I have been very fortunate for more than 30 years of music ministry to serve good churches where my deep passion and my best gifts were a good fit for the needs of these churches. Each place I served had its challenges, but this was often more about how I had to adapt to local circumstances rather than a deep philosophical/theological chasm about worship. Music ministry has not always been easy, but it has been life-giving.
My wife, Lori, and I recently had dinner with our dear friend, Ken Medema, and his traveling companion, Beverly Vander Molen. Ken is a singer-pianist-songwriter-composer who sings dozens of concerts across the country every year and has established a wide network among ministers of music. We were saddened (but not shocked) to hear him report that in the last year he had seven music directors call him to report they had been fired. Setting aside circumstances where someone is terminated for cause (and yes, sometimes this difficult decision must be made by a pastor or personnel committee), the anecdotal evidence is that ministers of music are often fired for the most flimsy of reasons. One reason most often cited: they were “no longer a good fit.”
I have known many colleagues who have suffered the pain of dismissal. Only rarely have severance packages been provided to give a person time to find a new place of service. I also can cite specific stories where this sort of decision had severe consequences for the music ministry, the church and yes, even for the senior pastor. Can anything be done about this?
While there is no room in this article to address circumstances where the competencies or the emotional intelligence of a minister of music are deficient or where a supervisor is erratic or untrustworthy, I would like to ask some deeper questions:
- How can we realign a theology of worship and music with local church practices and perceived needs and preferences?
- How can ministers of music trained in classical music and music education methods adapt their skills to local circumstances?
- How can pastors and musicians find a path toward trust and respect in their work together?
- Is there a way to move beyond the worship wars, the false dilemma of traditional (whatever this means) versus contemporary worship (whatever this means)?
- Is there a third way in worship and music ministry?
Now, here are some more practical answers to these questions:
1. Might you imagine a palette of worship and music choices that embrace the best of traditional and contemporary practices? What can worship leaders learn from the voices who value the legacy of traditional music and from those who worship best through other musical expressions? What are the common threads? And can you create a space where people can talk about what they value and hear one another? (By the way, CHC can help with these sorts of conversations.)
2. How might the minister of music collaborate with lay leaders? I am convinced there are people in our pews who can become genuine partners in ministry when we collaborate. Could you ask a poet or a person who is a writer to try her hand at writing a hymn? Is there a songwriter in your congregation whose song you could arrange for a choir? How could you partner with a member who is involved with a community nonprofit to support their work through a musical concert tailored for their clients? Collaboration is a powerful tool to add to your ministry toolbox. It takes time to build trust and to develop ways of working together. But the benefits for music ministry and the church are remarkable.
3. Would your church consider bringing two worship services back together? Let’s be honest. There is a powerful impact on worship when a room is more full than empty. This brings strength to congregational singing, energy to worship and joy that the community is gathered and visible to one another. Even if your church is not willing nor able to merge two services that have co-existed and look and feel quite different, consider doing this for the summer or for other occasions.
4. How might church musicians and pastors be partners in ministry? I’ve heard my pastor and friend, George Mason, say, “The relationship between pastor and minister of music is the emotional hot spot in a church.” I agree. When this relationship is good, it is very good and when it is conflicted … well, you know the rest of the story. I am very fortunate to work with and for a senior pastor and an associate pastor, Mark Wingfield, in relationships of trust and respect. I know this is not a universal experience and sadly, may be exceptional. But what if more pastor-musician relationships were positive and productive?
When we dream of creating a healthy church and a healthy church culture, one might simply start with the relationship between pastor and minister of music. Who’s going to take the first step?