All churches have a history, but mine has a peculiar one. In July 1993, a team from our church went to serve in Florida to help rebuild houses after Hurricane Andrew. North of Tampa, there was rain and one of the vans flipped over on a slick road. Seven people were on the van, and two were thrown from the van. David Craig, 40, and Jane Neese, 80, were thrown from the van and killed at the scene. A third woman became paralyzed from the wreck, and the others faced severe injuries.
It was a terrible time in the life of the church, one that I learned about after I came to pastor. It was a difficult time to lose two church members, one eighty-years-old! The incident stayed with the church for a long time and was followed by lawsuits, grieving and other things that come along with such an incident. It cast a shadow over future mission trips by the church, and still does to this day, twenty-three years later.
I thought of this event when I read the recent article "Why The President Needs a Council of Historians", from The Atlantic. The authors, both professors at Harvard, put forward several ideas of why the US President needs a council of historical advisers. Turns out that most politicians are ignorant of much of US history, especially at a policy level. Historians could serve to caution, remind, illustrate the trajectory of a policy and more.
In much the same way, I think the pastor needs a council of historians around him. I do think that all pastors need to study church history, but more to the point, they need to study their church's own history. You are undoubtedly aware that your church's history did not begin with you. Regardless of the health of your church when you arrive, you stand to gain a lot by studying and understanding its history.
1. You can learn from the tragedies.
This episode in my church's history affected everyone involved. It was a tragedy and affected those involved, the subsequent policy put forward, and the future mission trips they went on. Even still, as we discussed a recent trip to Colorado, I have to keep this episode in mind, even though it happened long before my arrival. For those in the church then, that is what comes to mind when mission trips come up. They want to make sure every precaution is taken, that all policy is followed, and that things are correct. I can’t just assume that nothing bad will happen, because for them, the worst already happened. Learning about what has shaped this congregation over the past twenty, fifty, or even a hundred years will give you insight into why they respond the way do, or protect the things they protect. Studying up on your church's history helps you to know when to step lightly, when to grieve, or when to step forward boldly.
2. You can learn from the triumphs.
Although we have difficulties in our past, we have our fair share of triumphs, too. The churches that were planted to reach out to neighboring communities, the outreach to the local junior college, the season they spent taking in refugees in the 1970's, even just the reality of a hundred and eighteen years (and counting) of faithfulness. All these things are worth celebrating and can be used to remind a church of they good have done, and of the good that your church can still do. Celebrating past successes is a great way to honor the faithful saints in the church and you might even find a success story that can be revived in the present-day.
3. You can learn from the mundane.
In between the tragedies and the triumphs in your church are a lot of average, ordinary days. There are many Sundays when songs were sang, prayers were led, the gospel was preached, and, seemingly, not much else happened. There is much to learn, even from these "ordinary" days. A church that has faithfully made disciples, supported missions, and worshiped together over the years is a testament to the faithfulness of God. No place is perfect, but they have faithfully proclaimed God's word and celebrated the Lord's Supper probably longer than you have been a Christian. There are people in our congregation who have served as deacons longer than I have been alive. Learn from their faithfulness.
Where can a pastor find this council of church historians? Don't neglect digging in the church records or tracing back through the church's history. Maybe contact the historical commission for your denomination. You can look in old newspapers or get with your state historical society. There is probably more out there than you think if you look in the right places.
But above all, learn to listen. Listen to those who have been there – to those who have been faithful. Don't ignore those who have served faithfully in the church for forty or fifty years. They have seen it all come down the pike and can probably teach you a thing or two. Listening will give you the opportunity to be more in-tune with your church's past and you'll also be given a chance to be shaped by the words and stories of faithful congregants who've simply been waiting for you to ask.