Building the Partnership in Music

Building the Partnership in Music
N. Lee Orr

I thought that we had decided to work more carefully on keeping the music in the service timed, so as not to run over too much,” Allen told Philip on Monday morning. “When I finished the sermon it was ten past noon, and the congregation was growing restless. If you don’t think you can be more careful about timing, then maybe I better check all the music you are planning for length and suitability.

“You asked me some time ago to have solos for most Sundays,” Philip responded, angrily, “and I have been trying to comply with that request.”

“Well, but the solo was so long, then the anthem took seven minutes,” Allen said, tensely. “I assumed you would be more careful with the timing. Once again, we sang an opening hymn that no one had ever heard of, even if the words did fit the sermon. I have asked you repeatedly to include more familiar hymns. And the call to worship was long as well. Can’t you find something shorter?”

“Talking about short, your sermon was thirty-five minutes long.'” Philip shot back. “And you forget that you wanted the calls to worship to be uplifting and inspiring. I spent two hours arranging that ‘0 Worship the King.’ After all, it was only two verses with an organ interlude. It seems that every time I try to do what you ask, you criticize me, no matter what.”

“Well, it seems to me that you only care about the music and its performance, with little genuine concern for worship, the place of the sermon, or how things should fit together,” replied Allen. “Maybe we should rethink whether or not we can work together over the long haul.”

This story does not demonstrate anything Allen and Philip discuss that resembles cooperation, understanding, or interest in what the other person has to say. Yet both adamantly insist they want to work together, that they want the worship service to go well, that they are committed to planning together. The problem lies with the other person, each argues: “He just does not understand the situation.” And each is right. Neither Philip nor Allen understands the other. Neither sees how the other views things, and neither is aware of this lack of vision, which prevents them from trying to correct the problem. Each of them remains locked inside his own perception, unable to consider any other position. Now they have drawn lines so hard and fast that indeed any future partnership seems remote at best. Someone, likely Philip, will move on.

Building a Partnership Means Understanding the Perspective of the Other Person.

Successful partnerships start with understanding. You cannot work with another person unless you have some insight into how he or she perceives things. Failing to do this means we will never move forward in our relationships, because we do not know where we started. Becoming partners involves understanding that each of us can see things very differently, and that these differences are valid, no matter how far apart they seem. And there is certainly little hope of moving closer if we do not acknowledge their existence and their validity.

Our perceptions of the world are uniquely individual, which means that we see things differently, focus on selective parts of a problem, seek data to support our own perception, and screen discussions for selective memory.

We expend most of our energy during discussions seeking support for our viewpoint, which can block us from understanding how the other person sees the issue. At the same time, we focus on those points that give our position consistency, no matter how legitimate or minimal they may be. We spend all of our efforts on reinforcing the viewpoint we brought to the discussion, rather than opening up to genuine dialogue. And then we leave with our positions hardened, our assessment of the other person lower, and hopes for an improved relationship diminished.

When Allen suggests that Philip choose a familiar opening hymn for Sunday, Philip filters this to support his view that Allen has no taste in appropriate worship music and is trying to tell him how to do his job. Philip selectively forgets that he has introduced three new hymns during the last two Sundays. Since he will not calmly discuss the issue with Allen, he does not know that Allen has received more than a dozen congregational requests�and reasonable ones at that�for some familiar hymns.

If Philip were to relax his defenses and attempt to understand, he would see that Allen is not saying, “I am trying to tell you how to do your job”; nor that he prefers poor hymnody, but that there must be a mix of the new and the old in worship. Moreover, if he gave Allen the chance he would hear him say, “I support you, for you are quite talented, and I want to keep worship challenging. But we have to remember from where our people come and that bringing them along is a slow and fitful process. Working together will enhance and accelerate this.”

Almost any issue contains opposing interpretations. Our goal in building a partnership starts with exposing these different interpretations and then discarding those that prevent us from moving forward. The following chart offers some examples.


Minister: After considerable effort, I could not get the planned sermon title to work, so I developed a different theme.

Musician: The minister changed the sermon title because he had not given it much thought; it shows that he does not work on his sermons until the last minute.

Minister: Young people do not feel wanted in the adult choir.

Musician: Even when we do sing youth-style music, the young people refuse to come; they will not make commitments.

Minister: Some new choir members feel the director goes over the music too quickly.

Musician: I would spend more time going over the parts, but we have been singing anthems that most of the choir knows and many have told me they were bored.

Minister: The choir director does not work on recruitment.

Musician: I have talked to eight different choir prospects in the last two weeks and not one showed up for rehearsal.

Each of these problems could be easily and positively addressed if the pastor and musician had a good working relationship. Simply being open to what the other person thinks would go far toward eliminating each problem. The musician did not realize that the three new choir members wanted more help; they had only expressed their wishes to the pastor. The pastor did not realize that the musician had talked to so many people; he forgets how resistant people are to making commitments. Had the musician shared his frustration about recruitment and how much time he had put into it, the pastor might be more supportive and offer some help. But since the two remain suspicious of each other and discount even the positive things that occur, these issues only further damage the poor relationship.

Building a Partnership Means Establishing Genuine Communication.

Productive partnerships rely on quality communication. It follows that once we understand how the other person sees things, then we know better how to respond. At that point, we can mutually convey our true ideas and feelings about an issue. “I can’t talk to her” means that you do not communicate. “I can talk with him about anything” denotes comfortable communication.

Communication goes beyond talking. Research shows that little genuine communication results from verbal exchanges. Our real intent comes across more clearly by our tone of voice; in fact, it accounts for 38 percent of communication. If you respond to the pastor’s request for a different hymn with a harsh “that’s fine,” you communicate your displeasure and disagreement with the suggestion, even though you said the right words. The dynamics, tempo, pace, and range of your voice communicate what you really mean. Those interactions that make us uncomfortable are those where the other person’s tone of voice and words conflict. They send mixed messages, leaving it up to us to guess the real intent.

The largest part of communication, 58 percent according to sociologists, comes from body language. How we hold our self, our gestures, facial expressions, whether our arms and legs are crossed, and our looks tell much more about our true intent than any words we use. If you refuse to look at me when I am talking, cross your arms, and seem distant, it is clear that I am not communicating very well with you. We both develop subtle feelings of discomfort and frustration. Conversely, if I lean close as you talk, looking directly at you with my arms and legs unfolded, I communicate that I am listening and hearing. When we part, we feel good about our interaction and do not worry about a future conversation.

Obviously, relationships will not work without good communication. Other things can remain unresolved and not seriously disturb a working relationship, but communication must be genuine and ongoing. We do not need to be good friends�or friends at all for that matter, to communicate well. Nor do we have to change each other’s minds on many issues to accomplish our purpose. In fact, there may be many issues that we cannot control when working with another person, but we can improve communication if we decide that we want to improve it.

First, we must remove the obstacles that prevent clear communication. Unless we become aware of those habits that get in the way, we cannot communicate effectively. Fisher and Brown identify the three most frequent barriers to good communication: we presume there is no need to talk, we talk at people rather than with them, and we are inconsistent with our messages.’

We presume there is no need to talk.

Nothing hinders genuine communication more than thinking that we do not need to talk. We presume that the other person can read our mind, while we assume that we can read his or hers, a chancy supposition. Without ongoing dialogue, those unexpected developments that are so much a part of our work do not receive attention. Consequently, they continue to cause problems. When the pastor adds a baptism to Sunday’s service, which already includes an extra speaker for the pledge campaign, without telling the musician, you can guarantee that the service will be too long. Granted, the parents requested the baptism only three days before the service. But the problem still could be addressed before the bulletin is typed if there is a comfortable framework for handling surprises. If the pastor and musician see that there will be time problems, the solo can be deleted, or perhaps a shorter anthem can be substituted at the last minute. By surprising the musician with an addition to an already full service, the pastor reinforces the musician’s suspicion about the pastor’s indifference to worship. The surprise also engenders mistrust about the reliability of future service planning.

Communicating well means avoiding surprises. Doing this gives your work consistency. But if you let the other person think that planning for the service, or for the board meeting, is finished and then you add a new item without telling him or her, you act inconsistently. They believe that they cannot rely on what you have said, that you might have a hidden agenda. You may indeed simply be unorganized, or get distracted by overwork, but surprises suggest other agendas or ulterior motives. Both of these undermine trust and prevent communication. It is better to tell someone twice about a change than to assume they know when they do not.

We talk at people rather than with them.

Many people confuse talking and communicating. They think that the more they talk, the better they communicate. As previously pointed out, however, words are the least important part of good communication and actually can impede genuine understanding. Communication often begins when we quit talking and simply listen. In fact, much of the time we could improve our communication skills by listening more. For many issues it really is not difficult to express what we think and feel, if we decide to. Really hearing what the other person is saying, however, is another matter. Often, what we call listening is not really listening at all; it is simply waiting our turn while the other person talks. And during this time we are formulating what we will say next. Many times this results in two people alternately talking at each other, with no one listening and certainly no one communicating.

Talking at people not only means we miss what they are saying, but we also risk misunderstanding their point of view as well. We then leave the encounter further convinced of how right we are, which hardens our position. No wonder that the other person is less enthusiastic about “talking” with us again.

The pastor who “preaches” during staff meetings can effectively kill communication between the staff members. For one thing, he or she can consume the entire meeting time talking at them. For another, the pastor can become so absorbed with what he or she is saying that he or she is not prepared to hear others’ concerns. Good communication in a group setting involves continual checking with each person present to ensure that he or she is heard. If time runs out, it is better to table some issues until another meeting. Doing this promotes dialogue and allows everyone resent time to talk as well as listen.2

We are inconsistent with our messages.

Inconsistency is one of the quickest ways to undermine a relationship. Saying one thing and doing something different sends a clear message to le other person: you cannot trust what I say. There may be many different reasons why you are inconsistent�emotions, pressure, being ensure of yourself, but unless you bring your words and actions more in ne, your relationships will not work. Let’s replay the situation described previously. In discussing next Sunday’s worship, the pastor informs you that there is a baptism in addition to a speaker for the pledge campaign. He goes on to say that he needs twenty-five minutes for the sermon and losing hymn. Would you check the music time to make sure that the service does not run over more than five minutes? If you agree, then he fill proceed accordingly. If you refuse to delete either the solo or the mighty anthem, he will have good reason to mistrust your assurances bout worship the next week. Even worse, he can understandably begin mistrust your assurances about other issues.

Your refusal to follow through might result from any number of Reasons, but none of them are as important as the need to be consistent. You may be angry that he did not plan better, or that he allowed a last-minute baptism to intrude into a tightly planned worship. Nevertheless, you should own up to these feelings and express them to him. He could well agree with you. He might even agree to shorten the sermon this Sunday, remove the middle hymn, or suggest another solution. By communicating with him, you not only prevent the service from being too long, but you also strengthen your partnership with the pastor. The next time an uncomfortable issue arises, it will be easier to discuss it.

Four Ways to Improve Communication

Communication can be considerably enhanced by using certain approaches to surmount the barriers that inhibit genuine communication. Four ways to improve communication are: make no assumptions, check things out before acting, learn to listen, and use reason, not emotion.
Make no assumptions about what the other person thinks.

Perhaps the best way to keep communication clear is to never assume that you know what the other person thinks. While this can seem somewhat artificial at times, it helps to keep misunderstandings to a minimum. This becomes especially important when a new pastor or musician starts at a church. Until a good working partnership develops, it becomes critical to find out how the other person thinks about things. Deciding to omit an anthem for two Sundays because much of the choir is gone may seem fine to the musician, but the new pastor may feel that every service needs an anthem. This can easily be remedied by using a simple hymn. If the musician assumes that the pastor understands why he or she canceled the anthem, conflict can result. Asking the pastor what he or she thinks about Sundays when many of the choir members are absent will clear things up. Avoiding assumptions leads to the second way to strengthen communication.

Check things out before acting.

While you may correctly know how a person will feel about a certain issue, especially after working well together for some time, continue to check things out before you act. Apprising the other person of what you would like to do greatly strengthens a working relationship. It tells the person that your commitment is to the entire church program, not just to your own area. Bringing up a certain issue before a decision is made says that you feel it is important to see the impact that it will have on the whole church. In addition, it assures the other person that you have no hidden agendas. You might fail to see all the ramifications of a certain issue, but talking about it shows that you are above board with your request.

Learn to listen.

Probably everybody thinks he or she listens well. If this were true, there would be far fewer problems with communication. Many communication difficulties arise from the inability to really listen, to actually hear what the other person is saying. The first way to improve your listening skill is to quit talking so much. Simply letting the other persons talk more will make it easier for you to hear what they are saying. If you suspect a hidden agenda, then you will have to probe more deeply with questions. Asking for further details or for clarification about an issue will soon reveal whether your suspicions have merit. If the persons just have trouble expressing themselves, then you will enable them to be more clear. If they seem to be hiding something, for whatever reason, then it will help you understand that as well.

Another way to listen well is to speak only for yourself; do not try to second guess or interpret for the other person. Shape your responses so that you speak only as you see things. Stay in the first person singular: “It seems to me that we should.”; or “I do not see it that way. ” Speaking this way makes your position clear without threat or intimidation to the other person. He or she can then feel comfortable about expressing the way he or she feels. Moreover, it makes it clear that you assume responsibility for your position and actions.

Use reason, not emotion.

This may be the most difficult skill to acquire, especially if you work in a difficult relationship. Forging a partnership with a demanding or vacillating person can be exasperating, at the least. If the personalities are dissimilar or if each sees things differently, then this becomes even more critical. When the music director feels that the pastor is unsupportive of the music program (whether or not it is actually true), working with that pastor may be difficult. Almost every conversation will be tinged with suspicion and defensive responses. The only hope for even a minimally successful partnership lies in responding with reason, rather than emotion. Thinking through every conversation in advance and checking your emotional responses can minimize your own inner distress and help improve your general attitude.

The first thing is to present an issue with careful and thoughtful preparation, which will go far toward defusing any possible confrontation. Anything to do with the visual aspect of a worship service can be extremely volatile. For example, by carefully preparing his or her request to change the seating in the chancel, the music director can increase the chance of a positive response. Pointing out to the pastor that the choir members will hear each other better and see the director more clearly will communicate to the pastor that the director wants only to improve the choir’s performance and thus improve the service. This will help allay the pastor’s suspicions, valid or not, as to the director’s motives.

The second thing to keep in mind is to keep a check on how you are feeling. If a conversation seems increasingly distressing, excuse yourself from the room and take a short break. Think through how you are responding, what the real issues are, and return better able to make rational responses. If the issue becomes seriously upsetting, it might be better to admit to being upset and request continuing at another time. While this is difficult to do, it is preferable to exploding with an emotional statement that you do not mean.

One of the most helpful ways to minimize emotional responses is to seek solutions, rather than to dwell on the problems. This takes the issue out of the emotional arena. “I did not get to the pulpit until 11:50 because the anthem was too long” and puts it into the more objective arena of “How do we prevent this from happening again?” Focusing on solutions draws each person out of “my side” and moves each person toward “our side.” It also keeps the discussion unconditionally positive, which minimizes complaining and assigning blame. Rather than ask, “Why do you try to undermine my sermons?” the pastor might say, “Please check the time of the music so that I may be in the pulpit no later than 11:35.”

Focusing on solutions also holds the discussion to active decisions. Making a commitment to find a solution ensures that the focus is on issues rather than personalities, the source of many relational difficulties. Therefore, by focusing on solutions partners can (1) solve problems without agreeing on every issue, (2) move out of their own perceptions, (3) avoid hardening positions, (4) move toward common ground, (5) depersonalize issues, and (6) act independently without waiting for the other person to act first.

Basing a partnership on reason rather than emotion gives each partner room to maneuver when they hit an impasse. It is much easier to change Sunday’s anthem, which may run too long, rather than to emotionally insist that the anthem has been planned for six weeks. If the music director says, “If we postpone the anthem for a week, I think the timing of the service will be fine,” he or she gives the pastor room to respond. This communicates that the music director wants to work with the pastor and to be flexible. Moreover, the pastor learns that the next time a potentially volatile problem develops, the music director will not explode and demand his or her way.

One final point: Using reason to help forge your partnership does not mean suppressing or denying your emotions. Indeed, rational approaches give you a firm structure to deal with emotions. Without this structure, your emotions control you. Left unchecked, emotions can eventually undermine not only your partnerships, but also your personal effectiveness.

The above article, “Building the Partnership in Music” was written by N. Lee Orr. The article was excerpted from chapter five in Orr’s book, The Church Music Handbook For Pastors and Musicians.

The material is copyrighted and should not be reprinted under any other name or author. However, this material may be freely used for personal study or research purposes.

This article may not be written by an Apostolic author, but it contains many excellent principles and concepts that can be adapted to most churches. As the old saying goes, “Eat the meat. Throw away the bones.”