“The devil comes in through the choir loft.” I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. A New Thought minister was explaining to me why she would never have a choir at her center. “You’ve heard that expression, right?” she continued. “Choirs are hotbeds of dissension and division. Plus, they’re usually not very good.” I did my best to offer my own experience and opinion which was vastly different. By the end of the conversation, neither of us had persuaded the other to their point of view.
I’ve been creating and performing music for the New Thought community for 22 years—17 years as a church music director. I’ve had the honor of speaking and singing at dozens of our spiritual communities and have developed close personal and professional relationships with many ministers and musicians. I wish I could say that the viewpoint expressed in the above conversation was rare, but I find that not to be the case. I continue to find that the “us and them” mentality between ministers and musicians is active and alive in our movement. And it’s not just the ministers, many musicians are polarized in this same way.
Having been on both sides of this apparent divide, I can tell you from both principle and experience that it need not exist at all—that it is truly possible to create a healthy partnership between minister and musician/music director. When it happens, both the music and the message are amplified and strengthened in incredible ways!
As a minister or spiritual leader, the first thing to do is get clear. Clear within yourself about what you want in your music program. You might start by just asking that simple question, “What do I want?” Try to think about the essential qualities you’re looking for. What do I want my community to experience during the music? A sense of inspiration? Excitement? Contemplation? Connection? Write down the words that move you the most. This is what you begin to pray for. It’s important to note that this work is about the spiritual vision of the music program for your community. The minister does not simply get to call the shots based upon his or her own taste and preferences.
Alan Cohen says, “Pray for essence, rather than form. Then the form will come from the essence.” As the “vision-caster” for your ministry, you are the one called to do the spiritual work, the “first creation” of your music program. Doing prayer, masterminding or visioning with your board, a prayer partner or ministry team is a great idea. The spiritual power of agreement is immense.
Part of getting clear is to determine whether or not you’ve got the right music person on board. I think it’s always a good idea to try to work with what you have, but at some point you may become clear that it’s just not a fit. I invite you to make the change with kindness and clarity. No musician likes to lose a gig, but those of us on the spiritual path will attest that it always turns out for the best—for everybody involved.
Once you are clear, you begin to speak the vision to your music director or musicians. Remember, this is vision. At this point in the conversation it is not a list of songs of which you either approve or disapprove. You need to get your music leaders to buy in. Ideally, you are working with gifted and talented musicians who are actively engaged in their own spiritual growth. You want to attract the kind of musicians who are seeking to express their musical gifts in a spiritual setting for the good of the community, not just to get their own applause and paycheck.
I have been teaching music ministry to ministerial students in the Centers for Spiritual Living for a number of years. One of the things I always stress in these classes is the need for ministers to “speak musician.” Talk about the spiritual qualities of your vision but add to your conversation descriptions of the sounds you need to hear or not hear.
One minister was complaining to me that her pianist could never play the way she wanted under her prayer. She had had several conversations with him, explaining the need for the music to support “going within” and “a deep experience.” “He just isn’t getting it!” she said. I said, “Try telling him to play a quarter as many notes and drop the volume by half.” She looked at me a little sideways, but agreed to try. A couple of weeks later she reported that it worked like a charm. She got what she needed once she learned to ask for it in a way that made sense to the musician.
As I mentioned earlier, holding the vision for the music ministry is not the same thing as dictating your personal musical taste. For Spirit to really be given freedom to express, we have to check our ego and listen to the ideas of everyone in the room. This quote came across my Facebook feed recently from Daily Dose Quotes: “Collaboration is not about gluing together existing egos. It’s about the ideas that never existed until after everyone entered the room.”
The minister’s job in this relationship is to hold the spiritual space of collaboration. Don’t let it become a battle of wills or a my-way-or-the-highway mentality on either side. Bring your excitement and vision and let your music director know you need them to bring the same. When you create this atmosphere of trust and positivism, you’ll be amazed at how your music program will thrive.