One powerful method for better understanding the shared oral history of a congregation is through a Congregational Timeline. This historical look at the space and place of the congregation, and the congregants in the discussion, helps to locate the congregation in the greater stories of local change, denominational change, as well as national or global issues.

Get started by inviting a diverse group of people from the regular attenders and members to an afternoon or evening reflecting on the past. Invite ten to thirty people who vary in terms of level of involvement, length of involvement, and responsibility within the congregation.

Prepare by collecting markers of various colors, a few legal pads, and twenty-five to fifty yards of butcher paper. Tape the paper across the length of the fellowship hall or other large meeting space, keeping in mind that it is high enough to be visible to all in the group. Draw a horizontal line across the length of the paper, creating a timeline on the paper. Mark appropriate and important dates of the congregation on the timeline, focusing on dates important to your study. You may begin by orienting the timeline, starting with the year when the congregation was founded, and continuing by marking decades and, for the more recent history, yearly intervals may be more useful. A different system may work better for your congregational experience.

As you begin the process of going through the timeline, explain the exercise and how it will fit with the congregational study. Once the overarching issues are discussed, the exercise may begin. One or two participants should record facts about the congregation above the line. Below the line should be reserved for facts external to your congregation (such as changes in the community, state, or country).

It’s useful to start by encourage participants to begin by working through their own memories of their experiences in the church community. The following list may be a good place to start:

  1. When did you (or your family) begin attending?  Initial the appropriate time on the timeline.
  2. What are your first memories of the congregation?
  3. Reflect on one or two significant moments each participant has had in the life of the church, such as reaching out for aid after a loss or life change, attending a mission experience, or joining a new bible study.

After considering each participant’s place in the church’s history, it’s useful to talk about important dates for the congregation as a whole, and marking them above the line on the large timeline. What sorts of important congregational experience should be placed on the map? Examples may be new clergy or staff members, building improvements or changes, educational program shift, and any controversial changes in the life of the congregation.

Next, begin brainstorming important events in the community, region, denomination, nation, and world, outlining these changes below the line. Ideas may include political changes, wars, natural disasters, demographic shifts in the community, closing factories or industries, recessions, and other times of unrest. Spend most of the time on local issues, but don’t neglect applicable larger patterns.

Continue to add topics until everyone feels the timeline is sufficiently complete. You may want to leave up the timeline, with a short written explanation of the exercise, in a common area for a few weeks, allowing the rest of the congregation to see and add to it.

A few tips:

  • Encourage participants in their attempts to remember and elaborate on events. One person’s memories may help jog another person’s memory.
  • If your group is larger than 15 people, it might be useful to have everyone work to construct smaller timelines on the legal paper, either individually or in small groups. This will allow for more participation, and perhaps more nuance and history than may be covered in the larger group.
  • Different colored markers may be useful in examining distinctions, such as changing pastoral staff, educational initiatives, building projects,  or other important recurring themes from the timeline.
  • Don’t be concerned about chronology — this is a brainstorming activity, and memories are not always chronological.
  • Discourage single individuals or groups from dominating the conversation, particularly those that are seen as “local experts” by others in the group. Everyone’s memories and experiences are valid, and all participants should be encouraged to speak openly.
  • Audio recording the exercise may be helpful for later use.
  • This is also a great opportunity to observe the dynamics of the people in attendance. Check out the observational protocol for tips.

Related Articles: Congregational Timeline: St. Paul’s Congregation