Real Tools: Transform your congregation's history into mission clarity

April 11, 2016

Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, they know not what they do.”
This prayer is still relevant as we often make decisions based on perceptions and incomplete understanding. While we tend to avoid looking back, this avoidance can keep us stuck in historical perceptions that may not be true or accurate.
Though we often believe we are fully in charge of our actions and choices, our past experiences of success, failure, reconciliation or unhealed trauma are much more likely to frame our perceptions of reality than we realize.
Bonnie Marden
One simple and flexible exercise to discern patterns within our history and experience is a historical reflection wall: A timeline created by members sharing stories of accomplishment and challenge; it can offer insights about the congregation’s spiritual journey.
Created during one evening or over a series of weeks, a history wall equips us to listen for God’s presence throughout the lifespan of the congregation.
To create the visual timeline, place a series of newsprint sheets on a wall and list decades as far back as memories from living members or historical records support.
After core data such as church opening, pastoral appointments and building projects are recorded, other historic events are added. What were the inspirational ministries or missions of the congregation? Which special events are remembered? What projects did the church undertake over the years?
While memories often include accomplishments and highlights, also record challenging events like crisis, accidents or unexpected changes.
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Following congregation-focused sharing, identify community events during the same time frame. Did local, regional, national or global events impact the church or its members? These memories and experiences reveal times when these external experiences mirrored aspects of the congregation’s life or impacted members lives.
Next, ask people to add significant events in their personal lives, both events at the church and in other places. This step ensures all participants contribute to the story being shared.
As events are posted, various patterns and insights will emerge. Observations about patterns or trends need to be delayed until after the data is recorded on the timeline. Trained facilitators help groups focus first on sharing and recording data. They can also help shape observations about meaningful ministry commitments, accomplishments and initiatives as well as strengths built in response to adversity.

Naming historic experiences and placing them in the context of an ongoing timeline records reveals consistent priorities and commitments. Observations generate healthy insights about the culture and mission of the congregation that shape vision, call and ministry today and into the future.
One congregation observed a pattern of mission trips and service projects throughout their 150-year history. Another noted they had ministered to several pastors with life-threatening conditions, and reframed that history as a strength rather than an obstacle.
Talking openly about historic events such as pastoral changes, and the perceptions those experiences generated, can move a group from reactive anxiety to greater self-awareness and healthier communication.
Multiple adaptations of history walls have proved meaningful for congregations. Because the elder voices will offer the most information, the exercise can strengthen intergenerational relationships. New members often reflect that this experience helps them feel more connected to the whole congregation.
“Discerning Your Congregation’s Future: A Strategic and Spiritual Approach,” Oswald and Freidrich, 1996, includes one helpful description about how to do an “Evening of Historical Reflection.”
As children of God blessed with rich history, consider blessing each other with the stories that have made us who we are, so we can respond to God’s call openly today!
Bonnie Marden is a New England Parish Consultant. Her training includes mediation, intervention, dialogue and stewardship skills.