Several years ago, I had a church search committee member call me to come to work for them. This gentleman was the second caller of two from the same place. Both were charged with the mission of convincing me to make a career move. While it was an honor to be sought after, I knew it was best to come to closure quickly on a request like this. I have found that to have a divided mind in this line of work makes an already consuming job become completely suffocating. Before even considering what kind of carrot is being dangled in front of my face, I need to ask myself a few fundamental questions: Do I feel a sense of closure where I am currently serving? Have I done all that God intends for me to do in the fellowship where I work? Have I learned from the Lord all that I am supposed to learn while in this place?
Back to the phone calls. We exchanged tidbits about each other’s locations. I conveyed that I felt extremely blessed to do what I do for a living and to be able to do it where I currently serve. In his persistence, the man on the other end of the phone tried to steer the conversation toward a more undesirable view of where I currently serve, hoping to make the grass even greener on his side of the fence. He started the sparring with budget questions, then on to fellow staff members, then to another oft-used weapon, musical styles. After several rounds of good conversation and my not surrendering my corner, he jabbed with this question, “Well, is the place where you are now serving what you would consider a perfect fit?”
I immediately replied with a resounding, “No”. Do you know the feeling you get when you know you are definitely in the spirit? My response must have been one of those rare moments. I know that in the flesh, my soulish man would have at least considered the question a little bit longer before answering. But I knew that this was a God kind of answer and I’d like to show you why.
Eugene Peterson creates a perfect commentary on service by highlighting Romans 12 in his paraphrase, The Message:
So here’s what I want you to do, God helping you: Take your everyday, ordinary life—and place it before God as an offering. Embracing what God does for you is the best thing you can do for him.
No Such Thing as Perfect
So, should our vocational goal in ministry be to find “the perfect fit”? If it is, then when the dating (search committee) relationship begins, there probably should be some sort of prenuptial agreement so that both parties have the option to move on to other relationships should there prove to be “irreconcilable differences”. I think about my friend and former college roommate John Lindstrom. He and his family live in Papua New Guinea in very primitive accommodations and work as Bible translators for Wycliffe. I wonder what he’d say about our struggles for power, platform and recognition. I also wonder about my grandparents, immigrants from Switzerland who gave their lives in service with the Salvation Army. I doubt that the question, “what’s my package?” ever came up with them when the prospect of a new place of service emerged.
Don’t misread my rantings. Everyone still looks over the fence at other ministries. I look at management structure and style, physical plant, staff makeup, demographics and anything else that happens to pop up on the screen of envy or discontent. But when the Holy Spirit is in control, I know that God gave me the gifts that I have in order that I would give them back to Him and His children; in whatever conditions may come with the territory.
I hesitate to confess this, but I believe that those of us in the music ministry have a more difficult time than any other ministerial area in separating personal preference from the needs of the entire body. We have chosen a career path that postures us as leaders who express themselves through the arts, and most generally, enjoy a platform that allows that sort of expression. But the arts have an element of subjectivity that runs through them that is virtually nonexistent in other areas. When someone expresses an opinion about musical preferences or likes and dislikes, how often is it based on a chart or graph or the latest statistics? Rarely ever, I would guess. Musical expression is so much about the heart and emotions and feelings. Along the same line of thought, when a music minister is asked to make a philosophical or stylistic change in their format, up go the hackles of personal preference. We take the latest format change personally because it is our art and an extension of who we are. Here is where our wanderlust kicks in and we decide that there must be a place where we can do it all. But this is an opportunity to allow God to mature us. Here is where that “perfect fit” philosophy can change seats with a new line of thought . . . “the right fit.”
Finding the Right Fit
Realistically, our congregation’s musical tastes are as diverse as the number of radio stations on the dial. Within that mix dwells our own preferences as well as the God-given responsibility of bringing them all together on Sunday in one united chorus of praise. Giving up our musical rights for the good of the body becomes remarkably liberating when we see our vocational position as a calling of service and sacrifice. There are few things more rewarding than to hear a 73-year-old woman come to me and tell me that she’s been “doing church” all of her life, and has just now caught on to the fact that God is her audience when she sings. That didn’t happen from her singing the latest latest Christian radio station hit. It came from steadily and deliberately including her and her generation, along with all of the other demographic groups in your congregation, in a worship format that continues its metamorphosis with each new trend. More often than not, it won’t be my preferences that fill the worship list, although something in there ought to really stimulate me as well. But, “the right fit” means that though your current location may not be Musical Mecca, it is where your gifts were meant to be used for that time with those people.
When you gave your life to the work of the ministry, you didn’t do it committing to ultimate personal and musical fulfillment. You came committing to Jesus and His work. The sense of fulfillment that follows a sacrificial, wholehearted ministry life is leagues deeper than hitting the latest musical lick. (Don’t get me wrong, I love hitting the latest musical lick, too.)
Too often we mentally create this dream church environment and set sail on a vocational trek searching for own artistic Avalon. I’m seeing it now, two entities running in slow motion toward each other ready to embark on a long journey of bliss and beauty. Your gifts match their desires; you’d prefer to have three days off instead of one or two; they insist on it; You golf, so do they; You don’t like asparagus, their church constitution has banned it. This is not reality.
My wife and I have served in the music ministry in three different churches as well as several national ministries. Each of those areas was unique and had its own personality. Most often the character of the ministry was built around the personality of the particular leader in charge. Each leader had a style, philosophy and method of doing things that distinguished him from the others. Of course, we experienced a weeding out process prior to coming to land in these ministries. We said no to several places where we would have been in a theological environment that didn’t fit with our background and preferences. We said “No” to some that were not going the philosophical direction we were going in ministry. And yes, some said no to us for similar reasons. But once we all agreed that this is where we were going, the very first thing we did was to ask the Lord to show us favor with His people. Without exception we have had rich, meaningful times in each place of service. And yes, we’ve also had frustrating, de-motivating, and discouraging times in those same places. Had any one of those places been the perfect fit, shouldn’t we have remained there for life? Or, instead should we go ready to serve and submit ourselves to whomever God has placed at the helm?
I had one of our talented choir members call me a few days ago and describe the situation he was finding himself in as an interim minister of music at a neighboring church. He’s been looking for a place to serve full time and this seemed like the right spot. The church he was serving was searching for the full-time man and initially asked him to come “on a trial basis”. After several months of hard work and good results he learned that the church was “also looking at other candidates”, but wondered if he might stay on until they made a final decision on who to hire.
He moaned about feeling “used”. I thought about that word and wondered out loud to him if being “used” is not such a bad thing after all. The fit may not have been perfect, but he was still the man privileged to lead that congregation before the Lord every Sunday until they made a final decision. He could drone on with his negative “I’ve been used” mantra, or determine to bless the Lord for the opportunity to be “used” to his glory.
Someone recently remarked about a fellow colleague, “He stays put just long enough to realize that his boss is human too. Then he sends out the resumes.” What does that say to those to whom we minister? Are we going to stand shoulder to shoulder with them until our life gets a little inconvenienced and then pack our gig bag and move on?
I’ve been reading a book, The Authoritative Life of William Booth, founder of the Salvation Army. My family roots being from the Salvation Army, I am especially interested in this man’s legacy. His biography has reminded me what sacrifice really means. Here is an excerpt from his diary:
“I felt that I wanted, in place of a life of self-indulgence, to which I was yielding myself, a happy, conscious sense that I was pleasing God, living right, and spending all my powers to get others into such a life.”
A perfect fit comes when we are walking with the Lord and having fellowship with him and using our gifts to his glory. We won’t always have the greenest grass on our side of the fence. Some other guy will always have something we’d like. But I want to be found with William Booth’s “happy, conscious sense” that I am pleasing God; not just through great worship experiences, but through my heart.
photo credit: Ella’s Dad