When I was asked to write an article about excellence in music ministry for Unity churches, I was at first excited for the opportunity. Then, upon reflection, I thought “How can I possibly prescribe a one-size-fits-all list of benchmarks, when Unity churches are so far-ranging in size and demographics?”
In September 2012, I attended the Sound Connections New Thought Music Conference at Unity Village, Missouri, along with some 120 of my colleagues. As I watched, listened and conversed with other music directors from around the country, I began to realize that there are ingredients that are necessary for a thriving music ministry, regardless of the descriptors of a spiritual community.
For a Unity community to have excellence in music ministry, it is absolutely crucial that the leadership of that community understands the important role music plays in the worship life of the congregation. In some mystical, magical way, music allows us to move a spiritual teaching from our heads to our hearts, to feel and more fully integrate Truth. When a minister understands how music can partner with the message, and seeks to collaborate with the musicians for fullest effect, the results can be transformational.
On a practical level, church leaders can support the music minister with financial compensation and budget monies that reflect the importance of the ministry. When determining salary for a music minister, ministers and boards need to remember that for every “visible” hour a musician works (rehearsals, services, office hours), there is an “invisible” hour (selecting music, rehearsing, arranging charts and choral parts, etc.). Musicians spend as many years learning and perfecting their craft as medical students, at great expense to themselves, and need to be compensated fairly. Financial support for attending conferences and workshops to further develop skills is also important.
The Right and Perfect Music Director
Did you realize that there are actually two types of musician? One is classically trained, can read music, may have experience leading choirs and working with volunteers, but panics at the thought of improvising under meditation (me, 10 years ago). The other is an “ear” musician, who can improvise and play well by ear in any style, but may not be able to read a choral score or have any idea how to work with volunteers! At the Sound Connections conference each year, the Music Ministry Team of Unity Worldwide Ministries works hard to try to meet the growth needs of both types of musicians, so that they learn to be versatile and have a large variety of skills. When looking for a music director, spiritual communities can think about what their particular needs and vision are, and hire based on those expectations. Regardless of skill set, it is also vital that the music director have a deep understanding of New Thought principles, and a dedication to finding ways to let Spirit speak through them and their volunteer musicians.
Quality of Music and Music-Making
Regardless of whether a church uses Wings of Song or other sources, it is important to find special music that has integrity and depth, both lyrically and musically. Congregational music should be accessible but not trite, and with a range easy for all to sing: full-throated congregational singing is a joyful experience!
The music-making itself needs to be of the highest possible quality, to enhance the worship of the community. Notice I said “highest possible quality”—perfection is rarely possible! Education is the key word here—education both of the community and of the musicians. There are times when a member of the music ministry will deeply desire to offer a piece of special music to the congregation, and it will be very healing for that individual to do so, but they sing a bit sharp or have little sense of rhythm. Perhaps this person could be encouraged to make the piece a duet, and pair with a stronger performer. Perhaps he or she could practice the piece before several smaller groups (at a choir rehearsal, a mid-week prayer service, etc.) to hone the performance before offering it on Sunday morning.
Sometimes a new choir will sound less than stellar. Perhaps they can rehearse weekly, but only perform every month or six weeks. Music ministers to the listener and to the musicians—in these types of situations, it is possible to also work with the congregation, so that they understand how important it is to the volunteer musicians to share their heartfelt musical offerings, and so that they encourage these members of their spiritual family, just as they would members of their biological family.
Wishing you a harmonic convergence.