Last fall my colleagues and I had a celebration lunch to commemorate my twentieth anniversary as Hamilton Conference staff. Where did the time go? The milestone made me think about the significance of history, both on personal and professional levels.
On a personal level, sometimes it still surprises me that I stayed with Hamilton Conference for twenty years. I was initially hired to cover a long-term sick leave. I had a toddler at home and came in to the office on an as-needed basis when there was work to do, so it suited my family needs. When the person for whom I was covering resigned, then-Executive Secretary Roslyn Campbell convinced me to make my position permanent. The Conference had no website and Roslyn enticed me with the prospect of creating one from scratch. I had no training in web design whatsoever but I like a challenge! I decided I would stay for a few years. It wasn’t the sort of career I had in mind, but by then I had another child on the way and I liked the fact that I could work twenty-five hours a week.
Fast forward twenty-one years and I am still here. Why? I think it is because I work for an institution that has meaning in my life. I’ve always felt it would be hard for me to work in the private sector where the focus was primarily on profits and not on people. The United Church is first and foremost about community.
History has been a big part of my job. I have been responsible for executive minutes, the Record of Proceedings for Conference meetings, the Official Record book, and the database containing our directory. Who attended meetings, what motions were carried, what was the membership of Hamilton Conference in a given year; these were pieces of information I diligently recorded. I spent lot of time and effort producing those documents, even though I sometimes felt like no one besides me and the Executive Secretary would ever look at them! But when a question arose about a decision that was made years ago regarding an issue or a policy, those documents became invaluable sources of information.
Someone once made the comment that I am one who carries the “institutional memory” of the Conference Office after having been around for two decades. I think what is meant by institutional memory is that, in addition to written historical documents, there are unwritten stories, anecdotes, common practices, and friendships that were never recorded but exist only in memory. Stories like the one about the evening when former Executive Secretary Roslyn Campbell was working in the office and had a visit from a local farmer who had lost a cow (yes, a cow) and wondered whether Roslyn might have seen it. Or the afternoon when I was working alone and managed to lock myself out of the building—with my car keys still in my office!
Sometimes my colleagues wondered why we carried on a certain practice and found that I remembered why it was initiated. And sometimes I had to remind myself that just because I remembered why we started doing something a certain way didn’t mean we had to continue to do it that way. Leo Tolstoy once said, “Historians are like deaf people who go on answering questions that no one has asked them.” I hope that the questions I answered were not always ones that no one was asking! As someone who values tradition but is also fascinated and stimulated by learning and using new technology, I think I have been able to strike a balance between carrying and cherishing the memories and looking towards the future. I hope history will continue to be one valuable piece of the puzzle as those in leadership in the new Regions discern the way forward. History tells us who we are, where we’ve been, why we do what we do. Stories are the building blocks of community, and ultimately they matter more than structure.
The end of Hamilton Conference will also be the end of my employment with the United Church. I am honoured to have worked with the many talented, conscientious, and dedicated staff members who have been part of Hamilton Conference over the past twenty-one years!
An earlier version of this article was published in the October 2017 issue of Contact.