Worship Wars 8: Musicians & The Sound of Music, part3
Tuesday, January 15, 2008– These are the stories of my misadventures as a bi-vocational pastor of a small, elderly, traditional, SBC church 1992-2007. This church was fundamentally not much different from thousands of other churches. My experiences as pastor, the stories I tell here, are the equal of stories most pastors could tell. Some are encouraging or funny, most are sad, however, because this is the story of a church that has failed. Sadly it is typical of many thousands of churches from that era. These stories are an attempt on my part to seek healing and understanding, to confess my failures and to prepare any other young ministers who may stumble upon this blog.
Although we fought over worship at times, we were also blessed in worship most of the time. This blog is dealing with more failures at the present, but I am also including some of the blessings. But if most of the time we were blessed, why spend so much time on the negative? The negative things ended up killing this church. It doesn’t take much negative to completely overwhelm the positive it seems. Some have told me, after I have relayed some of my stories, that our church was more problem filled than the norm. I at times think that, but when you look at the large number of churches founded about the same time mine was (early 1950s) and track their progress over the past 50 years, you see a very similar pattern: early, rapid growth, stagnation in the late 1960’s, then steady decline til death. Brothers, this should not be. There were some serious flaws in our doctrine and methodology that led us to this ungodly pattern. In this blog I am seeking to expose that ungodliness.
As I have said elsewhere, for a small church we were very blessed with good musicians. Before I arrived at the church they were known for having excellent musicians: organists, pianists and music ministers with excellent talent and hearts for the Lord. One of the former ministers of music from the early 1970’s (Marty) actually made it big time, and he publishes a lot of music for Baptists today. One of the organists (Rebecca) received her doctorate and is very successful. One of the pianists we had in the mid ’90’s, Mary, earned her doctorate and has taught at the college level and another young lady who played the piano for us in the early ’90’s, Rhonda, is now working on her doctorate as well.
I have told you about Bob, our primary accompanist during my years at the church, and how wonderful of a man and musician he was. Whether it was the organ, piano, piccolo or singing in the choir, Bob was a blessing. But the other primary accompanist we had my last 6 years (after Bob’s illness stopped him from playing the piano) was Helen. Helen is a wonderful 87+ yr old ball of fire. She has more energy today than most people half her age. Helen used to play piano for WA Criswell before he went to FBC Dallas! They knew each other in Muskogee, OK. Helen used to play for some radio shows back in the ’30’s. Her and her late husband were involved in missions and church plants for decades. And this woman can tickle those ivories! She can change the dynamics of a worship service with her smile and upbeat tempo. When she is at the piano the congregation gets an aerobic workout. Singing hymns is good exercise when Helen is at the bench. She has the whole hymnbook memorized I think. And Helen will once in awhile add a touch of jazz to whatever she is playing, just for fun. Sometimes I really thought we needed a good sax player, a bass and clarinet to go with Helen and we could worship Dixieland style!
Helen is still playing at my old church (it is not quite dead yet, the old guard is still struggling) and still having fun while being a blessing to the Lord and his people. She still goes to the nursing home once a week to play the piano and lead them in some singing.
Music ministers have an incredibly tough job. People get real emotional about their worship music and music ministers catch a lot of heat. Stephen was my first music minister and he did an excellent job with the choir and congregation. It was Stephen’s leadership that got the choir thinking and then backing the purchase of the 1992 edition of the Baptist Hymnals in 1993.
One incident happened while Stephen was here and Rhonda was accompanying that is worth bringing up because it was so bizarre. After we purchased the new hymnals, we also purchased the Accompanist edition which came in a loose leaf binder. The church had apparently never had an Accompanist edition before, so it raised a few eyebrows due to the cost, but Stephen and Rhonda explained how useful it was and the congregation approved it. The Accompanist edition included a lot of extra intros and bridges, etc., but the controversy involved the looseleaf nature of the book. This was done so that the pianist could remove pages for easier playing and take the pages home for rehearsal.
In the senior adult Sunday School department every Sunday morning they would open with a hymn, prayer requests and a devotion. They met in the sanctuary, piano side. The lady who played the piano for the opening assembly was, how should I say it… a bit difficult at times. She began to use the new Accompanist edition to play her one hymn for the Sunday School, even though we had tried to make sure that everyone knew that was for the church’s paid accompanist only. One Sunday she could not find the hymn she wanted to play; it had been removed from the hymnal. Rhonda, the paid accompanist who was then working on her Master’s in Church Music degree at SWBTS, had taken the hymns for Sunday home on Wednesday night in order to practice. Rhonda was very sweet, smart, professional and responsible. She had asked Stephen if she could take pages out for rehearsal and Stephen had consulted with me. We both agreed she could do this and in fact we brought it up before the deacons who also agreed. That was one reason for purchasing this expensive book (about $200 if I remember correctly).
Well, when the Sunday School accompanist could not find the hymn she wanted, and she learned that the paid Church Accompanist had taken the music home, she threw a major fit. She called every deacon and cussed them out. She let the music minister have it, and she stayed out of church for several months, and NEVER returned to Sunday School. To this day she attends the church but won’t go back to Sunday School. She never called me an chewed me out though. However, when she did come back to the church several months later, she blamed me for her not coming back sooner, because I never went to her to apologize. Admittedly I failed to go see her and ask her to repent of her sin and come back to the church and apologize to those she offended needlessly. That was weak on my part. But more of that story later. When she did come back, she would not sing in the choir under Stephen again, but she did return to the choir when we got the next music minister in 1994.
Stephen left the church after serving for about a year, and we went for a long time without a music minister. We advertised at the seminary but we were a small church and only paying about $300 a month which was not sufficient in 1994 to draw even a seminary student’s interest. What I discovered as I searched for music ministers is that most had prior experience while in college with these small, elderly, traditional SBC churches, and did not want to repeat the experience. Several candidates I interviewed flat out told me they would rather attend a large church in town than repeat their service in a church like ours. They were all too familiar with the problems and the challenges in these churches. This was something the congregation absolutely could not understand.
The assumptions by the congregation were literally these (they actually voiced these things to me): $300 a month was sufficient for music ministers because that is what they had always paid and had never had problems getting one for that amount in the 60’s and 70’s. Ministers were only in it for the money. There ought to be a lot of ministers willing to help out a smaller church. Ministers need the experience we can give them. More on this later, but sadly, this church is still operating with that mentality today (since I left the church in Feb. of 2007 they have not even successfully obtained an interim pastor; bringing in men for a week at a time, or up to 2-3 months at the most).
Finally the Lord sent us Fred, a seminary student, who had some income from another source, and his wife had a decent job, so he could afford to work for us. Fred had a good strong voice, so some of the older members who had trouble hearing enjoyed him. He loved working with the hymnal under the constraints the congregation placed on him and he, along with my wife, got a little children’s choir started for a couple of years. The only silly thing that happened during his 2-3 years as minister of music involved the lady who had gotten upset over the Accompanist edition of the hymnal.
A visitor had begun to come to church faithfully but did not join the church. Fred asked her to join the choir and so she started to come to practice. The aforementioned lady and a couple of other choir ladies made a little stink over the fact that this lady was allowed to sing in the choir without joining the church first. Fred came to me with the problem and we checked the constitution and consulted the deacons. We all agreed that it was not addressed by the constitution, but earlier in the church history similar things had been brought up and it had been OK for visitors to do things like teach in Vacation Bible School so why not sing in the choir? That brief controversy settled down, but by the next year the new choir member was told by the aforementioned lady that she could not sing well enough to be in the choir. She left the choir and eventually the church. (This poor lady was really sweet, but she once also complimented a man for his prayer for the offering and he proceeded to chew her out. She left in tears)
Fred left the church after 3 years of faithful service, and I went through another dry spell without a music minister. When Fred left he really challenged the church to increase the music minister’s pay and the music budget. Notice that he waited until after he left to ask for a raise. Fred served with integrity, understood where the church was coming from and what our limited resources financially were.
To be continued…