This article is an adaptation of a chapter from the book Let the Church Sing On! by Dr. James Abbington.
In 1988, C. Harry Causey published a book entitled Things They Didn’t Tell Me About Being a Minister of Music (Music Revelation, 1988). This book takes a humorous look at some serious topics every church musician needs to understand. The chapters are entitled:
“They Didn’t Tell Me I Would Have to Be a Politician”
“…a Financial Wizard”
“…a Bible Scholar”
At the time this book was published, there were few, if any, resources that focused on the nonmusical attributes of music leadership in the church. Causey’s writing was witty, practical, inspirational, and challenging to me as a young minister of music at a very large urban congregation in Detroit.
In 1994, Robin Knowles Wallace wrote a similar book expanding on Causey’s position entitled Things They Never Tell You Before You Say “Yes” (Abingdon Press, 1994).
As a music minister, I quickly discovered there were many nonmusical considerations, duties, responsibilities, and unspoken expectations that went above and beyond my musical preparation and training. For example, it was one thing to identify members of the choir as either soprano, alto, tenor, or bass, but it was another thing to know their names and be able to address them as individuals.
The first and foremost requirement of a church musician is to love the Lord God with all one’s heart and mind. If musicians do not first love God and the people of God, then all their talents, skills, and training will not help them to succeed.1 Although this seems basic and simple, musicians often talk church talk but refuse to walk church walk. Just as ministers are called of God, so, too, church musicians are called of God. There is a major distinction between a musician who works in a church and a church musician.
James Robert Davidson defines a minister of music as “the person who combines the tasks of ministry and music leadership…and is often ordained to the ministry with music as the tool of his [or her] calling. This role includes the gathering of the people, the teaching of them, and the caring for them through a musical dimension within the total redemptive- creativity activity.” He explains that the term “is relatively recent to church music having appeared around the mid-twentieth century among evangelical Protestant churches in America. A real impetus toward its use came from the Southern Baptist Convention with its establishment of the Department of Church Music (1941) as a part of the Sunday School Board and its implementation of Schools of Church Music in the various seminaries.” An even more important difference, says Davidson, is that
unlike the director of music, the minister of music is involved with more than simply choral and instrumental ensembles and leading the congregational singing. He [or she] is concerned with the total congregation, what the needs are of the congregation as individuals, and what music will best meet the needs, and effect a desired response. Through his [or her] choice and use of music, he [or she] is involved in the process of instilling theological concepts as well as a devotional vocabulary. His [or her] ability to know his [or her] congregation and individual attitudes, to identify with these, and to provide the catalyst for a feeling of community in the proclamation of Christian truth through music compromise the discipline and limits of his [or her] work. (pp. 205-206)
Although this definition does not reflect what many ministers of music do, it is certainly a herculean model to which we can all aspire.
This article will focus on nonmusical issues and considerations for the church choir director, many of which violate simple and basic moral, ethical, spiritual, and professional conduct.
Lack of Preparation for Rehearsals
Another nonmusical issue choir directors face, although they are made aware of it and are evaluated consistently in their formal training, is not being sufficiently prepared for rehearsals. For example, choir directors themselves are often tardy for rehearsal, although they reprimand their members for tardiness. It is not uncommon for choir members to wait as long as fifteen or twenty minutes for the choir director to begin rehearsal, without notice, apology, or explanation from the director. Unfortunately, many directors wait until the last minute to make preparations for rehearsal because they consider it a low priority. This is apparent when sheet music is not in place or arranged for members upon their arrival, no repertoire schedule is posted or available, or choir members are asked what they would like to sing. Nothing could be more frustrating, insulting, and inconsiderate to the volunteer church choir members who willingly give their time and talents on a regular basis.
If one assumes the duties and responsibilities of choir director, then there is no excuse for such conduct and lack of commitment. Such behavior illustrates a lackadaisical and carefree attitude toward the organization and its mission, which makes it difficult to demand excellence of the choir. As director, you must lead by example!
There are a plethora of resources available to assist and guide choir directors in effective rehearsal planning and preparation, including musical resources, methods, vocal and instrumental literature in all styles and genres, videos, CDs, DVDs, and online instruction, which makes it impossible for a choir director to be unprepared. No conscientious, seriously committed, open-minded director can afford to ignore the many valuable resources that are available. To be certain, there are varying levels of quality and reliability, so we must sort through them to determine what is most useful and helpful to each of us.
Various Levels of Musicianship, Personality, and Commitment
This brings me to a very sensitive issue: musical and nonmusical as it relates to musicians. Today, many churches and institutions are the unfortunate hostages of various levels of musicianship, personality, and commitment—and, as a choir director, that is challenging. In 1985, the late Wendell P. Whalum identified five categories of problematic music personnel serving in many churches.
Category 1. Talented but untrained musicians: These musicians often cannot read music, have no knowledge of choir organization or choral directing, and have no awareness of the historical importance of the hymns, liturgy, or religious service.
Category 2. Untrained and untalented but willing musicians: This group, larger in number than one would suspect, is made up of people who have had one or two years of piano study and are willing to accept leadership because no one in the church will or can assume responsibility for the music.
Category 3. Musicians with basic music training who accept church music duties without understanding what the program should be about and how it should be conducted: The result is that much of what is offered is out of focus with the needs and understanding of the congregation.
Category 4. Musicians with good training and previous exposure to excellent music who ignore the level of the congregation:Instead of educating the congregation, these musicians operate on a plane too sophisticated for the congregation. These musicians will frequently impose oratorios, cantatas, and pageants on people not yet educated in hymns and anthems who are, therefore, not ready for extended works.
Category 5. Musicians with excellent training who assume an attitude of superiority and make no attempt to lift [or broaden] the level of musical awareness: This kind of musician is usually identified as the organist-director who will officiate only at Sunday morning services or at the funerals and weddings of prominent citizens of the community.
As painful and realistic as Whalum’s categories are, they deserve our attention and consideration. In my career as a church and university choir director, my actions have put me into several of these categories, for which I have had to confess, repent, and “turn from my wicked ways.”
I have been guilty of choosing music for the choir and congregation based on what I thought was appropriate to my training, my musical experience, my personal taste, and my understanding of “proper” liturgy and sacred music literature. My choices, however, did not take into consideration the people I was leading and serving or their culture, and often grossly failed to meet the needs of the worshipers or the worship service. Of course, I justified my decisions by insisting that I was committed to “lifting,” “raising,” and “elevating” the musical standards, which was a very narrow, prejudiced, andvertical choice of vocabulary and attitude. I have since learned that ahorizontal vocabulary, which includes “augmenting,” “expanding,” “extending,” and “increasing” the musical experiences and exposure, is much more appropriate, admirable, and pleasing to God.
We cannot adequately serve people we do not know or consider essential when planning music for the choir or congregation. The selection of music must not represent a personality, another church or choir, or a standard set by some outside group or organization; rather, the people must understand the text and the music to the extent that it becomes incarnate in their lives and guides them through life’s joys and challenges.
If we are to sing and pray (often at the same time) with spirit and understanding, then we must mean what we say and know what we mean. S. Paul Schilling once said, “Unless the hymns we use in worship express our convictions, we might as well sing the stock market reports, the real estate ads from the daily newspaper, or a list of names from the telephone directory.” The same holds true for anthems and arranged hymns and spirituals. Hymns and choral repertoire should become more than a group of songs and compositions that a choir and congregation have mastered and regularly performed. They should, as James Robert Davidson asserts, “instill the theological concepts as well as a devotional vocabulary which provide the catalyst for a feeling of community [and understanding] in the proclamation of Christian truth through music.”
I have also been guilty of imposing cantatas and other extended works on my choirs and congregations who needed a more diverse and inclusive hymnody, as well as an appreciation and understanding of anthems. One of the most important duties and responsibilities of the music director is toeducate the congregation musically by teaching, illustrating, and providing a clear understanding of what is being sung and played in the church. It is insensitive to make no attempt to determine the level of the choir and congregation while steadily inflicting a personal musical agenda or the taste of music preferred by a few on all.
Finally, I have also been guilty of asking who the deceased is or who is getting married before checking my availability to serve as organist for a funeral or wedding. I now see these as moral and ethical violations of my walk and my responsibility as a “minister of music” and a church musician.
Loyalty and Allegiance to the Musician
Equally as sensitive in our walk is the unspoken need and expectation of loyalty, allegiance, and obligation from choir members above and beyond the expectations of the organization and its mission. It is unfortunate when a choir director’s egocentric, narcissistic, and self-indulgent personality, insecurities, and psychological needs impose an unspoken but implicit loyalty, faithfulness, and allegiance on the choir members. I know choir directors who act as if they “own” their members, boasting of their loyalty to them even against the church leadership and other choirs and musicians. The need to control and manipulate people is dangerous and demands a serious revisiting of the calling of choir director or music director.
In some churches, the choir director’s influence and decisions extend far beyond the realm of pastoral leadership. This is also often true in institutions where musical leadership has not changed for many years. The tendency is to feel a certain loyalty to the person without considering what is best or right for the church or institution. This type of behavior manifests itself by constantly being critical of and dismantling the work of other musicians, choirs, and musical organizations. The director constantly criticizes, finds fault, and attempts to destroy the work of others to elevate himself/herself. Eventually, the choir takes on the personality and superiority of the director and joins in the destruction. This is very prevalent, habitual, and typical of churches that have more than one choir or are considered one of the few outstanding choirs in the community and feel the need to diminish the others.
Using this unspoken influence, choir directors are able to convince members of their choir not the sing with other groups or participate in musical activities sponsored by other directors or groups. Members feel it is “unfaithful and unloyal” to cross the picket line established by their director. There are instances, perpetuated by musicians, where members are forbidden to attend worship services other than those at which they sing.
Such immoral, unethical, unprofessional, and childish behavior should be forbidden, discouraged, and not tolerated by church musicians. It is destructive, disconcerting, contemptuous, cynical, and violates every principle of Christianity. These are very unfortunate nonmusical considerations for church musicians that are alive and well in churches all over North America.
The Relationship between Pastor and Musician
“It will remain bad theology so long as the theologian and the artist refuse to communicate with one another, as long as the theologian regards the artist as fundamentally a temperamental trifler, and the theologian as an obstinate and ignorant theorist, the best we shall get is patronage from church to music, together with tentative moralisms from musicians to musicians,” Erik Routley wrote in his classic Church Music and Theology. “At worst it will be, as it often in practice is, a wicked waste of an opportunity of glorifying God through fruitful partnership.”5 If we substitute the word pastor, minister, or priest for “theologian” and the term musician, minister of music, director of music, or choir director for “artist,” Routley’s statement becomes more relevant and applicable.
It is unfortunate when a pastor and musician cannot and will not work together in a church. Few give little if any time to developing a strong and fruitful partnership. In some churches, the tension between pastor and musician is distracting and becomes the focus of the worship. This lack of communication, cooperation, and partnership leads to many distracted, disengaged, and meaningless worship experiences. Routley best called it a “wicked waste”! Successful partnerships begin with understanding, and productive partnerships rely on quality communication. Many people confuse talking with communicating. People think that the more they talk, the better they are communicating. But good communication begins when we stop talking and listen. Much of the time, we can improve our communication skills by listening more. “Talking at people,” writes N. Lee Orr, “means we not only miss what they are saying but also risk misunderstanding their point of view. We then leave the encounter further convinced of how right we are, which hardens our position.” It is no wonder the other person is not enthusiastic or optimistic about future dialogue.
Orr continues, “Working partnerships between ministers and musicians result when both parties actively support the other, avoid public criticism of the other, ignore minor irritants, and work toward building a friendship.”
Pastors and musicians need to possess a rudimentary knowledge of the suppositions, skills, and vocabulary of each other’s discipline. Without this knowledge, communication and partnership become difficult or even impossible, and even the best-intentioned efforts at collaborative ministry become strained.8 “Clergy who have had excellent instruction in pastoral care often lack any sense of how to converse in a professional way with one of the single most important colleagues in their ministry: the church musician.” Carol Doran and Thomas Troeger continue, “The story works in reverse as well: the musician, inexperienced in discussing theology and often feeling powerless, is fearful of beginning a conversation with the pastor about the way music functions in the liturgy. Sometimes musicians view their contributions entirely from the perspective of performance without considering how it fits with the liturgical and pastoral needs of the congregation.”
It is impossible for church musicians to develop, fortify, perpetuate, and strengthen their walk if they are not willing to walk with those to whom they are accountable and responsible. While it seems that protocol would make the pastor responsible for forging and establishing a partnership, it may be that the musicians should take the path less traveled and initiate the communication and partnership. The work of the Kingdom is so much greater than our egos, idiosyncrasies, agendas, and pride.
Finally, the soul, the spirit, and the walk of the musician should be so visible, genuine, unpretentious, sincere, and truly incarnate in the total life of the musician that it serves as a model for all. I hasten to add that this is not to assume we as musicians are perfect, free from sin, and never tempted by the tsunamis, hurricanes, earthquakes, and wildfires of life. However, we cannot lead where we have not been. We cannot teach what we do not know. We cannot show the way to where we have never been. And we cannot talk of experiences we have never had. While many of these nonmusical considerations are blunt, candid, direct, head-on, point- blank, straightforward, and create a sense of discomfort, it is certainly not my intention to “tear down” but rather my hope and objective to “build up” for the Kingdom and Glory of God!
1. James Abbington, Let Mt. Zion Rejoice! Music in the African American Church (Valley Forge, PA: Judson Press, 2001), 15.
2. James Robert Davidson, A Dictionary of Protestant Church Music(Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow, 1975), 205–06.
3. The list is paraphrased from Wendell P. Whalum, “Music in the Churches of Black Americans: A Critical Statement,” The Black Perspective in Music 14, no. 1 (Winter 1986), 16–7. This article also appears in Readings in African American Church Music and Worship, edited by James Abbington (Chicago: GIA, 2001), 503–04.
4. S. Paul Schilling, The Faith We Sing (Philadelphia, PA: Westminster, 1983), 23.
5. Erik Routley, Church Music and Theology (Philadelphia, PA: Muhlenberg, 1959), 110.
6. N. Lee Orr, The Church Music Handbook for Pastors and Musicians (Nashville, TN: Abingdon, 1991), 54.
7. Ibid., 67–70.
8. Carol Doran and Thomas H. Troeger, Trouble at the Table (Nashville, TN: Abingdon, 1992), 79.
9. Ibid., 78–83.
Dr. James Abbington
Dr. Abbington’s research interests include music and worship in the Christian church, African American sacred folk music, organ, choral music, and ethnomusicology. Along with his roles at Candler School of Theology at Emory University, Abbington is executive editor of the African American Church Music Series by GIA Publications. In addition to writing and editing, he has produced numerous recordings under GIA.