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A Rousing Music Ministry Involves Whole Church
If it weren't for music, many of us might not come on Sunday mornings. From the prelude through "Go Now in Peace," the choir pieces, and the closing hymn, music provides a ministry that combines with the spoken word and other elements to create a complete worship experience.

Yet developing a quality music ministry includes many challenges, from paying for it to recruiting choir members. Sarah Dan Jones knows where to start with all of that. "It's a matter of making people want to sing, making them active participants instead of spectators," she says.

Jones is music director at the Northwest UU (Unitarian Universalist) Congregation in Sandy Springs, GA (150 members). She was music coordinator for General Assembly 2007 and will be again for 2008. She is also a music ministry consultant and secretary of the UU Musicians Network, the professional organization for UU musicians.

At Northwest she built the choir from sixteen to thirty members and got the congregation more involved in singing. "When I first got to Northwest people didn't sing with enthusiasm," she says. They started an "ingathering" five to ten minutes before many services during which Jones works with the congregation on two or three hymns, including some that people can sing without the hymnal. "If you ask people to sing and give them permission to do it, they'll sing freely," she says. "If you can get them to put their hymnals down and just sing from the heart then they'll start moving and clapping. And when you empower people to sing then they're better able to appreciate and support a music ministry."

Other tips: Hold an annual retreat for the choir. At a previous congregation Jones started a choir by organizing a Christmas caroling party.

Congregations need to pay music professionals responsibly. The professionals have to do their part, too, says Jones. "We've been working hard to educate our professionals to not keep doing it for free, or if they do, to make sure the congregation creates a line item for music for the day when that professional retires."

Another challenge for music programs is classical vs. contemporary. "Churches need to include standards, such as 'Finlandia' and 'Rank by Rank,' but we need to go beyond that to attract younger families," says Jones. "Diverse music done well can be transformative for a congregation."

Catherine Massey is music director at the 200-member UU Church of Las Cruces, NM. She started as pianist and now estimates she puts in about twenty hours a week as music director.

"My strongest advice is to find someone who is motivated and interested in helping grow a music program," she says. "If you can't pay a fair salary at the start you need to at least support their membership and participation in UUMN (Unitarian Universalist Musicians Network). At UUMN conferences they will get training and connect with a whole network of musicians."

Music is part of Las Cruces' social justice ministry. The choir has participated in a holiday service at a local shelter for homeless people in remembrance of those who died in the past year. Members of the congregation also sing holiday carols with inmates at a local prison. Last year the congregation provided an alternative service in the prison to the Catholic service.

Has music contributed to the congregation's growth from 140 members five years ago to two hundred now? "It's been a significant factor," says Massey. "This congregation likes singing together, and the quality of that experience helps build energy. This congregation will sing anything I ask it to. That is one of the healthiest signs of a vibrant congregation."

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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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