Passion Trumps Preparation
Writing this blog has put me in touch with many of you who have fallen victim to the commercial Christian worship movement. Faith communities have been ripped apart needlessly. Relationships have been severed. Jobs have been lost after years of faithful service. Trained and experienced musicians have been fired, forced out, let go, or demoted. All in favor of someone with the right look, the right sound, or, frankly, the right age.
Sound familiar to anyone? Me too. I have my own story. I’ve thought about sharing it on Ponder Anew many times, but always decided against it for one reason or another. After hearing similar stories from friends over the past months, how they had been cast aside in favor of new, “fresh” leadership, I began to reconsider. Just yesterday, I heard another one through a mutual friend. After 20 years of faithful service to his church, he was forced out by a new pastor. His replacement? A recent college graduate with no real experience or formal training. Hearing how it affected his church, family, and career, I decided that the time is right to share. The names are changed, but the story is true.
How a Paralegal Became My Boss
A Perfect Prelude
My first permanent church job was as part-time Traditional Worship Minister at a United Methodist congregation. I was ecstatic. The church responded favorably to my leadership, and it felt like a professional breakthrough. A short time before I began, the church had also hired a Contemporary Worship Minister, “Crystal,” a former corporate paralegal. She was nearly twice my age, but displayed a youthful exuberance with a sassy teenager vibe that bonded her to the worship band right away. In fact, I was impressed with Crystal’s knack for forming relationships quickly, and our staff cohesion seemed fantastic.
The first six months on the job went very well. Despite our differences, Crystal always seemed have my back, and I spoke out in her favor when church members occasionally questioned her qualifications. “She’s a great colleague, and she’s a sensitive musician and worship leader.” Since she had no other employment, she would spend much of her time at the church, and would call, text, or email to keep me in touch with the rest of the staff.
She had been a great colleague to my knowledge, but I confess I had not once heard her in action. As our duties often overlapped, I would only hear her singing with the worship band while passing by in the hallway. I wasn’t particularly impressed, but “Norman,” our pastor, raved about her abilities, and her great feel for the “flow” of a worship service. That was good enough for me. And knowing that I was called to a career in service of the church, I resolved to be a team player.
Passing the Peace
Over the next year, things began to shift. Norman made some unilateral decisions about the church’s worship schedule that alienated many, and in dodging the criticism, he began to withdraw from his responsibilities. Crystal and the rest of the staff became less accessible to me, almost businesslike. My public school teaching responsibilities prevented me from fully participating in staff planning, but now I was on the outside, often finding out about plans involving my ministry area after decisions had already been made, often with Crystal’s direct guidance.
Despite the rapid breaking of solidarity, I continued to try and work together with the staff, and Crystal in particular.
One Wednesday during Lent, I went to her for feedback on my plans for the Good Friday service. She pursed her lips, shook her head, and said, “I don’t know. I’m going to have to pray about this.”
I was dumbfounded, and the look on my face said so. She said, “You keep talking about wanting to move these people deeper into their worship, but all I see here is the same old thing they’ve always done.” She proceeded to tell me that she would be happy to mentor me, though, so that I could begin to think more freely about worship, and how to turn our “tired, old traditions” into a more “dynamic worship experience.” “In fact, I’m proposing something to Norman and SPRC that I think will help us become a more unified team!” I would find out soon enough what this meant.
A Painful Confession
A short time later, Norman called me into his office to let me know what had been cooked up. Crystal had accepted a full time position with the church in the newly-formed role of Worship Arts Minister, and she was to be my direct supervisor. With a little pressing, I learned that over the past months, she had convinced him and the rest of the staff that the position was necessary. Norman would be able to concentrate on his “pastoral duties” and not have to bother himself with supervising both me and Crystal. Crystal would then be able to serve as my mentor, helping broaden my worship horizons enough to breathe new life into our silly traditional services. Seriously. Crystal had convinced Norman that the traditional services were consistently falling short, and that I was gifted, but needed more shepherding, something she could provide.
This news stung. Badly. Since I had taken this post, I had made it clear that while I was grateful to be serving bi-vocationally, my heart was with the church, and I wanted to be full time. I had been told that though I had degrees in music and theology and the beginnings of a solid work resume, the church was not financially able to make that commitment. But here they were making that commitment to Crystal, someone who had the marketable look, who could charm her way into fast relationships, but someone with limited ability and no formal musical education.
Hymn of Praise to Crystal
The relationship disintegrated rapidly. All the good will she had shown in the past was gone, replaced with persnickety pettiness and unexplained demands. Crystal began imposing herself on the traditional service, often displaying her incompetence. (Like the time she insisted on singing the following into the microphone: “Praise God, to whom all blessings flow.”) Several times, after blatantly unprofessional encounters, I brought my concern to Norman. His reply was always sapless: “Well, maybe we can talk, but you know, she is your supervisor now.” Yes, I knew. Crystal was already making it clear who was supposed to be in charge.
One of Crystal’s obsessions was that the traditional service never go beyond one hour in length. 55 minutes was the rule. If it was even close, I was expected to cut stanzas from the final hymn. “People don’t want to sing all those stanzas, anyway!” she said. This sort of thing went on for months, until one Sunday in Advent. We had sung a beloved carol at the end of the service. Time was short, but the singing was vibrant and full-throated, and I sensed abbreviating the hymn would be inappropriate.
After the service, Crystal cornered me in the storage closet attached to our makeshift Sanctuary. She snarled, “If you don’t learn to cut stuff down, you and I are going to keep having problems.” She kept escalating. I don’t remember what else was said, but it was nasty, spiteful, angry. That was the final straw. I was through. I told Norman of the incident. He shrugged one last time. So I sent an email to SPRC, detailing every exchange of bullying, condescension, and gaslighting.
The Paralegal’s Postlude
Norman was incensed. I had gone over his head, and was now on his “shit side” (his words).
Crystal ignored me for months, but proved herself quite good at playing the victim. “I have to just forgive him and try to move on,” she said, when Norman forced a reconciliation attempt.
Amazingly, it worked out in my favor. Norman was soon reappointed, Crystal wore out her welcome with everyone else, and eventually I was the only one left. Norman’s replacement was a wonderful pastor, preacher, and leader, who served us faithfully and courageously through a difficult tenure. The gift of staying and completing my work in that congregation was a huge gift of grace, and when I left, I was allowed to do so without regrets, and with a great sense of gratefulness and mutual respect.
When worship is more about selling a product than the work of the people, every aspect revolves around the entertainment factor. It’s this kind of attitude that has turned the modern church’s “worship” into a mockery. It’s become a farce, a pointless, narcissistic, self-indulgent exercise. It says that if you conform to marketable image: if you have the look, the sound, and the
stage presence, you too can usher in God’s presence to the mere mortals who will gaze at you, high and lifted up on your stage-altar. If you aren’t current, you aren’t good enough.
Even if you have no real idea what you’re doing. Even if it means taking shortcuts. Even if it means treating others unjustly in the process.
My situation worked out for me in the end, but I know that for many of you, your painful experience has gone without resolution. If you are a qualified church musician, particularly in a traditional or liturgical worship setting, and have been fired, forced out, demoted, or otherwise cast aside in favor of someone less qualified, I want to hear your story. Leave a comment, or send me an email to email@example.com. I respect that your story belongs to you, and will not publish any information without your consent.