Preaching to the Choir

Can We Sing Now?

I know of a church who is presently “in transition.” Roughly translated, that means that the previous Minister of Music was there a long time, the interim is not doing well, and the committee is taking forever to make up its mind about several qualified candidates. Part of the committee’s problem is that the pastor is wringing his hands over whether to give in to his heart, which says “go contemporary,” or his head, which says “the church is filled with grey heads.” The other problem is that the finance committee is wringing its collective hands over what it will cost to replace a person whose job description, it turns out, was far larger than anyone knew at the time.

From my perspective, this position will be a challenge for anyone who finally accepts the call to this church. Knowing it as I do, I can also say that if the new person can get through the first year or so, this could turn out to be a “dream job.” A few wrong steps, however, and the dream will be a full fledged wake-up-screaming nightmare.

Who’s On First?

In an Inc. Magazine article entitled “Everything I Know About Leadership, I Learned From the Movies,” authors Leigh Buchanan and Mike Hofman cite 10 movies, some of which are relevant to the “selectors” of the above church, and some to the “attenders,” for the following reasons:
Apollo 13 ~ Leaders certainly desire loyalty and passion, but if they fail to win their followers’ confidence first, well, failure is not an option.
The Bridge on the River Kwai ~ The leader never asks the most important question: Am I doing this for myself or for the organization? Execution takes priority over strategy. And when that happens...the results can’t help being catastropic.
Glengarry Glen Ross ~ This is a warning for those who treat staff like a different species, deserving of extra strrokes when they produce and extra kicks when they don’t. Sometimes your best people are the most fragile when times get rough. If you can’t manage to challenge without threatening and motivate without intimidating, you’ll lose them all.
It’s a Wonderful Life ~ No matter how big the business gets you sense that he’ll always treat employees with consideration and respect and always address every customer by name.
Norma Rae ~You don’t have to be better than the people that you lead. You don’t even have to believe in yourself. As long as you believe passionately in what you are doing, others will follow.
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest ~ Illustrates the mistake that many new leaders in established organizations commit: he tries to enact change without understanding why things are the way they are. Upending powerstructures, flouting bad rules, turning on the charisma, he seems like a rebel destined to win his cause. he learns too late that the organization he hopes to turn around is deeply and complexly dysfunctional and that the powers that oppose him are firmly entrenched. Yes, the world can be changed by a single person. But not by a naïve one.
Twelve Angry Men ~ Henry Fonda’s character is a model for leaders trying to win over diverse, hostile constituencies without resorting to bullying or edict.

What’s On Second?

Let’s assume, for a moment, that I could step out of my role as an observer of the process at the church in transition. Let’s further suppose that I could be able to whisper in the new Minister of Music’s ear at the point when the MoM meets with the choir for the first time. Here’s what I’d suggest the MoM say...

Hello! I’m new here! I’m here because I felt a strong calling to be here.

Your search committee, your pastor, and your elders choose me, in part, because of my gifts, and my past work history. I bring that accumulation of experience and skills to you. Together we need to go forward in our service to the Lord’s ministry in this place.

When we gathered together during my interview process the time I spent with you was limited. While it may not have seemed so then, I can’t be all things to all people.

More than anything, I need your help. I need to know everything I need to know, and I need to know it yesterday. But there is a time and a place for everything, and I ask that you understand that we need to agree to that time and place together. Telling me “that’s the way our old director always did it” during the course of my rehearsing one of your favorites is probably not the best time or place. Telling me about why this ministry has been successful for 20 years over lunch (your treat!) would be wonderful.

Think of me as a visitor from another planet. I may be from a more (or less) advanced civilization than yours. The most important thing for me to know, is how to communicate with you, and, especially, what I need to know to understand what is appropriate for your civilization. Teach me about your corporate culture, and I will share with you about what I bring to you from mine.

Not every one of you will like every piece of music that we present during worship. Some of you may not even like the fact that it is me standing here and not your previous director, or your interim, or another candidate. I ask you to give our shared ministry the benefit of a reasonable transition period so that we can develop the same level of trust amongst ourselves that you have with your pastor.
I’m not going to ask you to do something I don’t believe you can do. I’m not going to ask you to do something I don’t believe we should do. I am going to ask that you pray for me, and for our shared ministry. I am going to be praying for you, both individually and corporately.

I am going to ask you to help me extend the reach of our ministry by doing the things that you can do that I can’t do. I am going to ask you to follow the Scriptural principles by coming to me privately first if you have a problem with me. If we can’t resolve the problem I will ask you to bring in a third party. If we still can’t resolve the problem I’m going to ask that we together seek the counsel of the elders of this church.

We will have our share of success and failure together, and it will have only partly to do with the music we present as our offering each week. Not everyone can sing solos, and not everyone can be a prayer warrior. God has provided each and every one of your individual gifts and talents, and combined them with your willingness to serve together with me in this ministry. Make my life me out privately and tell me about the one gift of three others that has been the greatest blessing to you.

I intend to pursue the goal that our ministry together be one of “first fruits” for the Lord. The pursuit of the best for our Creator will probably, at one time or another, lead every single one of you to believe that we are working too hard, or on the wrong piece of music, or toward an unreachable goal. I can only tell you that “the best” is seldom a product of lack of water, lack of fertilizer, or a lack of effort on the part of the one who grows. It is even less often a product of instant gratification.

By the same token, I pledge to you that we’re going together on this journey. I don’t intend to get too far out in front of you. Trust in the divine providence of to grow, one to reap. If we do this properly, there will be a time when, just as you are thinking “this is way to hard,” someone else will be thinking “this is way too easy.” Neither will be right. And, God willing, in 10 years, we will be together at a different level of accomplishment, and still someone will be thinking exactly the same things, and still neither will be right.

When it is time for me to go from this place, I hope to have been a blessing to you. I know you will be a blessing to me and my family while I am here. Enough talking. Let’s sing...

Do you have any words of wisdom to add? I’m interested in knowing what you think or what has worked for you. Please leave a comment.

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6 Replies to “Preaching to the Choir”

  1. Vern,

    Good article. Thank you…

    I especially appreciated the realistic, humble assessment of the leader’s responsibilities.

    You got me with the “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” metaphor.

    “Upending powerstructures, flouting bad rules, turning on the charisma, he seems like a rebel destined to win his cause.”

    Unlike Jack Nicholson’s character in that movie, we too often see ourselves as Tom Cruise in “A Few Good Men,” able to win the day with our charm and wit as our main tools. We forget to figure out what kind of soil God has us working in. Thanks for great metaphor and reminders.

    Thanks again,


    1. Thanks Glenn…bloom where you are planted is great advice…

  2. Vicki Carr says:

    Love the imagery of the alien from another planet. That’s exactly what it is like. The only thing I would add: as the two species are assimilating, the new MoM promises to not constantly refer to “the way we did it at (previous church)”. The new church needs to believe that you are continuing to create fresh ideas for their situation – not just rerun past successes, especially Christmas performances.

  3. David Shaler says:

    I like to come out right away and compliment the choir (and church) on what they have done and on the work that their previous director has accomplished with them. After all, that is probably what attracted me to the position and it shows that I respect what has been done in the past and who was leading in the past. I should think that would then set up the comments you offered about building on that legacy but allowing things to change and be different from what has been done.

    I also cringed a bit when I saw the phrase, “We will have our share of success and failure together…” I think ‘failure’ is too strong a word, especially in an opening speech when you want to offer hope and high expectations. Perhaps ‘disappointments’ or ‘struggles’ is a better choice of wording.

    1. Thanks for the comment David. I totally agree about giving props to the previous director, although I’ve followed directors who were, frankly, incompetent but told the group that they were great. In that case the trick is to gently change the culture toward the realistic.

      Perhaps failure is too strong a word, but I also believe in being realistic (see above…)

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