A church musician colleague and friend sat in my office across from my desk and told me this story. I still remember his halting words and his ashen face.
He had been called to a new music ministry in a tall-steeple church. This was the position he had dreamed of, a place to serve God and the people of God in worship and music. He was a fine trumpet player; he had been trained at one of the largest Baptist seminaries of the time. After three months, a meeting was scheduled with the Personnel Committee. He thought this was a perfunctory follow-up meeting to his entry to the church, a moment to check in and inquire how they could help him thrive. Instead, the chair of the Personnel Committee told him he was not a good fit, and his service no longer was required. He could resign and be given three months of severance — or be fired and given nothing. He resigned.
Thinking back to this moment almost 25 years ago, I still grieve for my friend’s loss of work and calling. I need you to understand that there was no happy vocational turnaround here. My friend never did find his way into a place that was a good fit for his gifts. Why? Primarily 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 now have trouble finding highly qualified candidates. In recent months I have done some consulting with a music search team in a significant East Coast church that bemoaned the dearth of resumes of competent candidates that arrived and that they were willing to consider. This is a common refrain.
In recent decades I have witnessed church musicians fired, released and forced to resign by the dozens. (You may have been witness to such an event for what you thought was cause — moral, financial, incompetence or insubordination, but let’s set aside these situations for now). What are the reasons most often cited 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 philosophy of worship or matters as simple as worship planning.
- There is church-wide anxiety about the future of the church.
- The church is in debt and needs to reduce staff.
Too often, though, pastors and church leadership who refuse to address the deep-seated problems in the church or its culture make the minister of music the source of the problem — as if removing this one staff member will solve all the worship debates, all the financial problems, all the dissension within the church. Ministers of music often become scapegoats in anxious church systems.
“Ministers of music often become scapegoats in anxious church systems.”
The conventional wisdom is that removing a “deficient” church musician will help get the church unstuck; a leadership team decides this will mean some short-term pain for some long-term gain. But pastors and lay leadership routinely underestimate the damage done to the health of the church when this decision is made haphazardly and without transparency.
Hastily or haphazardly removing a minister of music typically does not solve conflict within congregations but adds to it. Here’s why: The public nature of the role.
Other than the pastor, the minister of music or worship often has the most visible leadership role in a church. Music is emotionally potent. Church musicians work directly with more people every week and with larger groups than almost any other staff member. When someone serves for a lengthy tenure, these relationships and loyalties run deep. There is nothing evil about this. It is simply the beautiful nature of sustained relationships. Isn’t this what we want?
But when conflict arises, volunteer musicians may find themselves in a difficult triangle. A pastor and lay leadership may move quickly to severe the “ties that bind” between a minister of music and that minister’s loyal advocates. And when personnel decisions like these are made without the consultation of music ministry leadership, the backlash to this triangle can be severe.
Despite all these factors, sometimes when all other options are exhausted and differences become irreconcilable, then regrettably a staff member’s employment must end. There are healthy and unhealthy ways to do this.
“Just because someone on your Personnel Committee has ‘business’ experience doesn’t mean they have personnel management experience.”
Beware of this common trap, too: Just because someone on your Personnel Committee has “business” experience doesn’t mean they have personnel management experience. And even if they are certified experts in human resources in a for-profit business, that knowledge may not be sufficient to navigate the nuances of church personnel management.
Churches live in interconnected relationships unlike anything typically found in the business world. This includes family relationships, friendships and community connections.
There are ways to implement change that will be less painful to the departing minister and to the congregation. Let me offer the following suggestions to pastors and Personnel Committees:
First, be patient. As an intermediate step, give the church musician time to find another place to serve. Negotiate and come to an agreement on an acceptable time of transition, perhaps six months but no more than a year. Be willing to live with the tension of an imperfect relationship.
Many leaders will not like this suggestion because they will not be willing to live with the discomfort. But this is a case where some short-term discomfort may allow for a graceful conclusion and a better transition for the next church musician. (I know a pastor whom I admire profoundly who waited seven years before releasing a church musician. And even then, he agonized over the decision.)
Second, be generous. When someone is dismissed, to fail to be generous in severance says far more about the character of the church than any shortcomings of the employee. While church and community culture will have a bearing on how to define generosity, pay attention to this.
“When someone is dismissed, to fail to be generous in severance says far more about the character of the church than any shortcomings of the employee.”
If you serve on a Personnel Committee and your yardstick for this is a business model that offers scant severance, I challenge you to consider that the business model used by your employer is only one example.
Third, be honest and clarify your message. If an employee is moving to another position, then that represents a graceful exit. If an employee must be released with nowhere to go, be clear in your messaging to the church. Silence almost always will be interpreted as worse than the facts on the ground.
Also be aware that there is a difference between a “hold-harmless” document and a non-disclosure document. It is one thing to expect that the departing staff member will not publicly disparage the church in return for a generous severance, but it is a different thing to pretend this was an amicable parting when it was not.
Fourth, be willing to say good-bye. Allow the people of the church to bless the minister who leaves. Except in the most egregious (or criminal) circumstances, figure out how to say thank you and to bless the ministry that has gone before. Do it because it is the gracious thing to do, but also do it because it helps the church to let go well and to prepare to receive another minister into the church community.
My dad taught me many years ago there are two sides to every story. To quote Scott Peck’s famous opening line, “Life is difficult.” When a church musician must leave, do the hard work of living in the tension of being patient, generous, honest and be willing to say good-bye well. Like choosing the road less traveled, this too will make all the difference.
Doug Haney serves as associate pastor at Wilshire Baptist Church in Dallas, where he also has been minister of music for 17 years. He also serves as a consultant with the Center for Healthy Churches.
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