Why the Pastor Needs a Council of Historians

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.  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 80 years old!  The incident stayed with the church for a long time, and was followed by lawsuits and grieving and other things that come with that.  It cast a shadow over future mission trips by the church, and even still does to this day, 23 years later.  

I thought of this event when i read the recent article Why The President Needs a Council of Historians.  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 have a lot to gain by studying and understanding it’s history.

  1. You can learn from the tragedies.  
This episode in my church's history affected everyone involved in it.  It was a tragedy, and affected the decisions that were made, the policy put forward, and the mission trips they went on. Even still, as we discussed a recent trip to Colorado, I have to keep this episode in mind, though it happened long before me.  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.  Policy, procedures, people, are all still affected by that.  Learning about what has shaped this congregation over the past 20, 50, or even 100 years will give you insight into why they respond the way do, or protect the things they protect.  From this you can know when to step lightly, when to grieve, or when to step 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 started to reach out to neighboring communities, the outreach to the local junior college, when they took in refugees in the 70's,  even just the fact of 118 years of faithfulness and counting. All these things are worth celebrating, and can be used to remind a church of they good have done, and the good that your church still can do.  Celebrating past successes is a great way to honor the faithful saints in the church, and you might even find a success that can be revived again.  

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, where songs were sang, prayers were led, the gospel was preached.  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 Lords Supper probably longer than you have been a Christian . There are people who 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 racing the church history. Maybe contact the historical commission for your denomination.  You can look in old newspapers, or with your state historical society.  There is probably more out there than you think, if you look in the right places.

 But above all, 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 40 or 50 years. They have seen it all come down the pike, and can probably teach you a thing or two.

 But you have to listen. 


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