Funny How Time Slips Away

There's Something in the Air...Hold On...Hold On...

This is a bit longer than usual, so bear with me. You can't see it, but before I sat down to write this, I put on full body armor, because I wouldn't be surprised if the comments get ugly. As is often the case, there is a bit of background before we get to the point. Feel free to skip a few paragraphs ahead if you have reader's ADHD. I'll start with a story...


Long ago, and a few hundred miles away, I was one of the founding partners of the Sing! family of newsletters (for those who remember Sing! thank you for letting us serve was great while it lasted). At least once a year the four of us would go on a retreat, at which a lot of extraordinary conversations took place. In one such conversation (probably early 1990s, but I couldn't swear to it) one of the guys said something like this: "Face it guys, "traditional" "church" (my quotes, and how they are placed is not a typo) is over. If churches don't adapt to the new reality (meaning worship teams) their churches won't survive. It is going to get ugly over the next 10 years for church musicians."

And I clearly remember saying in reply: "At least we're going to go through it first here in California. When it gets to the midwest and the south it is going to be bloody."

That time has arrived, and it it turns out I was wrong. It has been brutal...and I don't mean just the terminations, and the resulting loss of good, competent, caring, called church musicians. I mean the manner in which the transition has taken place. Every day my email box or my voice mail brings another tale of insensitivity and rudeness (at the would you like to get a certified letter while you are on vacation informing you that you shouldn't come back to work?) on the part of churches (and pastoral staff).

The Glass is Half Empty

Let me give you some reasons why I think this is going to go on for a while.

  • Pastors are being taught to be a "CEO"
In the process, and especially in an economic environment in which resources can become a scarcity, there are two rules that seem to apply: People Matter, and People Don't Matter.


People Matter because the only way a CEO can "move up" to a bigger church is to demonstrate success. In most cases, "success" in a church means more people at worship.

People Don't Matter because to a CEO, staff is interchangeable: they are employees, not individual people. If a CEO doesn't like the way someone is doing their job (or the way they look, actually, since working at a church is an "at will" about that here, but get out your tissues and be prepared to weep), it is a CEO's prerogative to replace that person with someone who is not [fill in your favorite whipping person here...]. And...taking a page from large corporations and academia, you replace a full time person with a part time person so that you don't have to pay benefits. Then you give that part time person the same job description, plus a little more (see below for more on this).

Oh, and one more thing before we leave this topic. Are you, the church professional, following the CEO model in your ministry? Are you the CEO? The blame should fall where it is due, and pastors are not alone on many church staffs in believing that People Matter and People Don't Matter.

  • You're Hot or You're Not
It is a familiar rant of mine, but the reality is that many churches grasp at the straw of whatever snake oil remedy that an expert is selling. It generally goes something like this...
Ooh...that church down the street has grown from 300 to 500 people. They have a band. Our consultant says we have to have a band. We need a band. Let's do away with our traditional service, and our current music staff. Yes...that's the ticket...I'm picking on an obvious target here because most of my readership serves in a "traditional" church. But it could be hi-def screens, or changing from pews to chairs, or the pastor preaching from a stool, a website heavily invested in flash, a hip(per) youth director, or multi-site. In many churches, it is all of that, and more, in sequence, and there is still no growth, which leaves the pastor frustrated, the leadership exhausted, and the congregation confused...and the current staff unemployed...oh, and the CEO blameless...
  • Nobody has time to see the forest for the trees
Between resource scarcity and cultural expectation, every church staff member these days must be more productive (often without a raise in pay...over many years...but that's another issue which you can read about here). More responsibility is being heaped upon all staff members, including, of late, social media.
In practice this means that staff have little time for family (that should be the first red flag), and less time to pastor those involved in their ministry. Program results (i.e. growth: see above) are everything. You want to talk to colleagues? Go to a conference during your your expense...I can't tell you how many of my colleagues tell me they don't even know the names of their counterparts at the church down the street. Insularity has become so wide-spread that if it weren't voluntary, you'd think that the staff were low-risk inmates in a prison campus with a cross on the top of the highest building. Insularity is a double-edged sword. The more insular you become, the more you must depend upon an outside expert to tell you what to do. The more you depend upon what an expert tells you, the less you know about your own situation, or the "real" world, and the more insular you become, because every new "idea" takes an inordinate amount of planning time to implement and sustain. And once an institution starts down the road of the "expert" fix, it can become a sort of an obsession to "keep up." Here's the reality: there will always be a church hipper than yours. There will always be a church less hip than yours. Keeping up with the Hipsters carries a significant risk, because by nature, as institutions get bigger, it is harder to move quickly (hence the oft-quoted adage: it is easier to turn a rowboat than an aircraft carrier). And if you can't adopt each and every new trend as fast as it appears, you will never be the hippest church.
  • Good/Quick/Cheap: Pick Two
A focus on growth is a good thing. If you are not growing, you are, in some respect dying. But a focus solely on growth does require a church to make hard choices.
By nature, if your intent is to serve more people, you must depend upon easily repeatable processes to produce a uniform product. People eat at fast food restaurants for a lot of reasons, but one of the primary ones is that the food is the same in Alaska as it is in Alabama. The unspoken corollary is that you have to move people through the serving lines quickly in order to serve a high volume of people (fast food...sigh...).
There are two implications for churches here: if you attempt to serve a high volume of people, you have a tendency to have less time for each of them...and even less for getting to know their needs, let alone ministering to those needs. Instead, you are handing them a "package" designed to feed the most number of people (remember People Matter/People Don't Matter?). The tendency is to use blander ingredients in order to offend the least number of people. Good enough is good enough. Unless your church decides to hire a whole slew of staff in order to combat that tendency. You can see the problems here: bringing on new staff in large quantities is expensive. Plus it takes time to absorb and train them, and, in the process it can significantly change your corporate culture...and your financial bottom line (remember...the CEO is in charge here...). Unless you train them to "follow the book" and not be creative...or get rid of those creative types in the music/worship ministry entirely and replace them with people who can take orders (pun intended).
As a result, you end up with the choices a printer will give a client: do you want it Cheap? Fast? Good? You can have any two, but you can't have all three.
The second implication is that by becoming a "mass market" church you become just like that church down the street. Which means that when someone "church shops" there is not much to choose from between you and that other church, and decisions are generally made on the basis of convenience and/or self centeredness (dare I say narcissism?) on the part of the one doing the choosing. This puts the Second Trying Harder Church at a built in disadvantage unless demographics are in their favor (which is often why that church down the street is growing, but nobody talks about that).

The Glass is Half Full

I believe it is not all doom and gloom, though. Let me give you some reasons why I think the worst is over, even though it may not seem like it.

  • You can't get a world class steak dinner at a fast food restaurant
Over the years I have figured out that when it comes to eating out, there is very little "in between." In a hurry? Go to a fast food eatery. If you go to one of those "eating in the neighborhood" chains, you spend a considerable amount of money and you just get a higher caliber (i.e. more expensive) fast food.

But if you want/need to have a memorable meal with good company and extended conversation with your dining companions? Go to your local equivalent of a four star restaurant. In my experience, you don't spend that much more than at your local neighborhood chain spot, but you remember the meal for a long time.

I'm heartened by the fact that I'm beginning to hear, on a fairly regular basis, of churches that have decided to opt out of the numbers chase. Instead they are taking a step back, evaluating the gift/skill set of their staff, their natural congregational demographic profile, and they've chosen to concentrate on doing what they do well even better. More about that in a minute.

In the process, these churches are actually hiring to need (not hipness), spending time and money on staff development (instead of on assimilating new staff), and narrowing job descriptions to allow staff to do what they do best.

Perhaps the best example of this strategy is the paradigm which is becoming more common in church music ministry: A (contemporary) worship leader who is in charge of the department, with the traditional church musician being looked upon as a specialist, much as children's music ministry or instrumental/handbell directors have been historically.

For the pastor CEO, this means that the person who attends meetings is one with whom he or she shares a common jargon. For the "traditional" church musician it means giving up power in return for more or less being left alone to do the work of ministry ( a part time capacity, but again, that is for another day).

  • The Willie Nelson Strategy

Years ago, when he was one of the hottest performers on the planet, I heard an interviewer ask Willie Nelson what he did to get to be so famous. Willie's answer is, I think, a word to the wise. I paraphrase, but he said that he was just doing what he was passionate about, and the world had rotated around to the point that a lot of people had heard what he was doing, and agreed with him.

Since I'm talking about him, here's a great clip of Willie for those who are interested. The lesson here is that not every church can be Willow Creek, or Saddleback, or Brooklyn Tabernacle. If your church can, God bless your ministry. But if you don't have the resources, or the resolve, then it makes a lot of sense to be who you are, and be passionate about it. It has been my experience that once a church makes that decision, it is liberating. Suddenly there is no pressure to be "that." Instead, everybody can concentrate on being "us." And in my experience (and observation) it doesn't matter what "us" is, as long as you are faithful to Scripture, and passionately authentic in delivering the Gospel message. That's my other mantra: Local Solutions for Local Situations.

  • What Goes Around Comes Around

“Contemporary” churches are becoming "traditional."

One of the difficulties of following the mass market trend is that, as we talked about above, you look, act, and feel a lot like the church down the street. Eventually there is critical mass, and you become the most common form of church. It doesn't take long, particularly in this era of shorter generational periodicity, until what was hip is now traditional. When that happens, an institution begins to care more about defending that tradition than being open to renewal. Sooner or later, another reformation comes along.What is different now is that the internet has made every previous iteration of "tradition" available for study, and potential emulation. You need look no further than the Ancient-Future trend in worship to see that everything old can be new again.

  • The Outlier Imperative
As Malcolm Gladwell has pointed out in his best selling book, the key factors in the stories of gifted people who have influenced culture (he talks about modern culture, but I make the extrapolation that it would have been just as true in the past) are two: spending 10,000 hours perfecting your ability in your area of passion, and being in the right place at the right time (if you've read the book you know that obviously I generalize, but I'm making a point here, and I don't think I am mis-representing Gladwell's message).
Why is this important to a church? Because most of the church musicians who have been let go or forced out since our retreat conversation are people who have an extensive background in their craft...perhaps not 10,000 hours, but still a lot of experience. And, if you take a step back, a large percentage of those people have been let go because the church/CEO is chasing demographics: i.e. being in the right place at the right time. There is no substitute for the 10,000 hour rule, but God has something to do with the place/time, don't you think? Preparation and opportunity bring great results. You (and a church) need to do the prep work and put in the time...continually changing horses makes that much more difficult.
Again, I'm heartened by the trend that churches are now seeking out "traditional" church musicians to fill, in part, a mentoring role to the people who have replaced them. It turns out that even if you speak the same jargon as the pastor, yet don't know much about theology, or music, you have limitations as a staff member. The mentoring role is putting people back to work, doing what they are passionate about (unfortunately, in a part time role, but...well, if you've been following along this far, you know the end of that sentence...).

Final Thoughts

Postscript: 3 of the 4 of us (including the guy who was so sure he was out in front of the curve) at that retreat were either fired, or left the positions we had at the time because if we didn't we knew we were going to be fired. The talent drain in church music ministry continues, and the American church suffers greatly because of it. Yet I believe there really is light at the end of the tunnel, and hope on the horizon.

For one thing, not every pastor, irrespective of their training, believes that the CEO model is appropriate. If you are reading this, and you feel your position is in jeopardy, consider being proactive about some of the things I am suggesting. If your position is truly in jeopardy, you have nothing to lose really. And if you can get past your own issues when it comes to the size of your program, or the scope of your responsibility, or being near (or at) the power center, you might find that there is happiness (and peace...again pun intended) in a smaller that isn't so concerned about being the "big church on the block"...or being a key person with a smaller portfolio in a larger church: either situation has the real potential to let you do best what you are passionate about.

© 2011, 2021 All Rights Reserved