Researching Your Church Family Tree #2: In Search of the Local Pastor List

I frequently receive requests (and since I’ve been at this particular job for a very short time, for something to be considered “frequent” says something) for a list of all the pastors of a specific church or charge. This request is frequently part of an individual’s desire to write a church history or a congregation planning a special event. A few of those who have contacted me have done so because, as new Church Historians, they wisely feel that they should have such a list handy. Unfortunately for these researchers, such lists are not always available at our archives. Just as in the case of individual church histories, family trees, or for that matter any compiled history, a repository or library generally has such things only if another researcher has compiled one. We do, of course, have many of the resources needed to do the research for such a project, but many of these resources have yet to find their way to the Archives and Library.

Should you be interested in compiling such a list, here are a few tips on doing the necessary research. Some are specific to Methodist archives, but most apply or can be adapted to other institutions. The list is by no means exhaustive, and there may be more tips forthcoming on this blog at a later date. I hope readers will comment with their own tips as well. Also, as with all things historical, don’t assume that because someone else wrote something down and published it, their research is necessarily accurate.

  • This may seem obvious, but I have discovered that many do not do this. Start locally! Check your local church resources. There may be an old church history that will give you what you want, up to a point. If your church has old Conference Journals, the appointments will be in there. (Always remember that appointments can be changed in mid year.) There are memoirs of pastors in the later ones as well. Any charge conference records or records of committees where the pastor might have served or made reports might mention a name you have not yet found. Baptism, marriage and funeral records may also list the pastor.
  • Talk to older people and get their stories. Many times folks have trouble with exact dates, but will at least recall the names. Many of these members have wonderful memories. They may also have family records or pictures that include a pastor (baby book, certificate of marriage or baptism, Sunday school graduation certificate, etc.) They may have some old records of the church if they served on a committee in the past and these could augment the church’s collection. Don’t forget the home bound. They are great potential resources and often glad for the chance to visit and remember.
  • Community and state sources are good places to look. If you can establish that a member died or was married in a specific time, you may wish to look for a public record of the event that may include a pastor’s name. This is particularly true of marriage records. Just be careful; many folks had marriages or funerals performed by clergy who were not their local pastors.
  • Genealogical sources, on-line bulletin boards, social networks, etc. are also good places to look for information on pastors. Network with other researchers who might have information you do not.
  • If your church maintained a parsonage, old city directories, tax records, even maps, might help determine the resident of such a parsonage. Census records can sometimes help here, though they were only recorded every ten years and it is sometimes hard to pinpoint specific locations with them. If a church owned real property subject to taxation, the pastor might be mentioned
  • Although records of the individual churches legally belong to the church or conference, many have found their way into local historical societies, libraries or archives. Look there as well. Sometimes the institutions microfilmed such records with the permission of the church, making it possible to search many records more quickly than if they were in paper files.
  • Don’t forget local or church newspapers. Particularly in small towns and in the “old days.” Appointments to local churches and church events were often covered in newspapers.
  • Don’t forget other denominations or confessions. In some places and at some times, a church newspaper served much the same role as a community newspaper. (I have some copies of my great-grandfather’s paper, the Cumberland Presbyterian Banner, published at just such a time. He sometimes wrote about general community news and listed the subject of the sermon and Sunday School lesson for the local Baptist and Methodist churches on occasion.)
  • Always note the source of your information. I have seen several inaccurate lists of appointments. I received a memorial roll from an official of the church that is supposed to be itself official, but has some obvious errors in it. If you have conflicts or errors, noting your sources may help to resolve them.
  • Remember that there were divisions in the church at times in our history, and a congregation may have belonged to a different branch of the now United Methodist Church. Those records may or may not be readily available to the Conference archives. We will, of course, do all we can to help put folks in touch with the appropriate source for your research.

Remember, this is research and takes time. You are putting together a historical jigsaw puzzle. There will be gaps in the record, but do your best. If you can’t find it, note where you looked. Someone else may later be able to fill in the gaps. If you find a “piece” but don’t know where it fits, note that as well. That piece may connect with one found at a later time. And as always, the Archives and Library of the Tennessee Conference of the United Methodist Church will always be happy to accept copies of research relating to the Conference, its predecessors or constituent parts.


Jim Havron currently serves as archivist of the Tennessee Conference of the United Methodist Church. His education and experience is in history with additional focus on public history, archives and museums, and  with research and practice focusing on religious history, oral history, user advocacy and where the craft of history meets technology. He can be reached at


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