Many years ago, I interviewed for a position as Minister of Music with a church in a college town. It seemed like a good fit for my gifts and I could imagine myself having a long and productive ministry there. There was a point in the process when my wife and I were invited by the search committee to come for an interview.
After a tour of the church campus, the interview was conducted in a meeting room at the church. We, the pastor and the committee were seated in chairs in a circle. The conversation was lively, engaging and punctuated with laughter. We were off to a good start.
At one point in our dialogue the pastor asked me, “Now, Doug, no hedging here. Do you describe yourself more as a minister or a musician?” I remember thinking the question was limiting; why can’t a church musician be both? I found out later this question grew out of a recent difficult staff experience.
After some more prayer and thought I did not accept an invitation to serve this church, but I’ve never forgotten that pastor’s sharp-edged question.
What do people in the pew expect from church musicians?
Competency and compassion.
People in the pew want a minister of music who is competent in a set of specific musical skills. (I will speak here from the perspective of a classically trained musician who serves churches with traditional or liturgical worship; I acknowledge there are other significant competencies required for those who lead in other styles).
What musical competencies are required? Here is a short but not exhaustive list.
One must be:
a. A skilled singer or instrumentalist who has invested years in musical mastery of the craft;
b. A conductor and music teacher who leads a group of people with various musical levels in a productive, positive choral or instrumental experience that helps volunteers be successful and contributes to the worship of God;
c. An organized leader who plans well, collaborates with others and discovers ways to harness the gifts of people in the local church.
But musical skills alone are not sufficient in a community of faith. A prominent church in the southeast hired a nationally renowned choral conductor to lead their music ministry. This gifted individual was a brilliant musician, an outstanding pianist and a dynamic conductor. Choirs under his leadership were known for excellence. And yet within a few years this remarkable musician departed from this church leaving a wounded choir in his wake. An inability to adapt to the limitations of a very good (but not great) choir left the conductor frustrated and the choir anxious.
His successor continued to do outstanding work but with a compassionate touch. Emotional intelligence and empathy are high values for the church musician. The best choral conductors in the country–people like Eric Nelson at Emory, and Sigrid Johnson, formerly at St Olaf, and John Dickson at LSU–have outstanding musical and people skills. There is an awareness of the unique individuals with whom they create music and a creative adaptation to the gifts and limits of this group.
How does one navigate the tensions between ministry and music, between people and product?
Let’s acknowledge that living in some tension is inevitable for the musician who takes pride in her work and calling. Anytime we are collaborating with others–singers, instrumentalists, pianists and organists– to create music for worship we are focusing on a product. Stay with me. I want to make the case the musician needs to become invisible so that the message is visible. The beauty or truth of the music is revealed when the performer serves the listener through the music.
So, we minister to the worshipper when we prepare to lead and sing and serve well. Musical preparation and performance, this is indeed ministry. (Eric Nelson deserves credit for this idea he described over lunch one day near the Emory campus. I hope I’ve done it justice.) And this ministry requires attention, awareness and artistry. It is not about us–conductor or chorister; it is about the one who arrives in this holy space just hoping against hope she can find the words to pray on that day.
Nevertheless, we must show that we care about the people who are our partners in ministry. I recently celebrated 15 years at Wilshire Baptist Church in Dallas. On significant ministry anniversaries people are encouraged to write notes of affirmation. I received a note from a faithful choir member who would be quick to admit he is not an accomplished musician but enjoys singing. In the note he reminded me about the time I visited him in the hospital when I (in his words) showed I really was a minister.
Music and ministry, competency and compassion–these are markers of a healthy music ministry.
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