I have only a few days to go until I have completed my forty days of Lent (2015), writing about my various experiences working in churches. My parents had often encouraged me to write up the stories I shared with them in our frequent phone calls. I usually responded that I’d have to wait a few years to avoid stepping on toes, hurting feelings, or jeopardizing future pastoral work. But, by this time, I’m several years into retirement and I’ll just let the chips fall where they may. (Sorry Mom and Dad didn’t live to read these blogs!)

Today, I must write something about the church musicians with whom I’ve worked. I’ll name a couple, but the others will go unnamed, lest I be sued.

I am married to a church musician, you know. And as I’ve said many times, we’ve never worked at the same church; thus 47+ years of happy marriage. We had thought about how good it would be to work together professionally. But one trusted colleague was quite serious when he cautioned us about that. If we worked in the same place, he reasoned,
1) church members would feel stymied in their self-expression, i.e., they couldn’t remark about a sermon or music choices or leadership in general without a spouse nearby, and one with “big ears.”
2) if one member of the team were to have an unsatisfactory personnel report, or even be let go, how would that go over with the remaining (and perhaps beloved-by-the-church) spouse?
and 3) when the time came for a new call for one or both members of the team, the congregation would be left with no staff in place, or at least conducting a search for two people at once, a hardship for most churches.

For Joan and me, well, we just never quite happened into the same place at the same time. But, Joan was my “hymn lady” as I put services together. I’d be looking for a hymn to fit my theme for the day, and I’d call out from my home study, “Oh, hymn lady! I need you!” Or, I’d find the perfect hymn text to go with some liturgical element, and, not being swift when it comes to reading music, I’d ask Joan to tell me if the hymn was actually singable. The main example, though, of our teamwork was going to the Montreat Worship and Music Conferences together, thoroughly enjoying the personal and professional growth we shared during that week of continuing education in our respective fields.

On to the other musicians I’ve worked alongside. One whom both Joan and I admired and respected and learned from was Grace Chandler at the Bon Air Presbyterian Church in Richmond, VA. Grace was a fine organist and a talented choir director, and for all her talents, what I recall best are two times when she took charge of situations that called for more respect than she felt she was getting in the moment. One Sunday as she played the postlude (the closing organ piece), the noise of the departing congregation cancelled out the music she had prepared, rehearsed, and was playing for us. So, in the middle of a musical phrase, she abruptly stopped the piece, jumped off the bench, and left. If she said anything in the process, it’s best left unreported here.

I still smile as I think about the time when she was at a wedding rehearsal and the pastor told the couple that they would be moving from the floor level up to the raised platform for their vows. He indicated to Grace that maybe she could play some simple “moving” music as the wedding party went to their new places. “Why don’t you just mumble something instead,” she replied.

I was spoiled by the collegiality of the large church staff at Bon Air. We met regularly and shared in planning ahead as well as assessing past efforts. But working in smaller churches, “staff” meetings were almost non-existent. One organist was set in her ways and wasn’t going to bend no matter what I suggested. She’d been at the church forever, and if she didn’t like a new idea or a fresh approach to something, she’d mention quitting. No recently-arrived pastor needs to have the long-time, beloved curmudgeon of an organist quit in a huff (and could she HUFF!). Unlike our friend Grace, this church’s organist loved to have people talk loudly as she played the prelude. She really didn’t want anyone listening too carefully.

Another church organist-choir director had few people skills. When choir members arrived for rehearsal, there were no words of greeting, no chit chat. She just got us all down to the business at hand. I did see her smile once in awhile, but I sure didn’t see any warmth in her personality, or hear it much in her music. She was a very competent musician, though I got the impression that she played strictly according to the musical notations, but forgot the art, the heart, of the purpose of music.

In a previous post, I mentioned that one church I served had been given a (used) grand piano. The piano the church had used previously in the sanctuary was an old upright, and I think its manufacturer was something akin to the Chicago Cable Company, cable as in piano strings, not TV. The choir was used to sitting in an arc around that upright as we rehearsed in the sanctuary each week. When the Steinway arrived, however, its larger footprint put an end to the way the choir had rehearsed for all those generations. I think most folks were happy to receive the gift, but I suspect that our musician felt slighted. (I’m sure I asked her opinion before we accepted the instrument, but she may have felt that there was no use refusing the gift if it were a “done deal” as it seemed to be.) She rarely spoke to me after that. Seriously. I’d get a “hello” and that was that. Planning sessions were awkward. I confess that I wasn’t good at fixing that kind of thing.

One delightful musician with whom I thoroughly enjoyed working was Alice. She was the choir director at the First Presbyterian Church in Trumansburg, NY, my last pastorate. She was creative, energetic, and wide open to almost any new idea that popped up. She directed the English hand bell choir, and worked easily with the church youth (most of whom she knew from the middle school where she taught). She might choose an African tune for the anthem one week, and Brahms the next. Thanks to her ideas, we found ourselves ahead of the curve when it came to “blended worship,” escaping the so-called “worship wars” over the contemporary/traditional musical divide.

Regarding her ability to roll with the flow, I once admitted I didn’t want to “step on any toes” with suggestions or ideas I might offer. Alice said she had no toes.

Alice led our youth through snowy Trumansburg streets caroling at Christmas. She even recruited the non-musician pastor (me) to fill in with a hand bell once with the youth. One bell was all I could handle, sad to say, but I did ring it when I saw my note! And I can still hear Alice’s solo voice drifting from the church balcony a cappella at the late Christmas Eve service, singing the Huron carol “‘Twas in the Moon of Wintertime.” We needed a few minutes of silence following her solo.

I especially remember a jazz service we did, with a rain theme. (I’ve written about that previously in this Peace, Grace, and Jazz blog). Alice, her husband, and sons played jazz together in other settings, so I thought, why not in church? We got no complaints from the congregation, and would have done more if I’d not retired.

Music has so much to do with our worship experiences, and professional church musicians who’ve answered God’s call, spent years of preparation and formal education, and who put up with clergy like me — should certainly be ordained to their ministries. We needn’t call them “reverend;” just revered.

My next entry: Discerning that call from Virginia to Vermont.