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.

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37 Replies to “Funny How Time Slips Away”

  1. Kevin Barrow says:

    I have experienced this “CEO” mindset first-hand in 3 different churches. The first pastor, from what I learned later, was of the CEO mind instead of having developed a shepherd’s heart. The other two churches were more of the CEO mindset from the deacon board….finances were more important than me….a sacrifice had to be made. Bottom line, we have been left to swim for ourselves with little more than a lifejacket. It feels like being thrown overboard from a cruise ship and people yelling “hope you find land soon….good luck”. I can tell you, it has been 2 years since my last fulltime church job loss and we still have not found the mainland….just an island to survive on…barely.

  2. Vern Sanders says:

    Kevin- I’m sorry for your loss, and I hear your pain. I’ve addressed some of this elsewhere in this thread, but you have identified one of the critical points in CEO mentality: lack of common courtesy by both pastors and churches. I know of a case in which it became clear that for financial reasons a church and one of their staff members needed to part ways. The staff member understood completely that the parting was not about the staff member’s competence or job performance, and the church was willing to give a glowing recommendation. A committee was empowered to negotiate a reasonable “exit package” settlement, which both the committee, the departing staff member, and the pastor signed off on. When it came to the full board, though, one of the members of the board, it seems, picked that moment to explain, at some volume, why the settlement was not possible because of the financial difficulty of the church. It became a “them or me” discussion, and the departing staff member went from a 60 day transition with financial support and a recommendation to “clear out your office in 48 hours and you get nothing.” Why? Because the staff member had had the audacity to ask for a transitional exit package: something consistent with the business practices in the board member’s industry, ironically. The package was taken away simply because the staff member had shown “disrespect” by asking for it…sigh… vs

  3. Chip Colee says:

    Great thoughts Vern. While baptisms and church growth numbers are easy to tabulate, discipleship is not so easily quantifiable. It could take up to 3 or 4 generations removed to determine the “success” of ministry. Even then, how does one measure or rate church health? This is where the church must be careful in discounting or discarding ministries or the people who lead them. Our culture seeks “instant” solutions to massive challenges. As simplistic as it may sound, the church must steadily, authentically, and consistently model Christlikeness, regardless of style preferences.

  4. Vern Sanders says:

    Thanks for the comment Chip. I couldn’t agree more. Somewhere along the way (maybe from one of those experts…:) ) the church, as I once heard someone say has turned its focus to the material from the eternal. I want to be careful to say that not all churches can be painted with the same brush, just as not all pastors can be labeled CEOs. Unfortunately, however, in churches as well as society, these days a long-range plan often seems to be “what are we doing next week?” vs

  5. Anonymous says:

    Vern, your articles are always so refreshing and relevant. Thanks for keeping the balance of difficult shifts in church management and hope for anointed worship leaders. In that little paper I sent you last year (at the NWLC), I find that a good grasp of the “heart” aspects, “art” aspects, and “hard” aspects of worship with church gatherings goes a long way. Your article describes some of the common “hard” aspects experienced as a worship pastor. I’m finding another “hard” issue is agism: because you are older, you no longer fit the lead worshiper image. You’re right about the part time emphasis to save money too. However, I’m also finding that quality “leadership,” “music,” and “training” are sought after by all. As I seek to be who I am (spirit and body; passion and experience; character and education), I can see God leading me to where He wants me, building His kingdom with each little microcosm of His Church.

  6. Vern Sanders says:

    One of the things that can happen to a church (or perhaps I should say cause a church to take a turn for the worse [subjectively speaking]) is a pastoral churn. That is especially true when you have a relatively stable staff otherwise. I once served a church where all of the staff got along well, did their ministry with extraordinary competence, and had been at the church collectively working together for over a decade. In came a new pastor. Within 5 years EVERY SINGLE PERSON on that staff had either left or been…um…replaced. Except the new pastor of course. During that process, the senior pastor also churned through an Associate Pastor. Years later it is clear that the bottom lines for the change were: the senior pastor was afraid the staff MIGHT not be as loyal as the pastor’s internal need dictated, and (and this is the biggie) because, as a senior pastor, it was possible to make any staff change that the pastor wanted. A decade later that church has gone from 2 services (contemplating 3) with +/-800 in worship to one service struggling to attract 200. When it was my turn to go, I took the high road (see Doug Lawrence’s “20 Ways to Leave Your Church” blog post referenced in his comment below) with the attitude that if the change was God-driven, the church would be better off without me. I have not regretted that decision once, and God guided me to an even better place to serve. I’m not sure that anyone can ever be 100%% sure that a change is for the best. But at the same time, everyone can decide if a change is for the best for them personally. One last thing (sorry this comment module doesn’t allow paragraphs apparently). Margaret Marcuson, among others, has clarified for me that if you have “differences” with a pastor, triangulation simply doesn’t benefit anyone: you, the pastor, and especially not the church. I don’t advocate just bailing either. Having a direct conversation with the CEO pastor might not change your situation but it can potentially help someone that follows you. vs

  7. Jerry Fleming says:

    Thank you, Vern, for sharing this. It is overdue but I am sure, difficult to express. It is like the guy who wore the blue pants and the gray coat in the Civil War…..he was shot at by BOTH sides. LOL Since resigning my church in November, I have visited many churches. Sometimes it is hard to tell the difference, except location. The churches that are making an impact are the ones that have determined who they are/what they want to be under Christ, and are doing it to the best of their ability. They are focused and change only after evaluating how that change may affect their vision. Thanks again for sharing.

  8. Bob Burroughs says:

    This article should be on the table for this week’s staff meeting, to be read by all and discussed. It is a long overdue jewel!

  9. Vern Sanders says:

    Anonymous – Thanks for the comment, and for describing so well the tightrope upon which we all balance. I did not specifically address agism, because that is a difficult thing to prove. My experience and observation, however, is that if you are serving in a ministry and getting older, it becomes progressively more difficult to successfully move “up” to a larger or more visible position. I am absolutely certain that many music and worship professionals have been “released” because they don’t “fit the profile” that a consultant pitches to the CEO and the church as necessary to “grow.” In some denominations, that profile doesn’t include women. In some it doesn’t include people outside of the denomination. Regrettably, in lots of cases it means people over the age of 25 and/or people who can’t play the guitar. Unfortunately, because of the “at will” nature of most church employment, it doesn’t matter whether or not it can be proved, or whether it exists. At will employment makes the point moot. On a brighter note, I too am finding that quality is a sought after value. Defining that quality is still somewhat of a slippery slope, however. vs

  10. Steve Evans says:

    Thank you, Vern for such a timely article. I agree with Bob Burroughs. Before I came to my current church I asked the Pastor, (who is much younger than I), what was his vision for the music ministry. Surprisingly it was the same as I had hoped. I have served here 7 years so far and we are still on the same page. I believe it is God who brought this to pass. I am praying for all those who have or are suffering through the wars. Keep up the good work in ministering to those of us of like faith. May our Lord bless you!

  11. Anonymous says:

    Outstanding article. Thought provoking. It bears reading several times to digest it all. Thankfully I have just celebrated 18 years at my current church, serving under my third pastor. While always trying to learn and stay current, I have tried to “be me,” not like the large church around the corner (and we do have one). I do find, however, that things can be learned and applied from that “different paradigm church.” Without being merely pragmatic, there are things that “work” that can be emulated to reach people with the gospel, not just draw members from other churches seeking (as you said), the “newest and hippest.” So, I say keep learning, growing and improving while still maintaining your identity.

  12. Great article. So many good thoughts. I was just starting seminary back in the 90’s and remember those kinds of conversations taking place. It has been painful to watch. So true about the CEO success model. Before I left the SBC world it seemed like EVERYTHING was judged success or failure based on numbers. Some churches had more statistical analysis than a fantasy baseball league. I think multi- or inter-denominational churches are a strong possibility, we focus on Jesus Christ and serving the community. The music is very diverse but always different, from very classical liturgical to gospel/bluegrass. It stretches me greatly as I am classical/choral trained, but I like the freedom and it keeps the church from having a musical style identity. I don’t know if that is a good thing or a bad thing. Would love your thoughts.

  13. Vern Sanders says:

    John- I’m not a Scriptural expert, but I don’t recall Jesus sitting around with the twelve and analyzing how it would have been a better miracle if they had done their marketing better and the crowd had been 10,000. I also think that denominations, on the one hand, are struggling to figure out who they are in this day of less loyalty by church shoppers. On the other hand, some denominations have spent extensive time trying to figure out just who they are (and if I understand it correctly, the SBC is one of those denominations.) Sometimes the denominational self examination makes for a stronger sense of identity. Sometimes it has resembled the CEO model, where the most important question a church must answer to remain in the denomination is whether or not that church is loyal to the denominational leadership. When that happens, it is not hard to understand why that process might play out at the individual congregational level, because that is the model that is “in the air”… One more thing. I think that the worst thing ANY staff member (not just a musician) can say to a senior pastor is “I know more about this (any) topic than you do, and I’m unwilling to listen to what you are saying about this.”…EVEN IF IT IS TRUE. One of the other things that is ABSOLUTELY true is that a staff member will essentially never win a fight with a senior pastor, and the church always loses even if the staff member does win. vs

  14. Vern Sanders says:

    Thanks Bob…I appreciate it… vs

  15. Vern Sanders says:

    Thanks for the great insight Anonymous. You remind me that I didn’t include my standard line that longevity (if you can manage to survive) tends to bring a staff member a certain amount of slack…and perspective. I’ve always said that the most dangerous new hire is someone who is beginning their SECOND call: they have been successful doing ONE thing, and, in many cases, think that’s the one true and only way. Longevity, on the other hand, can sometimes breed indifference and ennui both on the part of the person and the institution. That’s when it can become an excuse for change. I couldn’t agree more that there are certain pragmatic truths that show themselves over time: I, for one, have cut the choir development time at a new place of service from 18 months to as little as 3 or 4 because I have identified, over time, what works best, and quickest. I also believe that if you are not aware of what is working in other churches, you foster the insularity that can be deadly…. vs

  16. Charlie Little says:

    I loved what Vern said about being good at who you are as a church as opposed to trying to become like someone else. I thought I was immune to the ‘hipster jealousy’ trap…until a new church plant by our denomination 5 miles up the road grew from about 40 to 500 in three years, while the small, traditional church that I had inherited 8 years prior was “languishing” at 150. Not unsurprisingly, there were sentiments of jealousy, resentment (we lost a few members who switched) and self-recrimination (what’s wrong with us?). The blessing that came out of was that after resisting the initial urge to try to be more like that church, we were able to do what Vern pointed out in this article: IDENTIFY who were were, chose to LOVE who we were, and then set out and be the very BEST of who we were. That was a huge turning point for me as a pastor and us as a church. We are far from being our “best” but it’s a lot more fun to be pursuing OUR best instead of someone else’s.

  17. Vern Sanders says:

    Charlie- I think a lot of people would benefit from hearing just exactly how you and your church proceeded through the self study and decision process. I expect, however, that the answer would be “painfully, yet with resolve.” I also expect that the congregation remaining after the process are attending your church because the want to be ministered by who you ARE, not by who and what the church down the street is. It is my observation and experience that in the circumstances which you describe, the congregation is “self called” to participate in the church’s ministry rather than showing up only on Sunday with the attitude of “impress me or I’m going down the street.” vs

  18. Vicki Carr says:

    Vern, your article is so thought-provoking and poignant, as I think of many dedicated church musicians who have not been allowed or willing to adjust their gifting to meet the ever-changing challenges in ministry. As I read, I started to review and contrast the accusations toward my own pastor (that of acting like a CEO) with what I believe his heart to be. True, he does operate more in this model than that of a traditional shepherd, which has caused him a good bit of grief from more than a few folks. His gifting is in preaching and administration. He has to work at being the compassionate shepherd – but he does work at it. On the other hand, I’ve known sweet, loving pastors, who were abused by a power-hungry board of deacons/pastor-parish committee/wealthy church member. There is much pain in that situation, too. In thinking this through, I have come to understand that ultimately my pastor is the guy driving the bus. When the staff chooses to get on board, we are agreeing to go where the driver takes us, and trusting that he is relying on God as his GPS. If anything about that changes, the staff has two choices: to pray for a change in the heart of the driver, or to get off the bus, as you have done in the past. There must be chemistry among worship leaders, and a unifying attitude of servanthood. The congregation is made uncomfortable when they sense otherwise. Unfortunately, narcissism can play a part in the devilish destruction of what once was a genuinely cohesive staff. And I would wager there is as much narcissism among MoMs as there is among pastors. Seems to me we ought to ask ourselves what real bearing our petty differences have on the Kingdom of God. I think we must each be careful to keep our eyes on the “prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus,” whether we are worship leaders, CEOs, elders, shepherds, or musicians. BTW, I LOVE the Malcolm Gladwell reference. I’m such a fan of his well-researched observations.

  19. Vern Sanders says:

    Thanks for your cogent observations, Vicki, and for underlining the point I tried to make in the original article: let the church musician/worship leader without CEO sin cast the first stone. I also agree that your choices (to pray or to leave) are true. Sadly, for many people, their choices are limited because they either are afraid to leave or feel that they can’t, due to financial or other reasons. I have been fortunate, I’m sure, in that while there have been bumps in the road, my places of service have been, by and large, positive experiences. When they haven’t been positive, it is clear in retrospect that they have been necessary for reasons that weren’t obvious at the time. Thanks for contributing to the conversation. vs

  20. Doug Lawrence says:

    As I read through these, I recognize a problem encountered in many churches—some of them quite prominent. If the CEO is also a narcissist, he will feel that rules of decency and compassion can only be defined from his perspective. Some of these ministers preach one thing on Sunday morning and are blinded—by their pathology—to the fact that they are totally unable to administratively live up to the standard they themselves set. There is no easy cure for this disease and fighting it will always cause the narcissist to move you out of his perfect reflective pool.

  21. Vern Sanders says:

    I’m tempted to say something flip here Doug, but, given the seriousness of the subject matter I can only agree: narcissistic staff members, be they CEOs or custodial staff…or church musicians…have difficulty with seeing the ministry for the mirrors. It is one of those emperor has no clothes topics that is tricky to write about, let alone discuss in a church staff situation. vs

  22. I feel a little guilty in replying. I’m starting my 17th year at a wonderful, growing, traditionally worshipping United Methodist church with great staff support, strong programs, and vibrant worship. I feel incredibly blessed and accept that “my world” is not the real world. However I have “been down that road”. I remember hearing the Staff Parish chairperson say, “We want you to take our music program in a new direction.” Fortunately, as one door was closing, God was preparing another door to open.

  23. Vern Sanders says:

    Jack- do I take it from your comment that they wanted you to take yourself out of their music program? I remember interviewing for one position in a room set up with two rows of chairs facing each other with a single chair at each end. I sat in one of the end chairs and the pastor (who was hard of hearing and kept saying “What did you say?”) sat in the other single chair. Less than a minute into the interview I figured out that the four people on my left were totally opposed to the ideas of the four people on my right, and vice versa. After about 15 minutes of watching body language ping pong, I said: “You folks don’t need a new church musician, you need a therapist, because whoever you hire will never satisfy all of you.” Needless to say I didn’t get the position. And…the church ground through 5 music people in 2.5 years. Sometimes it really is better to just say no… vs

  24. Shelley Reel says:

    Wonderful insight, as always, Vern. In my long career, I’ve also watched churches chase that latest fad, sometimes successfully, but more often than not, doing it badly. And as I’ve talked with many in the congregations who’ve totally cut out a part of the family but changing their worship, it breaks my heart to hear their stories. A pastor who thinks he will rebuild the church and bring in new sheep by using that band and gives no thought to the sheep he already has in his flock. While I never got a real reason why I was let go, I always surmised that it was because I was not able, by myself—their admission—to fill the pews. No matter that I expanded the choir by 13 members in 11 months, no matter that I added several new choirs to the ministry, no matter that there was a new excitement about our music. No, they decided that I hadn’t fulfilled their dream of bringing in new members, yet they refused to change anything else about “how they did worship.” Oh, and I could make a long list there! No one person should bear the sole responsibility for saving that church. The church is its people as a whole, all working to their goal together. But sometimes that CEO doesn’t see it that way. It’s been 2 years. Only God knows if I will ever direct again since I have not been able to find another position. The openings are few and far between. I hope you’re right that things are turning around.

  25. Vern Sanders says:

    I think that your 9th sentence–slightly altered– should be placed “over the door” in every church Shelley. I was once in that situation, but for a slightly different reason: the pastor had tried everything else (over the space of 15 years), so, in his opinion, which I actually don’t dispute, the church was in good shape but needed a “professional” (read “full time”) music/worship person to get to the next level (unspoken: and be successful). Neither he nor I counted upon the fact that by making worship the focus of the “upgrade,” a lot of simmering under the radar stuff came to a boil: most prominently around the questions of why the church needed to spend “that much money” on worship…sigh…That church’s staff has completely rolled over as well… vs

  26. Vern Sanders says:

    Steve- thanks for the comment, and for the report on your good situation. I pray that your ministry continues to be on the same page, and I appreciate your prayers for those who find themselves in situations that are not as yours. vs

  27. Charlie Little says:

    I thought I would chime in again, this time in response to Vern’s comments on the blending of a seasoned church musician steeped in the richness of “traditional” church music and a younger/newer music leader whose gifting is primarily in the style of “contemporary” music and a band. Vern’s musings were very much on the mark with regard to our situation. We have a fairly young musician who leads our worship band, but his musical training is scant, so his musicianship and range of style and knowledge of the wider genre of worship music is very limited. The worship band had become an important piece of our worship, but it was also a bit of a sore spot for some. Then we were blessed with an opportunity to hire an exceptionally gifted, knowledgable and seasoned music director (part-time) and established a partnership relationship with the one leading the band. The effect was immediate. His presence provides ballast to the leadership from the chancel, and his work on the piano and keyboard make the band music more “accessible” to those who musically would probably long for the days of the church organ alone. In addition, the choir was revived and has become an integral part of the worship – not as performers, but as worshipers and worship leaders. And the vocal choir has now spawned a hand bell choir. In our case, BOTH the choirs and the band have been a piece of why people who have joined the church felt our church was a good fit. But more to the point, what we strive to do on a Sunday morning is not about musical technique, style, or genre – it is about helping people experience the presence of God in worship, in the context of a community of people who would rather worship with some aspects of the service they don’t particularly love, in order to worship together with the people they do love. And they WILL do this if they feel respected and loved…and if the worship is really about God.

  28. Steve McLellan says:

    Almost everybody that has been in church music for 30 years or more understands this article perfectly. I was fortunate enough to find a position three years ago with a mainline church that has a diverse music program open to both traditional and contemporary worship. In order to retain full time status I accepted responsibilities reaching far beyond the original “music director” description. I anticipate a day when the position will shift more toward pastoral care with the praise band coaching portion filled by a younger person.

  29. Vern Sanders says:

    Steve – Glad that you are in a good place… Sorry that you are being stretched in the name of “productivity”… If you can, remind your colleagues and supervisors that you need a sabbath from time to time in order to avoid burnout…

  30. GREAT article, again Vern! Not much to add to the copious responses except to say I experienced both the benefit (unknowingly) and the personal abuse of the proverbial employment shift in the Worship Wars. Musicians, Pastors, and Parishoners alike need to remember WORSHIP IS AN OFFERING TO GOD, not a personal preference, or as an excuse to hire and fire. After 4 years of intense battles, personal attacks, outrageous misbehavior, and a pastor whose personal style drove all but the most staunch community members away I was told by the head of personnel (a fellow who CLOSED down corporations for a living- go figure) that my salary would soon be adjusted to reflect the number of “butts in the seats” his words, not mine). Guess what- I moved on as soon as possible of my own volition. I have to say- the abuse from the top down took its toll on me. When the Church (famous for following trend after trend in order to be “relevant”) simply focuses on AUTHENTICITY and kindness (among other Christian responsibilities) She will grow, be fruitful, and effective. My heart goes out to anyone currently embattled in the worship wars. The sheer number of posts in this article should be evidence enough that you are not alone. Thanks, Vern and Creator Mag for another pertinent, insightful article. ROCK ON (or pipe on… whatever style you prefer) 🙂

  31. Vern Sanders says:

    Stephen – Thanks for your comment, which pretty much says it all. I was in Buffalo, New York, teaching at a conference recently, and the worship wars are a “hot topic” in the northeastern US right now. As I said in my presentation to them, it has been an ongoing scriptural theme: the first murder in the Bible is the first instance of a worship war. Which means that everyone does well to understand it and prepare for it, rather than stick your head in the sand. As I also said in Buffalo, though, there is life on the other side, and the course of action that you took will no doubt stand you in good stead going forward.

  32. I am with you totally Vern. I just retired from my church of 17 years, at the age of seventy years. I stayed at my former church 20 years. In this last church, I had to do a good deal of stretching to become a bit more contemporary, but I had a congregation and a pastor who allowed me to work at my own pace, to do the best I could. I have been blessed to have been in a church position for 50 years, with only three months break when I went to seminary. I am now singing in the choir, and trying to be an encourager to our new Minister of Music.

  33. Vern Sanders says:

    What a great role model you are Ed, to continue to serve in some capacity even if it is not as “the” leader. I’m sure God has truly blessed your ministry.

  34. Craig Collins says:

    Vern, I had somehow missed this article before. It is great and filled with so much truth, yet at the same time it both saddened me greatly and made my blood boil. There’s a lot I could respond to. One thing that immediately came to mind is that those who equate growth with numbers, seem to miss the point that with greater numbers and trying to keep up with the latest fads, we are actually doing a poorer job of ministering to those who are already there. What about their spiritual and musical growth? IMO that is 100 times more important than bringing in new people. I think the truth of the matter is that when God is worshipped in spirit and truth by a congregation, it grows as a result. The witness of these people in their community is strong and guests are usually drawn in so that they join. So imo these so-called “experts” have priorities that area totally askew. They focus on growth instead of and to the neglect of worship and actual ministry. IMO, if anyone should be fired, it should be these so-called experts. IMO the CEO model of Pastoral leadership has absolutely no place in churches. While I understand that big churches can be “big business”, IMO churches should set the standard for how employees are treated, and sadly, instead, they often follow the practices of the secular business world, and often are even worse than the secular business world in how they treat their employees (in terms of salary – no raises, benefits, and expectations). Rather than functioning to support and help employees as is supposedly their purpose, church personnel committees often seem there only to document mistakes that employees make so they can look to fire them. Staff development? I’ve only worked at one church where even lip service was given to that. I recently began reading a book originally published in 1992 that I think every pastor, personnel committee, music committee, worship committee, and church musician should read. It’s entitled, “Discipling Music Ministry” by Calvin M. Johansson. I think if more had read it instead of listening to all those so- called “experts” we’d have a lot fewer problems

  35. Vern Sanders says:

    Thanks for adding to the discussion Craig. I have indeed heard of the Johansson book, and those who have read it speak highly of it.

  36. Vern Sanders says:

    Charlie– One of my bits of advice to churches is “don’t label worship” because any time you do, you set up a situation where people BEFORE THE FACT make judgements and decisions about what they will encounter at a given service. In my opinion, labeling the one event that a congregation does corporately (and therefore, theoretically at least, unifies that congregation) invites the congregation to divide. In part this is because people have preconceived notions about things. Don’t believe me? Pass around a piece of paper (actually DON’T…but go with me here for a moment while I make a point) on a Sunday morning with the following instructions: “Don’t look at anybody else’s answer. This is a secret poll. There is no right answer. Now describe traditional (or contemporary, or blended, or bleeding edge, or casual, or…well you get the idea…) worship.” Obviously, as a church gets bigger, there can be “critical mass” around different worship music styles, and venues, and brands of coffee. But, again, in my opinion, too many churches try to go there too soon, because the big church down the block has labeled services so that must be the way to grow. This is not seeing the forest for the trees. One more thing. I can tell from your description of your church that it is one that could be a wonderful model for many others. I suspect it is one at which many people reading this would like to serve, assuming that there aren’t other staff issues. People who work together, given that they are people, find themselves in positions of disharmony more often than not. It is a testimony to leadership when things work as well as what you describe. vs

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