If you’ve ever wondered when your congregation began and who started it, there are ways to find the answers. Sure you could ask someone who may know the congregation’s history, but it might be more enjoyable to do the research yourself. To do that, you’ll have to go to the source that every congregation needs. No, not the pastor (although they are necessary), and not the music director (they’re good to have too). The source you need is your congregation’s archives. Whether your congregation has one or not, one thing is certain: archives are vital.
Many ELCA congregations have archives, as do the regions associated with each synod and the churchwide organization. I spent a year volunteering at the Region 6 archives in Columbus, Ohio, which contains an extraordinary amount of historical material and information. I found information on my home congregation, Faith Lutheran in Goshen, Ind., by looking at synod assembly minutes from the past. There are even copies of minutes from the late 1800s that were just fascinating. Just as the people of Old Testament times built stone altars in various places to remember important events, we build “altars” of information to remember special occasions so people in the future can discover their past.
The church needs congregational archives and archivists in each congregation because history enriches our grasp of traditions and practices. The attitudes of present-day ELCA members can even be more easily understood with knowledge of the past. Without records and archives, this understanding is impossible. Parishioners are left wandering and seeking an identity to carry them through the present and into the future. They have no appreciation for where their congregation comes from or where it is going.
Keeping accurate records and preserving materials—whether photographs or pieces of building structure—creates a tie between generations that shows the bond of love we share as a church.
My wife is currently serving as vicar of Holy Trinity Lutheran Church in Akron, Ohio. This congregation deeply values their history. This is their 150th anniversary year, and they are putting little snippets of its history in the bulletin every Sunday. There is a rotating display of historical items to view, from photos and decorative pieces of woodwork from the original building to a book of meeting minutes from the late 1800s. There is also a membership book dating to the 1800s that has been well preserved so you can read the entries.
Holy Trinity has published history books of the congregation every 25 or 50 years. One of these books says: “Who among the members of Trinity Lutheran Church do not feel a desire to know something of its early history? The question in recent years has often been asked, ‘How old is this church?’ ‘When was this church organized?’ ‘Who was the first pastor?’ ‘What was its first membership?’ ‘When was the Sunday school organized?’ ‘Who was its first superintendent, etc., etc.’—questions that cannot now be very readily answered because our historian has sadly neglected our church history. The early records have been lost, and but few of the original members are now living to tell the story from memory” (1871-1896 Trinity Memorial of the 25th Year of [Holy Trinity Lutheran Church of Akron, Ohio], page 18). What an incredible witness to the power of archives.
I compare the need for church archives with the importance of celebrating Veteran’s Day. If we neglect Veteran’s Day and look at it as no more than a day off of work or school, then eventually our society has no appreciation for where our freedoms were won or for the people who won them. This is unfortunate. Just as we need to always remember the sacrifices given for our freedom, we need to remember where our congregations came from and the people who were involved in shaping and guiding them through the years.
The ELCA needs archives in every congregation and should encourage each to find those people with the gifts required and the love for history to answer the call to be archivists. Keeping accurate records and preserving materials—whether photographs or pieces of building structure—creates a tie between generations that shows the bond of love that we share as a church. We are connected not only with those who are alive today, but also with those who have passed on to their reward in eternal life in Jesus Christ.