Six Steps to Simple filing

Gayle Hilligoss PictureEd. note: Here is another wonderful article for church administrators (and all of us) from Gayle Hilligoss. As always, Gayle’s articles inspire me beyond what is probably her original intention. Not only do many of us have to keep ministry files in a paper format, but today we have to keep digital files and this advice is as useful and practical for us in the digital world as it is in the world of paper.

“Let all things be done decently and in order.” —I Cor. 14:40

Filing is one of the ministry assistant’s most important jobs. Unless records and documents are kept in an orderly, accessible manner it is nearly impossible to conduct the business of the church effectively. While many records are kept digitally, the familiar hanging files are still what we reach for dozens of times a day. The wise assistant takes an interest in how files are used and recognizes the necessity of a workable paper system.

These six simple steps can be used to evaluate and streamline the central church business files in your office. Obviously, the principles may be adapted to other files as well.

1) Design your system.

Filing is the systematic arrangement of records in a logical sequence. The purpose of the system is to allow fast and easy access.

The logical sequence most frequently used in church offices is the alphabet. But, having just A, B, C and so on is not very helpful in for locating a particular document. Some alphabetical systems subdivide each letter: A, Al, An, As, etc. making it easier to quickly find records. But, for the church office, there is a better way.

In this system records are filed alphabetically by topic. First and second sub-topics are created as necessary.

The tabs on guides and on the file folders serve as signposts for your filing system. Tabs are generally set at two, three or five across. A third-cut system is recommended. This means that there are three tab positions: left, center, and right. Regardless of the size of your church or your files, this system is both easy to set up and simple to use.

The left cuts are your major headings: Accounting, Assistance, Boards, Committees, Correspondence, Deacons, Education, Equipment, Evangelism, Legal, Missions, Music, Personnel, Policies, Publications, Stewardship, Sunday School, Vacation Bible School, Weddings, Youth, and so on—whatever your situation calls for.

You will notice Church is not suggested as a heading. Since virtually all records could be given that designation, more specificity is suggested. Choose major headings carefully; use just the ones you need. No more than twenty is best.

The center cuts are used only for those left cuts that need to be subdivided. Not every left cut will require a center cut. There may be as many center cuts behind a left cut as necessary. Each tab will give the appropriate left cut designation first, followed by the center cut designation. For instance, the heading Correspondence might have these center cuts: Correspondence/Members; Correspondence/Pastor; Correspondence/TV Ministry.

Right cuts subdivide even further; use them when necessary. Right cuts are used after center cuts—never after left cuts. Each tab will give the appropriate left and center cut designations followed by the right cut designation. For instance, the center cut Correspondence/Pastor might have right cuts Correspondence/Pastor/Deacons, Correspondence/Pastor/ Seminary, and Correspondence/Pastor/Travel. Use abbreviations as necessary: Corr/Pastor/Trav.

While many categories are standard, each church will have some varities. Start your planning with pencil, paper, and an open file drawer. Looking carefully at the kinds of materials filed, outline the most logical categories in which they can be arranged. You will begin to see the system come together like the pieces in a puzzle. Don’t force it. Simplicity is the goal.

2) Secure proper materials.

Quite likely you will find your file folders and guides could use an update. Virtually everyone uses a suspended system, hanging folders, but if you have a file drawer or two without hanging folders, now is a good time to convert.

Folders are available in many colors and come in standard and legal sizes; they may be ordered in custom sizes as well. You can use box bottom folders of various widths to accommodate bulky materials. Because the folders hang from rails in the file drawer rather than resting on the bottom, they don’t slump or sag. Choose folders with plastic coated hooks; these slide easily along the rails and can be moved effortlessly with a finger’s touch.

Plastic tab holders are included in each box of folders. Printable hanging file tabs are a newer and handier option. Avery is one manufacturer of these adhesive tabs. There are also erasable tabs and temporary clip-ons.

Because tabs are slightly slanted backward, they are more easily visible than the vertical tabs on manila folders. While tabs may be attached to either flap of the folder, I like attaching them to the FRONT flap. This positioning eliminates the “push-pull” motion of opening the folder.

Your office supplier can provide frames adaptable for any size drawer. They are inexpensive and easy to install. While not essential, interior folders or “carriers” may also be useful. These are lightweight manila or colored folders used to separate groups of papers inside the hanging folder, and may also be used as transmission folders when materials are removed from the files. Interior folders are supplied with tabs and fit entirely within the hanging folder.

Slash front pocket folders may also be used as carriers. These folders are especially useful for keeping together small groups of items of odd shapes: photos, clip art, memos and other smaller than usual papers.

Choose folders with embossed horizontal scores one-third of way down. Crease along these scores to prop folders open (like wings) while you are using the files.

3) Make color work for you.

Used properly, color is not only attractive but effective. Color easily identifies topics and helps prevent misfiling.

Hanging folders are available in at least a dozen hues. Using matching or contrasting tabs provides scores of color combinations. You might choose a different color for each major topic: finance, education, music. Or use one color for all files except those you want to flag: red for music, blue for youth, green for finance. Be consistent; each color combination will identify only one topic. For the pastor’s personal files choose a color not used in your files.

4) Look to the phone directory.

Alphabetized files can be tricky. The phone companies have the rules down pat. If you were setting up a name file, the telephone white pages could be a primer. I understand that to govern the precedence of listing in the New York City directory, there are well over fifteen pages of guidelines. Fortunately, because your church file is a topic file, not a name file, there are not nearly so many rules. Your Yellow Pages might well serve as a textbook.

A classic reminder concerning filing is “Nothing comes before something.” A single name is filed before that name used with another designation. Initials used alone are always filed before names beginning with the same letter.

In a topic file, alphabetizing is pretty straight forward. In the Correspondence example used earlier, an example might be:

Correspondence (all general correspondence)






Correspondence/TV Ministry

To keep interior folders in the Correspondence folder for individuals or organizations that generate regular documents, file the folders alphabetically behind the general correspondence (which may or may not be in a carrier— as you choose).

Within each carrier, file the most recent entry in front. Just as an example, interior folders might be:

Correspondence/AA (might also be spelled out as Alcoholics Anonymous) Correspondence/Allen, Alex A.

Correspondence/Allen, Alex A., Jr.

In cases of churches with identical names, index by the geographical name:

Bakersfield, First Christian

Carleton, First Christian

Denton, First Christian

Another good rule is, “One word is better than two.” Any two words ordinarily written as one word should be treated as one word. Disregard “the” at the beginning of names.

5) Practice the basics.

Using tried and true techniques will speed up both filing and retrieving your records.

• File regularly. The schedule is determined by the amount of filing required. In some offices, papers are simply filed as they are received. In other offices, the volume of records dictates a specific daily filing time. The point is not to allow papers to accumulate outside the filing cabinet. They need to be where they can be located easily when required.

• Stamp or note the date on every paper as it is filed.

• File records face up, top edge to the left, with the most recent date at the front.

• Tape small materials to a piece of typing paper before filing, or use a pocket folder to accommodate odd sized materials filed together.

• Use the most accessible drawers for the most frequently used files.

• Have only one file drawer open at a time. Never leave drawers open after use.

• Leave four to six inches in each drawer for working space. Hanging folders can comfortably accommodate about a hundred sheets. Interior folders should hold no more than 20-25 sheets. When folders get full, make a new one with the appropriate date : Correspondence/Jan-June 2010; Correspondence/July-December 2010.

• Choose box-bottom folders for catalogs or bulky documents. These folders come in widths from one to four inches and have reinforced side and bottom panels.

• Staple, rather than paper clip, papers that must be secured. Always fasten papers in the same place; the upper left hand corner is recommended. Colored carriers with single or double prong fasteners are another way to keep related papers together.

• Use manila “out” guides to mark the place of any files removed from the drawer. These guides signal the file is being used and identify who has it.

• Filing cabinets cost money and take up space. Make sure yours contain only what is needed. Note a purge date on every paper to make it easier to keep files trim.

• Store inactive files in clearly marked boxes arranged in chronological order. In your files keep a record of where these records are located.

• Eliminate the need to read through the paper at filing time. As a paper crosses your desk for the first time, write its file designation in the top right corner.

• In preparing tabs, use specific designations: Invoices/2009 not Invoices/old; Invoices/2010 not Invoices/current.

• Keep filing cabinets free of miscellaneous storage and personal items.

6) Establish a retention schedule.

Effective filing involves not only organizing and retrieving records and documents, but also eventually disposing of them when they are no longer useful. Any system that neglects this important last step will ultimately fail.

Many offices are literally bulging with papers that should be discarded. Retaining too much not only takes up precious space, it makes finding what IS needed very difficult and time consuming. On the other hand, indiscriminate discarding can result in the destruction of records that may be needed later for legal, historical or other purposes.

It should be noted here that irreplaceable historical records and important legal and financial documents are best stored in a bank’s safety deposit box or other secure location. Many churches also make digital copies of their valuable papers and archival materials. Information regarding the location of these items is placed in the church files.

One usable system for records retention involves an orderly schedule for transferring files. A yearly transfer is suggested. Once records pass the active stage where they are kept in the office and used regularly, they are moved to a semi-active status and location. They are usually still in the office, but in less accessible file cabinet drawers. When semi-active records are seldom, if ever, referred to, those that must be kept for legal or other purposes are moved into inactive storage. Store inactive files in clearly marked boxes arranged in chronological order. Keep a record of where these files are located.

If you have marked each paper with a purge date as it was filed, the time for destruction will be evident as it moves through the cycles. Those records which have outlived their usefulness, marked with a predetermined destruction date or not, will be safe to dispose of once they reach the inactive stage.

As your church’s retention schedule is developed, some considerations will be given to the requirements of the IRS, the church’s administrative and historical committees, and federal and state regulations.

A sample schedule you might revise to suit your situation:

Keep permanently: audit reports, ledgers, balance sheets, budgets, canceled check,

legal records, business meeting minutes, newsletters and bulletins, special event publications, bond information, blueprints, historical records, membership records.

Keep five years: employee payroll records, members’ records of contribution.

Keep three years: bank deposit slips and statements, individual offering envelopes, general correspondence, paid bills.

Purge yearly: catalogs, handbooks, directories, memos, outdated contracts.

The U.S. government provides comprehensive information on retention schedules online.

Best wishes as you sharpen up your office files and make them more workable, effective, and good looking!

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