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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


This episode is with the editors of the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship’s new bi-lingual (Spanish/English) hymnal Santo, Santo, Santo: Holy, Holy, Holy. It was recorded by Ben Brody remotely in the Fall of 2019. For a full biography of our guests, click here for Becky and click here for Maria.


Season 3 – Episode 5

In this interview with the co-editors of the fully bi-lingual hymnal Santo, Santo, Santo: Holy, Holy, Holy, the process, struggles, and successes of creating this unique resource is discussed.

For more information on the hymn festivals mentioned in this episode and how to apply:…-song-festivals

For more information on the hymnal covered in this episode:…lingual-hymnal/


Listening time: 25 minutes


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Also available on: iHeartRadio



This episode is with Fellow of The Hymn Society, Hymn writer, and member of The Iona Community John L. Bell. It was recorded by Ben Brody at The Hymn Society in Great Britain and Ireland’s 2019 Annual Conference in Canterbury, England. For a full biography of our guest, click here.



Season 3 – Episode 2

In this interview with John L. Bell, he walks through how his early life shaped his understanding of singing together, community, and the importance of women in leadership. Stories of his pastoral call, his philosophy/theology of how and why the church should sing, and his life-long work in the church’s song are shared.


Listening time: 26 minutes


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Also available on: iHeartRadio



This episode is with Dr. Lisa Weaver and Dr. James Abbington. It was recorded by Ben Brody at the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship during their annual Worship Symposium in January 2019.


Season 2 – Episode 1

In this interview with two of the most influential scholars and leaders in church music, Ben Brody asks about the creation of the newest GIA African American hymnal “One Lord, One Faith, One Baptism,” what hymns have influenced these guests the most in their lives, and how certain hymns and songs become favorites of individuals as well as larger denominations.





Listening time: 36 minutes


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Also available on: iHeartRadio


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


Worship Across the Spectrum

There are few places where the who’s who of worship across the spectrum get together in public. For the last while, the Calvin Symposium on Worship has been that place. While other worship and music conferences have bloomed and faded (National Worship Leader Conference, anyone?), the Symposium on Worship has continued to grow and diversify and attend to the new challenges that face local worship leaders and pastoral liturgists of all varieties.


One thing I love most about the symposium (my 8th? time in 10 years): Symposium doesn’t easily fit into a category–it’s nearly as diverse as the use of the word ‘worship’ itself. It is not simply about music nor is it simply about theology, though it includes those things. It’s a space where songwriters, lay liturgical leaders, pastors, missionaries, chaplains, theologians, retreat leaders, professors of all kinds, get together around that source and summit of the church’s life: worship. It not only draws them in as attendees, but highlights their voices as expert leaders in their respective areas, offering each of us the opportunity to learn and grow outside the week-to-week rhythms of our often insulated local communities.


And don’t let the name fool you: it goes far beyond the purview of Calvinists. It is an ecumenical smorgasbord, a feast for the liturgically hungry, an international party for worship practitioners. It’s like Sunday School on steroids—and all of it is designed for worship planners and leaders; with over 125 presenters from all over the world, you can imagine the breadth and diversity involved.


A snapshot of an ordinary day at Calvin Worship Symposium:

After a morning service with music led by the Netherlands-based Psalms Project (rock-band based metrical psalm settings) and a plenary session where the new One Lord, One Faith, One Baptism (African American ecumenical hymnal published by GIA) is showcased, you hit up the hallway of music and book tables. Moving into the midday breakout sessions, you attend “Top Ten Choral Techniques for Church Choir Directors” (Pearl Shangkuan) in the A block, catch “The ‘Brown Church,’ Christian Identity, and The Ordinary Practices of Christian Worship” (Robert Chao Romero and John Witvliet) in the B session—who had time for lunch?—before Sarah Jean Barton’s “Baptism and Christian Identity: Shaping Liturgical Practice from the Perspective of Disability” in the C block. For the late-afternoon Vespers, you pick from a variety of Minor Prophets-themed services led by groups from Western Seminary, Grace and Peace Church (Chicago), and others. The evening programming closes with yet another worship service that incorporates a diversity of musics and the exquisite video work and environment projection of Stephen Proctor. Exhausted from learning, you crash for the evening–only to hurry back in the morning to do it all for a second day.


Reflecting the increasing diversity of the cultural context of the U.S., while also providing for guests and the Christian family from beyond the Border Wall, I was so encouraged to see the increasing number of sessions offered for Spanish-speakers: a full day Thursday seminar, at least three sessions, and a Spanish-English bilingual vespers service, not to mention the many more on topics from and relating to global christian expressions.


Reflejando el crecimiento de diversidad en el contexto cultural de EE. UU., mientras que también proveyendo por visitantes y la familia cristiana más allá de la frontera, me sentí muy motivado al ver el incremento de sesiones ofrecidas para hispanohablantes: Una conferencia el día entero de jueves, por lo menos tres sesiones en español, y un servicio de vísperas bilingüe en Ingles y español, además de muchos mas temas relacionados a expresiones globales cristianas. En conjunto, este ofrecimiento constituye un currículo para hispanohablantes en el Symposium.


Get There

From Kathmandu to Scotland and Los Angeles to the Netherlands this annual global gathering is vision to behold. (I personally met groups of leaders and learners from both Brazil and the Ukraine—incredible). In the realm of congregational song, a number of giants were present, from James Abbington to Judith Christie McAllister, from David Bailey to Eddie Espinosa, from James Bobb to Tony Alonso, Anthony Ruff to Emily Brink. I could go on (…Greg Scheer, Eric Sarwar, Glenn Packiam…) but I’ll quit there. (Oh and Liz Vice. I’ll stop now. For real this time). The roster is bursting at the seems. The same could be said of the preaching and community leaders, theologians and multicultural worship planners present.


If you haven’t been to Symposium yet, get there. Whether you’re a volunteer choir member or the leader of a multinational ministry, don’t let the uncomfortably cold clime of Western Michigan in late-January deter you. Get there. Next year. Put it on your calendar now. Pre-register. You’ll be glad you did. More importantly, your church will be glad you did. [Conference Website Click Here]


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

Welcome to the fourth entry in the Center for Congregational Song blog: Centered in Song. I’m Ginny, a 30-something organist and music minister living in Tidewater, Virginia. I’ve worked mostly for Episcopal Churches in my 13 years in church music, and I’m a cradle Episcopalian, so I was excited to be able to attend a conference at Virginia Theological Seminary two weekends ago, and I’m excited to share a few tidbits with you. The conference was called “The Once and Future Hymnal;” it was two days of lectures and conversations about the possibility of compiling a new hymnal for the Episcopal Church. Our current hymnal is from way back in 1982. “Was that a long time ago?” asks the girl who was born that year. Yes, yes it was.

Here are three takeaways from that conference that I want to talk about briefly: uncertainty, diversity, and community. Uncertainty was the word buzzing in my head after the first day of the conference. In 1982 we were coming out of the cold war and Vietnam War. The economy was recovering after a downturn in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. Things were much more stable than they had been in 60 or 70 years. In contrast, things are vastly more uncertain in 2017. Globalization and rapid changes in technology have changed our world and our environment, such that, as we look ahead to the next 30 years, we are much less sure what to expect. That makes it difficult to compile a hymnal that we hope will last a long time!

Some of those gathered for the “Once and Future Hymnal Gathering”


Diversity and community are the other two subjects I have been mulling over since the conference. The Rev. Dr. Frank Wade made a wonderful point in his plenary lecture — and perhaps he’s not the first to say this — that diversity is the raw material, but the end goal is community. Currently, we are in a place as a church, and perhaps a society as a whole, that is more diverse than ever but has a crisis of community. That creates quite a challenge for us as we try to compile a hymnal, or simply lead a community in song each week. In a world that is so uncertain and diverse, how do we bring people together around shared song? What does that look like in 2017, as opposed to 1982, or 1882?

I can see how much things like uncertainty and diversity affect my work here in Virginia at my Episcopal parish. Many of us cherish our Episcopal hymnals because they formed us, while those who are new to the community bring songs from other cultures and denominations. Some want to delve into music that addresses imminent societal issues; others wish to anchor ourselves in the words that sustained our mothers and grandmothers. It sounds like a congregation in conflict, and we have our share of that. But really, all these things are good and we need them all as we work towards being God’s diverse community! We want to address hunger in our song while also singing songs that have knit us together for generations. We want to cherish our denominations’ hymns while also asking how we can reach out and include more.

As I reflect on it here, I realize my church’s diversity is beautiful, but the day-to-day work of planning worship is still really tough! How are all of you dealing with uncertainty and diversity as you lead your communities in song? Those of you who have been doing church music a long time — do you find you face more or fewer challenges now than in the beginning? Those of you who are new to song leadership — is it what you expected? What excites you about the next 30 years of congregational song? Share your ideas in the comments below. Let’s support and inspire one another as we sing our way into the future.


For more information on the gathering, you can see the Facebook page of The Center for Liturgy and Music at Virginia Theological Seminary, where they have posted some Facebook Live videos such as this: