The Bi-Seasonal Dichotomy of Music Ministry and Worship Planning

Here & Now and There & Then

As a worship music professional, my work flow is constantly taking place in two alternate universes.

The First Universe

In the first universe, I need to "be present in the moment" with what is happening now. This is particularly true on the platform during a service, where, if I am still processing/dwelling upon an already happened "musical mistake" it will affect my ability to play what is happening now. At the same time, if I am worried about what is that a transition, a difficult section of passagework, a high harmony that might not now be possible because I'm vocally tired, for example...then I'm not concentrating upon what is in front of me. (For an ancient/modern take on this, click here.)

But it is also true of the non-platform part of my ministry. If I am not present in conversations, staff meetings, and other people-to-people encounters, then I may be missing the "silent information" – body language, triangulation, the "real question," and other things.

The Second Universe

In the second universe, I must always be "planning ahead." On the platform, if I am not thinking about that upcoming transition, passage work, etc., then there is a real chance that it won't happen when the time comes. It is a gift to be able to "feel the room" and continually modify what does come next based upon my life in the first universe while dual-core processing what might be "best" for next.

Off the platform, from a planning standpoint, I am basically living in the "next season" mode all year...planning Lent while doing Thanksgiving, Easter while doing Christmas, Pentecost during Epiphany, and so forth. For big projects, like concerts, festivals, and workshops, I know that I need to plan a year in advance for the best results, because there are so many details that need to be dealt with along the way. some sense...the ability to compartmentalize, to do "background" cranial processing, and meet deadlines is a critical piece of my success quotient as a worship music leader. But at certain times of the year (in my experience the worst is early in the Advent season, but early Lent is bad too) that means that, from a left brain/right brain perspective, I'm on overload. I can get cranky, short with people, and so planning/project/delivery focused that I seem distracted in everyday conversational interaction.

Planning Ahead in the Real World

As you can probably tell, I believe that if you fail to plan, you plan to fail. (For an article on the need to plan to do planning, click here.) But I also am an improviser, and so it sometimes appears that I have done no planning.

Now I know that for some planning is difficult, because they don't believe in it, because their supervisors don't value it, or their lives are too chaotic...whatever. So I asked some of my friends and colleagues in ministry these question:

Is planning ahead useful for music and worship ministry? Do you find that it is more stressful to plan, or to just "go with the flow"? How far ahead do you plan? How have you arrived at that window? What is the single thing that most impacts your ability and/or willingness to plan?

Here is a representative sample of the replies I got back.

Devon Brooks came right to the point:

I find that planning ahead is indeed helpful, especially for worship services. The stress associated with planning ahead has never compared to that of, not only being unprepared, but feeling as though I have let down the congregation. Luckily, my congregation is small. Planning ahead consists of little more than picking the songs and running through them a few times during the week to make sure me and my partner have it down (i.e. transitions, harmonies). I definitely say plan ahead, don't overdo it though. Give God the room to intervene and speak to the process as much as possible.

Roberta Foreman was even more emphatic:

Do I plan ahead? Absolutely! I plan five months at a time -- half my work year. All anthems are chosen to reflect or to be compatible with the lectionary readings for each Sunday. I give a copy of my plans along with copies of each anthem so he can prioritize his practicing. All plans are subject to change due to "singer availability." So nothing is really set in stone.

Anita Hughes had a lot to say, particularly about quality, and she provided some specific things that she does:

The question is “do you plan ahead for music and worship ministry” The answer is wholeheartedly YES!!!

I am often “taken back” when I see sloppy work done in the arts whether it’s music/dance/etc. and I hear people around me say “well that director is an artsy type so that’s why everything is so unorganized.” That’s nice that people can overlook our many faults but not organizing/or finding someone who can help you organize leads to many problems.

Yes, we want the Holy Spirit to have his place in our worship but the Holy Spirit works in us on Monday (when we might be planning) as well as on Sunday morning when we are executing the worship. Why is it that we limit the Holy Spirit’s work to performance time only? I find the Spirit’s leading even stronger in my one-on-one time with the Lord or in my quiet planning times. I see evidence of the Holy Spirit’s leading during worship through my team/myself/and the congregation but at that time it the fruit of worship that I see. Fruit cannot grow where it has not been planted!

There are two different groups I am currently planning for – the Worship Choir and the weekly Praise Team/Praise Band ministries. Planning for the choral group is very specific…for instance – all Christmas music is ordered and planned out by September 1. Singers, instrumentalists, soloists, audio, visual, stage designers, etc will all know what will be needed for the Christmas program very early in the season. There will always be things that come up last minute but if you are not on top of things early – you will be a basket case the two weeks prior to a performance. In January, everything for Easter will be set – sometimes this is a hurry job if Easter comes in March…but the choir immediately begins working on Easter music and the Good Friday service.

The weekly praise team is another story. I send out a weekly music newsletter to all the musicians every Tuesday morning. Specifics for schedules, music, devotional thoughts, upcoming events are all posted in that newsletter. Prior to a Wednesday rehearsal – some specifics will have changed – music changes as I continue to read through the sermon topic or speak to the Pastor – rarely does music change after the rehearsal but occasionally it does (through the urging of the Holy Spirit) sometimes I don’t know why it changed/why I felt it needed to change but God knows why. Music is typically chosen 3-4 weeks ahead of time as I receive sermon titles but refined as the sermon gets closer. (constantly planning and revising) I have 4 specific praise teams that sing one Sunday a month (always the same Sunday) but because we work with volunteers I am usually busy keeping up with the schedule (lots of planning)

Because I have been doing this for ten years at the church where I serve – it is calming to know how everything is running. Sunday mornings are worship times for me as well as for my teams and the congregation. This is accomplished because we plan, plan, plan during the week. We are located in Houston – a busy town with busy people (like everywhere else) – it is part of my job to be a calming presence in the lives of my volunteers – they come into rehearsals and worship tired and worn out. The music lifts their spirits and helps them fix their eyes on Jesus. When I have not planned a rehearsal well – they are agitated and I go home from church exhausted and discouraged. There are always glitches – we are working with people at rehearsals…and I put a lot of energy into every rehearsal and performance. Being organized and relying on the Holy Spirit’s leading everyday is what gets me through and keeps me serving with gladness and joy!!!

You asked what is the single thing that most impacts your ability and willingness to plan? I think it is knowing (through good and bad experiences) that if I don’t plan, I have not done what God has asked me to do. Look, sometimes you plan and God changes your mind at rehearsal – be open to the Spirit’s leading – but give God something to work with in the first place. Serve with excellence as the skilled musician you are.

God is a planner! Ephesians tells us that we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do! Sounds like planning to me!

Robert Pentecost uses a 6 week planning schedule:

I think planning ahead is best very useful for any church ministry with allowances for change and spontaneity always a factor.

I print and hand out a 6 week music schedule a few Sunday's before it is to begin. I highlight their times(s) and put their name on the front for each: soloist – ensemble members, our choir accompanists (who also do our piano duets and or organ/piano duets) and any other of instrumental soloists, kid's choir and hand chime directors that might be involved in that 6 week span.

Obviously there are always some changes because I don't know work/travel schedules, children's church, nursery, parking lot security or other ministry rotations for everyone. I will switch one for another when possible and they and I mark them on our copies so we both remember.

I have had to improvise more in the last few years with the new pastor than I ever have in my ministry. He sometimes forgets to tell me until 5-10 minutes before a service, before Bible classes or as early as late Friday – that we have a presentation, a report, a DVD, a missionary presentation or guest musicians along with the guest speaker...etc...I still try to plan by asking every once in awhile if there is something coming up that I need to know before finalizing the plan each week. It works OK most of the time but I just wonder if these things just spring up on him at the last minute or what. I can just hear the response if the board asked him before a service to change subjects or shorten his message because of something they thought of or wanted to have instead.

I like to plan ahead in my family life also but am very susceptible and open to spontaneous outbursts of unexpected and unplanned fun things to do.

Finally, Danny Von Kanel reminds us that even if you do plan ahead, people skills are also necessary:

Effective planning is an absolute necessity if we want quality worship experiences. I cannot imagine going into a worship service without detailed plans. With praise teams, choirs, instrumentalist, sound men, powerpoint leaders, and pastors, everyone has to be on the same page for it to work – and that says nothing about the amount of planning needed to get music ready for all participants.

Church musicians must have people skills because relationships are 99% of our work but that doesn’t minimize the great need for administration skills. Great administration frees up time for spending it with parishioners. Without planning, our Sunday experiences are open to chance and disaster.[Tweet "The Bi-Seasonal Dichotomy of Music Ministry and Worship Planning"]

My Planning Universe

Back to my own experience. I now try to plan for a whole season, music-wise (and by that I mean July to December in the early spring, and December to June in September or October), although that has varied based upon the pastoral leadership with which I have worked. At one point in my ministry I was able to plan a whole year ahead, on a rolling schedule. On the other hand, there have been entire "seasons" when I have finished my ensemble rehearsals having no idea what the preaching pastor was going to preach about...or worse, once having a pastor who would routinely change their mind on Saturday night.

In the specific case of worship planning, I try to use an 8 week planning schedule, a technique I learned from my friend and colleague Doug Lawrence. An 8 week schedule allows you to plan from the general to the specific, while allowing time for plans to change somewhat along the way.

The 8 week ""mid-range" planning segment also works for me because it has been my experience that most amateur church choirs need 8 weeks to prepare a typical anthem. There are exceptions, of course, especially when you are returning to something that the choir has done before, or if the choir is "better" than average, but 8 weeks is a good rule of thumb (for sample forms to assist the planning process, click here – log in required).

It has also been my experience that most churches, and church leadership, desire music in worship that supports, or otherwise relates to the lectionary or other Scripture, or the pastor's message. If the church uses the lectionary to plan worship, the choir director can usually find something that relates to one of the Scriptures, or to the sermon.

But it has been my experience that many pastors simply can't plan 8 weeks ahead, particularly if the church does not use the lectionary to plan worship.

So many musicians are caught by the practical problem of wanting...or relate the choir's music to the rest of the service, but not having enough time to adequately prepare the choir to do their best (or to adequately plan a prepare a here for more on that – log in required).

The solutions to this problem tend to be twofold:

  • Keep a number of "generic" and/or "seasonal" choral anthems in the choir's folder at all times

It is almost always appropriate to do a choral "Praise the Lord" call to worship, or to have the choir sing a communion anthem during the celebration of the Lord's Supper. If you've served during a couple of Christmas or Easter seasons, it should be possible to pick some pieces for that season (or Epiphany, or Pentecost, or Lent...) that will fit in somewhere.

  • Turn the planning process on its head

Instead of waiting to hear from the preaching pastor just exactly what the music needs to relate, try this: plan the music and let the pastor know what the choir will be singing.

It has been my experience that many pastors (eventually...although some get it right away) appreciate having the music planned first. In my personal experience, it is almost a liberating thing for a pastor, and I've found that, when the music list is presented in the proper context, and with the proper respect, pastors often end up preaching about something that relates to the text in the music.

I'v found that this makes everybody happy. Try it and see if it works for you.

The Bi-Vocational Universe

There is one other wrinkle in this giant "master plan," one that is shared by a great percentage of church musicians and worship leaders. Because I also run a business, I am also subject to the specific bi-vocational minister's malady of needing to be in two places at once...and it always seems to happen at the busiest times.

In my experience, church leadership (and by that I mean the real decision makers, not just the hierarchy of the org chart) has a tendency, if not a preponderant disposition to be uncaring about any leader's "outside life." Staff member or volunteer. We can be so "my timeline" driven that we fail to recognize that our people's lives do go on off campus.

But, as Danny Von Kanel says above, ministry is a "people-centric" activity. It has taken me a long time to get to the point where I see the "bigger picture" of the schedules of the people I work with, and, especially of those who, on the org chart at least, work "for" me. Some people come by this trait easily, but I am living proof that one can learn to care more about people than program, because, in the end, in ministry, your people are your program.

What have you learned? How do you deal with the bi-seasonal dichotomy or any of the other issues associated with planning?

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