I know, I know. That's an ugly looking question. But we should be asking it.
Last week I thought I was going to miss my Sunday gig. Our household had been in the throes of this horrible spring flu going around and I was just sure that I'd be the last victim. As it happens, I just got a mild cold and was able to power through it . . . but for about 24 hours I was fretting and worrying about who would lead music for this church Sunday morning. And because it's a church I don't really belong to and because I've not been helping them for very long, I didn't have a list full of other singers I could call on to take my place.
But the pastor knew who to talk to, and a backup plan was made.
Then Sunday rolled around and I realized I'd still be able to come and do the job - but this wonderful volunteer had already been practicing the music and mentally preparing herself . . . so I invited her to stay and sing anyway! And we sang together. It was great fun!
As we finished our morning practice she turned to me and said something that sort of stopped the world for me - you ever had that feeling? Everything gets still in your mind and you process something before you breathe again?
She said: "Isn't it nice to know that you aren't needed? God doesn't need us to do anything for Him. God can get it done without our help! So if we get to do it, we can be happy . . . and if we don't get to do it, we don't have to worry - because God can do all of it without our help!"
God can do all of it without our help.
What a good way of thinking about it.
God, in all of God's greatness, does not need our help. We walk around pretending that God must need our help. We talk about our work as if nobody else could ever do exactly what we do. And I suppose it's true that God has made each of us so uniquely that we could say something like that. But not exactly that.
We are so small.
None of us can fill the void in another human life or in the life of a community. None of us can fulfill the ultimate purpose - the purpose to end all others. None of us can save the world. I'm not really convinced that any single person is actually qualified to rule over other people. Think about it - God was pretty serious about His people avoiding the whole "let's appoint a king" deal . . . and has it ever really worked out for them? For anyone? Really? We're not designed to be singularly important. Power and control are not good for us. They make us sick.
Music ministers and worship leaders have a special connection to this issue. We're in a unique field because people bring their skill or their desire for skill to us, and then they ask us to figure out how to put it to work for the community. People also look at us . . . and they look at our skill . . . and how we express ourselves and carry ourselves. They get an example from us whether we want them to or not. Our job involves us being prominent even when we'd rather not be. Modern worship spaces have stages. Archaic worship spaces have chancel areas. Chancel areas are stages. So we've always put musicians up on a stage in the midst of worship . . . a dangerous thing in several ways.
#1 Think about this scenario: You lead music for a contemporary style worship service. A congregation member comes to you and asks to be part of the music ministry at the church. You aren't sure what their skill level is. You give them an "audition" for the band. Their skills are partially developed and you can hear that they need guidance. They wouldn't be ready to just jump in there and improvise with the rest of the musicians. What do you do?
#2 Think about this scenario: You keep up a rotation of harmony singers with your contemporary band. It's a sign up list and they attend 1 or 2 practices prior to each of their singing engagements with the group. A new singer enters the rotation and it's clear that he or she is struggling to find a part. Another member of the ensemble grumbles audibly during practice about the nature of this new person's performance. What do you do?
#3 Think about this scenario: You are the director of a traditional church choir - mostly SATB music with accompaniment. You have a Christmas or Easter program coming up and there are several solos available for individuals. The usual folks try out for a solo - the ones you hope for and expect . . . maybe even a few professional singers you're lucky enough to have in your volunteer choir. Then that one person shows up . . . you heard they might be interested, but you were surprised. They usually need to be seated beside a strong singer in their section to do well. It probably took a lot of courage for them to even approach you about singing a solo. What do you do?
I don't have perfect answers for anything, and I've worked in several situations where colleagues have passionately disagreed with my guiding philosophy. And I love all those folks . . . but this philosophical perspective has always been more important to me than my reputation. So . . . cheers! Here's what I'd do with these 3 situations:
#1 - I don't know how I feel about the word "audition" in a church ensemble, but I have heard lots of music ministers and worship leaders talk about "auditions." I mean, as a teacher, I want to offer a super high quality education to the people I teach . . . but I don't know how I feel about holding "auditions" for the primary musical institution in a church. That's one of the toughest things about the contemporary music paradigm (in my opinion) - it almost forces the person in charge to involve only those who are complete professionals. "Sorry, Moses, you're not a good public speaker - guess we'll have to find somebody else to lead the Israelites out of captivity!" . . . . . right? This is a problem . . . right? And just so we're clear - traditional style music directors also hold "auditions" and lean heavily on featuring only those who are professional musicians. It happens all over the place - it's just more common with a band. So maybe I'd change the word "audition" and not even use it with this situation. Maybe I would invite this person to "visit and jam with us at a rehearsal one week." I understand that a few members of a band might be paid and that due diligence requires that they have a real "audition" to get those paid jobs. But we have a responsibility to our congregation to open the door to at least a few folks who are just volunteering. Then, I'd probably pick a song that I felt they could learn on their instrument. I'd get the music to them and set up a meeting or two for us to get together and play through it. Then after a few weeks I'd invite them to jump in on just that song. More songs will undoubtedly follow. And we'll get some good teaching in along the way.
#2 - First of all, I would find a way to quietly speak with the band member/ensemble member who saw fit to embarrass this new person in front of the others. I'd probably not speak to them in front of anybody else. That would be like me sinking right down to the same level, right? Yuck. I would probably try to speak with them briefly before or after a rehearsal and I would probably ask them to speak with me so that nobody else was aware of it - sometimes everybody in a room knows exactly what's gone wrong and the leader saying, "Speak with me after practice" is just as damaging as having the conversation right there - discretion is a valuable thing. It builds trust. Secondly, I'd make sure to give that new singer some immediate encouragement. A smile or a kind word - something to keep them engaged and part of the community. Then I would offer this singer some support in the form of a partner to work with on harmony or some education. *I once had a really great music minister who heard that my voice had some potential, and this music ministry gave me some lessons that really helped me to further my skill - music ministry (traditional or contemporary) has a lot to do with education. Good teachers are kind to their students.*
#3 - What a gift this singer has given you. They have given you the gift of their trust. They believe that you can help them to do something special. And you never can tell what a person has experienced in their musical past - many, many people have spent years fighting against negative experiences in choirs and bands and other contexts. The way that we respond to their enthusiasm is important. So - they aren't your first choice for the holiday solo? That's ok! Here are some options: a) find a duet opportunity and pair them with another strong singer, b) rather than giving them the solo you have in mind for someone else consider picking a different song for a different occasion and give yourself some lead time to coach them until they are ready - the work will totally be worth it!
In the past, when I have needed to respond to a tough situation I have relied heavily on a few questions. I use these questions like a lighthouse. Sometimes I ignore my lighthouse. That's never a good choice. Pride is healthy, but pridefulness is not. It's sort of like the difference between being child like and childish. Big difference, right? When I have made choices based on servanthood, I've been happy in the end. When I've made choices based on pridefulness . . . I have been empty in the end. Here are some of my questions:
We became music ministers and choir masters and worship leaders because of love, didn't we?
We loved God.
We loved music.
We loved other people.
Do we still love all of that? All of them?
The Great Obstacle was beautiful once, wasn't he? He was so beautiful and so admired that he couldn't love anybody or anything above himself. This ultimately destroyed him. Now he is eaten up with ugliness, and his only desire is to eat others up with ugliness.
Are we going to let that happen?
Protect yourself with the armor of God, music minister friends. Truth, Faith, Righteousness (not our own, but God's), Salvation (because God loved us first and we now get to love other people), Peace (which can put out the flame of anger . . . and we'll be confronted with somebody's anger sooner or later in our work), the Holy Spirit and God's own Words. We need all of this to be safe in our work. And we need forgiveness from God and ourselves every day.
Loving others is a tall order. Teaching music while loving others is an even taller order. But music is one of the educational "humanities" - you know why? Because it grounds us deeper into our full and healthy humanity - the humanity God created way back in the beginning. How beautiful that is.
If we ask the right questions we'll find the right way.