserve. The UMC Book of Discipline also recommends that each local church designate someone to be a church historian. “If you are following the recommendations of what you’re keeping, it can help the church conduct its business more efficiently,” Brown said.

To help local churches develop its own archives program, Brown is holding two workshops in southwest Louisiana. The first is at First United Methodist Church in Lafayette on Friday, March 24; the second is at First United Methodist Church in Iowa on Saturday, March 25.

Anyone interested in attending should contact Brown at
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