A Guide for ELCA Congregational Archives and History
The life of a congregation, like the life of an individual, contains important milestones. One of the most important is the church’s anniversary. It is a time to reverently thank God for the past "saints" whose lives of service have furthered the Kingdom. It is also a time to joyfully celebrate the birthday of that community of faith. Most anniversary celebrations successfully combine the two emphases.
The following suggestions are intended to help anniversary committees get started. Since it is not an exhaustive list of possible activities, please send additional ideas for activities that have worked in congregational celebrations so that the ELCA Region 3 Archives staff might pass them on to others.
Preparing for the Anniversary
The Anniversary Committee
Selecting an anniversary committee is the first step in planning for the event. Consideration should be given to the particular interests and strengths that people would bring to the task. For example, if the church’s important historical records have not been gathered, organized and made available for use, a person or a small committee should begin work establishing the congregational archives.
Other people might be interested in gathering oral history interviews of some of the older members. Others may want to work on writing the congregational history. Still others may be interested in planning the social events for the anniversary day itself. If all of these tasks are to be done it is easy to see why a committee of at least six people is ideal. It is also important to begin planning at least two, but preferably three years, in advance of the celebration.
Planning the Scope of the Celebration
Even with plenty of "lead time" and a large, energetic committee, it is impossible to do everything surrounding an anniversary. Plan to do a few events, or a few emphases spread over the anniversary year, well. Maybe you will want a gradual buildup with many reminders of your shared history (see next page) or maybe your committee will want to put most of its energy into the main weekend events surrounding the anniversary. Plan to spend some time focusing on the scope of the celebration. Time spent on this at the outset will reduce the chances of misunderstandings within the committee and possible poor participation by the congregation in anniversary activities.
Activities Leading to the Anniversary
Writing the Congregational History
It is difficult to think of celebrating a church’s anniversary without writing a congregational history. This piece of permanent research is the present congregation’s testimony to God’s past work in that place. The celebration of an anniversary is a natural opportunity to commit time and talent to writing a history.
Most effective histories, that is, histories that accurately tell the stories of the congregation and appeal to the most people, contain more than simply a list of former pastors. While a timeline is helpful to include for clarity sake, a history built around anecdotes and personal memory is more engaging. Anecdotes are greatly enhanced by the use of many good quality photographs. This type of history "fleshes out" the names and numbers in a way that will grip the reader. The reader ought to be able to say, "my congregation’s story has become my story."
More specific assistance is available in the "Suggestions for Writing a Congregational History" included in this guide, pages 26-27.
Oral History Interviews
The practice of tape recording a person’s recollections of past events is known as oral history. It is a wonderful, still relatively new tool of collecting memories for others to share. You may want to assign one or two of your committee members to the task of gathering the stories of older members of the church. While it is important to have this information for your congregational archives for permanent retention, you may also want to use some of the stories in your written congregational history.
More suggestions on using oral history are available in "A Guide to Oral History Interviews in the Congregation" found in this guide, pages 22-25.
Heritage Minutes in Sunday Worship
Many congregations plan to recognize their anniversary with a gradual "build-up" to the day itself. One idea that seems to work quite well is the placement of "heritage minutes" within the Sunday worship services in anticipation of the event. These heritage minutes might highlight different eras or individuals in the life of the congregation. They should be brief stories that emphasize not just the details of past events, but indicate what we might learn from these stories today. For instance, many churches have experienced financial hardships, but with the help of God and the faith and perseverance of individuals these churches survived. We can still learn something from these stories. While less positive stories should be contained in the written congregational history, the heritage minute format is not the place for recalling traumatic events in the life of the congregation.
"Did You Know. . .?" Columns
This type of regular feature in the congregational newsletter or Sunday bulletin is another effective way of highlighting history in anticipation of the actual anniversary. This is the place for fun, interesting, and surprising facts about the church and its members. If this is done well, people begin to anticipate each column and contribute their own information for future columns.
Activities for the Anniversary Weekend
The Anniversary Sunday Worship
This important service gathers the community of faith together to give thanks for those who have gone before, those whom God gave special gifts in order that Christ’s ministry in that place be done. Consequently, this services is a time to acknowledge God’s faithfulness to His people.
Some congregations will use an old style liturgy, perhaps in the language of the founding members. While this can be quite a significant reminder of one’s spiritual heritage, care needs to be taken not to exclude people. Thus, a translation should be provided to those gathered. If the congregation is now a mix of ethnic backgrounds this service could be a wonderful opportunity to acknowledge the church’s diversity.
This emphasis will also help the celebration be forward looking. While the purpose of an anniversary is to look back to the past, it is also critical that as a living community of faith the congregation grasp God’s faithfulness as it moves ahead into the future.
Reminiscing Banquet, Tea or Picnic
Most congregations choose to acknowledge an anniversary with an event centered around a meal. This seems an appropriate type of fellowship in which to reminisce by telling stories, having old documents, pictures, records or memorabilia on display or just being together. Sometimes churches will videotape the reminiscences of older members shared at such a gathering. This can be an effective way of gathering stories, but it is not a substitute for a thorough oral history interview or for a written congregational history. Often, this is the time when commemorative plates, coffee mugs and T-shirts are sold. Whatever "extras" the meal time includes, it should be festive and celebratory.
Memory Work: A Guide for ELCA Congregational Archives and History is prepared by Paul Daniels, Archivist and Curator of the Luther Seminary and ELCA Region3 Archives. ©1991, Revised 1998, 2001 and 2003. Reproduction and sharing is permitted, provided this credit is included.