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Minister and Organist
Working Together:
A Minister’s Guide

Why are there so many rows between Minister and Organist? Why is the relationship so often fraught with difficulty? What makes the church so often give such a bad example of Christianity in practice? More specifically - what can be done about it?

Your Organist

You need to understand where the Choirmaster is coming from. Usually highly-skilled, sensitive, hard-working and anxious to please, he or she has studied church music in depth, and here lies one of the basic problems. Your Organist has most likely been taught by professors steeped in the traditional music of the church and has assimilated their attitudes.

He probably formed a close friendship with, and admiration for, his teachers. He's grown to love their music, and now sees it as the very best. We are all shaped by our teachers – the better the teachers the more likely we are to accept their point of view. This then is the professional background of the church musician you, the Minister, have to deal with.

Getting your views across to this sensitive musician

You need all your powers of diplomacy when you talk to the traditional organist about liturgical and musical reform. You will put your Choirmaster immediately on the defensive and he may well feel that the whole ethos of church music is being challenged and belittled by his Minister.

Of course, you know that that isn’t true. But unfortunately this is how your Organist will perceive your plans. He'll feel it essential to defend what he loves, and once this position is adopted the rows start. Religion vanishes through the stained glass windows and liturgical warfare is declared.

This is the last thing that either of you wish to happen - you both want to provide liturgy of excellence for your congregation. Neither of you wishes to see the church of Christ disfigured by yet another row.

The Minister's Reforming Zeal

How can you prevent the adoption of set and rigid positions?

If you’re a new incumbent try and learn about your Choirmaster from your predecessor. Remember that first impressions are important. So you won’t want to be seen as a reforming minister who will trample feelings and stop at nothing in a desire to achieve change. This, of course, is a parody of who you are. In truth you're a pastoral and caring Minister ... so you'll be using your reserves of patience and understanding in your dealings with your Organist.

A good start would be to get to know your dedicated church musician, and his family. Earn your acceptance as a deeply caring Minister, and get to know the choir too. You could invite them round for a social evening, and show that you value their contribution - often made with some personal sacrifice and little remuneration - which frequently goes unrecognised. Don’t even mention liturgical reform until you are certain that you’ve established a relationship built on mutual trust and respect - respect for each other personally, and respect for opinions different from your own. The Minister and the Organist naturally view things from a different perspective.

Once you've developed this working relationship, you can begin to discuss liturgy with your Organist - perhaps over a good meal. You may well find that he is more open than you had previously thought. If you approach your musician on a basis of mutual respect, you won't be seen as a Philistine or a Genghis Khan attacking his deeply-held beliefs.

Music is a vibrant, living artform, and the music that we now love would not have come into existence if there had not been change down the years - sometimes unwelcome change, forced upon the faithful. Many of Bach's masterpieces would not have been written but for liturgical change, nor would Palestrina's or William Byrd's.

How about a compromise?

You might consider having different types of service so that the Organist and choir can carry on in their traditional way while your new ideas are introduced into another service.

It would be insensitive to tell the Choirmaster that you're going to replace all the traditional hymns with, say, gospel music. What you can do, provided that you’ve established a good rapport, is to ask him to suggest suitable folk and gospel songs. The more the Minister can include his Organist in the planning of any change, the better. Ideas about new music are far better coming from the musician rather than being imposed by you. Make progress slowly - Festina lente - or, put another, less traditional, way, “Softly, softly, Catchee monkey”!

Music in church can be controversial but if you apply Christian ideals it needn't be a disaster area. Relationships must remain intact and develop – love and patience overcome most problems. As Minister, you will be taking the lead here. In the case of a particularly difficult organist even love and patience may fail, but you’ll be able to take some comfort from the thought that the fighting isn’t your fault. Having tried everything you may well have to consider re-homing him more suitably, and finding a replacement.

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