Why church musicians become the scapegoats in anxious church systems and how to gracefully effect staff changes – Baptist News Global
A fellow church musician and friend sat in my office across from my desk and told me this story. I still remember his hesitant words and his ashen face.
He had been called to a new music ministry in a church with a high steeple. It was the position he had dreamed of, a place to serve God and God’s people in worship and music. He was an excellent trumpeter; he had been trained in one of the largest Baptist seminaries of the day. After three months, a meeting was scheduled with the Staff Committee. He thought it was a superficial follow-up meeting when he entered church, a time to check in and ask how they could help him flourish. Instead, the chairman of the staff committee told him that he was not a good candidate and that his service was no longer required. He could resign and receive three months of severance pay – or be fired and receive nothing. He resigned.
Thinking back to that moment almost 25 years ago i still mourn the loss of my friend’s job and appeal. I need you to understand that there has not been a happy vocational turn here. My friend never found his way to a place that suited his gifts well. Why? Mainly because church search committees are very reluctant to consider someone who is not employed – as if every unemployed church musician is indelibly marked with a Scarlet U.
This, in turn, creates a circular problem. Music minister search committees in traditional churches are now struggling to find highly qualified candidates. Over the past several months, I have consulted with a music research team at a major church on the East Coast who lamented the lack of resumes of qualified applicants who had arrived and were ready to consider. It’s a common refrain.
Over the past decades I have witnessed church musicians dismissed, released and forced to resign by the dozen. (You might have witnessed such an event for what you thought was a cause – moral, financial, incompetent, or insubordination, but let’s put those situations aside for now). What are the most frequently cited reasons for dismissal?
- A new pastor is called who prefers a church musician with a different approach or personality.
- Conflict arises with the pastor (or lay leaders) over the philosophy of worship or issues as simple as worship planning.
- There is a church wide concern about the future of the church.
- The church is in debt and must downsize.
Too often, however, pastors and church leaders who refuse to address issues deeply rooted in the church or its culture make the music minister the source of the problem – as if the dismissal of that staff member solve all the praise debates, all the financial problems, all the strife within the church. Music ministers often become scapegoats in anxious religious systems.
“Music ministers often become scapegoats in anxious religious systems. “
Conventional wisdom will removing a “deficient” church musician help get the church off the ground; a management team decides it will mean short term pain for long term gain. But pastors and lay leaders routinely underestimate the damage to the health of the church when this decision is made haphazardly and without transparency.
Hastily or haphazardly dismissing a music minister usually does not resolve conflicts within congregations, but adds to it. Here’s why: The public nature of the role.
Besides the pastor, the minister of music or worship often has the most visible leadership role in a church. The music is emotionally powerful. Church musicians work directly with more people each week and with larger groups than almost any other staff member. When someone serves for a long time, those relationships and loyalties run deep. There is nothing wrong with it. It is simply the beautiful nature of sustained relationships. Isn’t that what we want?
But in case of conflict, volunteer musicians can find themselves in a difficult triangle. A pastor and lay leaders can act quickly to sever the “unifying ties” between a music minister and that minister’s loyal supporters. And when personnel decisions like these are made without consultation with the management of the music ministry, the backlash from that triangle can be severe.
Despite all of these factors, sometimes when all other options are exhausted and the differences become irreconcilable, a staff member’s employment unfortunately has to come to an end. There are healthy and unhealthy ways to do this.
“Just because a member of your staff committee has business experience doesn’t mean he has staff management experience. “
Also beware of this common trap: Just because a member of your staff committee has ‘business’ experience does not mean he has staff management experience. And even if they are certified human resources experts in a for-profit company, that knowledge may not be enough to navigate the nuances of managing church staff.
Churches live in interconnected relationships unlike anything that is typically found in the business world. This includes family relationships, friendships and community bonds.
There are ways to implement changes that will be less painful for the outgoing minister and for the congregation. Allow me to offer the following suggestions to pastors and staff committees:
First of all, be patient. As a middle step, give the church musician time to find another place to serve. Negotiate and agree on an acceptable transition time, maybe six months but not more than a year. Be prepared to live with the strain of an imperfect relationship.
Many leaders will not like this suggestion because they will not be ready to live with the discomfort. But this is a case where some short-term discomfort can allow for a graceful conclusion and a better transition for the next church musician. (I know a pastor I deeply admire who waited seven years before releasing a church musician. And even then he agonized over the decision.)
Second, be generous. When someone is fired, not being generous in severance says a lot more about the character of the church than the employee’s flaws. While the culture of the church and the community will affect how you define generosity, beware of this.
“When someone is fired, not being generous in severance says a lot more about the character of the church than the employee’s flaws.”
If you are on a personnel committee and your criteria for this is a business model that offers little severance pay, I challenge you to consider that the business model used by your employer is not is just one example.
The third, be honest and clarify your message. If an employee moves to another position, that represents a graceful exit. If an employee needs to be released with nowhere to go, be clear in your message to church. Silence will almost always be interpreted as worse than the facts on the ground.
Also be aware that there is a difference between a “harmless hold” document and a non-disclosure document. It’s one thing to expect the departing staff member not to publicly disparage the church in return for a generous severance package, but it’s another thing to pretend it was about ‘an amicable separation when this was not the case.
Fourth, be prepared to say goodbye. Allow the people of the church to bless the departing minister. Except in the most egregious (or criminal) circumstances, figure out how to say thank you and bless the ministry that came before you. Do it because it is the gracious thing to do, but also do it because it helps the church to let go and prepare to receive another minister into the church community.
My father taught me many years ago that there are two sides to every story. To quote Scott Peck’s famous opening line, “Life is difficult”. When a church musician has to leave, do the hard work of living in the strain of being patient, generous, honest, and willing to say goodbye. Like choosing the road less traveled, that too will make all the difference.
Doug haney is associate pastor at Wilshire Baptist Church in Dallas, where he was also music minister for 17 years. He is also a consultant to the Center for Healthy Churches.
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