Recognizing the Need for Partnership

Recognizing the Need for Partnership
N. Lee Orr

As Richard unlocked the door to the sanctuary on Saturday morning he wondered how the bulletin had turned out. Before rehearsal on Wednesday evening he went into the church office to see if the pastor had left his sermon title, the scripture, or the hymns. Unable to find anything he went ahead with his planning and left the music for the secretary to type into the bulletin:

Prelude: “Rise Up, 0 Men of God”
Call to Worship: “Lift High the Cross”
Anthem: “Anthem of Dedication”
Offertory: “0 Jesus I Have Promised”
Postlude: “Fight the Good Fight”

As he looked over the finished bulletin he found himself growing angry once again. “I thought we were going to focus on commitment this Sunday,” he thought. “And here he is preaching on ‘Some New Ideas on Prayer,’ and the hymns are ‘Sweet Hour of Prayer,’ 0 Master Let Me Walk with Thee,’ and ‘Prayer Is the Soul’s Sincere Desire.’ What difference does it make if I ask him what he would like to do, and spend time planning the music for Sunday’s service? Now we will sing about commitment, while he admonishes everyone to pray. The congregation will think I don’t know what m doing. We never sit down and plan worship; we just shoot from the hip, so I never have enough time to plan the music ahead. This really makes me mad. Doesn’t he realize how important worship is? I guess we just are not going to take worship seriously and plan it each week.”

Richard is probably right. He and the pastor probably will continue going along without a good working partnership. Richard will choose anthems and service music as he can while the pastor works separately on his sermon each week, finishing just in time for Sunday morning. Most of their conversations have little to do with worship. They generally involve questions about when the children will sing again, how much music to plan for Vacation Bible School, and an inquiry on how a choir member is doing after surgery. While there is lip-service to the importance of planning for worship, it rarely happens. Also, since Richard’s job as a school teacher limits his time at church to late afternoons, evenings, and weekends, he often misses the pastor completely, making worship discussions even less likely.

Lately, Richard feels increasingly frustrated over the dilemma, making it harder to be as positive and enthusiastic as he once was. The choir, too, senses his anger as he comes into rehearsal after searching for nonexistent worship guidelines in the church office. Moreover, they wonder why he planned music on commitment when the pastor preached on prayer. Complaining to friends in the choir might relieve some of his anger, but he rightly resists this.

The truth is, most clergy and musicians give little, if any time, to developing a strong partnership. This is the fundamental reason that worship does not receive much serious attention. In how many instances does worship really function almost as an afterthought to the rest of the week? The musician selects the anthems, responses, and instrumental music on his or her own, while the pastor works out the sermon title, the scriptures, and the hymns by himself. At Wednesday rehearsal the choir pulls the music together for Sunday while the pastor works diligently on some ideas for a sermon. By Friday morning the secretary gathers everything and types the bulletin (how many church secretaries are the actual worship planners in the American church or, at least, worship compilers?). During the weekend the pastor pulls off another “Saturday night special,” giving the sermon the finishing touches in time for Sunday worship. With luck the service will mesh together. If not, they can at least hope to avoid a liturgical collision.

What in the world are we doing? No wonder church membership has fallen to its lowest level in recorded history. No wonder our people leave unchanged, uncharged, and unchallenged. No wonder we have become a post-churched culture. We do not really care about the most important single event in the weekly life of the church. The secular world takes its productions seriously, very seriously. What television show, community theater, or even high school skit would ever perform with such little planning? Only after extensive thinking, planning, writing, revising, cast selection, rehearsal, more rehearsal, and, in some cases, spending astounding sums of money do these productions open. Yet, we give planning for the most compelling drama in human life a nod, shrug, and a prayer, and then we wonder what is wrong with “them,” meaning members of the congregation. After viewing the slick, flawless productions on television and film, people come to worship where we present them with an unplanned, liturgical hodgepodge that we hope will not contain too many incongruous incidents or sprawl too much past noon. Why do we continue ignoring the most important issue for the church of the nineties?

Don Wardlaw points to the culprit: autocracy both in the pulpit and on the organ bench.’ While Wardlaw’s metaphor of autocracy may be slightly overstated, it concisely defines the essence of the problem. The pride of both minister and musician, no matter how generously disguised, can prevent them from surrendering their respective egos to the greater cause of worship planning. Autocrats do not submit to partnerships, nor do they feel they need to consult anyone in their work rule from on high, making sweeping decisions and grand pronouncements for others to execute.

Both pastor and musician often see themselves as the center of the liturgical drama. When this is the case, it demotes the other worship participants to just supporting members of the drama. If the pastor holds this conviction, then he or she will view the music as preparation and conclusion to the central element of worship the sermon. Likewise, when the musician assumes he or she is the most important person in worship, then the music exists only to overwhelm the congregation with its artistic brilliance, making time allowances for a homiletic interruption. Both forget the fundamental nature of their calling.

Autocracy in the Pulpit
The autocrat in the pulpit acquired much of his or her imperialistic attitude in the seminary, where he or she learned to view a pastor as a divinely inspired Chief Executive Officer. In this wise and benevolent role the pastor shapes worship according to weekly insights, then bestows this prophetic vision upon the musician to fill out with musical connective tissue. And should the musician, working in the liturgical dark, select the wrong filler material that only confirms the pastor’s suspicions concerning the musician’s liturgical ineptness. Or at the least, it betrays the musician’s inexcusable inability to read the pastor’s mind.

Unfortunately, what the minister often did not acquire in seminary included the skills, insights, and often passion for worship planning. He or she selects the hymns with little real purpose, capriciously landing on whichever hymn might vaguely seem to fit the general theme of the day. It may be simply a hymn someone has been requesting. Never mind that it may have nothing to do with worship on that Sunday. Without a clear theme in mind, after all, it does not matter which hymns are sung. The sermon, too, is cobbled together out of whatever ideas the minister read most recently, or, pushed for time, he or she retrieves a sermon prepared four years ago and changes a few paragraphs to make it fit. Then he or she locates appropriate scriptures to fit the sermon. If the lectionary is used, it is forced into the Procrustean bed of the sermon idea. Hopefully some remote connection can be concocted. By Thursday afternoon, ready or not, the pastor gives the secretary the materials to insert into the slots for “Sermon,” “Hymns,” “Scripture,” and “Announcements.”

A pastor often feels that planning a worship service destroys openness to the Holy Spirit a necessary part of all worship. The pastor may feel that planning worship can make it a performance, and worship should never be performance. But without careful planning, it is not much of a worship service either. The pastor does not seem to understand this, however, since he remains unaware of the critical nature of careful worship planning. William Willimon, Dean of the Chapel at Duke University, explains how he fell into this situation: “I never took a course in worship or the liturgy while I was in seminary. There were courses taught in this subject at my seminary, but . . . I, preparing myself to be a pastor to modern come-of-age humanity, felt little need to spend my time thinking about something so anachronistic as worship. Besides, I was a Protestant, and what had things like the sacraments, liturgical prayer, and so forth to do with me?””

His experience is far too typical. Many seminaries give the students as little as one seminar on worship and liturgy, just a few hours on preaching skills, and often no required training on music in worship. Thus the pastor graduates with few liturgical skills or insight into what constitutes meaningful worship. To make matters much worse, the pastor combines this lack of insight with an elevated opinion of his or her ability to make all the critical worship decisions. So, most pastors begin their ministry with a dual deficit regarding the most important aspect of a congregation’s life.

Autocracy in the Choir Loft
Not all the liturgical autocrats are found in the pulpit. Many lurk behind the conductor’s baton, or on the organ bench, and they can be just as difficult. Dr. Johnson had been pastor at Forest Glen Church for about eighteen months when he called a minister friend about his biggest problem, Linda, the director of music. “I really respect her talent and want to work with her, but every issue that I raise, she makes into a confrontation. I simply suggest something, and she starts arguing before I even finish the sentence. I had to firmly insist that she attend weekly staff meetings, even after we moved them to fit her schedule. I gave her a list of the sermons two months in advance so that she could prepare appropriate service music. As far as I can tell she has ignored the list completely. Granted, I do not follow the lectionary every Sunday, but I do plan around a central worship theme.

“She also makes such arguments over the hymns! I don’t care for some of the gospel hymns that we sing myself, but our denomination has strong revival roots, and these hymns remain an important part of our congregation’s religious heritage. Worship for our members means getting in touch with some of their modest musical roots, even if some of these hymns do not meet her elevated standards. I really want to work with her, but she refuses to establish any genuine dialogue about worship; so, I end up getting mad and ordering her to do things. Our relationship is pretty poor right now.”

Dr. Johnson’s conversation reflects the same feelings that Richard experiences, but the roles are reversed. Now the musician is the problem. Like Richard’s pastor, Linda acquired her autocracy in school. Pushed to sing and play as well as she possibly could, Linda developed a passion for excellence; and not just in performance but also in her musical selections. Her teachers constantly insisted that she study, listen to, and perform only the finest art music. When she continued on to complete her master’s degree, she further refined her skills as well as her elitist attitude about what was best for worship.

Later, when she took the education courses to become a teacher, she subtly internalized the profile often a necessary teaching tool of explaining to people how to do things because she knew better. Sometimes this included explaining to Dr. Johnson.

By the time Linda finished school and started working at Forest Glen Church, she had brought with her this zeal for excellence in music selection and performance. Only the best in church music read “historical art music” would do for worship. Obviously anything tainted by popular association does not meet this elevated standard. Popular music is unfit for worship. Moreover, anyone who advocates unfit music (like Dr. Johnson, with his gospel hymns) betrays “the cause,” meaning the highest and finest in music for worship. And this betrayal must be opposed.

What Forest Glen Church has is a musician whose attitude remains just as closed as Richard’s pastor. Her years of training, attendance at church music workshops, and desire to offer her best to the church prevent her from understanding the reality of the situation in our post-churched culture. So when she starts planning for worship, she carries two distinct and inflexible attitudes: Christian worship should involve the finest music since God deserves our best, and, since the finest music is historical sacred art music, most of our worship music should come from that repertoire.

When Linda encounters a congregation member who asks to sing some “good old hymns,” or when Dr. Johnson suggests “Sweet Hour of Prayer” for the middle hymn, she responds with icy silence. Or, if she is forced to respond, she delivers a diatribe about betraying her calling to sing the best church music. She then retreats to the choir room where she consoles herself by complaining to some choir members about how the musical philistines are at the gates. Now her sense of isolation and alienation only increase, making it even more difficult to discuss worship music calmly and objectively.

Linda’s closed system prevents her from seeing how the church and society have changed over the years since she began school, where she formed her musical outlook. When she started college in the early seventies, the American church still seemed to be flourishing in the glowing embers of the churched culture. With the affluent prosperity and healthy membership still largely intact, Linda could afford not to worry about how her music was being received by the congregation. Moreover, much of the traditional music she chose for worship remained somewhat familiar in style to many in her congregation. While she was busy teaching and working at Forest Glen, however, the musical world outside the church changed. Like many professional classical musicians, she has not kept in touch with the world of popular music and media technology. Nor has she understood the impact that this popular musical world has made on American culture.

Now, almost twenty years later, things are different. Not only do members of her congregation live their lives inundated with popular music, but they also no longer have much familiarity with the forms and styles of historical choral and organ music. So she has a two-fold problem, which might become apparent if she would consider things with an open mind. But her refusal to submit herself to genuine dialogue with Dr. Johnson about worship hardens her position, resulting in her adoption of a superior and defensive attitude and her resolve never to “lower her standards.” The same result happens when Richard’s pastor works in isolation. Whether the autocracy thrives in the pulpit or choir loft, it prevents genuine dialogue, undermines much staff communication, and relegates worship to an unimportant exercise performed almost by rote on Sunday mornings. What’s to be done?

The Power of Partnership
Pastor and musician must abdicate their thrones, open themselves up to dialogue, and “move from pride to partnership” a phrase coined by Don Wardlaw. Only in this way will worship regain its spiritual vigor, the congregation become empowered, and the church rise anew to face its challenge. Together, the minister and musician must each leave their fiefdoms of pulpit and choir loft and forge a partnership. For the pastor, this means stepping down from the lofty realms of being the CEO and standing on common ground with the musician, the rest of the staff, and the congregation. It also means that the musician must leave the secure artistic shelter behind the altar rail and join the entire church community clergy and congregation in worshiping together. Then everyone can join together as equal partners in making the liturgy as meaningful and dynamic as possible.

This brings the church back to its original purpose, where liturgy meant “work of the people.” The word comes from the Greek term leitourgia, which originally described the cleaning of the marketplaces in ancient Greece and Rome. After market day closed, everyone, including civic leaders, joined in cleaning up. Everyone did similar tasks in working together for the common good. No one stayed aloof, directing the activity. Everyone pitched in. Liturgy in the church needs to recapture this concept where minister, musician, staff, and congregation all roll up their sleeves and join together as one worshiping body the activity. Everyone pitched in. Liturgy in the church needs to recapture this concept where minister, musician, staff, and congregation all roll up their sleeves and join together as one worshiping body The church today can begin to regain some of its cultural authority when the minister, musician, and the rest of the staff work in partnership to lead it. Only by presenting one front, empowered by the gospel, will the church have a solid voice to address the issues facing American society at the end of the twentieth century. Partnership begins with genuine communication, which necessitates sharing openly, speaking calmly and honestly, and listening to one another. It does not mean agreeing on everything, having things always resolved as one would wish, or even making deep personal friendships. It does mean cultivating a relationship that will focus on the single goal of ministering to the community of humankind. Achieving this goal starts with planning together for worship, letting go of hidden agendas and resentments, developing working relationships that support and affirm, and constructing an atmosphere of trust and support where future problems can be addressed.

In their book Getting Together: Building Relationships as We Negotiate, Fisher and Brown suggest that a successful partnership results from six positive attitudes: reason and emotion, understanding, communication, reliability, noncoercive modes of influence, and acceptance.’ Using these attitudes makes the move from pride to partnership possible, airs hidden agendas, avoids blame fixing, and shifts the focus from problems to solutions. Focusing on these attitudes can make us aware of how we relate, of the process of our interaction, and of how to develop some objective detachment from our own perspective.

Forging this partnership happens in three broad phases. It begins by building the partnership, it grows through strengthening the partnership, and it prospers by affirming the partnership. When the pastor and musician relate well and commit to planning together for worship and church growth, forging a partnership can happen naturally and with little effort. If pride and autocracy stand in the way, however, the journey can take some time and will involve work on both sides. If we mean business about revitalizing the church and its worship, if we are serious about bringing the gospel of love and healing to a despairing world, if we believe what we say, then we must join together to do it.

The above article, ‘Recognizing the Need for Partnership’ was written by N. Lee Orr. The article was excerpted from 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.’