True Confessions of a Musician…and of a Pastor

What Musicians and Clergy Really Think About Each Other…and Themselves!


Musicians work very hard learning the music of their instruments, choral music, and church music. We spend a lifetime in this pursuit, often beginning as young children, usually starting with the piano. We sing in church, school, and collegiate choirs, perhaps continuing into adulthood by singing in a community chorus. We grow in our taste and knowledge of different genres and styles of music, and we develop an appreciation for the ability of music to connect with the musicians with whom we work and with the listener.

In spite of many years of study and immersion in music, there is much that we do not know, and there is so much to learn, including non-musical skills that are essential to being an effective church musician. There are so many ways to grow and there are also many pitfalls of which we are not aware. Here are some of the traps into which we can fall that render us and our ministry less effective than might otherwise be.

Confessions of a Musician

Some of us find it difficult not to be in command at all times. We expect choirs to sing on our cue and cut off at our direction. We dictate the tone color we think is appropriate as well as many other aspects of the musical score; they are all interpreted through our lens. We need to recognize that there are differences between life in the rehearsal room or sanctuary and life outside these spaces, where we are not the ones in control.

We take matters into our own hands. Often musicians, knowing and caring about worship as we do, are put in charge of planning the liturgy. Sometimes this extends to stage directing, and the problem comes when this is done without sufficient knowledge or without sufficient tact.

Sometimes our need to control elements of the service gets out of control itself. A student pastor recounts such precipitous actions of one musician: “I had to assert my pastoral authority with the musician when she changed the music I had selected as the worship leader and I were walking down the aisle for Sunday worship. She walked over to the organist and told him not to play a hymn I had selected because it did not complement the one she selected for the anthem. She also told him to play a choral response to the Lord’s Prayer that I had told her we would not do.

This past Sunday she again tried to change the order of worship without consulting me. I explained to her that I spend a lot of prayerful time in planning worship. Although I am open to suggestions and input, I cannot have her making changes just minutes before the worship service without consulting me. I also told her that her input is important, and it would be helpful if she would be willing to discuss the music with me ahead of time.”

Our insistence on perfection, ingrained in us from our earliest lessons, may inhibit our trying new things. Our earliest piano lessons focused on putting the right finger on the right key for the right length of time, with the right touch and weight. Everything was about doing the right thing. Lessons on other instruments had parallel requirements. As trained musicians, we should by now recognize that there is, in reality, room for a great deal of nuance and interpretation in all things musical, but this is sometimes hard for musicians to accept. There can be a steep learning curve as the right way becomes the most effective way or simply a different way.

Linked to our desire for perfection is the fact that we do not always value people over performance. As church leaders, we really cannot allow our goals for the excellence of the performance, for the diction or the tone color or the accuracy of the notes, to obscure the fact that we are in ministry, and in ministry, people are more important than performance. The dedication of the members of the group, their sense of community, and their desire to minister through music are part of what they bring to worship. Thomas Are, in his book Faithsong, affirms, “A minister of music who believes that the function of musical performance outweighs the responsibility to minister to people will not succeed in what matters most.”

We get annoyed when things do not go according to plan. The desire for perfection can creep in at moments that seem more consequential at the time than they really are. For instance, when a musical selection in a worship service was skipped by the clergy, a musician in my acquaintance turned off the organ and left the service! There are instances when we are disturbed that the silence after a poignant piece is shattered by someone making an impromptu announcement about the car with its lights left on in the parking lot. When we have planned worship carefully, many of us become impatient when its effect seems to be negated, however unintentionally, by others.

We are used to planning and practicing ahead, and it is sometimes hard to work with people who operate in a different time frame and who have a different definition of what constitutes “ahead.” This is actually one of the most frequent complaints of musicians. Perhaps we can do something about it, beginning with a conversation about why we need the information ahead of time. It might not occur to someone else that we not only need time to select the music that will best support the sermon and scripture, we also need time to order it if it is not in the library, and time for the choir to learn it once it arrives.

We are not doing ourselves any favors when we refuse to meet with the clergy or staff. “What? They’re the ones who refuse to meet with me!” you might be thinking. That may be the case in some situations, but numerous clergy have complained to me that even when staff meetings have been planned around the schedule of the musician, the musician does not attend. The negative effect is compounded when the musician then does the “passive-aggressive thing” and complains about being excluded from worship planning discussions.

Lack of flexibility can be a stumbling block for us. There is an increasing need for musicians to be flexible – whether it is in terms of genre, style of music, or type of service. Our college instruction or the private lessons we took many years ago may not have given us the skills that are needed by congregations in the twenty-first century. Broadening our skills really is no longer an option, as churches are increasingly requiring diverse musical programs; musicians serving these churches will have to be able to meet those needs.

Musicians not only need to have a wider range of skills, but also a wider choice of repertoire. Pledge never to say the words “over my dead body” when it comes to music in worship. Of course, it’s not that anything goes, but if it is music we truly believe is inappropriate for worship, we should be willing to discuss it. We need to listen to the reasons that music has been suggested and need to be willing to articulate our reasons for believing that it is not appropriate.

A student pastor wrote me: “The musician has grown up in the church and despises any kind of change or new ideas in worship. She has said that the new hymnal supplement is going to be the downfall of worship.”

What a regrettable situation, at a time when resisting the need to expand our repertoire is viewed by some as threatening our very survival as church musicians.

In recent times,” an organist writes, “many innovations are occurring in worship service music. Some of my colleagues have stayed in the same Baroque era in which they were educated, rejecting contemporary trends.”

She cites other organists who refuse “to participate in a contemporary service, or use a piano, or introduce to the choir ‘new’ music,” concluding that she herself is “increasingly convinced that flexibility can only enhance our ministry as musicians today.”

Boundaries can be a challenge; it is easy and may seem natural to make the choirs your support groups. It takes constant vigilance on our part not to share information with choir members that should not be shared, whether it is inside information about the church or personal information concerning a member of the congregation.

We can be divas. A recent blog conversation among musicians discussed an organist who insisted on making hymn-playing a recital, often playing so loudly that the congregation could not hear itself sing or completely overpowering the ensemble that was being accompanied.

I cringed reading these messages, as the numerous musicians being described clearly do not have a sense of their place in the full picture of music-making in worship. Here’s one example:

There’s nothing worse than an organist who blasts or plays mini-recitals for hymns! The congregation that can’t hear the melody, can’t hear themselves, can’t worship without frustration. This is just as bad as screeching guitars. We as musicians must remember that the time for corporate singing is just that, not a time for showing our talents to the exclusion of others. Anthems and special music are the times for those gifts. We need to remember that we are there to lead congregational song, regardless of style.

In focusing our energies on the performing ensembles and our own practice, we sometimes lose perspective on the institution of which we are only one part. It is critical that we support the church’s other programs, that we offer classes in the education area when asked, that we partner with the mission program in fundraising for special needs, that we see ourselves as a part of the whole body that is the church.

Music in the church is ministry. Musicians are vehicles through which the love of God and the message of salvation flow. We are not the end point, we are the conveyers of the Word through notes played and sung. While our ineptness should not be a distraction to the effective delivery of the Word, perfection is not our goal; having the message heard, felt, and taken away is.

Confessions of a Pastor

The Rev. Dr. Carol Cook Moore, a colleague from Wesley Theological Seminary with whom I work in worship planning, offers these confessions from her point of view as a clergywoman who served in congregational ministry for twenty-five years before joining the seminary faculty.

Of all the responsibilities we hold in parish ministry, the effectiveness of worship is held to be one of the most important for most clergy. We often feel the service rises and falls on our shoulders. We bring our theological ethos and are not prepared to share and teach the underpinnings of that ethos. We function out of a set of assumptions that are often not transparent. Some are practical and some are theological.

Whatever the case, we easily forget that not everyone is on the same page, and in terms of worship preparation, planning, and leading, being on the same page is essential! This can also lead us to being unable to ask for help because we believe, or think others believe, that we should have all the answers. This behavior can fuel miscommunication and power struggles leading to a lack of teamwork.

It is important to admit what we do not know and to seek out constructive answers and solutions. Clergy and musicians can be a tremendous resource for one another. That requires admitting that we need and want such a resource!

We, too, are human. We want to be accepted, liked, and valued for our work. We easily fall into the trap of becoming co-dependent and therefore making decisions out of this need, rather than a healthier approach to working together with our musician colleagues. Rather than coming to the musician with our complaints, concerns, or suggestions, we clergy can make inappropriate, disrespectful comments to others regarding their work or the choir’s ability. If we are not proactive in forming healthy patterns of communication and accountability, we can participate in a congregant’s attempt to isolate one of us or triangulate us in patterns that only breed contempt and break down any hope of a partnership.

Many of us are given the authority to oversee worship. Some denominations say in their polity that the senior minister is in charge of/responsible for worship. This easily becomes a platform for control. Some of us want to control every aspect of worship either because we believe we are best suited, because we have to make sure it is good since the buck stops here, or because we do not know how to share ministry and still be the one who is ultimately in charge.

We know deep down that we are not in control! If we believe in the power of the Holy Spirit flowing through the worship experience, then we know that, ultimately, this is about God at work and not our proficiency or success. We also can speak volumes on the actions of children, ushers, musicians, and lectors whose involvement in worship is out of our control! However, we can respond to this knowledge and these experiences by seeking more control rather than empowering trained and effective leadership.

We can become envious of the power and effectiveness of our musician colleagues, as well as their incredible gifts. You, the musician, can create a crescendo that stirs the hearts of the parishioners more deeply than any sermon of ours. If a choir is to have any effectiveness, it requires your leadership and their loyalty as well as ability to work their voices together.

How wonderful it would be if the entire ministry of the church could function as smoothly as a four-part anthem. You also have to create community in order to foster the ministry of the choir. You are a group. If we feel isolated in our ministry, we can become very envious of your relationship with the choir.

We can easily focus on the sermon as if it were the only important act of worship. For some congregations, preaching is the focal point or climax of the service. However, that does not mean that the other parts of worship are not equally important and do not deserve equal attention in planning and synchronizing with one another.

For some of us, it is very difficult to admit we are wrong. There is something about the power we are given and the way we respond to expectations from congregations and our superiors that seems to lead us toward defensiveness instead of self-evaluation and seeking opportunities for growth personally and professionally.

In order for our leadership to be trusted, we need to be able to make sincere apologies and to move toward reconciliation and change when and where it is needed. When we come to a point of disagreement, we need to be able to foster resolution.
Like all human relationships, the relationship between the musician and the clergy takes work. This work involves listening, respecting, speaking honestly, building trust, and learning how to be partners in ministry. We are partners with distinct gifts, responsibilities, and authority—yet, partners. How else can we live out Paul’s image of the church as the body of Christ?

© 2013 MorningStar Music Publishers All Rights Reserved

One Response

  1. Thanks Again… | Creator Magazine
    Thanks Again… | Creator Magazine October 15, 2013 at 1:42 am |

    […] Today’s article from Eileen Guenther comes from a study she did. Through a series of in-depth interviews with both pastors and church musicians, she paints a very clear picture of “who we are” and “who they are”… whoever you think “we” and “they” are… We think it is highly recommended reading. […]