Rev. Jerrod H. Hugenot
As we entered into COVID-19’s long season of ambiguities and disruptions, churches scrambled to adapt to provide ministries and mission with church buildings being unavailable or at least inadvisable for normal use. Suddenly, clergy and church staff became acutely aware of their local church’s adaptation to technology, some with assets in place and others discovering that the church’s highest technology might be the VHS player in the youth room, the one landline, or the so-so internet connection.
Working with our 274 churches across upstate New York, I talked with many local church leaders, and the conversations reflected the disparities of the digital divide as well as the urban/rural challenges. Bandwidth could be well established in one location, but the church in the next town over was dealing with a completely different scenario. Affordability also played into the ways churches had to adapt. Simply stating that our churches all switched to Zoom and Facebook Live streaming would be inaccurate.
I know this from the experience of the here and now. Years later, how would I know this bit of insight?
Our historical perspective is made possible by one generation remembering to leave archival materials for the next. Our churches often have some sort of “archive,” thanks to people taking the time to save back bulletins, ledgers, annual reports, and other materials that assist the church retaining some trace of its year-by-year, decade-by-decade progress.
I have gained greater perspective about churches I have served thanks to spelunking through old cabinets and special “church history” rooms upstairs in a closet or disused room. The materials unfold a different story sometimes than the lore that is passed down, or worse, forgotten due to the passage of time and the longer-lived members. Institutional memory can be fickle, and certainly, church histories are told much differently out in the church parking lot, yet the act of saving materials does allow the future members of a congregation to know what has happened, especially if they are dealing with the sense that the present day is “unprecedented.”
As COVID-19 shut down church buildings and caused this ongoing adaptive marathon of ministry challenges, a few may have thought back to similar times when the congregation faced a great challenge. Some churches may have material about the 1918 influenza epidemic, though many historians are feeling stymied by the lack of materials due to the attention given to the concurrent First World War and the Wilson administration’s efforts to keep morale up by focusing on positive news, to the point that some researchers can see public health efforts being under-reported. (Readers wishing to gain perspective can refer to John Barry’s The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History, rev. ed., Penguin Books, 2005.)
Other churches may find perspective going through their archives for clues about how the church fared during other challenging times. One church where I served had in its archives a host of ledgers detailing the financials of the church for decades long into the past. It also retained the correspondence of a plan to build a Christian education addition to accommodate growing need for classroom space. The plans were being reviewed in early October 1929. The stock market crash that happened that same month made the plans quickly moot. Keeping those materials about a one-time building project helped give some perspective about why the 1960s-era Christian education wing finally happened when it did. (Ironically, when the new education wing was completed, little did the church foresee the mainline decline that would unfold steadily in the years to come.)
For congregations right now, it would be helpful to think through what materials you are setting aside to inform future generations. Of course, the type of materials we could retain for record-keeping have changed. Today, churches are more likely than before to have to think about digital records as much (and increasingly more than) paper-based materials. While some churches may have old VHS tapes or DVD discs (perhaps even CDs or cassette tapes), is there an effort to preserve these recent weeks of worship via Zoom or streaming? Will your congregation of the future be able to read the pastoral letters sent out in isolation? And how does one adequately deal with the inevitable issues of multimedia standards changing and the sudden difficulty it may present when you no longer have the hardware or software to listen or view these materials?
Saving back an .mp4 or .mov file may not yet have occurred to some churches. These current and common file types allow for a video to be accessed and uploaded to YouTube, Facebook and other platforms. Archiving your “COVID-19” era services documents what happened as some churches shifted from worship as we knew it to appearing via a web-based platform to facilitate worship the very next Sunday. Some clergy certainly will bear the memories of having to shift to virtual worship and likely continue to puzzle out how an eventual return to the church building will be navigated with restrictions, considerations for vulnerable congregants, and keeping some sort of hybrid in-person and virtual ministry going. Other churches will look back and point to this time as the moment when they finally embraced tech solutions for worship, e-giving, online fellowship/discipleship groups and yes, even the trustee meetings that will go long into the night once a month, regardless of being “in person” or online! However, websites crash and web platforms become defunct. (Remember MySpace?) Some intentional actions will be needed in order to preserve recordings of your online worship or virtual committee meetings.
Church archives customarily keep copies of weekly bulletins and monthly newsletters, along with board and committee reports. Perhaps churches could look at this era of COVID-19 ministry and invite congregants to write their own experiences down and share them with the church’s files. We would have been blessed to have the 1918-era churches engaged in such reflective work, given the relatively sparse materials found in some churches and even with the “mother lode” of Baptist records kept by the American Baptist Historical Society (ABHS). For more insight into the challenge of locating this history, see “Making history in an age of pandemic.”
A church could take this opportunity to record first-person, or oral histories from congregants, particularly those who are frontline workers and those whose stories may be difficult to share right now, due to encountering the loss of a loved one to COVID-19 related health issues. The insights you can record via video, audio file, or written accounts also serve as a validation of these challenging times and the person who shares may find it therapeutic to be invited by their congregation to be seen and heard after a long season of being distant by necessity from one another.
When I talk with churches, I often ask people to share individually how long they have been members or attenders of a given church and what role they play in the life of the church right now. For me, this helps get a sense of who is around the table to talk about church matters, and sometimes, it is a revelatory moment for church members who may think they know each other well, but inevitably, they discover something in common with another board member in their realization of a shared experience of their beloved church. It also helps me get a sense of the “rings of the tree” that is the congregation’s lived out experience. I can read up on a church from our Region office files beforehand, yet getting folks to open up around the table also helps. (Better yet, I encourage them to go ahead and tell me what information and opinions they were going to share later out in the parking lot after the meeting!)
The American Baptist Historical Society is preparing webinars on preserving congregational records, both analog (paper) and digital. Watch for announcements later this summer via the ABHS website and their social media channels.
Getting churches to capture this moment in time will be helpful not only for future generations. It will be also a chance for congregants to recall the immediate past and start working out what these challenging times have shown them about their own lives, as well as the inevitable travails and the graceful moments where the resilience of a local church was revealed.
The Rev. Jerrod H. Hugenot serves is the associate executive minister for the American Baptist Churches of New York State.
Photo by Catarina Carvalho on Unsplash