Writing the History of Your Congregation
A shared history is a powerful bond and an awareness of history can foster a sense of pride and a feeling of connectedness. The telling of this history, whether in oral or written form, is one of the most important ways that newer members of a family are welcomed into the group.
This sense of history is equally important to a congregation. A sense of who we are is partly dependent on who we were. A history of your congregation can reveal stories of its struggle to survive and prosper, stories replete with setbacks and successes. But this history has no value if it is hidden; it must be shared. While it is important to preserve oral narrative, a written history is essential to the transmission of the story (or stories) of your congregation's past.
And yet, no written history is definitive. Retelling our history over and over again with a contemporary understanding of who might need to be centered in the story, especially if they were at the margins in previous tellings. Older histories centered the experiences of white men, where we now understand our histories had a much more complex narrative.
When to Write
Anytime is a good time to write a history, but the support needed for such a project is more easily generated as part of an anniversary or commemoration. many congregations have produced congregation histories on the 50th, 100th, 125th, 150th, etc. anniversary of the founding of the congregation. Keep in mind that research and writing are frequently frustrating and always time-consuming, so make sure those with passion for the project are given adequate resources and plenty of time to complete the project.
How to Begin
Start with people who are passionate for the project, and who are collaborative. A small steering committee can be convened to coordinate and manage the project by deciding how the work of research and writing might be divided based on the interests of the team members.
The older a congregation, the more history it has to be discovered and recorded, but the greater the likelihood that an earlier generation produced a congregational history. Check the congregation's files as well as archives on the internet.
Most congregational histories are chronological, but with flexibility. Instead of dividing a history by a set number of years (decades, 25-year increments, etc.) it's usually more effective to divide into parts that are internally cohesive to make a better story. This might be the time in a certain location, with certain leadership or other significant times in the congregation's history.
Start by sketching a broad outline of the congregation's history:
- When was is founded?
- Was the congregation always in the same location, or were there others? Where?
- Who have been its ministers, religious educators, music directors and other key program staff?
- Who were some of the key lay leaders over time?
Doing the Research
After deciding how the research is to be divided, you can begin to collect pertinent facts and stories for your congregation's history.
Start with your own congregation's records (perhaps with assistance from the board secretary and treasurer). The minutes of meetings can reveal a great deal about the problems facing the congregation. Treasurer's reports can chronicle the highs and lows of the congregation's history, and where it felt was important enough to spend money. Endowments may reveal important leaders and benefactors.
Visit your local library and historical society to enlist the aid of their librarians. Their collections may include local histories that refer to your congregation or an earlier congregational history. Local newspapers can also have a treasure trove of information, including photographs.
Explore the nooks and crannies of the congregation's building for lost or forgotten materials. An old trunk or a dusty box might yield a wealth of materials. Also pay attention to memorial objects in the building. There may be interesting stories about who donated the objects and why.
Many church materials have ended up in nearby university archives. The Andover-Harvard Theological Library is the official repository for the Unitarian Universalist Association, the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee, and Beacon Press. The collections are particularly strong in the Unitarian Universalist (UU) tradition, and also include UU ministers' papers and the records of UU affiliated groups. The Meadville Lombard Theological School Library and Archives has additional materials, including the archives of the Western Unitarian Conference and special collections for religious education, women and people of color.
You might find a former minister listed in the Dictionary of UU Biography.
Also, the UUHHS (Unitarian Universalist History and Heritage Society) offers tools for creating a congregational history.
Writing the History
Gather the researchers to share their finding and to discuss the significance of the various facts and stories. You won't be able to include everything, so curation is important at this stage. You may also want to note what was going on in the wider culture (e.g. Depression, Vietnam War, 2nd Wave Feminism, etc.) for context. Be sure to include a diversity of ages, genders and cultural backgrounds for balance.
You may find some uncomfortable information, but don't be tempted to leave those stories out. It is critical to a congregation's self-understanding to hear about the controversies and harms as well as the celebrations and successes.
If you are lucky enough to have an individual with the time and experience to be the writer, you will have a finished product that has less repetition and more stylistic consistency.
As an alternative, the steering committee can assign different chapters to different authors based on their interest and expertise.It may lack the polish of a single author, but the diversity of voices gives its own charm.
Whichever method you choose, the drafts should be discussed by the larger group before a final version is approved.
Present your written history attractively, and make it available both in print and electronic (pdf) versions.
Send copies to the local library, historical society, and the Andover-Harvard archives.
Finally, plan and hold a publishing party for the entire congregation to celebrate the completion of your hard work. The sweetest fruits of your labors are sharing them with others.