It was right after leaving my first real choir directing job in a church that I said these words to God: "I'm not going to work in a church again. Not for a long time. It hurts too much."
Nobody had done anything wrong to me. I was leaving because I'd just graduated college and was moving to a new town for graduate school. It had been a very good work environment. I loved my boss. I adored our accompanist. The choir was full of kind, fun loving people. I loved the community the church belonged to. They worked hard to make me feel like I belonged there - they loved me very well.
But we did some funerals. We walked through Easter that year right after a tragic death in the congregation - and soon after that we experienced another tragic death. And right after I graduated and moved away, the woman I loved most from the choir died in a car wreck. So I drove back up there for one of the most beautiful and moving life celebrations I've ever been to. But it felt like too much. And the music was all wrapped up it.
My heart was broken.
Right before the first choir directing job I'd been a pianist in a tiny one-room church tucked into a little farming community a few miles from the college. It was a dwindling congregation of 8 or 9 people. I was with them until it had come down to about 5 people. I was there when they first discussed becoming a "preaching only" station. Our hearts were broken then, too.
And you guessed it - right before coming to that small church I'd been apprenticing in another little chapel where the choir just wasn't filling the loft anymore. So I got to learn what it was like for a director to constantly be scrambling for the next possible thing when it seemed like everybody was already spread too thin - in that situation, you are giving so much of your enthusiasm to people who can't muster it up from themselves that you can't help but feel broken at the end of the day.
Many of us begin to minister someplace through music, word, prayer, or service thinking that the experience will be ideal. We have such high hopes. We believe that because we've been called someplace, it will feed us by virtue of being itself. The longer I work in church music (even as a volunteer instrumentalist or singer), the more I understand what might be the most important thing: We can't give of ourselves in music ministry because we think we'll get something back for it. And we can't give of our talent believing that it will lift us to a higher position if we're sharing our talent in a faith community. Because at the end of the day, we're giving these things out of calling. And a calling isn't for our own benefit.
Please don't hear me saying that you'll never get anything from your ministerial experiences. That's not what I mean.
Each of the above situations taught me about myself and deepened my relationship with God. All of them have been valuable. But none of them have made me famous. None of them have found me blameless. And none of them have been without difficulty.
There is no room for an idealistic world view in ministry. That doesn't mean we shed our optimism. But it does mean that we check ourselves now and then to make sure we're looking at things as they are so that we don't burn out so easily.
The other night I was standing in to lead a rehearsal with some friends of mine. They've been moving through a tough transition in this particular music ministry. They've done a brilliant job so far. But that doesn't mean we have to say that the experience of it hasn't been hard on everybody.
As we stood around after what can only be described as a tough rehearsal, I was looking at these people, knowing what nobody wanted to say out loud - right now it's really hard to stand here and say that we know what's coming next. We're afraid because we don't know what the plan is right now. We're tired from holding everything together in the midst of what feels like chaos. Right now it's hard to get past the thought of being the best we can be so that worship can happen. We are exhausted. We have things going on at home. And this feels like hard work.
*pause* I should tell you something about myself: I'm a truth talker. Sometimes people have lovingly called me a "peace maker," but what they really mean is that I have a compulsion to acknowledge any elephant standing in any room. If it's in a corner and I know it's there, I'll drag it out by the tail and make people talk about it. Sometimes that goes over well and sometimes it doesn't. I still haven't decided if that's a strength or a weakness.
So before anything else could be said, out came the elephant in the room. We are the people walking in the desert. We are "the people walking in darkness." We need John 1:5. We need the Christ candle to be lit. We need the gift of those candlelight words this Advent: Peace, Hope, Love, Joy. We need them now. We're all dried up. We're all worn out.
One magic thing about telling the truth is the sense of Freedom you get from it.
Say that fear out loud and then wait a few seconds. There it is . . . feel it? Smell it? The it's-going-to-rain smell?
It rains even in the desert.
Even in the "valley of the shadow of death."
You know what's awesome about a cactus plant? It's all prickly and nasty on the outside, but on the inside it is a water conserving machine. It survives by catching water when it comes and living on that for a long, long time. It was made that way so that it could live well in places where other things can't survive.
Don't worry, friend. If you've been called into ministry, you have probably been equipped with a soul that can hold onto the grace of God like a cactus holds onto water.
You've been equipped with it because there will many times when you will feel like everything is dried up. You'll think, "Where is this going? What are we even trying to accomplish here anymore?" and God will whisper back to you, "That's for me to know, little one. Trust me."
Often you will be asked to move on before you can see the completion of a task. No view of the promised land for you.
Many times you will probably feel like you've taken one step forward and ten back.
And then you'll have one glorious day when everything moves in the right direction - and like a cactus, you'll need to store that up.
I know you don't have a good reason to be taking advice from a 27 year old elementary school music teacher about the deeper things involved with church music ministry. But then again . . . I bet some of you are nodding your heads because you know this experience by heart after 30 years serving churches and playing for choirs or singing with a contemporary band.
The Truth, friend? . . . here it is: Sometimes it's easy to see the light in this work and sometimes it's just not. Churches are living organisms and they go through a life cycle like we do. Sometimes they get sick. Sometimes they recover. Sometimes they die. Choirs are living organisms. Bands are living organisms. Any kind of "programming" you do will become a living thing with a life of its own.
So let's pray it again - pray communion over the things we give in ministry - "Be for us the body and blood of Christ so that we may be for the world the body of Christ redeemed by His blood. One with Christ. One with each other. One in ministry to all the world."
We say the word "Amen" because we know that these things are true.
Chin up, church music folks. It's a tough job, but it's going to be ok. God is doing things right now that we don't even know about.