Comprehensive filing system

Carol has a book about managing large volumes of email, titled Hamster Revolution. In order to manage email, the authors of the book (Michael Song, Vicki Halsey, and Tim Burress) recommend using the same filing system for email that you use for all other files. To make filing easier, they further suggest using four broad filing categories: clients, output, team, and admin.

I liked the idea of using the same categories for email that I use for my other files. Of course, that raised another issue: I need to use the same filing categories throughout my computer that I use in my physical files in my filing cabinets. I also liked the idea of using just a few broad filing categories. And that raised another issue: those of us who work in congregations don’t really have clients, so that won’t work as a filing category. After a good bit of thought, I decided to use the following four big filing categories: 1 People including people in the congregation, and other stakeholders; 2. Output, including programs and ministries; 3. Team, including paid staff, volunteer staff, and lay leaders; and 4. Administration.

But which of my existing file headings should go into which of the four big categories? For example, do I put my files on rites of passage under Output, since they are a ministry of the congregation, or do I file them under People, since rites of passage are for specific people? In the book, Song, Halsey, and Burress point out that the first three categories can be arranged in order of importance, with the most important category at the beginning of the list:

People and Stakeholders
Output (programs, ministries, etc.)
Team (staff, volunteers, lay leaders, etc.)

— where Team creates Output which serves and guides People and Stakeholders (with Administration as a necessary foundation to everything else). Now, when trying to decide between two filing categories, use the one highest up in the list. Thus, my files on rites of passage could go in Output, but I’m going to put them into People because that’s higher on the list.

I hope I’m making this clear, although I’m trying to explain this concept in a short blog post, while in the book this takes up an entire chapter. My most important point is this: although the filing categories proposed in Hamster Revolution are designed for the for-profit business world, I think they can be readily adapted to the world of congregations, using the modifications I suggest above. Of course, if you want, you can go read the book, or ask me questions via a comment. And for further clarification, I’ll give my complete filing hierarchy below as an example.


I work as a Minister of Religious Education at a mid-sized congregation (225 ave. attendance, 300 members). As a staff person, I have primary responsibility for religious education for all ages, as well as some responsibility for leading worship, doing administration, and providing pastoral care. A draft version of my revised filing categories looks like this:

1 People & Stakeholders [note 1]
    Community groups
        Stevenson House
    Pastoral care
    Rites of passage
        Memorial services
    Social justice
        Guest at your table

2 Output
    1 Children’s RE
        Children’s choir
        Curriculum and lessons
        Our Whole Lives K-6
        Plays and pageants
        Special events
        Summer Sunday school
        Sunday school
    2 Youth RE & programs
        Coming of Age
        Middle school programs
        Our Whole Lives 7-9
        PCD youth programs [2]
        Senior high youth group
        Service trips
    3 Campus ministry
    4 Adult RE & programs
        Curriculum and lessons
        Small groups
        Young adult programs
    Bass Lake [3]
    Prospectus & brochures
    Sermons & services

3 Team
    Adult RE Committee
    Children and Youth RE Committee
    Committee on Ministry
    Library Committee
        Child care workers
        RE Assistant
        Staff, other
    Volunteer management
        1 Support
        2 Recognize
        3 Recruit
        4 Train

4 Admin
    Budget & finances
    Buildings & grounds
    Canvass & fundraising
    District denomination
    Photos and images


[1] Some filing categories have numbers in front of them. This is because most computers automatically place filing categories in alphabetical order; yet in some cases, I have a specific order in which I want the categories to appear (e.g., I want People, Output, Team, Admin — not Admin, Output, People, Team). By putting a number in front of the categories, it forces the computer to order them in the way I want.

[2] PCD = Pacific Central District of Unitarian Universalist Congregations.

[2] An annual family retreat at our congregation.

2 thoughts on “Comprehensive filing system

  1. Abs

    Hmmmm… While I like the system, it wouldn’t begin to work for me – those categories are too broad for my purposes. In my job as a children’s librarian at a public library, I receive a huge quantity of email, and need to file it away so that it is quickly and easily accessible to me.
    I have approximately 25 to 30 file folder headings, and within some of those headings, I have many sub-folders. For instance: I subscribe to a children’s librarian listserve called MASSYAC, which gets its own folder. Within the MASSYAC folder, there are about 15 subfolders of common topics (Policies, Collection Development, etc.). One subfolder, Performers, has multiple sub-sub-folders (Magicians, Animal Programs, Storytellers, etc.). You get the idea – the system that you’re talking about wouldn’t begin to accomodate my filing needs…
    I guess what I’m trying to say is that people’s brains all work differently, and when it comes to organizing things like email files, we all need to pay attention to how our individual mind works and be sure that our system works for *us*.

  2. Jean

    As I ease into sabbatical, I have two categories for email, snail mail, voicemail, memos, notes slipped under my office door:

    1 -Things that are about writing
    2 – Things that are NOT about writing

    #1 gets my attention, gets answered, gets put in a folder (real or virtual, depending) that is now labeled: THIS MATTERS.

    #2 gets one of the following:
    a – deleted or tossed or recycled (aka trashed)
    b – forwarded or delegated (aka sent on)

    Finally, all emails that come to my campus account will receive an “away message” which will go live as of August 20, a short polite message which explains that I am on sabbatical, and will not be checking campus email until January of 2011. Urgent matters, emailers will be told, can be handled by the very competent school administrative support staff.

    I know, I know. This is a completely easy way out of dealing with things. But for now, the simplicity of it is quite profound. It’s clear to me the academic world will, indeed, keep turning. Advisees will get advised, programs I run will continue to run (because I’ve designated really good people to do things in my absence), committees will inch forward in their work, textbooks will (or won’t) get ordered on time by the bookstore, and Urgent Matters From The Dean will arc up into the sky, explode, and then be forgotten within a week.

    And I will write my book (nonfiction), and write my poetry (chapbook), and emerge at the end of approximately five months renewed and reinvigorated.

    A state which will last, I hope, longer than ten minutes after stepping foot on campus again.

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