“A Sense of History”
At the end of this month, my congregation, Christ Lutheran Church, will celebrate fifty years of ministry in Falmouth. This has sent me climbing in the attic and reaching to the backs of the closet shelves that comprise our church archives. Over the years, members have made deposits of snapshots, newsletters and newspaper clippings that help tell the congregation’s story. They didn’t want to throw them out, but they also weren’t sure what to do with them, so they placed them in spaces no one else was using where they wouldn’t be destroyed though probably be forgotten.
I have been pulling them out of their dark corners, unlabeled snapshots of former members mixed in with photos of current members looking a good bit younger. I have seen many pictures of the building in different stages of construction and repair. The story goes that they paid one dollar for a decommissioned military chapel from Camp Edwards, a building they disassembled and rebuilt on Brick Kiln Road. Judging by the number of pictures of the building, they were very proud of that accomplishment.
When I was in seminary, studying to become a pastor, one of my professors told me that every time I came to a new congregation I should go through all the newsletters and bulletins I could find; read the council minutes as far back as they went. He told me that I needed to get a sense of the history of the congregation and that, along with interviews of members, the paper records left behind were an important tool in recovering that history.
In my first call in rural Pennsylvania, I dutifully went through those records as long as I could stand it. Council minutes and old newsletters are extremely dry reading. Did it matter any longer that the council moved to buy one brand of industrial mixer over another in the 1950s? Did it matter any longer that the Church Ladies’ roast beef supper of 1938 was considered a great success at the time? So much of the history was made of these seemingly minor details. I also knew that these minor details were sometimes connected to hours of committee meetings, debate and heated arguments. I actually met someone who had left the congregation because it had chosen the wrong mixer in the 1950s. Would my ministry really be another collection of trivial decisions that wouldn’t matter in fifty years?
I suppose there is a fair amount of pride that goes along with that question. Like most people, I want what I do to matter. When I do leave a congregation, I hope that people will think I made a difference as a pastor. For whatever reason, I have always made the assumption that making a difference would mean major events that would stick out in the memory of the church, not as footnotes in filed away newsletters.
On the other hand, the choice of a mixer was probably a major event at the time and the Church Ladies’ roast beef supper of 1938 was for a while remembered as a signature moment the congregation’s life. More importantly, these events that seem trivial now set more important events in motion. The success of the 1938 supper led to more suppers that led to the need for an industrial mixer for making massive amounts of mashed potatoes and the fillings for homemade, chocolate-covered Easter eggs which were then sold to raise funds for missionaries. Those missionaries helped build churches, hospitals and schools in Liberia (in West Africa). The cumulative effects of those minor events turned into a legacy that was much larger.
In our current culture, in which congregations are struggling with declining attendance and deficit budgets, many are looking for a quick fix, some major event or novel ministry that will bring new members and new life to the organization. Yet those faces in forgotten snapshots and voices from the back of the closet shelf tell me that it is the trivial events that actually create the great moments of a congregation’s life. It is the minor moments that create a culture in which major moments can grow or be dealt with (because major moments are not always positive).
So I take comfort in the idea that what I do now will matter in fifty years, not because anyone will remember my name or a sermon I delivered that was a turning point for the congregation’s life. I take comfort that I am participating in history in my own minor way, that the events of this day that will seem trivial in fifty years (perhaps that even seem trivial today) can have a much greater impact than I can predict.
I hope that in fifty years, when the new pastor reaches back in the closet and finds a box full of ancient flash drives and memory cards that no one knew what to do with, she will take the time to look at those digital memories of suppers and worship and festivals. I hope she will sift through some of the articles and newsletters and assorted records of trivial matters, dry as they may be. I hope she will find that we were faithful.