In any organization, archives play an important role. Although the ELCA is only a few decades old, its archives house more than two centuries’ worth of information from the denomination and its predecessors. Handling and deciphering that material involves diligent and sometimes tedious work.

ELCA Archives is part of the Office of the Secretary in the churchwide organization,” said Cathy Lundeen, archivist for collections management and records management. “We are responsible for keeping the records of the church and advising the various synods and congregations on records management.”

With only two archivists and an assistant, the office stays busy. On any given day, the archivists work with researchers, documentarians, genealogists and historians who are interested in their collections—which span a total of roughly 12,000 linear feet.

Lundeen said the archives are an important way for the church to understand its past in order to position itself for the future. “The churchwide archives … preserve the records that capture these moments in time that are wonderful, and those that are sometimes painful. They are this collective memory of the ELCA and its predecessors. They serve as a guide—showing us where we’ve been and where we are going,” Lundeen said.

Old church minutes 
Dating back to 1812, one of the archives’ oldest pieces includes minutes from a church meeting of the Ohio Synod. “Depending on who was recording, some minutes were more verbose and detailed than others. Over time, they become more like the minutes we see today,” Lundeen said.

Though these minutes may seem mundane on their own, pieced together they tell the story of the Lutheran church throughout its history.

“As a church, we’ve been through many mergers. When immigrants came to the United States, they came from many church communities,” she said.

The most impressive artifact
Of all the artifacts the office has compiled, perhaps the most fascinating is the alleged papal indulgence, which dates to 1517. The indulgence was originally presented to the National Lutheran Council (NLC) by the German National Committee of the Lutheran World Federation and a film production company called Luther-Film GmbH, which worked with the NLC’s Lutheran Church Productions on the film Martin Luther. Eventually it found its way to the ELCA offices.

“It is often displayed at the Lutheran Center,” Lundeen said. “It’s very elaborate and large. And there’s beautiful detailing with St. Peter, St. Paul and the Virgin Mary. People like to see it when they visit the Chicago headquarters.”

“They are this collective memory of the ELCA and its predecessors. They serve as a guide—showing us where we’ve been and where we are going.”

Archiving churchwide ministries
The office also plays an important role in archiving the various ministries that have come and gone throughout the church’s history. These ministries tell the story of what was most important to the church at any given point in time, helping shape its identity.

“One of our best collections is our global mission collection. That’s where you can really see the evolution of mission work, and how we have moved from the old model to the one (accompaniment) we use today,” she said. “The collections show where we’ve been, how we used to do things, how we’ve changed with the times.”

A resource for inquisitive minds
Another interesting component of the archivists’ work is their interactions with those who call or stop by with questions. While most are pastors, teachers, historians, filmmakers or journalists, others visit because they are interested in genealogy.

Lundeen recalls a man who was looking for more information about his grandmother, a deaconess during the 19th and 20th centuries. But, according to records, she had discontinued her position at some point. In her research, Lundeen found that the grandmother had been asked to resign by the deaconess board.

“The minutes said she was ‘going beyond the description of her job.’ There was also an article written in the church newspaper about it. She wanted to do more than the deaconess community allowed her to do. She wanted to preach.”

While some might use this information to suggest the woman was a pioneer for the advancement of women’s roles in the church, Lundeen was clear that as an archivist, interpreting the information is not part of her role. Ultimately, she was glad she could be helpful to the grandson.

“He felt so grateful to find this information out about his grandmother,” she said.

While there are many unique aspects of the archives’ work, its role in keeping the memory of the church is pivotal. “The church is both changing and unchanging,” Lundeen said. “We have our core beliefs of who we are. History impacts us, and we impact history. We change the world and the world changes us. And the archives’ role is to preserve those things.”


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Jill Dierberg Clark
Jill Dierberg Clark is a freelance writer and director of public engagement at Eden Theological Seminary. She lives in St. Louis with her husband and twins.

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