A Homily for Congregational Historians

2006 Stalcup Seminar for Local Church Historians

A Homily for Congregational Historians
McGarvey Ice
Public Services Archivist

Psalm 105.1-6 : O give thanks to the Lord, call on his name, make known his deeds among the peoples. Sing to him, sing praises to him; tell of all his wonderful works. Glory in his holy name; let the hearts of those who seek the Lord rejoice. Seek the Lord and his strength; seek his presence continually. Remember the wonderful works he has done, his miracles, and the judgments he uttered, O offspring of his servant Abraham, children of Jacob, his chosen ones. (NRSV)

The task of keeping up with the history of a local congregation is a fulfilling experience. We enjoy old newspaper clippings, faded photographs, obscure-yet-sought after references in books. We revel in oral history interviews and in finding scraps of information that will afford us better information, more accurate description, and thus a more faithful accounting of our past. We enjoy collecting material, retelling the stories, and keeping alive the memories of our congregations.
Allow me this morning to take you beyond that job description. I want to give you lenses through which to see your task as congregational historian. In fact, I would rather not use the language of “task” or “job”; instead we should use the language of “ministry” and “service.”
Drawing from the reading of Psalm 105, I urge you to see your history-gathering and your history-keeping as a theological task. Congregation history is names and dates and places and activities and chronology and photographs and records and lists. But it is so much more: to keep and tell congregational history is to keep and tell the “wonderful works God has done.” It is a theological task, it is a ministry. Congregations are more than mere assemblies of people; they are the assembled people of God, in whom and through whom and for whom God is actively at work. When we do congregational history we are telling of the work of God. Our task then is holy, it is sacred, for it concerns the ongoing story of God and his church. Bernard of Clairvaux has a statement that I have long cherished: “There are many who seek knowledge for the sake of knowledge: that is curiosity. There are some who desire to know in order that they themselves are known: that is vanity. Others seek knowledge in order to sell it: that is dishonorable. But there are those who seek knowledge in order to serve and edify others: that is love.” Drawing from Bernard, I urge you to see your history-gathering and your history-keeping as a pastoral task. The practice of acquiring, processing, interpreting and preserving congregational history is to be done for the larger purpose of serving and edifying others. The practice of congregational history is a labor of love for the good of the church. It is a pastoral task; it is a sacred ministry.


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