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Rebuilding Choir in a COVID World

I am a music teacher and music therapist by training, as well as a church choir director. However, in March of 2020 I found myself with no choir, as I’m sure many of you did as well.

My husband, Rich, is the pastor of the United Methodist Church of Anacortes (Washington), where, pre-COVID, I directed the choir. He suggested finding ways to keep people singing. I understood the value of breathing to calm nerves, in addition to supporting singing. I knew the muscles used for singing can quickly atrophy—a weakness I was already recognizing in myself at that time. I also knew that music can provide strength and consolation during hard times. Though he’d used the word “hymn sing”, Rich indicated that phrase didn’t quite capture his hopes. After mulling over ideas, in mid-July 2020 we had the first Zoom meeting of Musical Connections, a name I felt captured my aims: to encourage people to keep singing and making music during challenging times, and to provide an opportunity for them to connect with one another in supportive dialogue.

Before beginning the sessions, I drew up a lengthy list of themes. These ideas served to create cohesive sessions as well as to provide opportunities for participants to offer suggestions. My confidence also increased as I saw multiple possibilities. Some of the original themes I worked with were: songs of comfort, strength, hope; children’s songs–those that created a foundation for us; songs which touch on nautical ideas since we are a seaside town; spirituals; songs which allude to light or vision; songs inspired from nature. A recurring “theme” since  summer 2021 has been to examine the hymns of writers or musicians whose names appear often in our hymnals or supplements. We had more participants than usual for our 2021 Christmas caroling session, as we quickly responded to impromptu requests. This involved finding then sharing the appropriate video in our now extensive video collection, which includes videos created by various singers in our congregation.

As we began our Zoom sessions we quickly realized that we needed to “up” our technological game. We first tried simply sharing lyrics on the Zoom screen and live acapella singing to lead participants, then did some recording with an inexpensive video camera. Within a couple weeks we began recording songs with my iPad, which we are still doing 2 years later. We added an external microphone  not long after beginning use of the iPad. This mic, made by Shure, made a huge difference in the quality of our recordings, helping us to capture a better balance between the singing and accompaniment (piano, guitar, ukulele, or drum). Perhaps the best resource is someone who can understand technology, your needs, and can make good suggestions. My husband worked with Sweetwater, a company based in Fort Wayne, Indiana, because their customer service is top-notch.

Concerning written musical resources, we have worked primarily with The United Methodist Hymnal.  I also purchased the accompaniment version for the supplemental hymnal in the pews at our church. Recognizing resources from other traditions, we’ve used some older Methodist hymnals, an old Presbyterian hymnal, an Episcopal hymnal, and one called Hymns for the Living Church. A few hymns we found online, some of which were free and some that required payment.

By late fall of 2020, as I offered more background information on hymn origins, our Musical Connections group recognized that some hymns were birthed in situations when faith was deeply tried. The most well-known story is probably that of Horatio Spafford, who penned the lyrics for “It Is Well with My Soul” when he was taken to the site where his daughters had perished when the ship they were on sank. Given the myriad difficulties our world was facing, I thought (in good music therapist fashion) that we could write a hymn to create an outlet for emotions and to keep a Christ-centered perspective. In music therapy work, songwriting often takes place in less than 30 minutes, usually setting the lyrics or collected ideas to a pre-existing melody. I was probably more surprised than anyone else when we gathered our ideas over several sessions and designated a poet from our group to craft our ideas into a hymn. Sara did a beautiful job, and then I was challenged to write music to enhance the lyrics. You never know where the road will lead when you set out!

As I write this, in winter 2022, we are still meeting via Zoom for an hour every Wednesday morning, with a usual pattern of singing and discussing 4 hymns. We are not usually a large group, typically hosting from 9 to 15 participants, but we are singing! May God bless you as you find ways to keep singing, wherever you are and whatever your situation.

Feel free to contact me if you have any questions:

You are welcome to join us for one of our Musical Connections sessions if you’d like.


Mary Penhorwood Feagin

United Methodist Church of Anacortes

Anacortes, Washington

One of the joys of my position as the Director of The Center for Congregational Song is to be asked interesting questions from people who are working week in and week out to get their congregations singing. This series of blogs will take some of the questions I’ve been asked and post the answers publicly.




Hi Brian,

Hope all is well!

I’m at a new church now! Woot! It isn’t technically a new church plant, but we are starting from the ground up. The numbers are at an all-time low, but the remaining few in the congregation are excited about the future and re-making their congregation into one that is vital and active in their community. It’s a Presbyterian (USA) congregation in a major metropolitan suburb.

One of the first things we need to do is establish a worship culture. What will our worship look and sound like? So here are a few things I’m curious about:

  1. How to hire a new music director. We have an interim right now, but we need a new music person who knows congregational singing, percussion….ways to layer and texture music.
  2. Now that I’m settled in here and driving this liturgical ship, I want to resource myself around music. I worked with a wonderful church musician at my previous church, so I didn’t need to think about resources for music. He brought them to the table. I’m the only staff person right now, so I’m looking for music resources for a small congregation–like 35 people right now. Congregational singing type stuff that doesn’t all fit into Western, colonized music sound yet we are predominately white.
  3. Choir! Shoot me with this. The church’s choir used to be 40 people, blah, blah, blah it was awesome. Now we have 4-5 solid people. What to do!? How to do it!? What are the shapes music leadership can take in a small church?


Pastor Jane



Hey Pastor Jane, thanks for reaching out. Here are my preliminary thoughts and I look forward to having coffee with you to talk more in depth about all of these questions…


Three things to look for in a good candidate:
  1. Are they musically talented and relatively well-trained? If not, even the best ideas can’t be brought to life. They need to have some musical “chops” to accomplish solid liturgy and music-making, especially since there’s a small staff and congregation.
  2. Are they sensitive to liturgical context? They don’t have to have a liturgy degree, but do they understand how a worship service flows? Do they have a basic knowledge or experience with the general liturgical calendar and seasons? For instance, when choosing a song for communion, would they know it’s a good idea to look for texts that either specifically mention communion or have references to bread, grapes, wine, or covenant?
  3. Do they place the congregation’s voice as the #1 priority? If the choir (or any instrument) is more important than the congregation’s voice, their priorities are whack and will cause problems. If their focus is on the congregation, then they’ll really minister rather than fall into the trap of providing great “performances.” Here’s an article on that topic in particular:


Liturgical Music Library

If I were to purchase a simple liturgical music library for you…a “small-church music starter kit,” here’s what I would send you:


Small Choir Resources

Small choir resources are tough, especially when people are still working off the old model of “we used to be…”. I think this is where placing the congregation’s voice as #1 is really helpful. It changes the choir’s “job” from singing a solo anthem every week to supporting the congregation’s music-making. I think we do a disservice to ourselves, our choir members, and our congregation to expect a small volunteer group of singers to sing a published anthem every week with enough musicality and precision that it truly edifies the congregation and singers. But, if we re-frame the choir’s role as supporting the congregation, here’s what can happen:

  • “We should sing and anthem every week” –turns into– “Every week we help the congregation sing better”
  • “We have to sing this even though it’s a little rough” –turns into– “We feel confident about this piece, so now we’ll share it with the congregation”
  • Weekly rehearsal plunking notes –turns into– Faith formation through the study of our weekly hymnody & learning a few anthems for special occasions
  • Identity as a choir member –turns into– identity as a congregational music leader

This can look many different ways (because each congregation is unique), but here are some opportunities for a small choir to serve a congregation:

  • The choir introduces new hymns by singing the first stanza, singing the verses with congregation on the refrain, or by sitting behind the congregation (instead of in front) on Sundays where a new hymn is being introduced.
  • Instead of expecting the choir to sing an anthem every week, the weekly role of the choir is to sing the psalm every week. This could be an anthem, something from a psalter, or a verse-refrain congregational psalm setting where the choir acts as the cantor to sing the verses.
  • Choir members take turns announcing and leading hymns throughout a service, so the leadership of the congregation’s song is continually shared.
  • Following the worship service, choir members take communion and sing a few selections for/with home-bound congregants once a month.



The three questions you asked are wonderful ones and something that many pastors and search committees grapple with on a regular basis. What I hope you’ll find grounds all my answers is this: hiring, working with, and resourcing a church musician and/or worship leader should be framed as a discernment process. Who, what, and where is God calling your congregation to be? How can a candidate help lead the congregation there? Who, what, and where is God calling your choir to be? How can a candidate help lead the choir there? Discernment takes prayer, community involvement, and imagination.


Good Luck!



Author – Ginny Chilton Maxwell is Music Minister at Church of the Ascension in Norfolk, Virginia, where she serves as organist, choirmaster, and elementary music teacher.


5 Benefits of Starting a “Family Choir”

When I took my most recent music ministry post, part of my job description was to start a children’s choir. At the time, the children’s music ministry had been on hiatus for almost a decade and the number of families with young children in the parish was dwindling. The ground did not feel particularly ripe for starting a children’s choir and the task felt daunting, to say the least. After much thought I decided to start what eventually became known as Family Choir. Family Choir is for children under age twelve with an accompanying adult. We practice once a week and the children sing for church about every other month. We sing traditional hymns as well as praise choruses, music you hear on Sunday morning as well as fun Sunday School songs with movements. The group is thriving, so below I’m sharing five benefits our community has experienced by starting a Family Choir. Please add your own thoughts in the comment section!


1. Families stay together

From my own experience and from talking with other parents of young children, I hear that families do not have enough quality activities that they can do with their children. Many families have two working parents, and it’s not always appealing to have yet another obligation that requires children to be separated and looked after by someone else. Parents are longing to bond with other parents and have quality time with their children in an atmosphere that welcomes children and takes their needs into account. At family choir, parents and grandparents share songs from their own childhoods with the children, and children share their favorite Vacation Bible School songs with their parent or grandparent.


2. Family choir is inter-generational

As congregation sizes shrink (especially in many mainline churches) it is no longer feasible to split a small number of people into a bunch of age groups. Even if it was possible, I believe part of our strength as faith communities is in our ability to form family-like bonds amongst each other, where people of all ages are loved and included. Americans are also living away from their extended families more than ever before; our churches have the unique opportunity to fill that void for people. Family choir is one way to form and maintain those loving bonds.


3. Family choir is not obsessed with numbers

Working in a church, I often find myself becoming obsessed with numbers. How many people were in worship this week? How many showed up for choir? It’s exhausting and it drains me of my love for ministry and music. The nice thing about Family Choir is that, with myself and two other adults who were excited about the group, we had critical mass almost right away. The adults added volume to the songs and their children added energy; with those things combined, our little community had life right from the start. With such a large age range–and always with at least one tiny child present (even infants!)–it doesn’t occur to us to be discouraged by who isn’t there. There is always joy when we are making music together!

There is always joy when we are making music together!

4. Families enjoy worship more

Sunday morning music at my particular mainline church can be hard to sing for a young child, especially one who cannot yet read! In Family Choir, children are able to hear more repetitions of the songs that come up in worship and thus are able to participate and enjoy more of what happens on Sunday mornings. That’s a win for the child’s engagement in worship as well as her family’s! Added bonus: so many young parents at my church are new to my denomination, or to church in general, and they also appreciate more chances to hear the music!

In Family Choir, children are able to hear more repetitions of the songs that come up in worship

5. Family choir has a broader reach

It is not necessary that Family Choir participants establish themselves first as regular attenders of your church’s worship service. It can be very intimidating to walk into a worship service for the first time, especially if you have children in tow. It can also be intimidating, as a church member, to invite a friend to church. Family choir is on a weeknight. There are often several stuffed animals present. It’s low pressure. You can come to Family Choir and get to know the inside of the church and the people who go there before you decide you’re ready to come on Sunday morning.


In these five ways–and I’m sure there are more–Family Choir is doing a great job of responding to my church’s challenges, which I know are challenges many churches are facing. Whatsmore, it is not just an honest response but a faithful one. So many times we look at what our church has and say, “But we used to have so much more….” I appreciate that Family Choir celebrates what we do have. God is still very much alive in every person, in every moment. It’s an amazing thing and it’s worth jumping for joy over. Family Choir has helped me remember that!


For more blogs by Ginny and our other writers, go to our main blog page:


Author – Adam Perez is a doctoral student in liturgical studies at Duke Divinity School.




Nevertheless, It Was A Blessing

A few weeks ago I had the blessing of working with an ad hoc choir who gathered out of the student body of Duke’s Summer Course of Study program. Many were second-career local pastors in often very small congregations. For some, it had been a while since they were able to enjoy singing with a choir during worship. It was also a challenge for them to come to an hour-long, afternoon rehearsal following a grueling schedule of classes. Nevertheless, it was a blessing for all of us to share in choral song.

They were visibly tired, but excited to sing. As they shuffled in for rehearsal at Goodson Chapel at Duke Divinity School, the major themes of (and complaints about) their courses of the day pattered off the stone and glass. One drawback of being in an academic setting where new ideas about God, the church, worship, identity, mission, etc. are being impressed upon them all day, everyday, is that students can start to become hyper self-critical of the way they interact in those spaces: ‘Did I use that –ology word correctly?’ ‘Did I unintentionally shut down my fellow students’ earnest reflection?’ ‘Does the teacher think I am a fraud?’ ‘Am I a fraud??’

They were visibly tired, but excited to sing.

Though this kind of environment can become quickly tiring, there was a hidden and unexpected blessing in it: they brought that awareness and teachable (but discerning) spirit to choir. The choir members were ready to think and talk about the music beyond ‘where can we take a breath?’ and ‘are you going to give us a cut-off?’


North Carolinian

One moment in particular stood out. As we were working on our consonants for Richard Smallwood’s arrangement of Isaac Watts’ “I Love the Lord,” one of our sopranos openly apologized that she kept (aggressively) rolling the r on the line “and troubles rise.” After rehearsal she came up to tell me that she would practice it overnight and would definitely get it right for the following day’s chapel service. She explained that it is hard for her to not roll the ‘r’ because she’s always been taught that soft or swallowed ‘r’ sound was the correct way to sing. Upon further investigation and conversation, she said that she had learned (either explicitly or implicitly) that the sound of a North Carolinian/southern accent was not an appropriate one for group singing, i.e. choir.

Now I’m no expert in vocal technique, but it pained me to hear her say the equivalent of ‘the sound of my voice is not fit for the worship of God, so I have to change it.’ I realize that I too have uncritically internalized a deep sense that there are good and bad, beautiful and… um… less beautiful accents for singing. On what basis can and should we make these judgments? In singing any English language text, I regularly hear the encouragement to sound ‘more British,’ as though there is only one British English accent and all of its sounds are ‘pure.’

…it pained me to hear her say the equivalent of ‘the sound of my voice is not fit for the worship of God, so I have to change it.’

In any case, this soprano’s comments caused me to reflect using my theological toolkit. What theological rationale did I have for both affirming that it was appropriate to modify the sound of her voice to fit the style of music and suggest that she let the sound of her own voice shine through?

I turned to thinking about the sound of our voices as incarnational.


Incarnational Sound

Of course, the voice is by nature part of the fleshy stuff of our bodies that God knit together and that makes the sound of our voices incarnational in a generic sense. But I think we can take it further: for our music to honor God more fully, it needs to honor our bodies more fully. Our sounds have to be more truly of us and the stuff we’re made of—even (especially?) when that stuff is result of social and cultural formation. Christ’s incarnation reminds us that God’s glory is revealed in a specific person in a specific place at specific time in history. If “in our music God is glorified” (thanks Fred Pratt Green), it is when these voices we’ve been given sing God’s praise.

On the other hand, an incarnational perspective also encourages us remember not just we ourselves, but the contexts within which the music was originally created and intended: the urban streets of protest, the revival-era camp meeting, the gothic cathedral, the Rhineland convent, etc. The sounds of our voices should seek to honor the languages and peoples for and from whom the music is gifted. In doing so, we delight in, build empathy for, and gain perspective on the ways in which the beautiful sound of God’s glory is incarnated in other times and places.

This perspective is not a zero-sum endeavor. There is no perfect, sonic balance to avoid tipping the scales from accurate reproduction to appropriation or from authentic and sincere to manufactured and performance.



As you reflect on how this theological perspective might impact your music ministry, I pray that it will keep us on our toes when it comes to the sound of our voices and simultaneously put us at ease, knowing that our attention to these concerns is a sincere act of faithfulness in its own right.

This perspective is not a zero-sum endeavor.

As that soprano and I walked out of rehearsal, our minds and voices were noticeably tired. She wondered aloud why she’d never been asked to sing more ‘North Carolinian.’ Without an answer, we began mimicking our best/worst over-the-top-British-boy-soprano sound we could muster—laughing and contented with the exhaustion of having bitten off more than we had time to chew.


For more thoughts on incarnational music-making, check out these blogs:

“Navigating worship as Universal and Incarnational” by Tanya Riches

“Patriotic Music on Sunday Morning: Yes or No?” by Ginny Chilton



Author – Brian Hehn is the Director of The Center for Congregational Song and not an expert in silence…but here we go!





How much silence is incorporated into your weekly worship services? In a world defined by continuous sound we are increasingly deprived of silence, and questions are arising about the spiritual implications this has on Christians today. A few years ago, I was serving a United Methodist Congregation in North Dallas and was bothered by the lack of intentional silence we incorporated. If there was silence, it was usually a mistake or was considered awkward by both the leadership and congregation. In a service with no silence, where is the opportunity for us to listen to God together? Where is the opportunity for people to explore their innermost confessions and desires with God without being told what to think, pray, sing, or do?


A Crazy Idea

So I had a crazy idea. You know that piece that all music majors learn about by John Cage? Yeah, the one that is all rests. It’s called 4’33” because the piece is designed to last 4’33” and calls for the performers to not intentionally play any musical sounds. Of course, Cage had many reasons for writing such a ridiculous piece of what most people would consider not music. There are many hilarious articles and reactions to the piece, which you can read about here. Ok, so you know that piece? We’re going to do it as a congregational song.

But what would the pastor say? What would the congregation do? Would there be riots…laughter?


Step One

I had to pitch the idea to the pastor. It’s unwise to do risky liturgical ideas without full support from the staff and your boss. He was skeptical of the idea, but I had spent two years with Pastor Jack and he knew he could trust me and that the congregation trusted me. So he ok’d the idea.

What would God do? I had no idea.

Step Two

I had to place the song in the liturgy. In our service, we incorporated a time of confession near the beginning of the service. Sometimes that time was a confession as in “I believe,” and sometimes it was used as a confession as in “I confess.” That time was followed by the scripture readings for the day. This seemed like the perfect time, but we needed a transition into the scripture readings…something to mark the end of the 4’33”. I came across a choral anthem which was a setting of “Come and Find the Quiet Center” by Shirley Murray. Even better, the last stanza had an opportunity for the congregation to join in. To see that anthem, you can click here.


Step Three

I had to prepare the choir. Don’t underestimate this step when doing something “out-of-the-box” at your church. Your choir can be your best advocate. Use some rehearsal time to explain to them what’s going to happen and why it’s going to happen. Let them ask questions and have reactions. Use that time to teach and encourage them to have equally open conversations with congregation members when they leave church that day. Empower them to help education and shepherd the congregation. Not only does this encourage their own ministry in music, it also helps keep your job secure!


Step Four

I had to figure out how to lead the song. I decided that the best way to lead the song would be to display the score on our screen, give a downbeat to the congregation, start the timer, and sit down. At the stroke of 4’33”, I would give the downbeat to the pianist which would cue the choir to stand. No explanations needed…in fact, I think if I explained it, then it would have killed the moment.


Last Step

Do it! Was I nervous? Yes. Was I excited? Yes. What would happen? What would the people do? What would God do? I had no idea. So I lead the song as planned. The score came up on the screen. I gave a downbeat, started my stopwatch, and sat down.

Minute 1 – shuffling, at least 3 giggles and 1 outright laugh.

Minute 2 – almost total silence with still a bit of shuffling.

Minute 3 – total quiet. The air conditioning starts up. A car honks its horn in the intersection nearby.

Minute 4 – total quiet….ambient noise continues.

Anthem begins – The choir begins its anthem, and I could hear the shuffling of feet and bodies in the pews. I turned around for the last stanza (melody & words in the bulletin) and invited the congregation into the song…

“In the Spirit let us travel,

open to each other’s pain,

let our loves and fears unravel,

celebrate the space we gain:

there’s a place for deepest dreaming,

there’s a time for heart to care,

in the Spirit’s lively scheming

there is always room to spare!”

– Shirley Erena Murray, Copyright 1992 Hope Publishing Used by Permission



So what was the result? What did people experience? How did they react?

A few people didn’t like it, and they told me that it was “weird” or that they “didn’t understand why we would waste 4 minutes just sitting.” And a few people were weeping. They wept for reasons that I will never know. One first-time visitor to the church told Pastor Jack after the service that, “although she didn’t know it, the hymn of silence was exactly what I needed. Thank you.”


For other blogs from The Center for Congregational Song, go to:


Author – Ginny Chilton Maxwell is Music Minister at Church of the Ascension in Norfolk, Virginia, where she serves as organist, choirmaster, and elementary music teacher.

On Easter Day we celebrate that Jesus came back to life, but starting the day after Easter most of us in ministry, and music ministry specifically, feel anything but lively. Easter is meant to be more than just one day; in Western Christianity, at least, it’s a whole fifty days of celebrating. But how many of us actually treat the seven weeks after Easter as the festival season it is? In many of the churches in which I’ve worked and worshiped, we tend to take a few days or even the whole week after Easter off, and the rest of the Easter season never really regains its momentum. We’re exhausted, for goodness sakes, and our worship tends to suffer for it. This doesn’t seem to reflect the reality of the resurrection. What can we as musicians do to be more faithful to the spirit of Easter, without overtaxing ourselves and the people we work with?


The more we get together, the happier we’ll be…

The Sunday after Easter can often be a bit of a downer, not only because we’re all still recovering from Easter, but because many of us have to go from a very full church back to our usual, often much lower, number of worshipers. One thing that worked particularly well for my church this year was to plan a worship service with other churches in our neighborhood for the Sunday after Easter. Granted, ecumenical worship services can take a lot of effort to execute. But I found that with three music ministers working together, we were able to divide and conquer and not leave anyone with too much to do. With someone there to conduct, I could focus on the organ, and we had plenty of singers to fill the choir loft and make the anthem sound full.

I have to say, I’d forgotten how much having children around makes each holiday feel so special.

The nave, too, was full of worshipers to make the hymns and responses quite hardy. What’s more, it feels faithful to the good news of Jesus to break down our denominational barriers and worship as one. What better time to proclaim that message than during the Easter season.


On the road again…On the Road Again

For those of us who are church musicians, most of our work is for events that occur within the four walls of the church. What would happen if we took our show on the road for one or more of the weeks of Eastertide? The music is already learned; why not perform it a few more times in a location other than your church sanctuary? If your church is in a downtown or other highly visible location, consider doing some of the music you worked so hard on for Easter out on the front steps or the front lawn. You could even do the whole worship service outside, weather permitting, at your usual Sunday morning time. If your church is affiliated with a school or nursing home, ask if you can perform the anthem or other special Easter music at their weekly worship service. Or, team up with the school’s music teacher and make music class that week a special Easter “concert,” complete with a tour of the organ and an opportunity to sit with choir members and follow along with the music as they sing. Some of these options will be relatively easy to execute; others require more planning than most of us want to do the week after Easter. But I think you’ll find that just by changing the scenery you’ll be able to extend the life of the music you performed on Easter Sunday, and keep the Easter season alive while you’re at it.


Won’t someone think of the children?

In the past three years I’ve had two children and started a Children Singing Easterjob that involves working at the school affiliated with my church. I have to say, I’d forgotten how much having children around makes each holiday feel so special. Children have an enthusiasm for celebrations and traditions that is infectious to the rest of us. Easter Sunday may not be a good time for the children’s choir to sing, but it’s perfectly appropriate to have them sing an Easter song on the Sunday(s) after Easter. Small children delight in having songs to sing that go with whatever season it is, so even if you’re working with children in a less formal setting than a choir, you can keep singing your resurrection songs all through the season. (Sidebar: I’ve found there aren’t enough Easter songs to satisfy the appetites of young children. Which Easter songs do your children love?) You might find that you have more opportunity to discuss the true meaning of Easter with the children once the Easter bunny has faded away, too.


The Easter Season is meant to be one of overflowing joy and celebration. What do you find helps you maintain the spirit of Easter through the whole season?


For more blogs by author Ginny Chilton, check out all our blogs here.