The members of Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington, DC, were gridlocked in conflict. Months of congregational votes as narrow as 53 to 52 had left the members exhausted and the pastor at the end of his rope.
The year? 1884.
The issue? The location of a second building and how much debt to incur.
After the pastor refused to submit to the opinion of the majority, 60 members signed a letter calling for his resignation. On October 23, 1884, the pastor did exactly that and, along with 33 other members, started a rival church a block and a half away.
Six years into its existence, Capitol Hill Baptist was pastorless, in debt, and facing a dwindling membership of only 60. The church looked destined for failure. Nearly 140 years later, we know the Lord had other plans. Over the course of history, God has done a beautiful preserving work. But we can only see the fullness of God’s faithfulness because the early stories were carefully documented and passed down for future generations.
Records of Faithfulness
If you’re a local church pastor or church administrator, you’re sitting on a gold mine of primary source materials that may help tell the story of how God works through ordinary people to accomplish extraordinary things.
How you preserve and organize your documents now is critical for future leaders’ ability to tell your church’s story of God’s faithfulness.
But whether your church is five months, five years, or 50 years old, how you preserve and organize your documents now is critical for future leaders’ ability to tell your church’s story of God’s faithfulness. I’ve recently started writing a book on the history of Capitol Hill Baptist. I’ve worked through thousands of pages of notes, minutes, articles, and letters, and I’ve been reminded anew of the importance of preserving these documents for future generations.
Losing access to your church’s past can lead to corporate amnesia. Keeping track of a church’s records can help future generations learn from our mistakes and encourage them to persevere in trusting the Lord.
How Will You Keep Them?
What practical steps can church leaders take to preserve their local church’s record of God’s faithfulness? Here are seven pointers.
1. Carefully preserve meeting minutes.
Whether you’re a brand-new church plant or an established 100-year-old congregation, careful minutes should be taken of all church leadership meetings. Whatever your denominational context, every church has a deliberative body that makes decisions. The minutes of those meetings give a window into key turning points in the church’s life.
2. Save notes from member interviews.
Churches generally have a process for joining them and becoming a member. Often this involves an interview where the applicant will share her testimony and previous church experience. With the new member’s permission, carefully take notes and keep copies in your records. These interviews are an invaluable resource for future generations to learn about the people who made up the congregation.
3. Keep sermon manuscripts and recordings.
Many pastors keep track of their own sermon notes and recordings, but when they pass away or move to another church, their manuscripts are often kept within the family and not given to the church. I’d encourage pastors to help preserve a church’s history by making additional copies of their sermons manuscripts and recordings to keep in the church’s archives. Then, long after a pastor is gone, future members will see how the gospel was faithfully proclaimed to generations before.
4. Keep member directories up to date.
Many churches use a membership directory as a tool for pastoral and congregational prayer and to keep members’ contact information. Directories give future historians access to full names, family members, addresses, and other information about the congregation that’s useful to their research.
5. Interview older members.
Pastors and church leaders should make it a priority to periodically interview the congregation’s older saints. Learn about the senior saint’s life story and her experience of the church. Hearing these stories will be an encouragement to the church leader and to others who get to hear this story. It’s helpful to explain to the older member that her story may be used immediately to encourage the congregation or in the future as a record of your local church’s history. Obtain an interview release form for this purpose, and then take notes, record, and even transcribe the interview for safekeeping.
6. Keep paper copies.
While most of your work will be done on a computer, keep printed copies of important documents in your church office as well. Too often when staff or pastoral transitions take place, digital documents don’t get passed along. Physical documents are less likely to leave the building when staff turns over.
7. Avoid redaction.
Finally, I’d encourage minimal changes to your notes even when this exposes your church’s shortcomings. The gospel frees us from justifying ourselves. That applies to the way we look at our local church’s history as well. Like the drama of redemption, the story of your church will have heroes and villains, missteps and mistakes.
You’re sitting on a gold mine of primary source materials that may help tell the story of how God works through ordinary people to accomplish extraordinary things.
As you record meeting minutes and membership stories, don’t hide the difficult or unfortunate chapters. This will allow future generations to accurately understand the events and what transpired. As Champ Thornton, who wrote a history of the Delaware Baptist Association, recently told me, “If your goal is to celebrate what the Lord has done, you can talk about some of the darker days in order to contrast it with what the Lord has done at other times.”
You may never see the fruit but following these simple steps to document your church’s history can serve future leaders and members of your local body. Doing the good work of preservation is an act of hope—hope that God will allow the ministry of your church to last, hope that future generations will want to learn about God’s works, hope that God will preserve a gospel-transformed community worshipping together decades or even centuries from now. As the psalmist says, “Let this be recorded for a generation to come, so that a people yet to be created may praise the LORD” (Ps. 102:18).