by Robert Shuster
Literally hundreds are nondenominational missions and the vast majority of them have no systematic method of compiling and preserving their story.
Historian Kenneth Scott Latourette called the twentieth century the great century of Christian advance, with American independent missions being one of the prominent engines of that advance. The 2001/2003 edition of the Mission Handbook: US and Canadian Christian Ministries Overseas presents 814 Protestant mission agencies of all types. Literally hundreds are nondenominational missions and the vast majority of them have no systematic method of compiling and preserving their story.
In “A Heritage at Risk: The Proceedings of the Evangelical Archives Conference, July 13-15, 1988” (www.wheaton.edu/bgc/archives/eac/eac88) Steve Peterson spoke of the archives of mission agencies in general as “a black hole.” That image still applies today, and most of all, to the nondenominational mission agencies. How these records should be preserved isn’t simply a matter for archivists, like the best “ph level” of paper or the best kind of digital storage method. Rather, it concerns the Evangelical community as well as the larger Christian church as a whole.
How and where in the community can the documents of these missions, or at least a significant portion of them, be kept and made available? What resources can be given for that purpose? These are not questions archivists can discuss alone. The conversation needs to include missionaries and mission executives, users of archives, representatives of schools that train mission workers and those who can allocate resources for library and archival preservation. In November of 2001 a group of some 40 people met at the Billy Graham Center in Wheaton to discuss these and related issues. In this article we present a practical series of ten steps you can take to preserve the heritage of your organization—after all, it’s your history!
1. CONSIDER THE BENEFITS
To be the steward of a mission’s history is to care for and protect material that records the works of God acted out in the lives of men and women. Now is the time to decide how best to retain the documents that identify your group as unique and provide you with the means to continue to respond to God’s call faithfully and productively. A mission archives will:
• Serve as a resource for current work
• Remind individuals of the lessons from the past
• Supplement fund-raising projects and publications with illustrations, photographs and relevant documents
• Facilitate training new missionaries
• Enrich anniversary celebrations
• Enhance visual and audio appeal to web sites and exhibits
• Provide answers to legal queries
An archives can also be a resource to national leaders, indigenous churches and other partners in ministry. Because mission records often contain information on non-US churches they are a rich resource for Christians around the world to explore their personal faith and history. Outside researchers may also wish to consult mission records for graduate school and mission projects, articles on the mission field, books, dissertations or genealogical information. As simply stated in the Pastoral Function of Archives, “Archives are places of memory for the Christian community and a storehouse for the new evangelization.”
2. ESTABLISH MISSION AND POLICY STATEMENTS
Before an archives opens its doors (or drawer), fundamental policy statements should be approved by the highest level of administration. Regardless of the size or simplicity of an archives, these statements are the essential reminder that in order to achieve its primary goals a mission must allocate the necessary resources to its archives. These resources include a person dedicated, even part-time, to the archives, supplies (includes storage shelves, archival boxes and folders in which to house materials), and a secure space where material can be stored, processed and accessed.
Written policies, agreed upon prior to the opening of an archives, enable the archivist to steer a straight course during the initial operational period. They also help prevent misunderstandings among archives staff, administrators and users. These policies set the boundaries for an archives. They detail what will and will not be collected, how to dispose of duplicate material, the regulation of sensitive material and other issues related to the running of a professional archives. Critical policies include:
1. Mission Statement. Approved by an agency’s governing body, this document outlines the responsibilities of the archivist and the authority of the archivist to carry out his or her mission. The mission statement clarifies the duties of the archives to collect and house records generated by the mission agency staff. An archives must have the authority to collect records independent of their sensitivity, geographic location or level in the hierarchy. A mission statement should reflect the goals of the mission, not just the archives. All of those with a stake in furthering the mission should be included in the policy. The mission statement should address the following concerns:
• The purpose of the archives and how it supports the mission
• The legal authority of an archives to fulfill its purpose
• The primary and secondary needs the archives should meet
• The administrative placement of the archives within the organization
2. Collection Development Policy. A mission’s archival collection needs to be shaped according to a plan. Collection development policies should:
• Outline the kinds of records to be collected
• Define the scope of collecting—whether the archives will collect the personal papers of its staff along with institutional records
• Designate an advisory committee, or similar organ, to consult in collecting records and making them accessible
• Specify the criteria for the inclusion of material in the archives
• Explain the process for discarding material from the archives
3. Access Policy. This policy determines the conditions under which different users have access to the records. It outlines approved guidelines for a variety of potential users—administrators, staff, missionaries or outside researchers (if applicable). While the majority of inquiries made to the archives will come from within, the agency may want to make its material available to a wider public. Whether the archives is opened to the general public or maintained strictly for internal use, it should make material as accessible as possible, without restrictions to its primary users. Personnel files and other sensitive materials may be subject to federal and state privacy legislation and will in most cases have restrictions placed upon their use. The access policy ensures that restrictions are sufficient and consistent. Reasonable caution must also be practiced in allowing outside use of material that conveys information that could jeopardize the security of missionaries or indigenous Christians.
Access policies should:
• Identify opened, restricted and closed records
• Delineate the conditions of restricted material
• List the procedures for access to closed records
• State the equal access to open unrestricted material
As well as providing a sound framework that guarantees fair access to material, each of these policies should also encourage use. Moreover, well-crafted policies are the best antidote to the problems that arise when a position rotates from one untrained individual to another.
3. SELECT A PERSON TO TAKE RESPONSIBILITY FOR THE ARCHIVES
The staff member who serves as archivist should receive training that will enable him or her to:
• Supervise the transfer of inactive records from departments and missionaries
• Care for and arrange documents
• Maintain simple descriptive systems that facilitate use of the material by those unfamiliar with it
• Document procedures for the transfer of records into the archives, integrate records into the archives and maintain an accurate list of material housed in the collection.
The archivist you select may have little training and limited time to dedicate to this project. Still, he or she can be a valuable resource to your organization and will need the highest level of administrative support—only then can continuity be assured. Appointing a willing volunteer (perhaps a retired missionary) rather than drafting a reluctant staff person may be the best option. Any archivist’s term should be at least a year.
The archivist will build the team (volunteers included) that will receive, arrange and describe documents, as well as establish and implement critical policies. An advisory committee should be established, comprised of staff from each department, at least one senior administrator and an outside archivist who can provide expert advice and link the archives to existing resources. This committee participates in establishing guidelines and policies, fund-raising, advocacy within the parent mission and soliciting archival materials.
4. ALLOCATE SPACE
Adequate space must be allotted to house material that the archives has collected already, as well as material it anticipates collecting over the next five to ten years. Archival material should be stored in a secure area immune to flood and storm damage. Ideally, the material should be housed in a climate-controlled environment where temperature and humidity levels remain constant and can be monitored by the archivist. At the very least, vital records should be protected in a fireproof vault. Space for researchers, preferably in close proximity to the storage area, is also necessary. The area should be easily supervised and provide researchers with equipment for photocopying.
5. COLLECT MATERIALS
Archives contain a variety of documents and material. Archivists neither save everything (the insignificant can obscure the critical) nor discard records en masse (and lose the history). The practical and historical value of materials, not the ease of retaining them, dictates whether or not they must be saved. Ideally, an organization should have an intentional records management program that delineates the types of records that should be saved and provides a schedule for ensuring their retention (see box on page 172 for types of material to be saved).
Material collected should chronicle every aspect of the mission from the inside out. This documentation may come in various formats: paper records, audiovisual material, electronic resources such as e-mail, web site files and digital databases, microfilm, microfiche and so forth. Documentation should offer insights into how missionaries were recruited, various methods employed in the field, conditions at various mission stations, the formation of partnerships with national churches and the impact of Christianity on culture, history and politics in the regions where the mission has a presence. The archives should allow for an unbiased and objective reconstruction of the organization’s history—even though it is sometimes tempting to preserve only that material which puts the agency in the best light. Sensitive materials should be restricted but never purged. An accurate rendering of history is the best guarantee to a better future.
Gathering material is a crucial step in starting an archives. After the archivist surveys the material, the next step is to prepare an inventory that will enable him or her to order the collection in a way useful to patrons. Arrangement of material according to archival principles will preserve the integrity of each part of the collection, especially as it grows.
6. ENCOURAGE USE
Though much energy is expended in collecting and preserving documents, the true purpose of an archives is to make material accessible. Materials should support the work of a mission, enrich the organization’s identity and stimulate reflection on the mission’s history. It is the thought of using a collection that will motivate individuals to supply the time and money necessary to start and maintain an archives. One way to heighten awareness and excite interest in an archives is to periodically circulate reports to the staff that:
• Summarize recent acquisitions
• Offer interesting samples from the collection
• Invite staff to utilize the archives and its staff
Mission staff can benefit from the archivist’s expertise in culling illustrations and documents for publications and answering historical questions. When staff begin to use the mission archives they will benefit in ways they could not imagine when material sat unprocessed in boxes.
7. UTILIZE OUTSIDE RESOURCES
The issues faced by mission archives are the same as those faced by archives at universities, seminaries, denominations, ethnic and labor organizations, state historical societies and many other kinds of archival repositories. Organizations are in place to serve archives—among these are professional societies and training programs geared toward the new archivist (see box on page 175). A wealth of relevant literature is available. Working archives are another rich resource for beginning archivists.
8. CONSIDER OTHER OPTIONS
Preserving an organization’s history can be a daunting undertaking. Many mission agencies, even those with good record-keeping in place, may find it useful to explore a partnership with an affiliated college or seminary that can provide the proper services and care for their archives. There are mutual benefits when an academic institution provides a home for mission archives. The mission benefits from the facilities and expertise of the institution; its archive gains value in the context of the school’s library collections, curricular programs and research atmosphere. The school benefits from the sense of heritage provided by the mission archives and from the research potential. However, whether an agency decides to develop an in-house program or to transfer material to an established repository, appropriate archival policies must be in place within the agency. Few academic repositories are prepared to accept chaotic, unorganized archival records.
A major step to any archival program is nurturing a long-term commitment. By starting even the barest-bones archives an organization is committing itself to making the archives a permanent component of its mission. After the archives is planted, it will not grow without constant care, ongoing budget allocations and personnel.
Don’t Delay. Now is the time to decide the course of your mission’s history. Will vital records be tossed for lack of room? Continuation of the mission requires an understanding of its past, even in its most basic form. A simple system that guarantees access to staff present and future can be constructed with scant resources (and dedication). The memory of your mission is part of the greater church. Don’t let it slip or crumble away.
WHAT TO COLLECT FOR YOUR ARCHIVES
• Incorporation papers
• Real estate records
• Tax records
• Litigation papers
• Minutes of board, committee and field council meetings
• Annual reports
• Selected financial records
• Personnel files and staff lists
• Correspondence and memos
• Departmental files
• Public relations material
• Procedure books and manuals
• Proceedings of consultations
• Audio tapes, films and videotapes
• Photographs, slides and negatives
• Maps and posters
• Clippings and articles
• Phonograph albums
• Lists of supporters
• Policy statements
• Building plans
• Periodicals and other publications
• Radio and television program recordings
• Resource files
• Journals and diaries
• Photographs, slides and negatives
• Prayer letters
• Oral histories with missionaries and leaders
• Personal papers, such as:
Robert Shuster is director of the Billy Graham Center Archives, Wheaton, Illinois.
THE BENEFITS AND OBSTACLES OF DEVELOPING AN ARCHIVE
By David Howard
A recent meeting on nondenominational Protestant mission archives challenged me to think through the place of archives in the life of a mission organization. In preparation for the paper that I delivered on the opening day I was amazed to see how influential archives have been in my own ministry. In every phase of my work in missions covering nearly half a century I discovered that archives have played a significant role. To help motivate agencies to develop their own archive, let’s consider some of the benefits and the major obstacles that need to be overcome in developing one.
Benefits of Developing a Mission Archive
I. Understanding the heritage of the organization. It is vitally important that the leadership of any mission should understand fully their heritage. When I took over the leadership of World Evangelical Fellowship in 1982, I was woefully unaware of the great history and original vision of the organization which, at that time, was 136 years old. I discovered that few, if anyone, in WEF had any real understanding of where we had come from. Thus writing the history of WEF, using the archives in the Billy Graham Center and other resources, proved to be an absolutely invaluable exercise for me. It allowed me to try to give leadership based on a firm foundation of who we were and where we had come from.
2. Keeping on track.When the present leadership of the mission understands their heritage, they can keep on track with the vision of the founders. Some organizations have gone far afield from what their founders had envisioned, and this can lead to disaster. Perhaps the greatest illustration of this is the present status of the Ivy League colleges and universities, almost all of which were founded to train pastors and Christian workers and whose charters read like those of evangelical mission societies.
3. Expanding of that vision. When the present leadership understands adequately the heritage and original vision, they can then “stand on the shoulders” of their predecessors and move ahead with new vision.
A good illustration of this was seen in Latin America Mission (LAM) when Mike Berg took over as president in 1976. LAM, originally founded in 1921 for continent-wide evangelistic outreach (its original name was Latin America Evangelization Campaign), had gone through various stages of development. In the early 1970s the most radical stage came when LAM turned over to national leadership all of its institutions—not just local churches (which long since had gone under national leadership) but the major ministries such as a seminary, a hospital, Bible institute, publishing house, bookstores, camp programs, radio stations, student ministries and all other entities.
Berg began to ask himself how to lead a mission that had now delegated to the nationals all of the major ministries which had been born in LAM. What was the place of the mission now? By going back to the vision of the founders for continent-wide evangelization, and by looking at the present needs of the continent, Berg saw a tremendous challenge and opportunity. He saw the great urban centers which were exploding with the migration from the rural areas and the population explosion. He saw the world-class cities as being a major target for pioneer work in the updated meaning of “pioneer.” Thus there began to develop in his mind the vision for what became Christ for the City (CFC). Some of us on his board of trustees strongly encouraged him to pursue this vision, which he did.
The result was a whole new area of vision and outreach, which today has also become independent from LAM, having matured in the way that other ministries founded by LAM had done. But the vision for the cities and related challenges are still very prevalent in the ministry of LAM. It is not an exaggeration to say that the archives of LAM played a significant role in the ongoing outreach of the mission.
Obstacles to Developing a Mission Archive
With the benefits of an archive in mind, what are some obstacles that need to be overcome in developing a mission archive?
1. Vision. Too often mission personnel may not have adequate vision for the value of archives. They fail to recognize how indispensable it is for an agency to understand its heritage and the vision of the founders. Or, even when such understanding is present, the pressures of other aspects of the work squeeze out the question of archives.
2. Priorities. It is so easy to be deeply engulfed in the busyness of the work of an agency that some matters inevitably get left to one side. Archives are seldom the most urgent task at hand. We have all experienced “the tyranny of the urgent.” So archives are too easily left for another day.
3. Personnel. Few missions or Christian agencies have someone who is technically qualified in the area of archives. This is an intricate discipline which, to be done properly, requires adequate training and vision. Some missions are able to assign personnel to this, because they see the importance of it. But it is a rare entity that puts a high priority on personnel for the task.
4. Poor Documentation. One of my most frustrating experiences in writing a history was to come across a valuable document, only to find that there was no author, date, or place to identify its origin. This made it almost impossible at times to fit it into the total scheme of things. Another related problem is unorganized files. While some missionaries and executives are well organized, others are not. Therefore, the documentation they leave may be in chaotic condition, which makes it extremely difficult to work through and find the value of it. I speak from sad experience on this point in the historical writing I have done.
5. Finances. This, of course, is often the bottom line. Are there any funds available to cover the expenses of setting up and maintaining adequate archives? This usually becomes a low priority, since funds are almost always tight in faith-based organizations such as nondenominational missions.
6. Space. This is another obstacle to adequate in-house files. Not many nondenominational missions have adequate space for handling the needed archives. Too often they get relegated to some musty basement in old boxes or cabinets and left to mold and decay. The mission needs to consider not only space but storage conditions that benefit longevity of the documents.
As President of the Latin America Mission, as Missions Director of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship and Director of the Urbana conventions, as International Director of the World Evangelical Fellowship, and in doing some work for my alma mater, Wheaton College, I found myself writing articles, columns and books that related to the heritage of each organization. This required extensive research in archives. This highlighted what an important role archives can play in the life of an organization and showed me that the obstacles, while in some cases significant, are worth overcoming if a mission wants to preserve its own story—after all, if you don’t do it, who will?
David Howard served as president of Latin America Mission.
Copyright © 2002 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS). All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS. All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.