Guest blogger Kevin Parks is the Congregation Designated Minister of Music at St. Andrew’s United Church and University Musician at Atlantic School of Theology, both in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Kevin is also on the development team for the United Church of Canada’s coming (2025) digital hymn resource Then Let Us Sing, and a member of the Music that Makes Community Board of Trustees.
Today, I once again had an experience at a funeral with a minister who downplays congregational singing. I truly appreciate the anxiety clergy may feel about whether the gathered assembly will sing or not. But, I have an appeal to make to my clergy colleagues.
I do understand that you might receive commentary ‘at the door’ about weak singing accompanied by unsolicited advice about what to do differently next time. Fair enough. If that is happening I’d strongly suggest opening a dialogue with your local musician about how that could be addressed. Indeed, the Centre for Congregational Song includes a vast network of church musicians who would love to chat with you about that experience.
Telegraphing Your Discomfort
What I want to address today is the behaviour of telegraphing your discomfort to an entire congregation assembly. Clergy play a significant role in determining whether there will be good singing or poor singing. If you telegraph your own discomfort about whether there may be ‘poor singing’ by talking about there not being a choir or a soloist to lead the assembly, and then make reference to your own poor singing voice, and further double down to say things like “I know most of you feel the same as I” and “we’ll try our best” or “we’ll muddle along” or point out that there happens to be one trained voice in the crowd of 100 people that we should all listen for, then you can pretty well guarantee that you have:
- Given permission to the entire congregation to make no effort to sing well
- Taken away the agency of anyone who may have a ‘leading voice’ that others could potentially follow, because who wants to be heard singing well when we’ve just been told directly or indirectly that poor singing is what is anticipated
- Undermined your music leader who might be able to coax good singing from the piano/organ but is now fighting an uphill battle against your messaging.
So, here is my appeal–
PLEASE send positive messages about community/congregation singing
PLEASE stop talking about your discomfort with singing, or that you think others may be uncomfortable with community singing.
PLEASE support your musician with enthusiasm for the music that has been chosen, and if it happens that the singing is weak, let it be so without comment. Let the musician try to do what they can to evoke some improvement–or simply support the capacity of the voices that are present. That’s their job, and a sensitive, thinking musician will get it right!
What Can Clergy Do?
I’ve not offered this to start a conversation about strategies to help congregations sing better. We’ve had all those ad infinitum, and can have them again on some other post. My point is to emphasize the clergy’s role as “Guardian of the Congregation’s Song”, and the corollary that the musician and clergy have to function as a team of one mind about congregational singing being a positive experience.
Finally, I’d ask you, my clergy colleagues, to talk among yourselves about this important issue. Support one another to cultivate a positive perspective now and for the future of congregational singing. Then talk to your local musician and this network of church musicians at the Centre for Congregational Song about how we can all work together to realize that perspective. This is truly our shared liturgical mission.
This post was originally on social media and has been cross posted here with permission from the author.
5 thoughts on “An Appeal To Our Clergy Colleagues”
I happen to be a pastor with a degree in music and 2 years of voice lessons. I find that when I sing, the congregation sings!
So important and another point to raise. Congregational singing opens the invitation of people to place their voices in the room. (If good or bad singing) they are invited into participating and being heard not just observing passively. In grief work, a huge piece is being heard singing together supports those attending becoming grounded and present in what is before them. A gift to walking through grief.
Encourage folks to know and enjoy the great hymns of the church along with I th contemporary hymn text by Carolyn Winfrey Gillette. Jane Parker Huber, Brian Green . . .
I played for a memorial service on Tuesday for a 21 y/o who died from complications of diabetes. The family was expecting 40, but over 100 attended. The hymns were well-known, however FEW sang. Fortunately, our pastor has an excellent voice and led singing. Most just stood tood and did nothing. I’d say 20 sang. I am happy our pastor has a beautiful voice and could lead. I suggested the next funeral or memorial service that we pick hymns we like and use them.
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