Control, Money and Power in Archives and Churches- (Free flowing thoughts, not organized argument)

June 19, 2009

This is free flowing thought, and so may be updated or edited later. It should be noted that some of these issues are related generally to archival practice, and even other fields, but the context is of discussions between church historians and archivists, so there is some good old fashioned religion in it. Make of it what you will.

I have heard it said in more than one work of fiction by the bad guy/gal de jour that it isn’t about the money, it is about the power. That seems somewhat grandiose when applied to my profession, but essentially the same theme, on a smaller scale, intersects my world on a regular basis. It is about control. If control is different than power, or is not, so be it.

I was talking with a colleague the other day about the change in the way churches (we are both archivists in religious institutions) are changing the way they produce and maintain denominational/connectional records. Those records created by the larger bodies, the corporate entities if you will, as opposed to the local church congregations or smaller organizations, are totally in the hands of the creators and the IT departments. Techs maintain the records, not the administration of the church body, and the historians never see them, much less receive them for preservation. In many cases minutes of very important meetings are not shown to anyone outside the meetings, with at best summaries given out to the general laity. There is no mandate that the records of the activities of the church be retained for historical value or any methods in place to do so. This also means, of course, that the leadership of the church is less accountable to the general body.

I mentioned that I had found it particularly distressing when I was “leaked” the details of some motions made during a major meeting a year or more ago and found that they did not conform to the summaries I had been given to place in my collections. Was someone deliberately attempting to change “history?” Who knows? I do know that the summaries, which had been generally circulated, gave a very different picture of what was discussed than did the actual record.

We discussed differing ways that denominations/conferences/what-have-yous approached records. We found it interesting, for example, that while the Discipline of the United Methodist Church states that meetings and records, with a few exceptions, are open to the public, the very book that proclaims that fact is under copyright protection, preventing reproduction, and on-line versions can only be had for a price. While I understand recouping cost for printed materials, the idea that a member of an organization that is supported financially by its membership, must also pay for access to the primary record of that organization seems strange to me, particularly in light of that very document’s purported stance on openness of records.

On a smaller scale we discussed the changes in technology that are affecting access and records, as well as being tools for many types of organizations, and the lack of willingness for churches to use social networking, blogging, twitter, wikis, etc. (collectively Web 2.0 technology, although Web 2.0 more accurately reflects an attitude about use of the Net than the tech itself) to connect and communicate. I had already discussed with others this unwillingness to use new technology to cross borders, time, and generational boundaries, and the general consensus in my crowd is that if the existing church cannot control it, they are afraid of it. (Sort of like the Jewish establishment in Judea about 2000 years ago in regards to a certain outspoken Rabbi. Couldn’t control him. Eliminated him. At least they thought so. Not that we are him, but we strive to be influenced by him.) Each of us in the group has had preachers and church staff members tell us that we will use such technology when we are ready. That we can only use blogs if we can control what people say and the comments people make. That we just don’t have the people to do this stuff (meaning the proper people I guess; in each case we as individuals have volunteered to do the tasks and recruit others.) In short, we can’t do what we can’t control. Like the hierarchy that doesn’t want to let its actions to fall too closely under the scrutiny of the underlings, the lower levels of church establishment fear the unknown.

Fear the unknown. It’s a church. Anything wrong with this picture? (Let’s see. People suggesting they can make statements about faith, testify, bring people together across great distances, discuss, debate, pray, share, support, evaluate so they can do it all better and pass it on to other generations. Nope. That won’t work. Can’t have that. Must be controlled. What if someone feels led by the Spirit to say or do something that I didn’t feel led to do?)

This is not new to archivists of my stripe. The profession has been struggling for several decades to establish its role as a recognized profession, one able to set the standards of education and practice, of control. Yet at every turn someone comes along and points out things that do not fit into the box that the profession is trying to construct. Of course, the profession has the option of adjusting its mission whenever it so chooses. It has not yet so chosen, but may do so one day, or one day have no choice. Many of the records it so zealously desires to preserve are not created in a context that its members understand or in a format that they know how to preserve. They will either have to release their control over these records to another profession, concentrating only on the past as it is today, or change their methods and mission. This is the same dilemma the church faces; has always faced.

And as a historian I see it from the other side. I have done research in places that took it as granted that I needed their material badly enough that I would do what they said I must, that they were in control. There are doors that I will not likely ever darken again because of this, some of which open into institutions that I have noticed have lost budget resources, staff, and donations because they could not keep a research base large enough to justify their previous level of support.

I don’t know if I am right or wrong, or if the archives world or church will change. In the meantime, as I have usually tried to do, I will choose to follow a still small voice, even if it contradicts the greater wisdom of my church structure and my profession. What else can I do?

The Heretic

The Heretic is the nom du plume of a historian and archivist who works with the public and in religious institutions. He has been accused of heresy as a historian, archivist and Christian. He does not zealously guard his identity, but on occasion voices opinions that he feels might embarrass others. It is out of respect for those persons that he uses the pseudonym. When he is convinced that it no longer serves a purpose, he will discard it. It is really just in fun, anyway. Most people who know him recognize the source of his words, or so he believes.

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