Twelve Corners Baptist Church
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The Way We Were:
Documenting Church Life Through Oral History

Bill Sumners

How do we document the history of our church? Usually, church historians utilize church minutes, newsletters, scrapbooks, and associational annuals to craft the history of a congregation. Sources for historical study are usually conflicting, incomplete representations of history "as it actually happened." Newspapers, personal letters, official church records and other historical sources all have strengths and weaknesses as tools for reconstructing the past. Writers of congregational history often rely on tape-recorded recollections which contain information not found in the written record. Before undertaking an oral history interview, the church archivist/historian should ask, "What information can this person's recollection add to the historical records?"

Before you begin an oral history project for your church, consider these questions:

  • How complete will the project be and how will the interviews be used?
  • Will transcripts will be made to the interviews? If so, how will the tapes and transcripts will be maintained?
  • What will be the format for the interviews? Will you use audiocassette tapes only, or will you both audio and video tape the interviews?
  • Have you developed a release form for each participant to sign that donates the interviews to the library, historical collection or church?
Select the best candidates for interviews. Choose members who communicate well and have an interest in the project. Good storytellers are usually excellent choices for oral history interviews. The interviews need to capture the history of the church as viewed through the lives of its members. The interviews need to gather impressions about leaders, events, programs, styles of worship, music, church procedures, and in general the life of the church during the lifetime of the interviewees. How has their faith changed their life? What people and events have shaped their faith? Why are they Baptists? Let them tell of their salvation experience and other spiritual landmarks.

Be sure you have the right equipment for the interviews. If your church has an audiovisual technician or someone responsible for the sound system, they may be able to assist you in this area. You need a good quality audiocassette tape recorder with an external microphone. Use sixty or ninety minute tapes. This will allow either thirty to forty-five minutes on each side. Do not depend on batteries, but plug into an outlet. If you have a more sophisticated system you may want to use lapel microphones. Whatever system you use be sure to test the equipment prior to the interview for sound quality. It has been my experience that equipment failure can be the greatest hazard in conducting oral histories.

Listed below are some guidelines and steps for the interviewer conducting the oral history.

  • Conduct research on the church's history and make notes on pastors and other staff members, significant leaders, special events and programs, building projects, etc. This information will be valuable in prompting the thinking of the interviewee. Learn something about the individual you are interviewing. Know what positions they held in the church, how long they have been a member of the church, etc. Be prepared.
  • Make an outline of the interview, and share this with the interviewee at least several days prior to the interview. This will give them some time to reflect on the people and events in the history of the church.
  • At the beginning of the tape, state the name of the interviewer and interviewee, the date and place of the interview. Begin the oral history by asking some autobiographical questions about the interviewee.
  • Plan your interview around the physical need of the interviewee. Do not plan to interview more than two hours. Take a break when you need to change the tapes. Most interviews will be much less than two hours.
  • Choose a place for the taping that is quiet, away from the telephone and other distractions. Make certain that all the equipment is ready and working. Check on sound levels prior to the interview.
  • Have the interviewee sign a release form that donates the contents of the interview to the church or historical collection.
  • Remember that a good interview is more a monologue than a dialogue.
  • Cassette tapes come in a case. Keep the case. It protects the tape from dust.
  • Punch out the "tabs" on the cassette immediately after you finish the interview, but not before. This ensures that what you recorded cannot be erased.
  • Label the tapes. Write the names of both parties in the interview and the date on each side of the tape.
  • If the interview will not be transcribed, the interviewer needs to prepare a concise summary of the interview, including events, times, people, and places discussed. Be specific in the description.
  • Determine the location for the placement of the recordings and the summary information or transcripts. Either the church history room or the church library are probably the best places. Do not handle the recordings as you would other library tapes that can be checked out by members. These are archival materials that should be preserved and made available to tell the history of the church.
Develop questions for each interview based on the background of the interviewee. Specific questions are always better than general questions. Listed below are some sample questions for an interview.

Tell me about your family background. Where did your family come from?

What are your first memories of church life? Describe a typical Sunday at church when you were young.

When did you come to our church? How old were you?

What were some memorable events in the life of the church in your early years here: revivals, baptisms, singings, dinners on the ground, Sunday School, BYPU, etc.?

Describe the church buildings when you first attended this church. How have they changed?

When and where did you make your public decision to accept Christ? Describe your feelings and the event.

Where were you baptized? Describe the baptism.

What positions have you held in the church? In what organizations and ministries of the church have you been involved?

Ask for responses to various pastors and church leaders, including memorable characteristics of each. Do not forget lay leaders.

Why are you Southern Baptist? What makes Southern Baptists different from other denominations?

What have been the significant events good and bad in the life and history of the church?

How do you feel the church has changed in the years you have been a member?

The information in this article will hopefully provide some useful guidelines to church history committees and others who wish to document the life of their church with the stories and impressions of its members. It is not perfect history, but it is a view of history not found in minute books and newspaper clippings.

Oral history can be a fun and meaningful project for the church history committee or church historian. It can be a useful method for preserving and remembering the history of the church. Such a project can not only assist the history writer but also can prove valuable for audiovisual presentations on the congregation's heritage. Begin now an effort to use oral history in documenting the story of your church.


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