It’s hard to believe that I’ve spent 15 years of my life in some form of professional church music ministry. It is my calling, my life’s work, and my dream job. There’s not a day that goes by that I’m not thankful for this opportunity.
Along the way, I’ve worked under eight senior pastors and over 20 associate pastors of some type. There have been ups and downs in those working relationships; some have been supportive and professional, others not so much. A couple pastors have been overbearing, rude, and abusive, others aloof and seemingly clueless about what I do.
I must say that I am extraordinarily grateful for the pastoral staff I serve with now. They treat me exceedingly well, and I couldn’t be happier. But I have a few horror stories that linger in not-so-distant memory (read here about the time my pastor made a paralegal my boss). The church can be a hostile, vicious, difficult place to work. I’ve lately been disturbed by some of the things I’ve read about how pastors have horribly mistreated church musicians under their watch. A positive working relationship is a two-way street, of course, but I have to believe that the responsibility begins with the person of power in any working relationship, and church ministry is no different.
One thing is certain: church music ministry is a minefield these days. We are a visible presence, and it seems that everyone who has ever owned a radio fancies themselves a music expert. Pastors, we know you are under a huge amount of stress. We’ve read the stories, we’ve seen the statistics, we’ve probably felt the collateral damage a time or two. I don’t share these guidelines to be yet another burden. In reality, if you take these to heart, it will make your job easier and win a crucial ally and partner in ministry.
1. Respect our expertise.
The professional musicians you work alongside have been hired because we know what we’re doing. Music is not simply a gift; it is a skill that must be constantly honed through hours upon hours of study, preparation, and practice. Please never assume that you know as much about our craft as we do.
Above all, remember this old adage:
The only thing worse than a preaching singer is a singing preacher.
2. Foster a collegial atmosphere.
If you want things to go differently, by all means approach us, but not confrontationally. Invite us to problem-solve with you. Specific directives will be needed occasionally, but do your best to minimize those times. It’s really rare that you will absolutely need to tell a competent musician to “Speed up!” or “Play more quietly.”
3. Get to know us personally.
We’re not machines. We’re human. You will get much further with us if you take a personal, even pastoral interest in our lives and well-being. Rejoice with us in good times, and offer support when things are difficult.
4. Resist blaming us when goals aren’t met.
Pastors, this one really hurts, and it’s always unfair.
We get it. You’re under a lot of pressure to make things happen in your church. The congregation wants to see growth. The finance team wants to see growth. That pesky bishop wants to see growth. But we all know that financial and numerical increases aren’t necessarily indicative of true spiritual growth. Push back when those kinds of pressures are placed on your head, don’t just pass the buck to your colleagues. We are not (likely) the reason that the 8:30 service isn’t growing, and you probably aren’t the reason, either (I mean, maybe it’s because it’s at 8:30 IN THE MORNING, for goodness sake!!!! Okay, sorry…).
5. Be our advocate in front of the congregation.
This is your job, but beyond that, you know better than anyone else how difficult church members can be. When we are being attacked, abused, or maligned by a person or body in the church, those are the times we really need your strong and swift leadership. Even if we are in the wrong, it is never okay to let a vigilante committee or an opinionated congregant assail us publicly or undermine us subversively.
6. Understand our need for preparation.
Some church musicians are comfortable with last minute changes, but many of us aren’t. Rehearsal is a gradual process, even from Sunday to Sunday. Being ready just takes time. There is muscle memory involved, not just cognitive awareness, so it’s not just a matter of shifting gears. Get to know what your music ministry partners need in terms of preparation time, but always endeavor to give us as much advance notice as possible.
7. Expect our best, not perfection.Believe me when I say that we are usually our own worst critics. When we make mistakes, we know it. We don’t need your reminder. Be careful not to undermine us with attempts to be funny in front of the congregation, even if they are well-meant.
Please just remember that, no matter how skilled we are, no matter how much we’ve practiced, something like this might happen every once in a while.
8. Don’t treat us as disposable.
We aren’t. In fact, we are putting a great deal of faith and trust in the church. We need a place to live and food to eat. Our families need the same medical and retirement benefits that yours does. Our kids need an education. Occasionally, we may even entertain thoughts of traveling. None of us are in this line of work to get rich! But remember that our livelihood is at stake with the personnel decisions your make.
A colleague was recently telling me about his friend, a minister of music, who fell victim to a pastoral whim. After 20 years of faithful service, he was unceremoniously canned by a young hotshot pastor. His replacement? A recent college graduate with no formal musical training, and no experience. This man and his family paid dearly because the pastor “had a different vision.”
9. Plan diligently.
We can’t do our job until we know where you’re headed. If you haven’t met our good friend, the Revised Common Lectionary, allow me to introduce you! Prepare yourself, have a preaching schedule, respect the liturgical calendar, and preach rigorous, refined sermons. Otherwise, don’t expect us to be in lockstep with you when it comes to worship planning.
10. Express gratitude to us for our hard work.
We don’t need to have our heads scratched or to be told “Good boy/girl!” every Sunday. Constant reassurance is counterproductive. But public and private encouragement is easy, and it lets us know we aren’t taken for granted.