We musicians sometimes fall victim to destructive lines of thinking once we set foot in a church. Musicians are a passionate group, and I would hope that we all believe steadfastly in the value of worship music in church life. However, that belief sometimes leads us to assume that the music itself will keep everyone engaged. In other words, we assume that our worship music programs are indispensable by their very nature.
Worshippers and program volunteers engage with their church through their leaders, and we through them. The relationship is interdependent. It is incumbent on us as leaders to engage with our people and build positive relationships with them. We shape the course of our church’s development by taking responsibility (but not blame) for everything that happens on our watch. Being smart about the relationships we form is the key to making worship music indispensable.
Relating to Pastors and Colleagues
This category of relationships seems obvious, and a little trite, but it’s worth mentioning. Worship musicians are generally not given the ultimate decision-making authority (and arguably we shouldn’t be). Therefore, we must nurture our relationships with those who do have that power. Here are some of the most important rules we’ve all broken, myself included.
- “Respect is how you treat everyone,” not just the people who can kick your butt. (That’s my paraphrase of a quotation commonly attributed to Virgin brands mogul Richard Branson.) The more we model that behavior, the more our colleagues, clergy, and other superiors will respect us in return.
- Bosses are real people with real feelings, and we must treat them accordingly. It is easy to see our bosses as human beings when we’re on good terms. It is much more difficult when we’re on bad terms. This is partly because the “pyramid of self-justification” (aptly named by Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson) helps us feel OK with our judgmental viewpoints and bad behavior. See Tavris and Aronson’s Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me) for more on self-justification and cognitive dissonance theory.
- Pastors and clergy have their own struggles and their own wounds to heal. We can (and should) support our pastors even when we don’t agree with their decisions or priorities. Sometimes it is necessary to look beyond their behavior, not to excuse it but to explain it. This often involves asking them a lot of questions, which requires time, patience, and sensitivity. Don’t abandon your pastor unless you’re prepared to leave your job.
Relating to Committee Leaders
Mainline Protestant churches typically form their committees with a volunteer chairperson and one or more staff as advisory (non-voting) members. Committees in charge of worship music are no different. This design in theory balances the power of paid leaders by amplifying the collective “voice” of the congregation. We as staff members are free to ask our committees to consider new issues and offer our opinions, but ultimately the power is theirs. Let’s look at a few ways to relate to committees.
- Be careful how you respond to special interests; committees are notorious for accommodating them. If you feel that one voice on the committee has outsize influence, think carefully about how you implement the changes s/he suggests. Turn it into a conversation with that person, and make it your goal to understand his/her principles. You will find common ground that paves the way for productive dialogue and balanced decisions.
- Listen more than you speak. Committees are a terrific resource for anyone with a stake in worship music, because the members tend to have a good “read” on the congregation. Ask questions that will help inform your decisions. For example, you might ask for committee guidance on how to incorporate fresh ideas for “blended” worship. Your committee often knows better than you how much to push the envelope.
- Demonstrate engagement. This is usually a simple matter of being prepared to share a brief update about the goings-on in your worship music ministry. What projects have been especially rewarding for your ensemble volunteers? What challenges do you need help with?
Relating to Ensemble Volunteers
This category refers to your most dedicated labor force: the volunteers who serve your worship music program each week. It is sometimes difficult to care for these servants without violating the covenant between “shepherd” and “sheep.” Here are a few guidelines for how to earn respect without violating boundaries.
- You are a minister through music to your volunteers and congregation. It is always a good idea to consider their needs as well as God’s needs. Plan your worship music accordingly.
- Avoid “I want” or “I need” statements. Instead of saying “I want x musical passage to be quieter,” one simple change makes all the difference. What does the music need? How about this: “It needs quiet intensity here.” That’s all you have to say. Then insist on it until the job is done right.
- Honor their efforts. This can take many forms depending on your church culture, and needn’t be elaborate or costly. A few words of encouragement go a long way to rewarding your group for its hard work and dedication. Use these words frequently but judiciously, so that they don’t lose their meaning.
- Aim to satisfy as many musical tastes as possible, but not all at once. If you try to please everyone all the time, you will find yourself surrendering to the smallest complaints. Music that offends no one is sometimes also the music that speaks to no one.
- Listen and counsel when your volunteers call on you for help, but don’t treat them as close friends. You are a professional entrusted with caring for a community. This requires objectivity, which is difficult to achieve when you blur the lines between members and staff. If you aren’t the right source of help, ask for guidance from your pastor(s).
A Word on Compassion and Boundaries
At first it might appear that the best way to deepen your relationships is to “dive in head first.” I disagree, and so does Brené Brown, whose research on shame and vulnerability has led her to conclude that the most compassionate people tend also to have the strongest boundaries. In other words, boundaries and compassion work together, not against each other. This idea deserves its own article, and I hope to write it soon!
For more articles on church music ministry, check out the Church Music Sense blog.