Essay: Creating Congregational Histories

Creating Congregational Histories

Rev. Dr. Barbara Coeyman

Originally Presented as a Workshop sponsored by the
Unitarian Universalist Historical Society (UUHS)
General Assembly 2007, Portland, OR


This essay follows from a workshop presented by the Unitarian Universalist Historical Society during General Assembly of the UUA in Portland, Oregon, in June 2007. That workshop included lively audience participation which affirmed that congregational history in its many manifestations matters to a faith movement, as evidenced by the interest at the workshop in developing more histories of our congregations. Also, congregations want more guidelines for engaging in congregational history. This essay reviews many of the ideas discussed in that workshop, and includes additional references to printed and electronic resources.

We should be clear from the outset what we mean by “congregational history.” The work of James P. Wind can help clarify our definition (Wind, Places of Worship, xvi-xvii)[1] . By ‘congregational’ we do not mean a type of church polity or organization, although Unitarian Universalism is indeed organized by congregational polity. Instead, by ‘congregational’ we mean the adjective that describes that “collection of people assembled for religious worship or to hear a preacher.” Certainly Unitarian Universalist congregations are organized congregationally, but it is the people and activities, not the polity, that is the focus of this essay.

Regardless of theological orientation or denominational polity, there are certain basics of creating congregational history that apply. In this essay we draw on advice and resources from a broad range of resources. Further, while the focus of this essay is the creation of a congregational history per se, we encourage congregations overall to develop historical mindsets more generally. A particular object such as a printed book that we refer to as a “congregational history” is just one of many objects that may result from a historically-minded congregation.

Finally, while this essay is directed primarily at congregations, the ideas offered here apply to other Unitarian Universalist organizations, and to other levels of organization beyond the congregation. We urge any UU group, as well as each district, to maintain archives and engage in their own history. An excellent model for district-level history and heritage work can be found on the website of the Prairie Star District.  An example of district-level archives can be found in the Southwest UU Conference (the Southwest Collection, housed at Texas Tech University).

This essay is the first of various projected website aids sponsored by the UUHS for supporting congregational history. Undoubtedly, this essay will not address all your questions about congregational history, but we do hope that we present some useful questions to ask as you pursue your history work. We also encourage you to explore additional resources from other organizations. For example, the Congregational Christian Historical Society regularly offers workshops on church archiving and history. See also the various email chat lists related to history and archiving sponsored by the Unitarian Universalist Association. Go to UUA Mailing Lists for more information, and consider joining UUHS-chat, the UU Historical Society Chat List, or the UU-cong-archives chat list. Additionally, the Office of Information and Public Witness of the Unitarian Universalist Association can help you with research requests.

In the first half of this essay, let us establish some groundwork as we explore the role of history in congregational and spiritual life. In the second half, let us turn to practical tips for creating congregational history, with links to other resources for forming heritage committees, preserving documents, producing histories, and creating history-based activities within congregational life.

History is a creative act, always in the process of transformation itself, as it also transforms those who engage in the experience of history. We encourage you to promote history as both an academic discipline and a lived experience, both approaches contributing to a vital spiritual life. We also hope you take a comprehensive approach to congregational history to engage your entire congregation: old-timers and newcomers; young and old; those interested in religious education, music, social action, spiritual practices, and more. Everyone in a congregation can get involved in “doing history.”


I. Let’s start with a basic question: What is history?

This is an important question to ground your work. Particularly in congregational life, there may be some misconceptions about the scope and importance of history that could leave you wearing oddly-shaped blinders that limit your visions before you even get started.

History can be thought of from two broad perspectives. One, history is the facts, the data, the content about the past. That is, history is the confirmable information about people, places, events, and more. Two, history is also the interpretation of that data. That is, history is the type of ‘reading’ any particular historian gives any particular set of facts. Historical interpretations are conditioned by personal feelings and experiences, as well as by the particular goals of any historical project. A historian’s interpretation can influence not only how a body of facts is put together and explained, but also what facts are included and what are left out of any particular historical view. For example, consider how marginalized populations through time and in a wide range of cultures have been left out or minimized in many historical records. To this end, the historian wields great power through her interpretive options.

Facts plus interpretation: an important combination to ground your work in congregational history, and a view affirmed by the American historian Gerda Lerner, who defined history as “memory formed and shaped so as to have form and meaning.” (Lerner, Why History Matters, 116).[2]

It is also worth considering the question what is religious history and how is it different from ‘secular’ history?  That is, as you consider what to include in your congregational history work, review carefully what activities, people, and events define you as a religious institution. What makes your congregational history different from the history of your town, or your favorite community organization? Within congregational life, how is history an essential component of the ministry of your congregation? How does your congregation exhibit those qualities that express its sacredness, and how will your congregational histories reveal those sacred qualities? In the words of James Wind, “historians who consider congregations have the special challenge of relating this distinctive and constitutive part of their identities to a myriad of everyday activities and behaviors” (Wind xix). It is a tall order, writing a history of a religious organization. The question of what type of information might be included in a congregational history will be addressed more specifically later in this essay.

II. Why does ‘history matter?

Why did historian Gerda Lerner choose this phrase as the title of her book? Before even asking why history in a faith context matters, let’s speculate on a few reasons why history in general matters. Certainly the list of responses we can include here is not exhaustive. Keep brainstorming on your own the question of why history matters.

History is important because it serves as memory for us (Lerner, 116). It keeps the past alive. In connecting the past to the present, and in helping to forecast the future, history thus creates a sense of identity and connection that help us understand who we are today (Wind, vii ff, xvii-xix). In its capacity to transfer acts and deeds of the past into the future, history also provides a sense of immortality. Through history, past events remain alive and known by others for a long time. History also has the capacity to render a particular interpretative viewpoint to a body of data. Thus, history serves to both define and convey cultural traditions: national, ethnic, religious, racial, and more.

We would also hope that history provides examples of what works and what doesn’t work. That is, we hope that history inspires the best of human actions in the future, even though around the world we routinely encounter examples of how humanity seems to have dismissed the learning opportunities that mistakes of the past offer us.

Grounded in the importance of history generally, let us focus the question to ask, why does congregational history matter? We may also ask, why does history matter to faith development?That is, why does it matter that we know who and what came before us within and outside of our particular faith tradition. Why does it matter that we know what has influenced the shape and identity of our tradition as it has come down to us? Perhaps the first and most important response to these questions is that history serves as spiritual practice. If spirituality can be understood as connections — within ourselves, with other living things, and with the divine — then history in its capacity to connect past, present, and future certainly becomes important spiritual practice. In creating a dialogue between past and present, history expands spirituality by opening up new insights into congregational life.

Congregational history is created by calling on our memories of the events and players in the past, whose life and deeds are kept alive through the histories we create. Those events and players create a picture of a congregation’s culture, that helps explain what this congregation is like today and what it will become, or might become, in the future. Congregational history also provides a sense of pride and ownership, confirming and concretizing the presence of our faith tradition in our community during the years the congregation has been in existence. Congregational history confirms that our faith community has mattered in this place, for this amount of time. Congregational history thus shapes identity, which the church historian James Hopewell defined as “the persistent set of beliefs, values, patterns, symbols, stories, and style that makes a congregation distinctive” (Wind, 17). In its capacity to reflect a particular viewpoint, congregational history suggests how a congregation perceives itself: what sort of face it puts out to the world, and what it hopes to become in the future. Congregational history is an important component of spiritual development.

The question of why congregational history matters could also be answered in terms of the goals or reasons for creating that history. That is, the history matters in relation to what you want to accomplish in producing that history. Are you writing a history to celebrate a significant anniversary of the congregation? Or perhaps to honor the ministers who have served the congregation? Perhaps you are producing a church history to coincide with a community celebration of one sort or other. Perhaps you are thinking of your congregation’s future: you are producing your history for the sake of those who come after you. The reasons a congregational history matters take on these varied responses depending on the reasons for creating the history in the first place.

III. Let us now consider the people involved in congregational history. We intentionally ask the question about the people involved with congregational history this way: Who ‘does’ congregational history?

In general, we tend to think of the people associated with history as those who either create the history – the historians – or those who learn the history – the readers – on the assumption that most historical objects exist as printed materials. However, taking a wider view of history, particularly in a religious context, we do well to expand our notions of who is connected with history and who benefits from history. Therefore, we have asked the question this way: who ‘does’ congregational history? If history is important spiritual practice, then congregational history should be something that reaches everyone in the congregation. A wide variety of activities and people are included in the ‘doing’ of history. Not only those who write or read the history, but those who collect the documents, or tape interviews for an oral history project, or design a history website, or arrange the visual displays of historical objects, or listen to sermons based on the history, or learn the information that the historians have written: in all these ways and more, a congregation’s history touches all the members, friends, and children and youth of a congregation.  Just as each of us can regard ourselves as theologians or as ministers, each of us can also be historians, in the widest sense of the term. History is not only for the academicians among us. History is for everyone. Everyone in a congregation is a candidate for ‘doing’ history.

The driving force in any given congregational history project might be a historian in the traditional sense: one individual who collects data, organizes it, evaluates it, and produces some tangible object recognized as a ‘history.’ In contrast, and perhaps more productive for most congregational history projects, the driving force can be a group of individuals who actually produce the history, or contribute research that helps the single author historian produce the history.

We might think that the first persons to call on for historical information are the long-time members. After all, they know the history better than anyone else. They have lived more of the history than anyone else. On the other hand, there are some advantages to a level of objectivity when producing history. That is, the historian aims for some distance from her subject, to provide as balanced and thus as fair evaluations as possible. To that end, it is helpful to involve newcomers as well as old-timers in the creation of history. Newcomer eyes can be objective. Early, fresh impressions of a congregation’s cultural habits can discern much that the well-ingrained old-timer is no longer seeing and sensing.

On a more pragmatic note regarding the ‘who’ of congregational history, in this essay we will discuss specific personnel who may be involved in the process of congregational history and some aspects of their roles. We consider: 1) the collectors of historical documents and artifacts: that is, the archivists and librarians; 2) those who consult the documents and make sense of their contexts: the researchers and historians; 3) those who produce historical objects: the writers and videographers and webmasters and artists; 4) those who present the history: the teachers and preachers and gallery coordinators; and 5) those who learn and apply the history: the entire congregation.

IV. One final question to raise in the ‘speculative’ segment of this essay: what content is included in congregational history?

That is, what topics, ideas, activities, personnel, and more might be included in this process of ‘doing’ history? This may be the most open-ended of these speculative questions because any given congregation’s history will be shaped by the particular identity and characteristics of that congregation. Granted, there are certain basics that ought to be considered in any history – facts and figures about locations, buildings, congregation size, ministers, religious education, etc. – but the interpretation or viewpoint of any historical component will also reflect the congregation’s identity. A children-centered congregation may realize its history more through visual displays and hands-on activities. A congregation serving an academic community may publish a book-length printed history on a regular basis.

What is most important is that there be some orientation, some thesis, some organizing call to any congregational history, and that a variety of perspectives are included in the presentation of this orientation (Wind, xvii, 39). Some of the discerning around what orientation to choose for any given history could be influenced by observing behavioral and cultural patterns within a congregation: how congregants interact with one another, how they choose leaders, how they create the personnel of programs, how they express the rituals and heritage of their faith, how buildings and other aspects of the physical plant are used and maintained.  Further, how the congregation interacts with the surrounding community or wider denomination can influence the orientation of a congregation history (Wind 15, 34).

To respond to the question of what is included in a congregational history, James Wind’s advice to think like a journalist is helpful. Wind encourages us to respond to the six basic questions of journalism:

  1. Who?: Which persons in a congregation explain most about the congregation’s identity? Who are the vocal leaders, the “quiet pewsitters;” the old-timers, the newcomers; the neighbors, the folks driving special interests?
  2. What?: What are distinctive events, traditions, celebrations and sadnesses, that identify this congregation? What are the challenges, achievements, disasters, esteemed heritages?
  3. When?: What is the overall timeline? When did significant changes or new directions or changes in leadership occur?
  4. Where?: Where does membership come from? Where do members go when they leave this congregation? Where are buildings located?
  5. Why?: Why did this group of people and buildings come into being as they did? Why have conflicts occurred as they did? Why do finances work the way they do? Why do people continue together in faith?
  6. How?: How has the core of free faith been expressed through congregational practices and activities? How has power been distributed? How has money been spent? How has change been dealt with? How has this congregation expressed itself artistically, musically, theologically, socially, and more?


I. Identifying personnel and getting started


While we hope that congregational history is something that all in your congregation participate in, when you establish an archives committee and a heritage committee, it is important to identify individuals with particular skills and experience for these tasks. For starters, distinguish between the roles of archivist and librarian. Ideally, you will be able to identify two different individuals to fill these roles. While both jobs are enhanced by individuals who are good team players, these positions serve different functions and require different leadership skills. The archivist is responsible for supervising the physical preservation and storage of the non-current records. The archivist should have an eye for preserving and organizing the wide range of materials in the congregational archives. While the librarian might also play some role in preservation, in contrast, the librarian serves primarily as the resource person, the consultant for others wishing to do research in the archives.

Thus, we encourage congregations to establish archives – that is, repositories of original source materials about the congregation – and to name one person to oversee the archives – the archivist. We also encourage congregations to establish a library – a collection of secondary sources, printed materials in most cases, about the congregation, the community, and Unitarian Universalism – with a librarian to oversee the collection and its use. In general, for most congregations, we recommend a regular method of rotation for most volunteer positions. However, for the positions of archivist and librarian, you might consider longer-than-normal terms of service because it takes awhile to become familiar with the materials and the methods of the archives and library. Both of these positions might be supported by a committee of volunteers who could rotate more frequently, on the same schedule as other committees of the congregation (Hendricks, “A Heritage Committee”).

Ideally, there are individuals in the congregation with some experience in archiving and librarianship, who will either fill these role, or help in training others for this work. If history and heritage work is totally new to the congregation, and if you do not have experienced individuals in the congregation, seek out professionals in the community who could offer trainings. Remember that congregational archives can benefit communities as well as the congregation. In the long run, assistance from local professionals to build congregational history benefits their community work. Consider bringing in consultants to lead archiving / library workshops on a range of topics. As an example of a training session, read about the good work from the Prairie Star District on sponsoring a workshop on creating history videos.

In addition to archiving and library skills, to the extent possible, the archivist and librarian should also become conversant in district and denominational history. They might also become acquainted with others throughout the district and denomination interested in promoting congregational history. They should also have regular habits of reading certain denominational publications that might contain information they will want to file in their collections.

To clarify the difference between the archives and the library, as well as the tasks of the archivist and the librarian, it is also important to develop job descriptions and mission statements for both. If there is a committee working with either role, it is important that the committees’ roles are also clearly defined by whatever method your congregation uses to explain and deliver charges to committees. An example of a job description for a church archivist or historian can be found in the packet of congregational history materials in the UUA Congregational Handbook

When you name individuals to occupy these positions, do whatever you can to explain these positions and to reinforce their importance to the congregation. Celebrate these roles and uphold them, especially if they are new charges in a congregation. For example, you might deliver the official charge to these individuals during a worship service.

Don’t shortchange or underestimate the financial commitment needed for maintaining a workable archives and library. In the beginning, there will be one-time start-up costs such as the visiting consultants referred to above. Once a collection is up and running, costs may be lower and likely used primarily for maintenance of the collections. Whatever the scope of congregational history, in any congregation it is important to name it with a line-item in annual budgets. This naming give the project the official endorsement and respect it deserves. Also, include a report on the archives/library in monthly board reports and in the annual meeting so congregants realize the good work you are doing in keeping their documents well-cared for. Also, remind the congregation frequently about the method of access to library and archive resources, and encourage them to use these resources. Get the congregation involved in their own history!

In addition to identifying an archivist and a librarian and their committees, there are other decisions related to personnel. For example, what role does the minister play in relation to the archives and library? What method will you establish for collecting documents to file in the church archives? Is the archivist responsible for this gathering of materials, as well as filing? Who has access to the rooms where the records are stored, and to storage files, closets, and more? Who are keepers of the keys, and how can these individuals be contacted? Should church staff and the minister be among those who have keys? Should staff be responsible for letting researchers have access to materials? Who else other than the archivist and librarian – the minister, the board president, the staff, etc. – should have a working knowledge of how to use the archives and library, including the indexing system? Develop clearly explained information sheets. There is nothing more frustrating  than trying to locate historical information or materials in a congregation located half-way across the country and reaching persons on the other end of phone lines who have little or no knowledge of the archives under their very own roof and no idea of who in the congregation to call for help.

Also make decisions about who may use the archives. Is the material available only to congregation members, or also to members of the community? If materials are kept in locations other than in the church building, as in a public collection, are there any restrictions on who may have access to materials. Is there any need to limit public access to certain information about the congregation? No matter where materials are housed, is photocopying allowed? Are there restrictions on what may be photocopied, either because of delicacy of the physical condition or delicacy of subject matter? May materials be borrowed: that is, taken off premises, or taken to areas of the church other than the archives? If there are sign-out privileges in the library, who oversees the timely return of materials?

Do not forget to explain in writing how all this works, in pamphlets available for the public as well as in other documentation that staff and lay leaders have access to. In this pamphlet, explain where the collection is housed, who has keys and how to contact those persons, how a researcher may gain access to materials, and what can be copied or borrowed.

II. Preserving records


Deciding what to keep, how much to keep, for how long, and where, presents some of the thorniest decisions for your archiving committee. These are fundamentally decisions conditioned by the particular circumstances of your congregation. There are no right or wrong answers. What is important is that you have some clearly-defined method for making decisions about what types of materials you keep and how you organize them, and that you explain your methods in writing. (see Watts, “Archives: Keeping Local Congregational Records”)

Our first point of advice about preserving records may seem obvious. Congregations hoping to create congregational histories must first generate a mindset of historical awareness, so that significant events in the life of the congregation are documented. Enhancing historical consciousness can do much to generate informative documentation. To illustrate: we once knew a congregation that took very few photos of its activities. To change this mindset, it took a fair number of images taken by a visiting minister of recent congregational events posted around the building to begin to alter this mindset, so that members began to carry cameras to church activities. They learned to say through their cameras that “our activities are important and we want to document them for posterity.”

One of the most common questions for congregational archiving is what type of records should we keep? It is useful to think broadly, to think about records from the viewpoint of materials, and then to decide what types of  materials you are prepared to keep. In most congregations, undoubtedly most records and archives will be paperwork: printed or manuscript materials. Increasingly, however, records may be digitally preserved, significantly changing the scope and approach to archiving. Further, your archives or library may also include non-paperwork objects such as portraits, posters, art, and more. Obviously, the range of object ‘types’ that you decide to keep will be determined in part by the storage facilities you have available. There is no right or wrong, no one particular answer to these various questions about what the coverage of your collections should be. What is important is that you make thoughtful decisions about what to keep, that you devise a filing system that makes sense to other users, and that you explain that system in writing and then be consistent in the application of your methods and decisions. Also, be sure to include in the archivist’s and librarian’s job descriptions some explanations of their charge about the range of materials to be included in the collections and their responsibility for collecting these materials.

To comment more specifically on what type of records to keep, certainly, every congregation would agree that of greatest importance for a congregational archives are documents and artifacts about congregational activities per se. Records of official business of the congregation, such as annual meetings, are to be preserved. Records of communal activities, particularly worship, should also be archived, as should copies of newsletters and other documents that enjoy community distribution. Beyond documents relevant to the entire congregation, enter into thoughtful discussions about whether materials from particular organizations and activities within the congregation will be archived. Additionally, because congregations are important community institutions and therefore often receive community notice, make thoughtful decisions about whether and how to archives items from local community sources such as the town newspaper. Will you archive community coverage of the new addition to the church building, or the art exhibit opening next week, or the radio interview featuring the congregational president? The same applies for documents at the district and national level. If your congregation is included in news beyond the congregation, will you make room in your archives and library for filing and indexing such materials?

Another basic operating decision you should establish at the outset is the length of time you will keep any given type of item. Again, there are no hard and fast rules, except perhaps in the case of financial records. What matters is that you make decisions and stick to them. If you are inheriting an existing archives that has not been well cared for, or not cared for at all in recent memory, you may have to do some cleaning out. If you are inheriting boxes of dusty, randomly-collected papers that have never been organized, you will have even more cleaning out to do. Certainly, you should weed out duplicate copies of any items, particularly if you are limited in storage space. Any materials of a confidential or sensitive nature, no matter what their subject matter, should be kept in a separate collection and clearly labeled as that. Instructions should be on file regarding who may have access to confidential documents.

Moving now to the more specific question of what specific materials should be collected? (see Harding, “Keeping Congregational Archives”). Among the types of printed materials, there is general agreement that a congregational archives should include the following items:

  • Legal documents such as deeds, bylaws, and contracts.
  • Minutes of meetings, in particular those of congregational meetings, meetings of the governing board, and meeting of permanent committees. The minutes should clearly state official business conducted, but avoid unnecessary details.
  • Annual reports and financial statements are also a must for a congregational archive. Other types of financial records such as bank statements and canceled checks should be kept for seven years in the case of an audit.
  • Membership records, including names of those celebrated in child dedications, marriages, and memorial services or funerals.
  • Newsletters and order of service, since both contain valuable information about congregational and theological life.
  • Names of ministers and lay officers and the dates of their tenures of service to the congregation.
  • Documentation about official business at the district and national levels that relate directly to the congregation.
  • Correspondence related to congregational life
  • Sermons and texts of other presentations, a question that probably needs to be worked out with each minister or presenter on a case-by-case basis

You should also discern carefully if your collections can include what we will generally label as “visual and artistic materials.” These items require different types of storage from printed items, and overall take up much more space than do paper documents and books. They may also require particular environmental conditions (temperature, humidity, etc.). The visual materials included in congregational archives and libraries could include the following:

  • Architectural plans of the building and the church property.
  • Actual photographic prints require particular storage and indexing. Electronically-filed photos take up less room, but require knowledge of software programs to access and distribute images.
  • Actual audio and video recordings require similar attention to storage and indexing. Again, electronic copies ease the storage situation but require knowledge of operations.
  • Art works, such as painting or sculpture, may require consultation with professionals for adequate and safe preservation and use.
  • Other objects that we will generally label as ‘artifacts’ might also be included in your collections, provided you have adequate storage space and preservation conditions.

Just as important as discerning what records you will keep, you should decide what materials you will not keep. Once you make decisions about types of materials to keep, hold firm to those decisions, and make it clear to the congregation what types of materials will not be housed in the archives and library. More and more, it seems, congregations are receiving donations of books and other materials from private donors, especially from their own members. These donations may be very relevant to the congregation’s own history. On the other hand, the biggest claim to fame of some donations may be the problems of storage and preservation that they present. Much better to be clear at the outset about materials you will not accept, than to disappoint generous donors by either having to give back donated items or seeing those items fall into disrepair because of inadequate storage facilities.

Further, some records that you choose to keep do not need to be kept indefinitely. Discern carefully what items will be discarded after a certain period of time and when they may be removed. For example, some cataloguers recommend that you decide on a cycle of between two and five years to keep district and national publications, records from General Assemblies, and denominational periodicals and newsletters. While determining what materials will not be kept in your collections, also establish clear guidelines for what congregational materials should be sent on to district or national collections (and whether keeping copies of those materials in the congregational collections is important).

One more important conversation as you establish your collections concerns where and how you will store materials. Do not underestimate the importance of this conversation. The main purpose of establishing congregational archives and libraries is to preserve the trail of your history. Obviously, you want a storage and shelving methods that will keep your materials safe. It is most convenient to locate your collections in your own church building. However, some congregations are claiming archive space in nearby community facilities, which come with both professionally trained staff and controlled physical environments. It is worth asking around your communities as to the availability of such repositories. If you decide to locate your archives and library in your own church building, consider the following tips in discerning your methods of storage:

  • Aim for temperature and humidity conditions that maximize the preservation of your materials. The ideal temperature range is 65-to-70 degrees, and humidity range is 40%-to-60%. The area should be free of moisture, mildew, mold, and flooding, and away from excessive heat and harmful light.
  • Metal file cabinets work well in shielding materials from moisture and excessive temperatures.
  • Cardboard filing boxes can also work well, but do not store them directly on the floor.
  • Obviously, label all boxes and filing drawers carefully and consistently.
  • Acid-free containers, envelopes, and folders make the best storage materials, but they are more expensive than paper- or plastic-based storage.
  • Before filing the papers, remove staples, paper clips, and elastic bands, which deteriorate the paper over time.
  • Make Xerox copies of newspaper articles and have these copies rather than original available for researchers to consult. Newsprint deteriorates quickly.

An index of your archives and library is important if you want your collections to be used by your congregation. Your indexing method should be planned carefully and applied consistently. You might consult professional archivists or librarians in the congregation or the community for advice about indexing. If you do create an electronic index, decide if you want to post it on your congregation’s website and who can have access to this index. Also be sure to have several print-out copies of the index available in the collection and perhaps in the church office for those who are not comfortable using electronic search tools. Whether you use an existing electronic indexing system or your own system, electronic or on paper, your methods should be intuitive and fairly easily understood by others. Several leaders in the congregation other than the archivist and/or librarian should know how the indexing methods works, as well as how to locate items in the collection based on indexing information.

III. Gathering, researching, organizing, interpreting


The ‘doing’ of history in a congregation does not stop once the archives and library are established. Some people engage in history best not by organizing and cataloguing, but by locating and identifying information, by reading and researching materials, or by organizing information, or interpreting the historical significance of the information. These many and varied roles can be filled by anyone in the congregation: advanced degrees in history are not a requirement!

Before undertaking any project, it is important to consider time frames. Ask the question: when is the best time to engage in any project you have in mind. Especially if you are considering writing a history of the congregation, timing is important. Some events in congregational life lend themselves better than others to opportunities for creating congregational histories. For example, you might coordinate the production of a congregational history with a significant anniversary of the congregation. Coordinating a history project with events like anniversaries has an additional advantage in that there is a built-in deadline for completing your project. Coordinating your project with an event such as an anniversary can also shape thematic content: for example, the current history you are writing could focus on activities since the last history, or build on the most important theme since the last history such as the building of a new facility.  For more suggestions, see these suggestions at Congregational Library.  Further, the arrival of a new settled minister might be cause to write the history of ministry. Additionally, a congregational history might be tied to a significant civic event: the anniversary of the founding of the town might coincide well with a study of the congregation’s role in the development of the town.

Clearly as you produce any congregational history, is it important to find out what histories of the congregation have appeared prior to your work. Earlier studies of your congregation may not be housed in the church building. In the case of very old congregations, you may need to search town libraries, perhaps even national collections such as the UUA archives at  the Andover Harvard collection at Harvard Divinity School, the official repository for UU congregations. The library has many helpful reference librarians to assist with long-distance research if you cannot personally visit the collection. (

Whatever time markers you use to define the scope of a project, one rule of thumb to always observe is to allow plenty of time for completing the project. In particular, projects involving many collaborators always take longer than you expect. You might consider this advice. Map out a time frame that on first impression you think is sufficient for a project. Then add fifty percent more to your timeline. You will probably need every minute of the expanded timeframe.

In addition to when, consider carefully who will be involved in a project. If you have laid strong groundwork affirming the notion that anyone can ‘do’ history, you should be able to solicit an array of volunteers for the investigating phase of your project. If you engage a critical mass of volunteer historians, you have the advantage of enough people to divide up the various tasks and thus create a good product on time. Involving many people also means that you must designate someone to serve as coordinator of the volunteers.

If you are writing a congregational history, certainly you will want to include a History Wall exercise in your gathering of information. This exercise is a brainstorming session to which anyone in the congregation is invited. This exercise involves recalling important congregational events which are noted in chronological order on large butcher-block paper posted around a room. The History Wall brings out stories which can personalize what might otherwise be a largely fact-driven history. (Oswald and Friedrich, Discerning Your Congregation’s Future, Ch. 4.)

As you set out to gather material for your project, do careful discerning about which archives and libraries are the best to consult, the ones that will produce the most relevant information. Certainly, you will want to consult your own holdings: you’ll want to make use of your well-organized files, your carefully catalogued papers, your computer files, audio tapes, and more. However, just as you thought beyond the walls of your congregation when asking where to store your documents, think beyond your own walls when you are at this stage of gathering information. For instance, remember that local libraries and archives in your town may have important holdings about your congregation, and the town clerk’s office may have information about people associated with your building. If there is a district archives in your district, don’t forget to consult it. If you do not have a district library, urge your district personnel to establish one. Depending on the scope of your project, do not forget to consult national repositories such as the Harvard Divinity School Library.

Once you have found information or materials to constitute the core of your history project, of whatever intended format, pay attention to an important phase in the history-making process, one that often gets overlooked and may undo many a good project. That is, collectively agree on a workable method of organizing your research. This is especially important in a group project. Devise a method for keeping track of what you have already done, so that someone else does not go over the same ground already covered. Agree on an overall approach or methodology, so that you are all in agreement with what you are doing and how you are doing it. If working on electronic files, decide how files will be shared, added to, and more.

As you organize materials, you will also begin to form a picture of the topics to include in your congregational history. Your eventual coverage might be influenced by the types of research materials you uncover. Or the other way round: deciding what themes or subject you want to include in your history can influence the types of documents you collect.

Finally, most important in this ‘pre-production’ phase of doing history is the interpretation of your well-organized research data. Yes, you might have amassed a huge amount of information, but what does it really mean in the context of your particular congregation or in the context of this religious denomination? What are the important threads or themes you want to uncover and develop as you create objects of history that illustrate the particular spirit and identity of your congregation? Are you maintaining a spiritual grounding in your work: your congregational history will be different from one you might write about your town, or your own family. All these questions and more can contribute to your creating a successful and informative congregational history.

IV. Creating and Presenting Objects of History


Congregational heritage committees should be encouraged to brainstorm wildly about what constitutes an ‘object’ of history. That is, brainstorm wildly the many ways in which history of your congregation can be conveyed to others. Undoubtedly, we tend to think of history as the printed word on the page. History can be expressed through many other venues as well, particularly in the spiritual context of your faith community. Think how you can creatively present objects of history within the congregational environment. Consider the regular activities that your congregation engages in and how historical information could be incorporated into these activities. Also, consider the physical settings of your church or meeting house. Where do visitors and members tend to come and go most frequently? Where can you locate your historical objects to be seen by the greatest number of persons?

The most likely format for presenting congregational history, especially the history of a congregation, will be the printed word on paper: a pamphlet, a book, and more. Thus, you will need to prepare your work for publication. You might survey the congregation for members with prior experience in historical writing and editing. In other words, don’t just turn the project over to someone who has no idea what to do. One person as author or general editor is probably the most efficient means of realizing a writing project. On the other hand, if you have used a team effort in the gathering phase of your project, you may want to continue the team approach in the writing phase. Perhaps several persons could serve as writers, another few as readers, another few as editors. This method involves more members in the history-making and serves as a check and balance on the work being done. On the other hand, it takes longer, and if you are not in agreement on operating procedure, you could risk tensions or disagreements because of different understandings of what you are trying to accomplish.

Depending on the coverage and nature of the writing project, also consider carefully how you will reproduce the document. ‘In-house’ photocopying might work for some types of items. On the other hand, ‘out-of-house’ printing by professional printers, while more costly, will probably produce a better publication. If costs for outside publishing exceed in-house budgets, consider asking for financial contributions from members of the congregation, or charging for the published history, or seeking funding available within Unitarian Universalist circles for history and publishing projects.

Don’t under-estimate the importance of promoting well the history you have worked so hard to create. Advertise your work. Promote this history, in and out of your congregation. Consider many and varied methods for disseminating your work, especially if you have created a congregational history that is wide-ranging in its coverage of topics, time periods, issues of relevance to the larger community, and more. Brainstorm creatively where and how you will disseminate your congregational history. Make your story available. Let congregants know how to get copies. Have copies readily available to sell to visitors and guests. Use creative methods of drawing folks into reading the history. For instances, include excerpts from the history in newsletters, urging readers to learn more in the complete history.

Don’t forget to take your congregational history outside the walls of the church building. Print extra copies that you make available in local bookstores, commercial centers, and libraries. Distribute fliers advertising the history around your town. You never know who will pick up reading material in doctors offices, bank lobbies, and more, that might lead to wider interest in your congregation as a faith community.

In addition to printed materials, objects of history can also be visual. By this we mean not only exhibits of visual materials such as photos or artwork, but also displays of published materials. Perhaps there could be some combination: a display of photos, accompanied by fairly extensive written text, for example. Remember the old adage, that a picture is worth a thousand words. Especially in a church setting, where many people come and go, consider ways of presenting your history that will catch the eye of people on the go. Consider a display on a particular bulletin board dedicated to history, that offers a different display on some regular rotation. Consider a calendar, with a new monthly photo and essay on some aspect of congregational history. Your particular method of realizing visual objects of history depends to a large extent on the setting of your particular congregation, and on your capacity to get creative in presenting your history.

Oral history has became an important component of history-making. Consider oral histories for your congregation. In particular, consider interviewing long-time members, who more likely than not are of advanced chronological years, whose ideas and memories you want to record while you can. For some of these folks, talking to an interviewer – especially one skilled at pulling out long-buried stories – might be much easier than asking them to write down their memories. Some of the stories they tell could be incorporated into your written histories. Your could also develop an oral history collection, using these recordings in and of themselves as historical objects. As you prepare for creating oral history, remember that interviewing for oral histories is an art. Read up on how to do oral interviewing well, or seek advice from others who know the art themselves. For tips on interviewing, see Congregational Library.

The final suggestion we offer here for creating objects of history  is electronic media. Consider how you can use your congregation’s website to create history that can be viewed and disseminated electronically. This website information could include the texts of some of the printed documents discussed above. Indeed, every congregation’s website should include at least a brief history of the congregation. There might be some technologically creative types in your congregation who could also design interactive programs that present historical information about the congregation. Remember that in most congregations, the website is the primary means by which visitors and newcomers learn about Unitarian Universalism. Electronic formats for presenting your history can enhance your congregational life in many ways.

V. Learning and Applying History


Do not under-estimate how easily congregational history can be disseminated within congregational life and into the larger community. Learning history is not only about sitting down and reading a book. Learning history can also be experiential. There are so many ways to incorporate your history into congregational and community life. We offer here some ideas for activities and events, and encourage you to be creative in becoming a historically-informed congregation, or in enhancing all the more the history you already practice. Become creative in passing on to members as well as visitors and the surrounding community the history of your congregation and the history of this free religious denomination. The sky is your only limit.

If you have worked long and hard at producing a congregational history, especially one in printed format, promote that work. Make that object of history easily available. Have printed copies handy for consultation as well as purchase if you are marketing your publications. On your website, include information about how to obtain copies of this history, as well as excerpts from the history that invite website readers to read more. Produce some type of short-form version of the congregational history –a flyer, a brochure –that is readily available around the building: on your brochure rack, in the pews, etc.

Be creative in establishing other regular, on-going methods of disseminating this history you have created. Offering small but regular installments is a good way to disseminate history and create a culture of historical awareness. For example, establish a regular column on history in your congregational newsletter, a column that can also appear on the website. If you have a district newsletter, include items from your congregational history from time to time.

Consider visual displays of your history. Some displays can be permanent: a photo gallery of all the ministers who have served your congregation, or a visual history of  buildings your congregation has occupied. Other displays might be changeable, on some sort of regular basis. Especially at the time you release your newly published congregational history, consider how to display this history, as on a bulletin board or in other visually compelling settings. Create an actual calendar that folks routinely pass by, and highlight significant dates on the calendar. Create other visual displays of your history: copies of photos from your published congregational history, or actual photos from your archives. Have readily available for easy listening and viewing those oral interviews that you’ve been collecting for your archives.  You might even create trinkets or other salable items such as coffee mugs, tee-shirts, jewelry, or clothing, from objects in your collection.

Another obvious means of disseminating congregational and denominational history is through your education program, for both adults and children / youth education. In adult learning, you could develop a class focused per se on the history you have just written. You might organize reading groups to explore other histories relevant to significant events in your congregational history, or read works of fiction illustrative of events in your history. You might also offer summaries of your congregational history that are distributed at all adult education events, especially since these classes often attract visitors from outside the congregation. You can do the same for children and youth programming. At age-appropriate levels, you can instruct about the congregation as well as the denomination. High school programs can address history as part of worship services they offer the congregation.

Certainly worship is another central media for promoting congregational and denominational history. History can be the entire focus or theme of a worship service (although we remind you that worshipis not the same as a class or lecture – worship should remain spiritually-grounded). Additionally, an event in your history could be highlighted on some routine schedule: a mention of a historical event at chalice-lighting time, for example, or an important item of history printed in the order of service. Also, your history could be conveyed through worship media other than spoken and printed word. For instance, incorporating music or art representative of items and events of your history creates a lived sense of the context of your particular history.

Social activities and the overall social context of congregational life can likewise be steeped in history. Your building itself can speak reminders of your congregation’s history. As for activities within your building, you might presents concerts or plays representative of certain periods of your history. You might create new works re-enacting events from your history. You might engage folks to be re-enactors of figure from your history. We know of a congregation whose largest annual fund-raising event is based on a particular period of history, so every year organizers express their congregational identity and creativity through the eyes of Unitarian and Universalist life of that period. History comes alive on a regular basis for this congregation.

In addition to disseminating history within your congregation, become equally creative in promoting your history outside the walls of your building, into the general community in which you live and to neighboring UU congregations. Promote your story to community organizations, through distribution of pamphlets and flyers, through volunteering to give talks and other presentations, through a general attitude of believing that a community that knows about your congregation will be a become an all-around  better informed community. Promote particular segments or topics of your history to groups and organizations of those interest areas. For instance, as you are involved in social justice work in your community, disseminate information about Unitarian Universalist’s history of justice outreach and reform work, or reach out to community women’s groups with the story of your congregation’s women of the past.

If there is an interfaith organization in your community, also take your history to this organization. Teaching ministers and congregants of other faith traditions more about Unitarian Universalist history helps them understand all the more this radical faith of the present. Participate in interfaith events and as available, take advantage of any opportunity to promote and distribute flyers, published histories, etc.

Don’t forget to tell other Unitarian Universalists in your area about your history. Connect with nearby congregations, not only to inform them about your history, but also to inspire them to write their own history. Include the district in this dissemination of information.

Again, the sky is the limit for teaching and applying about your history. History can indeed be spiritual practice.


Electronic Resources


The Alban

The Congregational Handbook:

Harvard University Divinity School Library:

On-line catalogue: (‘HOLLIS’)


Andover-Harvard Archives:

Congregational Christian Historical Society:

Unitarian Universalist Historical Society:

Dictionary of Unitarian Universalist Biography:

Unitarian Universalist Women’s Heritage Society:

UUA Office of Information and Public Witness:

UUA email lists:

Congregational Archives:

UU Historical Society Chat List:

Printed Resources


Coeyman, Barbara. “A Source Book for Women’s History in Your Church.” Austin Seminary, 1999 (typescript).

Emilsen, Susan. New Perspectives in Writing Parish History. San Francisco Seminary, 1996.

Grierson, Denham. Transforming a People of God. Melbourne, 1984.

Hendrick, John. “A Heritage Committee for Your Congregation?” Austin Presbyterian Seminary, s.d.

Maury, Philippe. “What Is the Value of Church History?” The Student World, 53: 5-16.

Oswald, Roy M. and Robert E. Friedrich. Discerning Your Congregation’s Future. Alban Institute, 1989. Chapter 4: “An Evening of Historical Reflection.”

Richey, Russell E. “History as Bearer of Denominational Identity,” in Wells, Ronald A., ed. History and the Christian HistorianGrand Rapids, 1988.

Wengert, Timothy & Charles Brockwell. Telling the Churches’ Stories. Grand Rapids, 1995.

Wind, James P. Places of Worship: Exploring Their History. Walnut Creek, CA, 1997.

[1]Wind’s excellent book on the history of churches includes much methodology for writing congregational history. The book is based on Wind’s studies of many American congregations as part of his graduate work at the University of Chicago.

[2]I refer frequently to Gerda Lerner’s Why History Matters. While devoted to a particular theme — women’s history —  Lerner’s study also offers much valuable methodology relevant to the creation of congregational history.