Dr. Richard Harms has served as the Curator of Archives at Heritage Hall [Calvin College] since January 1998. He is a member of Hillside Community CRC.
In your role as Curator of Archives, what’s your relationship to the CRC?
I’m responsible for keeping all the permanent records of the denomination, its agencies, classes, and congregations. A history of the office can be found here.
We assist churches and agencies with records management and provide reference access to historical material. We collect records that have historical significance (minutes, histories, memberships, images, etc.) or material that needs to be retained for legal reasons (primarily employment records).
In addition, we provide advice on record keeping systems—paper and digital. We’ve also produced a historical directory and have an online database with photos of ordained ministers.
What kind of documents are churches required to send you? How are you able to keep in touch with 1000+ churches?
While a congregation is active we will film all the minutes of elder, deacon and council meetings. Participation by churches is voluntary but comes at no direct cost to them. About 90 percent of the congregations and all the classes participate.
We also ask congregations to send us a copy of any history booklet they produce and a membership directory from every fifth year. Once a congregation closes, all their records are sent to us. We will keep one copy of all the minutes, all the membership information, all bulletins and newsletters, all history booklets, and other items that may help tell the story of that congregation to future generations.
We contact every congregation at least once every 10 years via email, telephone, and/or a classical representative—roughly 100 congregations each year which is a bit less daunting than trying to contact them all. We use the ten-year cycles because we found it effective and the least cumbersome for churches to send us their minutes once every ten years. At synodical meetings, I make it a point to also meet with as many delegates as possible.
Sounds like you’ve got a great system though the sheer volume of records must be overwhelming at times. What keeps you motivated?
I have skill set that is well suited to this work and I enjoy my job. Overcoming challenges is satisfying, as is helping someone find the item(s) they need among the approximately 3 million documents, 15,000 images, and 6,000 recordings.
We are able be effective because our staff has created and maintained effective organizational systems and finding aids. A byproduct of all this is that I have the privilege to see how God has used his broken people to accomplish wondrous things—there is much pain in this world, but I have been allowed to see that grace is greater than the pain.
Years ago I realized that this is the work I’m called to do so motivation comes naturally. We are all called to contribute to God’s kingdom and I believe this work is what I’m called to contribute. Like all of creation, work was intended to be a gift.
What’s one thing you hope to see happen in the future of record management?
I would like for folks to work with us to establish sound protocols and practices having to do with retention and storage. Often this is not glamorous work but daily we get requests and if the work has been done well in the past, we can answer those requests. If the work has not been done well, we cannot.
As an example, I recently received a request from an elder who was visiting a person near the end of life here. This aged saint could not remember if she’d been baptized and it was important for her to know that she had been. Her congregation had kept excellent records and I was easily able to find a copy of her baptismal certificate and send a copy of it to the elder to share with her.
As the transition from paper to digital formats is underway, this is even more urgent to do.
Thank you for sharing! You are a gift to the CRC and we are grateful for your faithful service.
Got a question or comment for Dr. Harms before he retires? Be sure and comment below.