The Pastoral Necessities


Cantor describes a “rough week” at his parish. His misadventures with various choir members, complainers, passive-aggressives, and the like, are well-worn paths for any music director, of any denomination or Church.

I take it from his blog that he is relatively new to this parish and that he is making a lot of changes. It’s almost become a cliche for a minister of any sort to wait a year before beginning to explore significant change in a parish or ministry. Setting aside an obvious crisis like a church burning down at the welcome party, I think there’s great wisdom in this approach.

A newcomer to a parish brings fresh perspective, novel ideas, and energy. But she or he also brings many unknowns. If previous experiences with musicians, pastors, or others have been negative, then the community’s expectations might be significantly negative. It might not seem fair, but it is a reality.

When I arrived at St Thomas More, I was hired by a pastor who had sowed a great deal of controversy. I succeeded an East Coast liturgist who alienated just about everybody who cared about liturgy. My job title was crafted to ameliorate those who objected to having a “director” of liturgy. To give you an example: it took me almost two years to have my job title changed to a simple “Parish Liturgist,” and do away with the whole director/coordinator/minister schtick.

I had to go very, very slowly. There are still things I would prefer to change, if my personal preferences were important to consider. But it has been a good discipline for me to be restrained, to continue to listen and to make small adjustments, to be respectful, and to try to maintain my personal energy and enthusiasm.

I made many errors when I was younger. With shame, I remember a gratuitous insult I heaved at my very first parish when I said I had many good musician friends in the city and that I would be bringing them out to help make good music. My statement implied these people I barely knew had inadequate musical talent. I came to a realization very soon to appreciate the culture of music they were inviting me to lead. As it turned out, I never imported a musician, coming to learn that music ministry was not about my comfort zone in playing and showing off to my friends. An authentic leader must indeed lay down much of herself or himself.

That honeymoon period is an important time, and not only for the culture to get to know and love the new leader. It is also a test of the pastoral minister’s own resolve. I’ve always used that initial year to fill in gaps, shore up the small stuff, get to know people, polish my listening skills, and build trust.

If I can embrace a choir’s repertoire, and demonstrate how small adjustments can improve their old favorites, they will be better prepared for the times when I will ask them to join me in unfamiliar territory, singing in new languages and styles and doing things they’ve never been asked to do.

Otherwise, the introduction of chant, Latin, or other traditional sensibilities, will look just like the last dictator’s pet issues. The next newcomer will find it easier to dismantle, rearrange, and set aside today’s agenda. (There is always adequate church documentation for just about anything reasonable you want to do in liturgy.)

However, if pastoral ministers have a goal of building authentic and a well-embraced tradition, I would counsel a snail’s-pace patience.

About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in Minnesota, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
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