How to use your church’s history for good
During a decade in college classrooms teaching history to thousands of students, I heard a fair amount about history being boring or pointless. It may be true that many history teachers are dull, but the actual subject is far from pointless.
History is about uncovering information, often buried or forgotten; it is about putting things in context to discover deeper truths. The craft of studying history is far more than listing facts and dates on a timeline. The study of history offers a perspective on the fine line between myth and reality. From there, the art of history is in walking that line to offer compelling narratives that move people in their beliefs and actions.
Church leaders must, if they intend to succeed, think like historians. That means basing decisions on facts and having an open mind, even about long-held assumptions.
Step one is learning your key history. Step two is beginning to record it.
You should write and share your church’s history of living in faith, says Jim McAnally. “By writing your history, you offer your congregation the opportunity to grow more emotionally and spiritually connected with the church. You also invite visitors and others to learn more about how your church plays an important role in the community.”
First United Methodist Church of Topeka, Kansas, found a creative way to share their history. The church has a unique claim as the first congregation in the area, even before Kansas was a state. So to highlight that along with 160 years of wonderful memories, they installed a permanent church history wall on the first floor of the church. The history wall is a great example of how your church can go big with print media and create something that will last for generations.
Learn more about ways to preserve your local church's history with tips from the United Methodist General Commission on Archives and History.
Leaders also can use the history of their building, congregation, community or denomination for other purposes, such as:
1. A problem-solving tool
The most common mistake leaders make when faced with problems is failing to identify the fundamental issues and understand what they’re up against. There’s a famous quote often attributed to Albert Einstein about how, when given an hour to solve a problem, he would spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and five minutes coming up with solutions.
It’s a wise strategy. Critical thinking requires good data — information collected in the recent or distant past — to analyze. Before we talk about solutions, we have to first understand the source of our problems.
In an organization’s life, the slightest course change can eventually send it far afield of its intended trajectory. When looking back at a journey gone wrong, it can be difficult to figure out when the direction started shifting.
Reviewing past events is important for understanding the points at which the course of your church’s journey shifted and for what reasons. You may be the most knowledgeable person about your church’s history, or you may need to consult with others who know your church’s story from years ago.
What people or records might you be able to explore for a sense of who you’ve been, both good and bad? The past isn’t always pretty, but more data is always useful.
If your website is set up to use Google Analytics, you could easily discover the most visited pages and determine what stories or events were most popular. Some of these stories could be documented and woven into your church history. If data seems daunting, check out Analytics 101 for churches.
2. Outreach and community awareness
Marketing is about finding your audience and capturing their attention. You need a good hook, the kind supplied by a great story. Do you have a church marketing plan?
If you can tell a compelling story, people will listen. Building a story archive is just one of the ways to connect young adults to the church.
Leaders often begin a marketing talk by focusing on mission — the “why we exist” part. You may be able to offer a more dynamic explanation by telling your story. Who are you? What is the identity of your church or organization? How did you come to be? What obstacles did you face and how did you or your founders work to overcome them?
Outreach in modern times can be tricky. Create a bridge to folks in your community by simply sharing your story and revealing common experiences.
3. Becoming further unified as one body
Effective leaders work hard to establish a unified culture. Some churches have experienced the equivalent of a merger in the business world, where two or more bodies of believers suddenly find themselves coming together and attempting to align disparate values and views.
Most congregations grow more slowly as new folks arrive. While the goal is always unity, there is a tendency to drift as paths often diverge over time.
When we’re not aligned with one another, history can again serve as a valuable tool. The distance between diverging paths is usually less at the beginning, so knowing the origins and goals of each church can help overcome tension and bring unity.
4. Vision, purpose and motivation
Defining SMART goals and communicating consistent messages are a big part of what we do. Together, they produce a forward-looking exercise that’s best when anchored to the past, both through clearly articulated success principles as well as honestly appraised shortcomings.
Mission is all about “who we are.” You can’t address such issues of identity without understanding where you’ve come from.
The past is also a motivator when organizations face adversity. Pointing to past struggles and how they were overcome can inspire confidence that good things lie ahead. Just as we search our own pasts for wisdom we can apply in the present, so can organizations benefit from that kind of collective analysis.
A church that values the past communicates to people that they matter and that the path they’ve followed matters. By extension, you communicate a sense of urgency about prioritizing the significance of where you’re going next.
Our histories contain the power to provide identity and purpose.
5. Change management strategy
Change is coming. Always. In the church, as in the business world, managing change is one of the toughest skills to develop and execute.
Many leaders study history to anticipate how the future winds will shift. By reviewing nearly forgotten meetings, memos, votes and more, perceptive leaders can use history to understand how change has looked in the past and how it’s likely to shape the future.
Studying the past reminds us of the need for change and all the ways it happens, even as we acknowledge how difficult it is.
We want our perspective to matter and be taken seriously by colleagues and the people we lead. We want to remain relevant. Having a strong view of how things change over time may make us seem prophetic, particularly to younger generations. Learning our history makes us wiser and helps us think about the long-term impact of what we do.
The usable past
Historians often debate what constitutes a “usable past.” The process of filtering a wealth of information into the most important bits may seem daunting, but it is doable.
The trick, though, is that we must be truthful and never flinch at what we find as we dive into our personal and organizational histories. If your past includes complicated politics or failures, don’t hide from the truth. Embrace your past and use the missteps to show how far you’ve come.
Transparency, authenticity and self-awareness will be attractive to people in your community and may draw younger generations.
“Recognize that your local church's story is a part of the larger history of your community,” says McAnally.
You can frame change and progress within a historical understanding of your church. You also can show people where they can fit into a valued history and how their presence and contributions will be valued. Ultimately, they will understand that they, too, will be recognized and remembered.
We are all historians. History is memory, and memories are powerful. Those who forget their past aren’t the only ones who will repeat it. The world moves in cycles, often predictable. Those who remember successes are destined to repeat them as well.
Few professionals take the long view of things in the way historians do. Leaders in any organization will do well to emulate their perspective. The more we understand change over time, the more we’ll successfully keep up with the times.
ALSO: For an example of how to record and share your history, check out UMCOM’s historical timeline at UMCom.org/timeline.