When You Run Dry: Keeping the Joy in Your Music Team

By Tom LeFevre

"Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth. Worship the Lord with gladness. Come into his presence with thanksgiving." Psalm 100:1-2 from the NRSV.

The psalmist speaks clearly to us across thousands of years, and it would seem that our marching orders are clear. Whether we worship in traditional or contemporary forms, or both, our joyful noise is music. If only it were as clear how best to achieve this simple objective every week in our own corner of the Kingdom. Because the sometimes painful reality is that despite our best intentions, we fall short of the mark individually and collectively. We are human and faint in the desert ... we can run dry.

As Mary Kay Beall noted in "Singing In the Spirit," Martin Luther stated: "Singers are never sorrowful, but are merry and smile through their troubles in song. Music makes people kinder, gentler, more staid and reasonable." This is a worthy standard indeed, and one we often, but I fear not always achieve. But there are things we can do to help sustain us through such times.

Scriptural Foundation -

Build It On a Rock

Prayer is probably the first or central thing we all try to do in our music process, but sometimes even the most devout among us can be tempted to cut corners by the shortage of time. Remember, virtually all our music teams are made up of volunteers, and each of us has the same hours each day. We can only push our respective envelopes so far with the talents, time and other demands each of our musicians and singers juggles. (The old "plate spinners" that used to be regulars on Ed Sullivan had little on most of us, it would seem.)

Our choir and praise team begin every rehearsal and worship session with prayer. It centers us in our purpose, and serves to remind that as we lead worship we are the hands, voice, and face of Jesus - the tools and instruments of His work today. It’s a tall order, but when we seem to get it right, it’s that substantial, and joyous in proportion. Some teams also end their session in prayer. It can be led by one person (often rotating that leadership is fruitful), or can be a prayer circle, where all are invited, but not required, to contribute their prayers and concerns. I think the price of admission to a vital music ministry has less to do with talent, and more to do with a willing spirit and a heart of faith. Prayer helps us get to that place together. Other teams add a time of scriptural devotion. A rotating contribution is to seek out and bring a passage of scripture that moves the person to share it as embodying what the team is doing and why. Build on a firm foundation, and the house will stand.

From the Mouths of Babes ...

How does one define, let alone capture "joy"? It is elusive. But we know when it’s there - and when it’s not. I think it’s a close cousin to "fun." [Providence strikes again. As I’m working on this article, the background music in my office is playing Lennon & McCartney’s "She’s Leaving Home." This sad but beautiful song contains what I believe to be one of their best lines: "Fun is the one thing that money can’t buy." There are other and bigger things, of course, like love, and the saving grace of Jesus Christ, but it’s still a great line.] When our worship music is an experience that is truly "not work" perhaps then it is "fun" and "joyous" all at the same time. Even so, it can take a lot of effort to get to that point.

We can take a lesson from watching young people having fun in their play - and sometimes that spirit can be channeled into a worship expression. The children from The Community Church of Douglas, Michigan (David Mayer, Music Director) are depicted literally jumping for joy in a worship event. Children seem to be "hard-wired" to joy. Have we adults forgotten something along the journey? Reopen our eyes, Lord, to our own unfettered spirit that we may fashion it into Your praise.

Variety - Mix It Up - Works In Baseball

Offering up a varying mix of music - even within a particular worship style - can make all the difference. As observed by Harry Robinson, Director of Worship Arts at Bethlehem UMC in Franklin, Tennessee: "Work your different units. We are blessed with youth, children’s, bell, and adult choirs; contemporary team, bluegrass band and a drama group. There’s more going on than a congregation or team can keep up with, let alone get tired of." It ensures that different groups get their special moments to shine, and fulfill the purpose of their efforts. If you’re sharing music with some frequency from a well-mastered repertoire, vary the treatment. That can be the percussion/rhythm style, the instrumentation, or rotating the vocal or instrumental solos. People like to see new faces and hear new voices; and new voices like getting heard. Try introducing a piece of music that’s outside your usual style "zone." That can be rewarding for your congregation as well as your team.

Special Events - Have a Goal

We all plan and offer lots of special music around Christmas and Easter. These seasons are themselves joyous in their completion, and complementary in their significance. But you can do other special treatments that can kick the team’s interest and commitment into a whole new gear. Patrice Penny-Henderson, Music Director at St. James AME Church in Elkhart, Indiana, put out the call for a multi-church, multi-style large-scale Christmas praise concert that was something to behold. On a Sunday afternoon in December, people from four churches gathered in a joyous (and wonderfully noisy - I was part of it) celebration of seasonal and gospel music. We heard adult choirs, bell choir, soloists, jazz ensemble, southern gospel quartet, string duet, children’s and men’s chorus, and the sweetest alto sax rendition of "I Wonder As I Wander" that’s likely been heard this side of New Orleans.

People from all these churches planned and prepared for weeks to make this concert an unforgettable experience - for those in attendance as well as those making the music. Having the goal, and working to achieve it are essential to making the team experience joyous and fulfilling. It always helps when you get the word out, and they have to put extra chairs in the aisles!

Keep the Bar Where It Can Be Cleared

It’s important to build on your strengths, and aim high without creating expectations that will overwhelm people. Nobody can do everything. And as Robert Ham said in an earlier issue’s "Choir Loft" column, people need to have successes. Those in voluntary ministry have huge hearts - or they’d not be there - and those hearts sometimes exceed talents. The team leader needs to carefully balance what people would wish to tackle with what they can deliver effectively. This can sometimes be a tenuous balance and requires careful judgement. But always being on the edge of what’s working musically can be very stressful. One measure thereof is the balance between songs that are familiar, and those that are new. Too much of either will not be right for very long. And the congregation will tend to have a different balance point than the music team.

Paul Decker, Worship Leader at Winding Waters Church of the Brethren in Elkhart, Indiana, makes an excellent point in that rehearsing material about two to three weeks in advance is usually effective for them. While he can plan songs further downstream based on the pastor’s ten-week horizon of sermon themes, inevitable changes in makeup of singers and players precludes useful rehearsing too far out.

Burnout Prevention: Rotate, Rotate, Rotate!

Schedule your singers and players. Even the most loyal, committed singer or player can get exhausted, and needs some fallow time. Be sensitive to people’s need to rotate in and out of service. David Amann, Director of Worship Arts at Trinity UMC in Elkhart, Indiana, fosters a praise team of vocalists who effectively schedule themselves. Those who want to sing more often do so, and vice versa. It works well, like all schedules, as long as people keep their commitments, and find their own replacements when something comes up. Choirs, by virtue of numbers of singers, don’t usually require such detailed scheduling, but choral members, too, need time off to catch their breath.

As leaders, we sometimes concern ourselves strictly with the feelings of our teams, as if those feelings were entirely separate and different from our own. That can result in neglecting our own state of being. The truth is that a leader’s state of mind is communicated and mirrored in many subtle and undeniable ways to those being led. Just as a team leader’s spirited, joyous involvement in musical production augments and inspires the entire group, their fatigue, stress and human frailty will also be reflected. This is true in any leadership capacity. Leaders take note: you need to rest, too! Especially at risk are music directors and song/worship leaders who are intrinsically "servant leaders" accustomed to going the extra mile. Those miles add up, and all the best intentions in the world don’t make up for a regular routine of giving leadership a break, too. This can be implemented by simply having a substitute or fully-rotating ensemble leader. This is also a great way to foster and mentor growth of the substituting individual.

Technical or Spirited? - Yes!

Do we need to be technically accomplished in what we offer up to the Lord? Certainly, within the constraints of our respective talent pools. That’s where playing from our strengths is important. Do we need to make our offering in an appropriate spirit of worship and from the heart? Absolutely. Can we afford to have one without the other? Not for long. If we have to get by temporarily with more of one, I say let it be that which is heartfelt, rather than that which is technical, or at worst, mechanical.

Smell the

Flowers - Together

As we implied earlier, we’re probably too busy in this society for our own good - let alone the Lord’s. Take time to celebrate! Don’t put off having an annual or semi-annual party or picnic. Have as many as possible in attendance, and don’t conduct business. If you sing have it truly be just for fun or spontaneous sincere worship.

There can be bumps in the road of any ministry and discipleship - nobody said it was easy. But take time to celebrate, remember why you’re there, and keep your eye on the goal - praising our Lord!

Tom LeFevre has been Worship Leader at Trinity UMC in Elkhart, Indiana for the last two-and-a-half years, in addition to editing this magazine. His e-address is tlefevre@soundandsong.com. If you send your suggestions on this challenging topic, we’ll share them in our "Feedback" column.