Nine years ago, my life changed dramatically. I accepted the call to serve as Cantor at Bethany Lutheran Church and School in Naperville, Illinois, leaving my previous cantorate at Trinity Lutheran Church in Peoria. This was a move to a larger church. Little beknownst to me at the time, I was not only going to assume more responsibilities - that much I knew - but I was also about to be embroiled in the "worship wars" that have permeated the Church these past few decades. My experiences in leading the Lord's song in previous parishes prepared me somewhat for the stresses that lay ahead, but the first few years at Bethany were to give me a most thorough education in teaching congregations, nurturing traditions, and implementing change.
The last couple of posts, "Learning By Doing" and "Letting It Happen", were not originally intended to lead into a review of my first years at Bethany, but the discussion that followed made me realize that they are the perfect introduction to a series of articles on those years, because during that time I did more explaining, teaching, and communicating about music & liturgy than at any other time in my 19 years as a church musician. I discovered that being proactive is often the best strategy - but that sometimes the wisest move is to simply act and answer questions and, if necessary, make apologies later. I learned that while teaching the congregation more about music and worship is a good thing, there is a limit to what they can reasonably be expected to learn, and so often earning trust can be more important than good communication. And sometimes, because "talking about music is like dancing about architecture" (Thelonius Monk), congregations need to learn by experiencing things the Elders or Worship Committee might never approve if proposed abstractly to them in advance.
Now certainly church politics comes into play with all of this. Whether a congregation is getting along or is in conflict, there is a congregational power structure, pastoral leaderhsip styles, and congregational culture and history to navigate. And then there are personalities on committees. Sometimes they are like Forrest Gump's proverbial box of chocolates! So the overall prinicples I've learned have to be applied in the context of a given situation. But, regardless of church politics, I think the story of my first four years at Bethany reveal effective strategies for nurturing authentic worship in a parish, and so I will share this experience with you over the next several posts.
Coming up: Developing a Three-Year Plan for Liturgical Renewal at Bethany