Working with: Writing an Annual Conference History
Every Annual Conference needs an up-to-date published history. If the commission decides to sponsor such a project, you will need to address the following concerns.
Begin at the beginning: The project needs the approval and support of conference leadership, including the bishop, the lay leader, the chair of the Council on Finance and Administration, and presidents of conference-wide organizations (such as United Methodist Women and United Methodist Youth Fellowship).
The commission will need to form a project committee that is broadly inclusive of lay, clergy, youth, women and men, and persons from the racial and ethnic heritages represented in the conference. The committee should also include the writer(s), editor(s), and principal researcher(s).
The commission should have a well-developed plan for conference approval that includes a budget and a timeline. Among the decisions to make early in the process:
The format: Hard or softcover? Primarily text, primarily photos, or something in between? Will this history update an earlier work or be a brand-new effort?
Deadlines: When will the research be finished, the first draft written, editorial suggestions made, the fact checking completed, the second draft written, additional editorial work done, the photos collected, the printer selected, the manuscript delivered to the printer, the finished product completed, and the event launching the book's publication scheduled?
The budget: Include all applicable fees for researchers, author(s), editor(s), and reader(s), and committee meetings; publication costs; publicity expenses; and the book's purchase price.
In the early stages, discuss what this history should accomplish. Ideally, it should faithfully record the past. It should also provide education, entertainment, and inspiration. Remember that you want to tell the story of real people's lives, not just tabulate dry statistics and lifeless facts. You want to reveal something of the depth, complexity, and texture of church life. Researchers, writers, and editors all need to remember that their goal is to put flesh on the bare bones of history.
Telling the story: As the author(s) and editor(s) organize the text, they will need to decide how to tell the story. A chronological story ("first we did this, then we did that") details events as they happened, but allows few opportunities for the reader to catch her breath. Nor does it give the author(s) many chances to analyze, summarize, or draw conclusions. Arranging by topics (bishops, missions, social outreach, education) allows for in-depth examination, but can artificially isolate subjects. One doesn't get a feel for the variety and depth of church life, and it can be confusing for the reader to jump back and forth in time from chapter to chapter. The third option, periodization, is usually the most workable. When history is organized by decades or other standard blocks of time, author(s) and readers can bite off small chunks of the story, examine them, place them in context, and move on.
Placing events in context is crucial to the history's success. It is simply impossible to understand your conference's history without some knowledge of time, place, and people's lives. Your writer(s) and researchers will need to understand conference events in light of regional, national, and denominational history. For example, how has the conference been affected by social change and historical events (wars, natural disasters, issues like suffrage/abortion/civil rights)? How has it been affected by economic and sociological change (immigration, the growth of suburbia, depressions and recessions)?
Another critical aspect of your history is its inclusiveness. The history of your Annual Conference is the history of all of its people: lay and clergy; men, women, and children; the elderly and youth; clergy and clergy spouses; administrators and missionaries; persons from many racial, ethnic, and economic backgrounds. Also remember to include all the predecessor denominations of United Methodism that are part of your conference's history.
Remember that you are writing for the future as well as the present; identify all persons, places, and events as accurately as you can. Check, recheck, and re-recheck facts and dates! People will rely on this history for many years to come.
Special touches: Photographs liven up the text and provide an additional window to the past. Vignettes about people and events can be amusing, touching, and revealing; if interspersed throughout the text (perhaps at the beginning of each chapter), they complement the text and add human interest to your story.
Include information about everyday things to help paint a picture of the times (the price of postage stamps, fashion trends, favorite radio programs). These kinds of details help the reader relate to the lives of historical figures.
An index can be a very valuable part of the book, and several appendices may be useful as well (financial and membership statistics, lists of bishops, names of boards and agencies in different eras). You may also want to include a timeline listing various milestones in the conference's history.