Organist and Clergy Working Together – An Organist’s Guide

Rows between Organist and clergy occur with monotonous regularity. You can probably call to mind a case in your locality straight away, where perhaps the Organist was sacked over major disagreements with his clergy.

Why is this? Why is the relationship so often fraught with problems? Why should conditions within the Church – which is, after all, based upon the teachings of Christ – encourage these sad divisions? More importantly, what can be done about it?

Organist vs. Minister

The most likely cause of rows is a personality clash between Organist and Minister allied to demands for liturgical or musical reform. The obvious action is to prevent these from happening in the first place, or at least stop them from turning into trials of strength.

The rows usually start when a new Minister comes on the scene, particularly if he or she feels a mission to modernise the parish and drag it into the 21st Century. This unshakeable determination to change traditional and well-established ways is a recipe for trouble. It’s an approach which will nearly always put the Organist on the defensive, determined to uphold what he considers to be the highest values in church music.

This unfortunate situation is common and it’s nearly always the Organist who loses out. Sadly it has little to do with Christianity or religion.

Prevention is Better than Cure

The Organist needs to realise that most clergy aspire to practice the ideals of Christianity – to turn the other cheek – and they wish to show pastoral care for all their parishioners. You may find it difficult to accept this. But it’s a serious mistake to assume that it’s not true. It should be the fundamental point of contact between Minister and Organist. Vicious in-fighting has no place in religion.

Try hard to establish a friendly relationship with your new Minister. Entertain and listen to him, introduce your family to him, and try hard to understand his point of view and his feelings. The importance of a successful personal relationship can’t be over-emphasised. And it’s up to you – the Organist – to create the opportunity for the Minister to meet the choir, preferably in a social setting, over coffee or a drink. The Minister needs to feel that the singers are caring friends who will assist with the liturgical work of the parish.

If you can build up a personal liking for the Minister, it’ll help enormously in smoothing out difficulties. So don’t betray any suspicion of him, however you may feel! Show only a determination to help in the parish ministry.

Liturgical Change

How the heart sinks! When your Minister insists upon on a new liturgical approach, the Organist usually feels compromised. This is where the real problems begin. If you find yourself faced with this situation, what should you, the Organist, do?

First of all, listen … and don’t react. Immediate reactions are often the cause of subsequent problems. Keep in mind that the new Minister is probably as nervous of you as you are of him! He’ll certainly be grateful if the opening discussions are helpful and positive. So don’t say the choir will walk out, the congregation will revolt, or that Western civilisation as we know it will collapse. It’s better to say nothing rather than make implied threats … you need the subtlety of a diplomat and the “wisdom of the serpent”.

So coolly evaluate what the Minister has said without jumping to conclusions. If new hymns, gospel music, or Communion settings are called for, go along with the request and find the best available – you might even write one yourself.

If you take a positive attitude, the Minister is far more likely to listen to your request to maintain the traditional alongside the new. The last thing he wants is a series of rows with the possibility of local press coverage. So your cheerful co-operation will be valued. Recall the saying “don’t stand in front of a wild horse”. Allow Christian principles to work. If you do, the Minister may begin to lean in the direction of compromise.

Patience is a Virtue …

Most organists are by their nature conservative and traditional. They can find it very difficult to accept that there’s value in new things.

The wisest course to follow may be to allow things to find their own level. If the new ideas work, that’s excellent. If they don’t, but you’ve managed to avoid a personality clash, then it’s possible that the Minister will change course. He’ll see that music which has stood the test of time should remain, even if it is temporarily unfashionable.

New ideas have to fight for acceptance and many will fall by the wayside. Difficult though you may find it, as Organist you should take the long term view – trusting that good sense and quality will prevail – without letting liturgical planning develop into a series of fights and skirmishes.

Be careful not to face the Parish Council or Bishop with a choice between Organist and Minister, for it may well go the wrong way for you! If you can’t accept what the Minister wants, the honourable course is to resign and look for another post. Hopefully it won’t come to this if you’ve wisely laid the foundation for a strong personal friendship and professional understanding.

You may see these suggestions as counsels of perfection, but they have been tested in the field! In the many rows between church musician and clergy the application of Christian principles is the strongest defence available to the organist.

The Church – and your Choir – cries out for your magnanimity. Remember the saying of Teresa of Avila: “Patience gains all things.”

These articles may also be of interest to you:

Minister vs. Organist – Minister vs. Organist

Children’s Choir – Children’s Choir

Funeral Music (Family) – Funeral Music – a Guide for the Family

Choosing Wedding Music (Choir Directors) – Choosing Wedding Music – the Choir Director’s view