Writing a living faith

By Betsey Norgard

Baptisms, confirmation classes, choir pictures, pastor controversies, new buildings—what makes up the history of a congregation?

Three Augburg history professors— Jacqueline deVries, Don Gustafson and Michael Lansing—tried to answer that question, spending time outside the classroom over the past several years planning, researching, and writing the histories of their own congregations. It was a coincidence of opportunity for them to engage their skills as historians within their church communities, helping to interpret the past.

The three congregations— Westminster Presbyterian Church and Mount Olive Lutheran Church in Minneapolis, and First Lutheran Church in St. Peter, Minn.—vary in denomination, location, and size, but all recently reached the milestone of a centennial or sesquicentennial anniversary. All three books have been published over the last year and a half.

“Thanks be to God for these stories, and for the hundreds like them—stories of those who have worshiped and served God over the years at Westminster Presbyterian Church …”

LIVING FAITH: STORIES FROM THE FIRST 150 YEARS

Jacqueline deVries, associate professor and chair of the History Department, co-wrote Living Faith: Stories from the first 150 years, for the sesquicentennial of the large, downtown Westminster Presbyterian Church in Minneapolis.

Michael Lansing, assistant professor and director of the environmental studies program, wrote The Faith of Our Forebears: 100 Years at Mount Olive Lutheran Church for his congregation in Minneapolis.

Don Gustafson, professor, and a third-generation member of First Lutheran Church of St. Peter, created Three Sundays at First: A Story of Our Congregation, for its 150th anniversary.

Historians to the task

Historians are really storytellers— and, as DeVries says, “As a historian, you have certain skills that you can share in recording and telling and helping people to reflect on the meaning of their stories.”

That said, none of the three volunteered to be an author.

Both deVries—who co-wrote Westminster’s Living Faith: Stories from the first 150 years—and Lansing served on church committees charged with creating histories. In both cases, they began by helping the congregation understand the importance of oral histories and archives.

DeVries set up a professional training project at Westminster that collected approximately 75 oral histories. Lansing, who wrote The Faith of Our Forebears: 100 Years at Mount Olive Lutheran Church, joined a church heritage committee that had already begun a process of collecting oral histories to contribute to a historical narrative. Both helped their committees appreciate the complexity and work of interviewing, asking the right questions, and transcribing the work for an archive.

That work turned into an author assignment. DeVries was on the committee that interviewed outside writers for the job, none of whom pleased the committee. A Sunday morning sermon about a former, prominent preacher, whose intriguing story piqued her interest in the church’s past, led deVries to realize she should be the writer.

When Lansing joined the committee as a relatively new congregation member, he resisted signing on as writer. But he saw the need and felt a desire to serve—and was reassured by the committee that he was the right person because he would see things others couldn’t.

But, for Lansing, that meant “getting up to speed on all kinds of things I knew nothing about.” Mount Olive’s distinctive history and identity sent him delving into church history—first to examine both ELCA archives and the congregation’s former Missouri Synod affiliation. He also researched the liturgical movement within the Lutheran Church to understand how the congregation developed “a powerful push for intentional liturgical recovery paired with progressive social ministries in the neighborhood.” This hooked him into the project.

While Lansing as a relative outsider fit well for Mount Olive’s history, Gustafson, as an insider, was a natural to write Three Sundays at First: A Story of Our Congregation, for First Lutheran. He was recruited for the job, considered it a compliment, and felt it would be a snap—until he realized the amount of records and faced the job of “turning lists of data into a meaningful account.” Then the task became more daunting.

Organizing the histories

Neither Westminster nor Mount Olive had organized archives, and Lansing realized that first collecting and securing the church’s records “was an even more important legacy the committee could leave.” The oral histories in both churches were crucial to learn how the congregations developed. Then the writers faced the task of shaping and organizing the histories.

DeVries and Lansing took a thematic approach, looking at the big picture, turning points and context. In the introduction to Lansing’s book, he says, “Investigating different facets of Mount Olive’s history in specific milieus—relations with the broader Lutheran church, architecture and liturgy, congregational life, and social ministry and missions—helps us to better understand not only what happened but also how and why Mount Olive became what it is today.”

Gustafson chose to build a more narrative history around three pivotal incidents in the congregation’s 150 years, all of which happened on a Sunday, and the chronology fills in between these moments. It is “not the final word but rather is expected to provoke questions about as well as appreciation for our shared heritage, to prompt a nod of the head in agreement, and also sputters of protest.”

Ultimately, all three historians had to deal with controversial or painful moments in the congregation’s past. For instance, DeVries and her committee decided that the story of two pastors who had an affair and left the congregation had to be included. Gustafson included the concern some members had about having a gay pastor. Lansing was advised to “flatten out a controversy” in Mount Olive’s fairly recent past. They all chose words carefully and/or referred readers to the archived oral history.

Navigating the writing process

Inevitably, some tensions on the church committees arose over writing styles and documentation. With a very readable book as the goal, there probably was some nervousness about putting the task in the hands of academics.

The three professors focused on readability, use of subheads, photos, and design that would attract readers—in part to disarm stereotypes about scholarly faculty. “We as writers tried very hard to say something historical but also something simple,” says deVries.

Of the three, Lansing’s is the most scholarly, a good match for a congregation that includes 35 seminarians as members. His history focuses on the congregation’s distinctive historical role in the schism of the Missouri Synod and leadership in pursuing a distinctive liturgical tradition. His book is very readable, and, instead of footnotes, he included end notes with documentation. DeVries was asked not to use footnotes. She protested, seeking their inclusion as proper documentation for future historians, but was overruled by the project’s editor.

Given the many personal relationships that he has in his parish, Gustafson decided that he would not quote anyone without their subsequent permission, hoping that this would encourage candor during his interviews.

Paring the volumes of information and choosing the stories was challenging. Gustafson says he could have written much more, “but part of being a historian is not to tell it all.”

The legacies remain

The three histories have all generated praise for their writers. Especially satisfying are comments about fairness, honesty, and charity in which church members and situations are portrayed, especially difficult ones. Some readers commented on how much they learned. Gustafson says this history is probably the first one being read, since earlier families actually lived the history of the church.

In April, when Mount Olive celebrated its centennial, Lansing was asked to give the keynote speech at the banquet. He sought to interpret their history from the eyes of a relative newcomer and as a historian. He suggested that history can be dangerous in terms of stifling innovation while trying to live up to the legacies, and in terms of measuring others against the rigors of their liturgy and tradition. It struck a chord and made people think.

Beyond the books themselves, perhaps even greater legacies were left. All three churches now have organized archives with oral histories. DeVries sees these oral histories as “not only important for posterity, but important for building the connections among church members, because it was church members interviewing other church members.”

Because the three books are all different, their uses are also different. The coffee table-quality of Living Faith: Stories from the first 150 years lends Westminster’s history to fundraising and recruiting new members to the congregation.

Lansing’s history of Mount Olive documents its distinctive denominational history and will remain of interest outside its parish. In the Introduction, he says, “Because the congregation engaged so many cutting-edge trends in 20th-century Lutheran life, the parish’s history rises above the local and parochial.”

Gustafson’s narrative history is given to all new church members and can be reprinted easily.

What did the three historians learn in these projects? DeVries says, “When you work on a church history like this, it’s far closer, and it makes you confront your role as an objective historian … and also your service to not just posterity, but to people you sit next to in the pews every day.”

Gustafson quipped that “it is far easier to write about dead people on another continent than about living people one might meet tomorrow at the grocery store.” And, he’s already collecting materials for First Lutheran Church’s 200th anniversary.

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