Saving the past for the future

May 20, 2021
A woman worshiping outdoors.

By Heidi Heller

We have heard numerous times throughout 2020 and into 2021 that we are living in unprecedented times. A quick Google search of the term “unprecedented” brings up various articles related to the COVID-19 pandemic, the racial justice movement, and how our lives have been turned upside-down since March 2020. We are living through history and are part of the story that will be taught to future generations in classrooms, books, and documentaries. It has changed us and forced us to adapt to new ways of doing things we once took for granted. Churches, pastors, and other church leaders have pivoted from traditional in-person services and programs and created new ways for congregations to connect in meaningful ways we could never have imagined.

Church services are being streamed on Facebook, YouTube, and Vimeo. Many congregations have gotten creative with outdoor and socially distanced services. Confirmation, Sunday School, and Bible studies moved to virtual settings. Service projects had to be rethought and reorganized to ensure that COVID restrictions are followed. And we have all become a lot more tech-savvy than we thought possible, or perhaps even wanted to be.

While we long for things to return to “normal,” it is important that we do not forget all we have lived through and the changes we have had and continue to experience. Even as we find ourselves saying we want to move on from the last year, it will shape us for a long time to come. It is also important that future generations understand how churches adapted, reacted, and took steps to make it through the past year. To ensure this happens, congregations need to make sure they are preserving the records that document all of this.

This documentation can take many forms, including photographs, meeting minutes, recordings of worship services, and physical objects. What is important is that the information is saved and included in the church records so future generations can go back and see just want the church did. As the archivist for the Minnesota Conference, I have been asked at various times how Minnesota Methodists handled the 1918 pandemic. If it had not been for the church records and Annual Conference Journals, I would not have been able to find that information.

So, what can your congregation do to document this past year and ensure this history is preserved? If you conducted a special service project; tried something new with Confirmation, Sunday School and/or Bible studies; or had some unique activity planned around Christmas, Lent, or Easter, it is important to get a record of this. If any photographs were taken, add them to the church records. This is also a great way to get members involved, by asking them to share with the church office any photos they took of these events. If any special objects were created and given out, such as a small package of ashes for Ash Wednesday or an Advent or Lent kit, add an example of the item or take a photograph of it. Be sure to label any photographs or objects so future generations know what they were used for.

If your congregation has been conducting worship on Facebook or YouTube, pick out a few services that reflect the past year. Save the video to a portable hard drive or jump drive, or burn it to a DVD and add it to the church records. Not all the services need to be saved, but enough to show how the congregation adapted and continued to provide worship. Maybe you have conducted services in other unique ways; you could ask a few members to provide a written document sharing about these services and what the changes were like for them.

Even though documenting this past year can seem like just one more thing on a long to-do list, it’s important to make time for it so that we do not forget all we have lived through and how it has changed us. If we are living through “unprecedented” times, we need to ensure that future generations know just want it was like and how it did not stop God’s work but instead provided us with new opportunities for ministry.

If you have any questions about saving church records, related to the pandemic or more generally, please feel free to email me.

Heidi Heller is the archivist for the Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church.

Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church

122 West Franklin Avenue, Suite 400 Minneapolis, MN 55404

(612) 870-0058