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Understanding who you are today means beginning that story in the longer history of your congregation. You could read lots of old documents or official histories, but it’s just as important to know what stories people are carrying in their heads and perhaps sharing at coffee hour. To discover that shared but often unspoken history, a Timeline Exercise is a powerful tool.

Getting Started

  • Who & When

    People. A group of 10-30 people usually works well to encourage lots of participation. Make sure it’s a diverse group, including both long-time participants and newer folk, young and old, very involved and less so, and representing any other major constituencies in your congregation.

    Time and Place. If there is a natural time such a group might gather anyway, pick that. If not, choose an afternoon or evening when you can spend at least a couple of hours together. Consider adding a potluck to the event to make it even more convivial. Find a space where there is a relatively uncluttered wall on which you can mount the paper for your timeline and where you can arrange chairs in a semi-circle that allows people to interact freely.
  • What You'll Need

    Stuff. You’ll need paper that’s at least 36” top to bottom and 10-15 yards long. A big roll of butcher paper will do, but you can also piece together pages of flip chart paper. Attach it to the wall, high enough to be visible, but low enough to write on. Collect markers in various colors, and different colored sticky notes can be useful, as well.

    Preparation. Draw two horizontal lines across the length of the paper, one roughly in the middle and the other splitting the bottom half in two. Along the left side, mark the top half “our history,” and the other two sections “our community” and “the world.” Along the top, mark a starting point on the left--usually the founding of the congregation, but if there were precursor events, you might want to orient the beginning a bit earlier. Then mark off the decades at the top, and be sure to leave space at the end for “the future.”

    Helpers. Recruit one or two people to help record things on the timeline, and designate another person to lead the discussion and encourage participation. You may want to have still another person designated to make additional notes about the dynamics of the group and things that don’t make it onto the timeline itself. Consider whether you want to audio record the event, and if so, make sure your equipment will pick up the conversation.

    For more on how to set up the Timeline Event and how to implement good follow up, check out the PDF download below!

The Tool Kit: How To Create a Congregational Timeline

Our Studying Congregations Tool Kit features easy to use quick guides for better understanding a community of faith. Congregational timelines are a great way to explore the community's culture and it's ecology. This PDF download is ideal for religious leaders, seminarians and anyone else who wants to better understand a congregation's history.
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The Tool in Action

Case Study: St. Paul’s Congregation

The Alley News of the Phillips Neighborhood in Minneapolis recently posted an account and explanation of St. Paul Lutheran Church’s “Notes of Growth and Change.” This looks a lot like the basic facts people would want to have about their particular churches for a congregational timeline. The account is full of rich detail and interesting asides for people interested in understanding the past and present culture of the congregation. Some highlights: “Rev. F. H....
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