Defining the Role of Church Musician: A Statement of Purpose

As a church musician, my role has two parts: church + music. Usually, the music part comes along fine – there is enough detail and needs within the dailyness of my tasks: practice the left-hand, register, proofread bulletin, rehearse the altos on their entrance at measure 37. However, the church part can be nebulous. Are we spiritual leaders who work through music? Or are we musicians who draw a salary from the church?

Like many churches, CathedralLite runs a stewardship campaign, and this week’s theme connected the concepts of stewardship and mission. Many folks from the church presented a moment about their role in the context of the church’s mission. I presented the following text in the service; it was well-received and the process of forming my thoughts reminded me of the deeper meaning that emerges from my daily routine.

When I tell people that I am a musician, I always hear stories – usually they go like this: “I played violin in fourth grade and then stopped playing in high school. I wonder what would have happened if I stuck with it.” However, when I tell people that I am a church musician, I hear better stories.

I hear about people’s favorite hymns and memories from children’s choir. I’ve heard about the bulletin catching on fire at the candlelight service. I’ve heard about the church which brought a live (and smelly) donkey into the sanctuary as part of the choir’s Palm Sunday processional, and I’ve heard from the person who sings Sunday School kid songs when she is nervous while horsebackriding. In my own experience – my story – I once played a memorial service – the family was calm until I played the favorite hymn of their loved one – the whole family started sobbing. All of these experiences – funny, serious, sentimental, and unexpected – have convinced me that music is a vehicle connecting us with our faith.

St. Augustine says: “Those who sing pray twice.” I have no authority in that area. But – when we sing, we remember words more than if we just speak them. My role in worship is not just about ornamenting the service or providing cover music while the choir walks from the steps to the chancel pews. Part of the church’s mission is to equip our congregants with tools to connect with God, and music is one of those tools. So, when I teach the children a song from my childhood, accompany the choir, talk with a bride, or practice for the service, I am not just filling up silence or taking up time, but making a space for those around me to find something deeper – and in my own small way, contributing to the mission of the church.

Taking an Honest Look

My husband and I are friends with a Methodist pastor.  He’s an incredible guy – always thoughtful and deliberate.  While visiting over Christmas, he described the music situation in his parish, and made the following comment: “This may offend you, but I really don’t care if we have a regular pianist or organist.  After all, worship is the people’s gift to God, and if the people play the accordion and the spoons, then that is what we should use in worship.”

As a professional musician, it is so easy to jump into a defensive mode about my role within the church.  But then it occurred to me: how many organists don’t have the time or willingness to prepare?  How many church musicians merely do the minimum in a week-to-week role?  (Especially in the context of a minister who is laissez-faire about the music.)  How am I to defend the importance of organ music when so many organists are unengaged with their tasks?

So here we are, with a rather odd cycle, which has no good outcome until someone (ahem….like the church musician) re-engages.  It’s why I made my “Being Better” series.

There are some careers where the world will constantly tell you how important your work is (hello, firefighters).  Unfortunately, church organist isn’t always on that list.  And it is up to us to find within our musical souls the push to perfect our offerings to God and the church with renewed creativity, determination, and grace.