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Helping the Music Program Achieve Its Full Potential

When a 200-member Unitarian Universalist (UU) congregation in the Pacific Northwest hired a music director who was on unfamiliar ground with Unitarian Universalism, it took the extra step of bringing in an expert to show her the terrain.

Mark Slegers, music director for twenty-five years at First Unitarian Church in Portland, OR (819 members), spent a weekend with the director helping her understand the possibilities in her new job. He also met with church members and staff who wanted to make the music program grow.

"By the time we were done," says Slegers, "there was a real force for music there. A year later the church had developed a 40-member choir."

For several years Slegers has been a consultant to UU congregations, helping revitalize their programs. "Music should be excellent but that doesn't mean you have to have professional musicians. Excellence that leads to congregational vitality comes from everyone sharing their gifts to the best of their ability," says Slegers.

His work began in the early 90's with a small grant from the Veatch Program of the UU Congregation of Shelter Rock in Manhasset, NY, to help pay transportation costs. Congregations also pay a negotiated amount for his services.

Slegers is typically called in when a congregation wants more from its music program. Sometimes there's dissatisfaction with the director or with the music being picked, but usually there's just a feeling that more could be happening, says Slegers.

He was invited to the UU Church of Asheville, NC (629), two years ago. "We just had a sense the program could be more than it was," says Jeremy Bacon, head of the Asheville music task force that met with Slegers.

Slegers spent several days at Asheville, listening to everyone who was interested in the music program, and offering advice. As a result, the task force and congregation increased the choir director to half-time. More classical music was added to Sunday services and an intergenerational choir was created. A five-year plan includes a children's choir, bell choir, and continuing education for the music professionals.

Eight months after his visit, a survey found the congregation satisfied with the program, says Bacon.

When Slegers consults, he makes a point to involve everyone who wants to be involved, including ministers, religious educators, governing boards, music professionals, and congregation members. "I try to accentuate the positive. Most churches that call me are ready to move forward. I make sure the music professionals know that I'm not there to get anybody fired."

After his consultations Slegers suggests things for a congregation to do immediately, plus a five-year plan. Mistakes that congregations make with music programs include allowing one person or group to inject too much personal preference. "Often I'm called because there's been a steady diet of one kind of music. We have a new generation that's grown up on multicultural music. When we open the door to all kinds of culture we show visitors we're open to them as well."


Mark Slegers can be reached via the First Unitarian Church of Portland website or phone (503) 228-6389. Annual conferences of the UU Musicians Network (UUMN) provide opportunities to learn about various kinds of music. Contact UUMN at (800) 969-UUMN or via the UU Musicians Network.

About the Author

  • Donald E. Skinner was the founding editor of the InterConnections newsletter for congregational leaders and a senior editor of UU World from 1998 until his retirement in 2014. He is a member of the Shawnee Mission Unitarian Universalist Church in Lenexa, Kansas.

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