Records Management and Archives of Religious Institutes

Religious life is a communal way of living in which we share a common experience of community, of spirituality and of mission. In the course of our lives together, we organize ourselves, discern our path and celebrate our lives together. All of this can generate records of various types: casual notes, lengthy letters, correspondence, and emails, as well as formal policies, resolutions and legal documents. Taken together, these records constitute a witness to our lives together and a historical record of the life of our institute. 
Records Management - is the systematic organization of the records of an organization, including the production of records, their categorization, use, and access, and finally, their storage, archiving or destruction. A records management policy will address issues such as who creates records for the organization, managing the versions and copies of documents, where and how documents are held and who has access, and the disposition of documents after they are no longer actively needed.
Considering these records from a legal point of view raises some important issues. 
Privacy - refers to the zone of personal freedom from public scrutiny. We all have a civil right to privacy from government intervention and from third party intrusion. Canon law also recognizes the zone of privacy in Canon 220:  "No one may unlawfully harm the good reputation which a person enjoys, or violate the right of every person to protect his or her privacy." In this canon, the word translated as privacy is the Latin intimitas. The words private and intimate have two different roots. Privacy is belonging to oneself, and not to the state. Intimate is the innermost part. Civil law protects a persons "right to be left alone" particularly to be left alone by the government. Canon law instead focuses its protection on a person's good reputation and a person's innermost self, and on their conscience.
When an individual comes into a group, there is a certain yielding of the person's zone of privacy in favor of the common good. A brother or sister's general information may be shared within the community, though it is not available to those outside the community. For example, an individual who seeks entrance into a religious community will share significant personal details with a vocation director. There are sometimes misunderstandings about the zone of personal privacy, the information that is shared in the community, and the information that may be more widely disseminated. 
Confidentiality - refers to an expectation of privacy by someone regarding their communication with another person. This expectation may arise from the nature of the relationship or the communication, e.g. attorney/client, pastor/penitent, or it may be an oral or written promise of secrecy. Some confidentiality is protected by law, some is not.
Discovery - is the process of obtaining documents in a legal proceeding. Some documents may be protected from discovery by law, but many documents must be produced upon legitimate request in a court proceeding.
Record Retention Schedule - is an over-all guideline that helps to understand how long records are generally needed, where they are held and their disposition after they are needed. Such a schedule balances the values of preservation, accuracy, confidentiality, and the need for efficient storage and reasonable access to records. It is an important part of any records management policy. 
Archives - are the historical records of an organization. Archives have important value for the life of an organization, as when a group is researching the development of a particular practice or ministry, in view of discerning the further its evolution. In addition, an orderly transfer of active documents to the archives can help contribute to the historical record on a religious institute as well as the history of the church and of society.
Preservation - of archives is an increasing question as many religious institutes are moving toward completion. Unable to sustain the ongoing life of the community, they are also unable to sustain their archival record. It is imperative that suitable repositories are found to house these records so that they are not lost.
Religious Institutes are challenged to develop policies and procedures dealing with documents they receive and produce, and with archives.

August's webcast will examine records of religious institutes and their members, and the related issue of archives. Register here.

Building on her previous acclaimed work Religious Life at the Crossroads, Sister Amy Hereford draws attention to emerging currents, particularly among the smaller cohorts of younger religious, to reflect on the ongoing meaning of vows, formation, community, and mission, amidst the rapidly changing currents in the church and society.

Although those in religious life today face an uncertain future, many things are becoming clear. As the author notes, "We know that we will be smaller groups and that our various networks will become more important. For this reason, we know that we will need different skills and that we will be less institutional and closer to those we serve. The seeds of these changes have been present for decades, and are becoming more important moving forward."
August 2019 release from Orbis Books. Pre-order on Amazon.  Some advance copies should be available at the LCWR National Assembly in Scottsdale Arizona.

Amy Hereford

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