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An Appeal To Our Clergy Colleagues

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:

  1. Given permission to the entire congregation to make no effort to sing well
  2. 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
  3. 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.


Dear pastors,

I get it. The stress of 2020 is not only weighing on you from the normal personal levels, but the often-dysfunctional tendencies of your congregation members are being highlighted in particularly poignant ways right now. It’s a “damned if you do and damned if you don’t” kind of year and you’re getting an earful about it at pretty much all times. Finances are tight, what used to be easy decisions are now difficult and contentious, and stress levels are through the roof. It’s hard and often unfair.

As you’ll probably know from various continuing education opportunities and personality tests used in training sessions (Myers Briggs, Enneagram, etc…), when people are stressed it becomes easy for our negative character traits to become prominent or take over our decision-making processes. In times like these, it’s easy to become reactive instead of proactive, hoping to put out the first few fires before the next few fires arrive. Because of these tendencies, the strength of your staff is of the utmost importance. Your staff can either work together to buoy each others’ ministries during this terrible time or they can become yet another fire to put out.

when people are stressed it becomes easy for our negative character traits to become prominent

As a music minister, I’ve experienced some wonderful leadership and friendships with pastors. I’ve also experienced some terrible leadership and relationships gone awry. Below is a list of things I hope you’ll take to heart from this music minister who has heard one too many stories of the pastor-musician relationships going wrong.

  1. Unless you’ve hired a total newbie, you can assume that your music minister is coming into the position having had experienced a bad pastor-musician relationship some time in their career. While this may not define them, there’s a history of being burned by pastors that many church musicians carry with them.
  2. We know you’re in charge and that you’re the boss. Seriously…if you have to tell your staff or music minister that you’re the boss, then something is already very very wrong with your leadership. We all know you’re in charge, but what we need right now is a leader, not a boss.
  3. 99 times out of 100 we know more than you do about music and have thought more deeply about church music and the congregation’s song than you ever will, and that’s the way it should be. If you’ve hired a music minister and find yourself making musical choices more often than not, then you need to step back and ask yourself why. The congregation needs you to be their pastor, not their music minister. That’s why you hired a music minister! When discussing music and worship, treat the conversations like those of two colleagues working as peers, not a boss and employee. If that is threatening to you, please see point #2 above.
    • Oh, and you can multiply this point by 1,000 if you hired someone with an advanced church music degree and you think your MDiv gives you more theomusicological training than them.
  4. Most people don’t know this, but we church musicians do: pastors are generally totally un-trained or inadequately trained in liturgy/worship. We know your secret…and we generally don’t tell anyone, but don’t try to pretend you know more about worship and liturgy than your average music minister because you probably don’t. Just like you would expect from you staff, do you homework, be humble, and work collegially. We’ll do the same.
  5. You know how you’re being expected to do tons of things you are unqualified and untrained to do because of the pandemic? Yeah, so is your church musician. They aren’t doing the job they were hired (or trained) to do right now…so love your neighbor as yourself.
  6. You know how church committees often want the professional services of someone qualified to be the pope but also want to pay minimum wage? Yeah, (if they haven’t already) they’re going to want to add a bunch of things to your church musician’s job description and pay them either less or the same as before the pandemic. Things like video editing and recording/mixing/mastering. Most church musicians have never been trained in any of those things and they are VERY different than other musical skills. Adding “video editing” to a job description without much thought may seem reasonable…but it’s not. Either leave it off or pay more.
    • Also, consider paying for continuing education for your church musician if you do add that expectation, because right now most of us are making this stuff up as we go along.
  7. You know how congregation members often wonder what you do with all that “free time” you have instead of doing what they want you to do? And you’re like…uh…hello, sermon prep! Yeah, musicians feel the same way when they’re paid for 4 hours of “work” because they only have a 2 hour rehearsal and 2 hours on Sunday morning. Uh…hello, prep and practice!

Your staff will have your back if you have theirs.

So, look. I understand you’re stressed. Just don’t take it out on your staff. Your staff will have your back if you have theirs. They’re probably on your staff because they have a passion and skill for ministering to the flock whom you love and shepherd. If you ask them to be on your team, 99% of the time they’ll jump on board and try their best to help in whatever ways they can. But if you micromanage and/or undercut their expertise, pay terrible wages, and criticize the work they do on things not in their job description or training….then you’re going to have problems. And you deserve them.


Blogger Brian Hehn is the Director of The Center for Congregational Song.