It starts with using what you already have.
Before you feel dismayed about how your church seems to always have less money to spend from one year to the next, I want you to consider a simple truth. No organization, no matter how large and influential, and no matter how quickly it is growing, has the freedom to spend without consequence. How much you have at your disposal is only part of the picture. The other part is how you make use of what you have. It is in the spirit of that truth that I present to you three examples of resource-stretching mastery. It is difficult (and unfair) to expect others to contribute additional resources (usually in the form of money or volunteer labor) if you are not making effective use of what you already have. This is the very definition of resourcefulness.
Let’s take a look at some specific examples of how to stretch the resources you already have.
#1: Form a Library Team
If you lead a church music program, then one of the most valuable resources you probably already have is a library of sheet music. Chances are, your church at some point in its history was growing rapidly, taking in new members, and acquiring new titles for its library. For example, I served a congregation of about 100 people that had a library of over 800 titles. They had enjoyed the benefit of a long period of time to acquire it. It is essential that you know what’s already at your disposal, without any need for further expenditure. This sort of project affords you not only a convenient, searchable index, but also a snapshot of the musical heritage of your institution.
The number one task for your library team will be to take a thorough look at every title in the files. If you have eight members on the team and 800 titles, assign 100 titles to each person. Ask each member to record any and all information you feel is relevant to your programming choices. Ideally, this will take the form of a cloud-based spreadsheet (such as Google Sheets) that everyone can work on simultaneously. In one scenario, my team was able to lay the groundwork for this project in a single afternoon by assigning each person one drawer in the file cabinet and asking them to record the least specialized information, the aspects of the piece anyone can identify—title, composer, date of publication (or copyright), publisher, catalog number, and number of copies. Then, I asked a few experienced choir members to do the more specialized work of identifying languages, voicing, biblical references, and themes. Before too long, I had a much more useful library, because I knew exactly what was in it.
Ask your volunteers to precede any entry they’re unsure about with two asterisks (**). This makes it easy to sort the spreadsheet in accordance with which entries you’ll need to double-check, and you won’t have to worry about any accidental loss of formatting (boldface, italics, etc.).
#2: Pick Easier Music
If I were asked to identify the most common mistake I see in church music programs, I would say that most directors choose music that is too difficult for the group presenting it. I suspect that this comes from our natural attraction for activities that make us look good. On some level, we all cling to the belief that greater complexity equals greater status. I can tell you from experience that this isn’t so. When was the last time, for example, that you heard a congregant praise you specifically for programming an eight-part anthem? How proud were they to have a church choir that could sing fugues? I am not trying to argue against eight-part anthems and fugues. What I am trying to argue is that an ounce of simplicity is worth a pound of impact.
Early in my tenure at a previous church job, I discovered this truth in a big way. My predecessor programmed quite a few great pieces from the standard repertoire—one by Samuel Barber, another by Herbert Howells, for example. Before taking the job, I assumed this was because the choir was unusually fast at learning music. Oh, how glad I am that I didn’t trust that assumption! I started out the choir with easy unison and two-part anthems and quickly discovered that they did not read proficiently enough to be singing polyphonic four-part anthems on any kind of a regular basis. Several members of the group told me how nice it was to feel secure in what they were doing in worship. Their freedom to focus on making music elevated their spiritual offering to a new level.
So take it from someone else’s experience. Select music that helps your group sound its best, because that’s the group people will want to join. A beautiful unison is surprisingly hard to achieve—and surprisingly moving. Twelve people singing the same exact notes on the same exact vowels and consonants create a powerful effect.
For specific ideas about simple (and free!) anthems to try out with your choir, check out my Lean Thirteen list.
#3: Hack Your Budget
You are charged with managing a program, and by extension, its finances. Generally speaking, as long as you stay within a tight margin (say 5% at most) of your overall allotment, you can get away with quite a lot of “wiggle room” among the categories. For example, a small church might have the following line items under the “music and worship” header:
- $300 for sheet music and supplies acquisition
- $200 for publicity
- $500 for guest musicians
For example, you might find a way to spend $150 instead of $500 for guest musicians, allowing an additional $300 for sheet music and another $50 to print an extra batch of posters. Most congregations and pastors are comfortable with this category-shifting as long as you communicate your reasons.
I’m going to say something controversial: if your total budget target is unrealistic, your aim should be to slightly overspend it (but by no more than 5%). If you are lucky enough to be working with a realistic budget, I suggest that you track every dollar and respect your budget as a strict limit. It is not worth losing the goodwill of your finance team. Be sure to consider your motivations when making purchasing decisions. A professional brass choir on Christmas Eve makes you look good in a crowded room, but more money to spend on sheet music pays dividends all year.
Timing the Budget Conversation
This probably goes without saying, but I’ll say it anyway. The absolute best time to bring up these concerns is before you are hired, so that there will be no misunderstanding about your vision for the work. Failing that, the second best time is during the budget review and revision process, which takes place yearly in most churches, usually in the fall.
For more articles on the church as workplace, check out the Church Music Sense blog.
I hope you found this mini-guide helpful. What other resource-stretching ideas can you think of? What resource do you struggle with the most? Tell us in the comments below or send me an e-mail at email@example.com.