“Here’s a chance for that historian to do something…. what’s her name?”

James T. Kirk, “Space Seed,” Star TrekJames Kirk

This is how the conversation usually goes when I meet someone outside of the historical community for the first time: “What do you do for work?” I tell them that I am the Senior Historian for The Navigators, which is a worldwide Christian ministry.  Such a reply usually triggers some raised eyebrows, and inevitably, “Wow, so what exactly do you do at work?” Depending on how I’m feeling or what I have been doing that particular day I pick a few items from this list to explain my diverse job, summarizing everything in layman’s terms:  I am a corporate archivist, collections manager, historic site interpreter, chief exhibit developer, public programs coordinator, docent-trainer, historian of the evangelical movement, oral history interviewer, board liaison, lead historic preservationist, grant writer, and book author. In addition to these, in the last six years the circumstances of my job have also required me to become a disaster mitigation expert, private detective, HR specialist, and finance expert. Also: spelunker, copier technician, and theologian. Like many of you, I wear a lot of different hats at work.

Despite the many roles that we play for our organizations, public historians in settings like mine are often the only one of his or her kind within the parent company/nonprofit/ministry. We face many of the same challenges as corporate historians do in terms of professional loneliness, the need to make ourselves relevant to our parent organization, and more.

In the interest of helping some of my younger colleagues who may be getting ready to graduate with their M.A.s in public history, and to further the conversation with seasoned professionals who have been navigating these challenges for years, I have compiled five quick thoughts on navigating the workplace as a historian working at a religious organization.

Working for a history department in the context of a larger religious organization….

  1. Forces you to cultivate professional humility. When you are dealing with a past that is recent enough for the older staff around you to easily remember, you must figure out how to approach their story with a healthy degree of humility mixed in with your professional swagger.
  2. Forces you to think about the relevance of history to a group of people who might not inherently love it as much as you do. Last spring my heart broke when our leadership began to question why they needed a history department at all. After thinking to myself, “Because history is the most wonderful thing ever, don’t you understand that?!” I drafted up a document for them that clearly stated the ways in which our history department advances the ministry goals of the organization. I find that that many religious institutions, especially the ones that are missions-focused, are forward-looking and tend to devalue their past. When working as a historian at such a place, you must figure out how to make your work relevant to the future.
  3. Forces you to be patient in explaining the benefits of public history to people totally unfamiliar with the field. Last summer our facilities staff decided that they wanted to pull our property’s National Register listing after a blow-up in relations with our SHPO. I spent several months mediating between our staff who thought that the Section 106 review process meant that the government was going to interfere with our private property rights, and our State Preservation Officer who was impatient with our staff because they didn’t know the basics of preservation. There may be many times during your career where you have to patiently mediate similar conflicts, or explain the good of public history to groups of people who might not naturally be on board.
  4. Make you cultivate a network of like-minded colleagues in your community. Because most of my coworkers can’t really talk shop with me on archival theory or best collections management practices, I’ve had to look to the larger historical community in town for professional companionship and advice. Did I call up my curator friend from our local history museum to decompress after the aforementioned preservation kerfuffle? Oh yes I did.
  5. Can grow you in other areas of your life. Are you lonely at your job because no one talks history with you? Look for those departments or coworkers whose focus overlaps your own outside interests. For example, my parent organization has several ministries that I am genuinely interested in. A deepening involvement in Via Affirmativa, our artist network, has reawakened my own artistic interests. I even had my first solo gallery show last month.

Colleagues, what other sorts of thoughts do you have on navigating the workplace and outside life as a historian working in the field of religious history?  I would love to continue the conversation.