Getting Past the Numbers

Are You Counting the Wrong Thing in Ministry?


We all do it. We give the standard response without thinking. The question may come from a new acquaintance at a convention, or an old friend getting back in touch, but the standard response comes easily: "Well, I've got 25 (or 12, or 110) in my choir .... " It's just like watching the stock market -- is your choir success portfolio up or down today (or this week, or this year)?Too often we are so busy pursuing the numbers, climbing the numerical ladder to success that we fail to see, as Stephen Covey puts it, "whether the ladder is leaning against the right wall.'" The typical choir director, whether part time or full time, is so busy with the stresses and problem-solving demands of the job that success is often just a matter of getting through "just this one Sunday, please Lord!" Deep down (way deep down), how many of us actually have thought out what makes a really successful music ministry and are consciously implementing a plan to achieve it?

Ultimately the success of a music ministry depends upon who is doing the evaluating. We will all find out how successful we have been at the judgement day, but in the meantime, who is doing the evaluating here and now? It is particularly difficult for the choir director at a small church, underpaid and with no staff, to satisfy everybody. On the other hand it seems like it is particularly difficult for the choir director at a large church, underpaid and with a large staff. to satisfy everybody.

In fact, unfulfilled expectations may be at the heart of every unhappy church/music situation, and probably are a significant factor in any decision to sever a working relationship. What, then, is to be done?

Simply put, evaluating the true success of a music ministry depends upon working together with every segment of your particular portion of the body of Christ's church to establish two things: clearly defined goals for your music ministry, and a clearly defined means to measure the level of accomplishment of those goals within a specified time frame. In plain English: what are you supposed to be doing, and how do you know how well you are you doing it?

Realistically, every situation will have its own unique plan. What worked at your last church can't just be transported along with your furniture to a new parish. Each congregation, each pastor, each music minister brings very specific traditions, hopes, and dreams to a given moment in time.

I asked the pastor of a brand new church how he evaluates the success of his music ministry. and after laughing and responding "that there is one," he went on to define four areas important to his situation. The first criterion on his list is what he calls "choir life." He wants his choir to be a good support system for its members and to have a good relational outreach dynamic toward new members.

Secondly. he wants the choir in worship to have "content that is integrated well and presented well." Continuing. he says that in a small church this is a very big issue. Are the choir anthems inspiring to the congregation? Or, to be precise. "If the congregation sings better than the choir. we're all in trouble," Thirdly, the choir should be a place where people can use and develop their individual musical gifts. This pastor wants the choir to foster a sense of accessibility ("I'm needed here.") And finally, the choir should be a place for spiritual growth and a sense of mission for the choir member.

That's a tall order. The important thing, however, is that his goals are clearly defined. This church is just a year old, and still meets in an elementary school cafeteria. It is, therefore, a very "pastor centered" environment. A choir director that defines success by pleasing just the choir members ('They love me!") would sooner or later be in difficulty in this situation. By the same token, five years hence when the church is presumably quite a bit larger and has its own building and other professional staff, the environment may be more "board of governors centered." A new dynamic will be in place.

Let's compare the above criteria with a five point system being used by a church choir director at a mature but small church. First, this director measures success by "how the choir responds." At both worship and rehearsal this director evaluates the "energy level back to me."

Secondly, he is attentive to "how the congregation responds." A good analogy of this is a front yard lawn. If your lawn is unkempt, your neighbors are likely to complain amongst themselves -- not to you -- about how it is affecting their property values. If your lawn looks pretty typical of all of the rest of the lawns on the street, nothing much is said at all. But if your lawn is tended with loving care, it is a source of pride to the neighbors and generally will prompt compliments to the owner. Similarly. the musical presentations may never provoke comment unless they are very good.

In addition, this director measures success by "how the pastor and music committee respond." Finally, and perhaps most interestingly, this director measures success by how the music budget is
adjusted on a year to year basis. Increases in salary and budget are here clearly defined as indicating goals accomplished.

Just for balance, I asked the minister of music at a "mega-church" how their music ministry measures success. Here I got the shortest answer of them all. "Our music ministry must honor God, and challenge, console, or communicate to the congregation every week." That's another tall order.

Some of you may already be saying, "That's all well and good for them, but they don't understand my situation."

How do you go about developing goals? Covey answers that every successful person and institution has a clearly defined mission statement. The extent to which you are willing to develop a mission statement for yourself and your ministry will influence the dividends you receive many times over. Of course it is more difficult for a part time director, but here's the payoff:
By investing the time and effort to develop even a personal mission statement, you will have a clear means to evaluate your own personal accomplishment of its goals.

If your goal, after much prayer and soul searching, is to direct a choir that regularly does double chorus music, and you have a choir of five, there is much to be done! You may even decide that you should pursue a different ministry opportunity.

The mission statement(s) should ideally be a part of your professional performance review process. Periodically (certainly every five years or so) every segment of your church body needs to reaffirm their own mission statement. You will be interested in evaluating how these statements indicate the current state and future direction of the music ministry. Who might be expected to produce these statements? At the very least you, your choir, and your pastor. Others might include the personnel committee and a representative sample of the congregation.

As the previous examples indicate, these mission statements can be specific or generic. There are two key requirements:
they must be true guiding principles, and they must be appraisable according to a systematic plan.

Covey (and others) point out that it is common for business executives to go through the process of producing a mission statement and then put the document in a drawer and never refer to it again. This not only wastes time and effort, but indicates that the executive did not agree with the mission statement.

Successful mission statements are clear reflections of passionate beliefs, and are the basis for evaluating every action by their author(s). They are organic, living principles, constantly reflecting the current "state of the art."

It is stressful to operate under a mission statement that can't be evaluated. 'The choir will be better at the end of the year than at the start" is a mission statement just looking for trouble. Better in what way? Belter by whose judgement? Instead, the operating mission statement might be as follows: "During the Christmas season the choir will sing two numbers at every worship service, and all of the anthems will be in four parts." This mission statement gives the director, choir, pastor, and congregation a clear goal, and every rehearsal decision and worship appearance can be held up to this measuring stick.

If you've read this far you may be asking "how do I produce a mission statement?" Take a day and have a single item on your "To-Do List." Read the Bible, pray, dream and be realistic. Take a few notes. Ask a few questions. Then take pencil in hand and see if you can produce one page (or one paragraph, or one sentence) that you can use to be a beacon for your ministry in the next week, month, and year.

Read it out loud. Can you really live with it? Can you live up to it? Is it a measuring stick? Is it a passionate belief?

When you've developed it, your mission statement won't be private, although you need not tell anyone unless they ask. God provided us a model in his admonition to Joshua (I: 8-9): "[It] shall not depart out of your mouth, but you shall meditate on it day and night, that you may be careful to do according to all that is written in it; for then you shall make your way prosperous, and then you shall have good success. Have I not commanded you? Be strong and of good courage; be not frightened, neither be dismayed; for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go." Your mission statement will be continually lived out in your music ministry. You can't fail.

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