Constructive Criticism

If you have been in leadership of any type at any level for very long, you have received constructive criticism. When we hear it, we may question how “constructive” it actually is. One thing is certain…’s criticism, and it can be hard to accept.

It seems that in music ministry, everyone has an opinion.  Add to that the large number of amateur musicians who see no difference between their skills and that of a professional and you have a formula that’s ripe for lots of commentary.  “That tempo was too fast!”  “The key is extremely too low for the congregation.”  “You really should consider using more hymns for our blended congregation.”  “You really should consider using more contemporary music for our blended congregation.”  “Have you considered stepping down from the ministry?”  All the while, we are diligently trying to lead the people of God into authentic worship in the best way we know how.

As the criticism flies, we must be careful to guard our response. There is a tricky balance between exercising authority and assuring the members of your congregation and worship team that you are sensitive to their concerns.  For the past few weeks, my local congregation has been studying the book of James using Beth Moore’s wonderful DVDs. As I have continued to read the book and faced the above criticisms this week, I was reminded of what James 1:19-20 advises:  “My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this:  Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, because human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires.”  I’m thankful that this week, I have kept my mouth shut and my ears open.  Then I’ve been able to take all the constructive criticism to the Audience of One and ask for His feedback on the situation. As always, He continues to give direction, clarity of mind, and perfect peace.


When the Answer is No

No is one of my least favorite words. While I do not enjoy its implications, I realize that it is sometimes necessary to say. There are times that life simply does not allow another project to be added to my plate. I also accept that the word “no” is powerful and is the right of every individual to chose what they will be involved in.

Anyone working in ministry of any type must learn how to respond when the answer is “no.” As a new season of work begins for me, I have been fortunate to hear quite a few positive answers. I have also been told no. How I respond to the negative and the positive will have a direct impact on the effectiveness of my ministry and my relations with those I serve. Here are a few points that I am trying to remember as I hear “no's” this season.

It's not personal. When people say that are unable to assist or participate, it's not something that should be taken personally. In many ways, it should be seen as a sign of respect. They are not committing to doing something now that they may have to recant later.

It's not permanent. All answers will not be “no” from this individual from now until the end of eternity. When circumstances change, the individual will more than likely be excited to participate. However, I must admit that when I hear “no” consistently from an individual, I am less likely to ask them to join in on a project until they tell me they want to be involved.

It's not something I can change. Even if I see how this project can be beneficial in so many ways to their personal development, no amount of comment on my part is going to change their response. Rather than focusing on the negative answer, I must learn to focus on those who have responded positively and move forward.

It's not a reflection on my effectiveness in ministry. I have struggled with this one over the years. It becomes very easy to listen to the deceitful voices that tell me I have missed God's direction if others are not willing to follow my leadership and that my ministry is ineffective. When projects REPEATEDLY result in failure, it is a good idea to evaluate the mission statement of your ministry and how it aligns with that of the local congregation. Nevertheless, everyone will face challenges where plans will fall through. If they didn't, we wouldn't be human and would have no need for divine direction. When projects fail, take the time to reflect and learn a lesson, but don't throw in the towel! Your ministry's effectiveness is not determined by man and will not be judged by the Heavenly Father based on a single success or failure.

As you begin a new season of ministry, determine that you are going to focus on the positive and walk in confidence of what God is leading you to do. Don't allow yourself to be distracted by negative responses to your requests for help. The One who planted the vision within your heart will also be the One who will bring it to pass in His perfect time for the development of His kingdom.

Offertory: More Than Background Music

Every week in churches around the world, a musician plays a selection while the collection is being received from the congregation. This piece of music is generically referred to as the offertory and is a difficult moment for the church pianist. Despite their best efforts, many in the congregation consider the music as an intermission of sorts during the service — an opportunity to greet those around them who came in late, discuss lunch plans, and get ready for the REAL purposes of coming together week after week: the congregational singing and the minister's sermon. While it is not my intention to lessen the importance of any other part of the service, I firmly believe that the offertory should be treated as something more than just background music.

Scripture tells us to make music on the organ and high sounding cymbals. In the Old Testament, professional musicians in the role of the priesthood spent countless hours in rehearsal and preparation to lead the people of Israel into the courts of the Lord. Musical worship was an important and highly reverent part of the praise of Jehovah that involved both the performer and the audience. Regardless of the quality of the music being played, it is offered to the Lord as a sacrifice and is intended to assist the listeners to enter into pure worship.

Responsibility for the success of the weekly offertory lies with the performer as well as audience. The soloist must make a significant commitment to prepare themselves musically and spiritually each week before playing. Presenting selections that have not been adequately prepared or do not require our very best (whatever our technical level) is less than what our awesome God is worthy of! Additionally, it is just as important to seek the direction of the Holy Spirit when selecting an instrumental solo as is the selection of the congregational worship songs. Unless we as performers view the offertory as a part of the worship service that can be powerfully used in ministering to the hearts of sinful man, neither will the congregants we serve.

Congregations have more influence over the quality and worshipfulness of the offertory than they often realize. While a pianist is concentrating on the task at hand, he or she is not deaf. I have often been tempted to comment on the conversations that I have heard while playing in the middle of service: Pot roast sounds wonderful for lunch……No, I CAN'T believe she actually wore those shoes with that skirt…….Do you need to run home and set the VCR since you're probably not going to get home in time to watch your favorite show? (Just to be clear, these are all conversations that I've heard clearly from the audience of various congregations that I have played for.) While I'm sure the intention is not to seem unappreciative of the labor required to prepare the arrangement (if you think these works are just pulled out of the air each Sunday, ask your pianist about their weekly preparation for these 5 minutes of playing!), the constant conversations can make the most mature Christian musicians among us wonder if it's really worth all the effort since no one is listening.

In case it's not abundantly clear, let me point out a few reasons why conversations should not occur during the offertory (or other parts of the service for that matter!).

  1. It's distracting! Although you may not be trying to listen, others around you are. Your conversation is interrupting them. We do not know what God may use to minister to the hearts of hurting people in our midst — a vocal solo, a devotional thought, a single sentence in the sermon, or *gasp* an instrumental solo. Additionally, there is a good chance that your conversation (which is louder than you realize) is distracting the soloist as they are offering their worship, especially if you are sitting in the congregation near them or are a member of the platform party.
  2. It's irreverent! Our entire gathering is considered an act of worship to God, who is to be the focus and center of our time together. Everything we do and say should continue to draw the focus to Him. Everything else can wait for 90 minutes. If it can't wait, I think it might be time to reconsider our priorities.
  3. It's simply rude! Have you ever had someone talk to their neighbor while you were giving an oral presentation? It's probably one of the most frustrating experiences a speaker can have. The lecturer wants to do nothing more at that moment than sit down and stop talking. Just because a pianist is not looking at you while playing doesn't mean that we're not aware of the extended time that your attention is elsewhere.
  4. It's not worship! There's nothing more to really say here. If you didn't come to this place to worship, why are you here?

I'll be the first to admit that there is some level of frustration that has developed over the years as I have played numerous solos in multiple churches around the world. For many years, I hated playing them because I felt no one was listening. Finally I decided that I was playing to bring honor to my Heavenly Father who could hear through all the noise of the congregation and would receive my sacrifices of worship when offered with a pure heart. Still, I long for the day when musician and audience together focus their hearts and minds on the worship of the King through instrumental music, corporate singing, and the declaration of Truth. When we are consistently focusing on our Risen Savior with unity of mind and purpose, our time together will be touched by Heaven as we begin to experience new depths of worship–the heart cry of the people of God.

Easter is Here

 Well, Easter is not ACTUALLY here yet, but most of us in worship ministry have begun making plans for the Easter season.  Depending upon your rehearsal schedule, some have already started working on the Easter cantata;  I’ll conduct my first rehearsal of the season this Wednesday evening.

Since I have a seasonal choir only — coming together for Easter and/or Christmas — I have spent much of the week praying for the singers who will join me and getting the word out through Facebook, bulletin announcements, and letters.  I have a number of singers in mind that I would like to see in the choir and I’ve done as much as I can to make it happen.  Now I simply watch God work things out for His ultimate glory.

This year, I have several young ladies between the ages of 12 and 15 who enjoy singing, but have never experienced singing in an organized group.  A few of them read notation; others have no formal training at all.  I have invited these girls to sing in the choir this year and am working on developing a mentorship program that will connect these young people with established members of the music ministry.  I’ll definitely have to let you know how that goes.

Like many seasonal choirs, I have gaps in certain sections of my choir. I have very few sopranos and basses.  That means I have to spend a lot of time searching for a work that is pleasant to sing and listen to that has a limited range.  Normally, I’m not terribly satisfied with my options, but this year I was pleasantly surprised to find Grace in All Its Glory.  This musical from Camp Kirkland features settings of traditional hymns (including O Sacred Head Now Crowned with Thorns) as well as works from the southern Gospel and contemporary praise and worship genres.  The soprano line never extends above the top of the clef and  rarely settles in the upper tessitura. With lots of doubling and unison lines, Kirkland’s musical is easily assessible by virtually any choir.

Now that the choral selections are made, it is time to begin focusing on the new music I will introduce into corporate worship during the Lent season to prepare out hearts and minds for the celebration of Easter.  More on that next week.  In the meantime, I’d love to hear about your Easter plans.  What cantata is on the agenda this year?  Have you found a great song to teach the congregation? 


Totally Devoted

 Worship leaders find themselves extremely busy each week as they prepare for the Sunday services.  Song selection, finalizing keys and instrumentation, and rehearsals dominate the early part of the week.  As the week continues, we oversee projection, make final adjustments to our chord charts, rehearse some more, and communicate final details with the senior pastor as well as the members of our team.  We are so devoted to making the music as excellent as it can possibly be that I sometimes fear we forget to devote our hearts totally to the One to whom we are singing.  At least, I know I have been guilty in the past.

During the first 21 days of the New Year, my church has called its members around the world to a time of seeking and recommitment.  As part of this call, members were encouraged to participate in some sort of fast during this time.  Fasting, though not a popular topic or discipline, is an essential way of bringing our will in line with the will of the Father.  Fasting can be so much more than food…..and that was important for me to understand.  While I “knew” this fact to be true intellectually, I had never really participated in an extended fast.  

I don’t believe it is necessary to tell you how I fasted or how long I did it;  the point is not to proclaim my accomplishments.  The outcome of the fast in my life is much more important.  While I eliminated things from my life as a sacrifice of praise to my Father, He drew me to Himself and spoke directly to my heart through His Word and His Spirit.   I don’t think I will ever be the same again!  

Am I perfect?  Not by a long shot…..I’m still a work in progress…….but I am actively pursuing a life that will be more and more like Christ everyday.  Man’s opinion is mattering less and less to me; I want Him to find pleasure in my worship and my life.  And I’m taking comfort in the words found in Deuteronomy 31:6:  “Be strong and courageous. Do not fear or be in dread of them, for it is the Lord your God who goes with you.  He will not leave you or forsake you.”  Now THAT’S what I call a promise to depend on!

I’m looking forward to a wonderful day tomorrow filled with worship of my resurrected King!  I pray that you are blessed as you lead your congregation in worship and that all of our songs rise to the Father as sweet praise that His Spirit will inhabit. 


Worship Wars

 Every church faces worship wars at one time or another.  The comments come in many varieties, but the basic issue is always the same.  “I don’t like style X.”  “Why does every song have to be so old?” “Why all this loud new music?  Weren’t the hymn writers inspired as well?”  When worship wars erupt in a local congregation, they can be a major source of stress for the worship leader as well as the senior pastor.  Hopefully by understanding that these complaints are really nothing new, some of the stress will be eliminated and our focus will remain on the One who we worship.

Historically, the most famous worship war occurred during the Counter Reformation.  The Council of Trent, a meeting of bishops considering reforms within the Roman Catholic Church, complained that the current form of music was too loud because of those new-fangled organs and was too worldly in its structure.  Composers were beginning to include secular melodies in their sacred works;  in other words, Saturday night’s dance sounds were finding their way into the Sunday morning mass.  The kicker, however, was the complex harmonic structure of the music.  The music was getting in the way of understanding the text in the opinion of the Church elders. The Council of Trent made a single recommendation – let’s end the conflict and just return to the official music of the Church…..Gregorian chant.  Let’s just keep doing things the way we have always done them in order to stay comfortable.  (Sound familiar?)  Thankfully for musical development, the Council saw the error of its ways and polyphonic music continued to be a part of the sacred worship service.  (In my Music Appreciation class, this is the point that I would recommend they listen to Palestrina’s Pope Marcellus Mass to hear an example of the beautiful music that came out of this conflict.  If you aren’t familiar with the piece, do a youtube search now and take a listen.  You will be glad you did!)

Because our current situation is based in worship and not history (a common rebuttal to the above argument by many traditionalists), let’s also examine music in the Scripture.  Music has been a part of the worship service since its earliest inception.  Recall the role of the Levites in preparing music for the various feasts and festivals of the Jewish people as recorded in the Law of Moses.  It is assumed that these priests received formal training in music theory and performance as part of their rigorous preparation.  As we move forward in Jewish history, we encounter Israel’s greatest songster:  David.

David’s early life was that of a shepherd boy.  While Scripture does not confirm this, I find it hard to believe that there would have been time (or finances) for private instruction in harp-playing and song writing for this country boy.  David was probably a self-taught musician;  many of his songs as recorded in the book of Psalms are so highly esteemed because of their simple quality.  These simple down-to-earth songs had little in common with the high praise songs heard in the Temple on a regular basis.  Despite their simplicity and repetition (consider Psalm 136 and others), David’s contemporary songs brought joy to the ears of the Heavenly Father.  After all, David was a man after God’s own heart.  (Acts 13:22)

Imagine the struggles within the New Testament church immediately after the resurrection of Christ.  The traditional Jewish songs were still true of the majesty, excellence and glory of God, but the Church now needed new songs to express their revelation that Jesus was the Christ!  The old songs simply could not adequately express the new work that was being done in their heart.  The issue is expounded even further when the Holy Spirit comes in Acts 2;  then and now — new experiences require new expressions of the Spirit and soul.

I can only imagine the struggle the early Church faced as they attempted to blend their traditional Jewish music with the songs written for the new day in which they were living.  Based upon the frequent statements regarding the Church’s unity of mind, I am convinced that they kept their focus on the One they were worshipping rather than the mode in which their praise was expressed!  What a lesson our modern congregations could learn from this…..and how our Father would be honored if we would simply worship Him in unity of voice, mind, and purpose.

Are contemporary songs anointed?  Some are, some are not.  Weren’t the songs of previous generations anointed?  Some were, some were not.  The discerning worship leader will prayerfully follow the movement of the Holy Spirit in the lives of the congregation they serve and blend music — old and new — to lift high the praises of the One we serve. 

Certainly we won’t all like the same style of music used in our worship service.  However, when we all love the One we are worshipping and keep our focus on Him, the style won’t matter so much…..only the heart of worship will.


New Year, New Songs

Another year has arrived.  Resolutions and planning abound.  As we make plans and resolutions for the new year, it can be easy to forget our role in ministry as we resolve, plan, and dream.  This week, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about what I want to do better this year as a music minister.
There are goals that address needed improvements in the technological issues of the worship service.  Many of these have already begun to be implemented….and I’ll keep you updated on those in a future post.  I also want to improve the offerings for involvement in the music ministry by a larger segment of the congregation.  As a result, I plan to present an Easter cantata this year after several years of hiatus.
The goal that will prove to be most challenging for me is including more “new” music in the worship service.  Just the idea of adding “new” music is riddled with challenges.  How does one find the best new music in the enormous praise and worship market?  While there is something to be said for finding out what other churches are singing, it is important to remember that each congregation has a unique DNA.  Just because a song is a stirring anthem for one worship setting does not mean it will fit another church’s needs.  There is no easy way to plow through the music to find the one that will speak to the local body of believers while successfully blending with the current musical landscape of the group.
Once you finally find the song, then comes the process of either finding the scores (which can be more difficult that you might imagine) or creating an original chord chart.  That leads us to teaching the choir and/or praise team the song before introducing it to the congregation.  It’s a never-ending process…..daunting, yes;  but also rewarding and what we are called to do as ministers of music.
My senior pastor is planning on preaching sermon series throughout the year that will last roughly 4-5 weeks.  What an opportunity to assist his ministry by including a new song that is relevant to each series!  That is my goal for the year 2012.  The challenges I face are getting a handle on his plans far enough in advance to research songs, get music, and teach it to everyone involved.  The rewards……are beyond anything I can imagine.  This is where hearing the voice of God as I seek His will in all aspects of the ministry will be crucial.  Pray for me as I begin this journey.
What’s the last new song you taught your congregation?  I’m always looking for ideas…..

In Search of Advanced Offertories

Like many church pianists, I am constantly searching for new piano solos that are advanced harmonically and technically while still maintaining a worshipful quality for use in the weekly worship service.  Sadly, this proves to be more difficult than one would expect.
Before the Christmas holidays began, I ordered some choral music from Word Music to preview for the new year and noticed that there were several new folios of piano solos.  I decided to take a look and was encouraged by the description of two books in particular:  Hymns for the Spirit arranged by Matt Hyzer and The Best of Cindy Berry.  Both books are included in Alfred’s Sacred Performer Collections and are labeled as “early advanced piano.”
When I received the music, I was sadly disappointed!  Cindy Berry’s arrangements are of her original choral works — so not terribly useful in a blended worship setting.  This was a fact that I missed in the ordering.  Hyzer’s arrangements are simple, but nice. However, they are almost too easy to include in a normal service, but might be nice to include in a youth emphasis service or a week that has a lot of thick textures in other parts of the service.
While I am not thrilled with the content, I realize that the source of my irritation is due to the marketing by Alfred’s.  The label of “early advanced” suggests that there will be some level of mature playing required to navigate the arrangements;  what I found should be appropriate for a piano student with 5-6 years of study under their belt.  Have all of our labels been dumbed down to make pianists feel better about their skill sets rather than giving an accurate representation of the content?  I’m frustrated by the situation, I don’t have a solution to recommend, but I know that I probably won’t be purchasing any more solo books via the internet in the foreseeable future.  Thankfully, I have some wonderful arrangements by Marilynn Ham and Bill Wolaver to rely on for a few weeks.  
Which arrangers do you return to when you need something musically satisfying for your weekly offertory?  I’d love to get some recommendations of collections to check out.

Loving God Through Worship

Rarely do I share sermons, but I stumbled upon this one tonight and was profoundly touched.  It is especially appropriate for those of us who labor in worship ministries.  The sermon is preached by Brian Bloye, lead pastor of West Ridge Church in the metro Atlanta area.  I hope that you will be blessed.  (By the way, check out their website at; some truly interesting things for worship ministry there.)


When Offenses Come

Let’s face it……we are all going to be offended at some point in our ministry.  Matthew 18:7 makes it pretty clear that offenses must come into the life of every believer.  It’s a sad fact, but a part of life.  Offenses may come from various sources; family members, colleagues, leaders, and congregants can all be guilty.  Some are malicious in their intentions while others are lashing out due to a misunderstanding, ignorance, or personal hurt.  While it is clear that offenses will come, how we respond to the offense is where the real battle takes place.

When my senior pastor preached on this very topic a few months ago, one statement stuck with me more than any other:  “Hurt people hurt people.”  (It’s not a typo……read it several times and let its meaning sink into your core.)  There are two truths to be seen here.  First, notice that the initial response when we are offended is to get even… hurt someone else as much as we have been hurt.  That’s humanity in us.  No wonder Jesus said that we are to “bless those who curse us.”  (Luke 6:28).  That action is so contrary to our natural response that the fruit of His spirit abiding in us in clearly evident.

It is also important for us who work in ministry to see that the one doing the damage is probably severely damaged himself.  They have been hurt by people’s comments or things are going on in their life that we can never fully know.   That shows us why Jesus continues His instructions by telling us to “pray for those who mistreat you.”  When I actually pray for the one who has offended me, a few things happen.  First, I begin to see that person with the eyes of Christ.  While I am praying for the guilty one, I am also allowing the Holy Spirit to do a work within me…..eliminating all the vile feelings I might harbor against the individual.

Is it possible to avoid being offended?  Not according to Jesus’ statement in Matthew 18, but I think that we can be aware of the circumstances that create offense and make sure we are on high alert in those seasons.  For instance, in my personal life I know that three things make me susceptible to being easily offended.  At the top of the list is extreme tiredness.  This tends to be accompanied by stressful situations in ministry.  During these seasons, I know that I have to insure that I spend additional time in prayer and Bible reading to make sure my heart remains pure and that I constantly “guard my heart.” (Proverbs 4:23)  The other two issues are actually relationships that I know I have to avoid;  I’m not rude to these individuals.  I simply know that I need to avoid interacting with them for prolonged periods of time.  I am thankful to say that two of these situations are getting better all the time and I am learning to handle the challenges with victory.

However, there are times when it seems as though someone is simply out to cause us offense as a sport.  They repeatedly wreak havoc on our world and seek to destroy our ministry.  What do we do in these situations?  I’m facing one of those periods right now.  I don’t have a solid answer to share with you, but I will tell you the verse that I am reminding myself of daily:  “How are they increased that trouble me?  Many are they that rise up against me…….But You, O Lord, are a shield for me — my Glory and the Lifter of my head.  I will not be afraid of ten thousand people who have set themselves against me all around.”  (Psalm 3:1-3; 6)