I like to fish in moving water: Fish living in moving streams pull harder, fight longer, and taste better, in my experience, than fish caught in lakes, ponds, or reservoirs. Another plus to such locations for fishing is that moving water is easier to "read" than still water, once you know what conditions to look for.
The key to fishing in streams and rivers is learning to understand the conditions in which fish may be caught. Such understanding only comes with practice. The same principle is true for being an effective music minister. At any NPM Convention there are workshops that purport to offer techniques and secrets that will add life to our liturgies, assemblies, and parishes. The truth is, you seldom need a special technique to achieve this; you need practice in using your skills—a lot of practice, which will teach you how to "read the water." Success as a minister is found in your ability to read and interpret the living assembly, and in being versatile enough to adapt to what is going on in its currents and eddies.
Those of us who are organists should have already learned a set of technical skills that will improve our craft by adapting and building on what we know and can do. So, for example, we know that we need to adjust our touch on the instrument to take account of the temperature, the room's acoustics, the hour, our clothing, the bellowing of a vacuum cleaner, and the soft, hushed murmurs of the prayer group gathered in the back of the church.
Reading the Currents
The challenge we face, however, is not simply limited to reading such technical currents; we must also let ourselves experience — so that we might interpret and respond to — the currents that flow through our congregations. As church musicians, we will find it difficult to accomplish our divinely appointed tasks, realize our vision, and marshal the forces in our community if we keep ourselves distanced from such currents, safe back, on the river's shore, locked away from those we serve, on whom we must rely for energy, support, direction, opportunity, and purpose. Music ministers have to draw on the life of the whole church and the wider community, motivating all its cells, organs, and systems to function in a healthy and coordinated manner. We may be equipped with all the necessary tools to do this, all the talent and the right opportunities, like someone going fishing who has all the right equipment, yet lack the practical skills — the necessary unifying principles that express our purpose and ministry, tempered and enriched by experience — to "hook the fish."
Someone who fishes in moving water has to become part of the river, aware of it as a complex interaction of various elements. Just so, pastoral musicians must be aware of all the elements that make up the local church and its wider community, in order to carry out a ministry that interprets and relates to the Christian faith that is being lived out by various individuals and groups. Our attention cannot be limited to the functions and activities fueled exclusively by the parish's music personnel; we must work collaboratively with other church groups on developing education, training, and other activities that will help to unify a parish community into a living entity, teaming with life and adventure.
A river can become over-fished; one fisher can try to catch the prize specimen of a particular species, to own it and mount it as a trophy. But the outcome of a music ministry is not an item that can "belong" to some groups rather than others. Our goal is not to rise above others and "corner the market." The victory of one group of ministers does not entail the defeat of another group. Divisions and competition should not be the result of what we do. For true growth to occur, we must expand the base of our ministry through networking, service, and patience. If you were to pour sand on a small table, the sand would build a pile just so high before it begins to spill onto the floor. In order to make the pile of sand higher, you have to enlarge the base—use a bigger table. For a ministry to grow, it must follow a similar procedure, because growth in a congregation occurs only until it reaches the conceptual limitations of the leadership. If you want to serve more people in better ways, you must expand your base of organization and ministry as well as your vision of ministry.
Limited by Our Vision
All of us tend to consider the limits of our own field of vision to be the limit of the world. Ultimately, each of us is limited by the scope of our own vision, no matter how wide or deep, for, without help, we cannot go beyond the range of our own comprehension. Growth occurs when we are challenged to enlarge our vision, to seek a wider horizon, to enter willingly and deliberately into uncharted waters. Just as we are challenged to enlarge our horizons through education, invitation, and effort, so we can use those same tools to encourage growth in others.
Many of us have an image of ministry similar to the arrangement of a symphony orchestra: A number of people, with mixed talents, are brought together to create a unified effect under the control and direction of the conductor. Another musical image may serve us better: A chamber orchestra contains members with varying talents, who are so attuned to each other that they require no baton to lead them. The work of shaping such a group is no picnic; there's a lot of groaning, and there are controversies over phrasings, bowings, and tempos. Shaping the group into a unified instrument requires tremendous listening and watching. There's still a lot of conducting going on, of course, but responsibility for it is shared among fifteen or so people. In a similar way, decentralizing responsibility for the ministry we share, dividing tasks among volunteers, will keep the base of our activity broad enough to involve more and more people at different levels of church life where ministry really belongs—with the whole congregation. Our role in such a model is to minister to the ministers, to assist various individuals and groups to discover their own appropriate horizon, and to lead them into shaping an exciting and apostolic future vision.
Eyes on the Prize
There are some fishers who disdain "lesser" species, looking only for the prize catch, the record fish. Other fishermen understand that they have to know all the species in the river and how each takes the lure, if they are ever going to be successful in those waters. There are music ministers who disdain the lesser occasions on which they are asked to share their talent. I know of a relatively new full-time music director who was asked about music for the parish's upcoming Ash Wednesday Masses. She replied that there would be no music at the three Masses because "they didn't ask me, so I'm not offering."
This comment reveals a crucial difference between managing a job (or waiting for the prize catch) and managing a ministry. Many of us can probably think of several occasions that we passed up because we were not asked, or because the occasion seemed too insignificant to require our services: special Lenten Masses, weekly Stations of the Cross, religious ed reconciliation services, services to bless food, daily Mass, opening of parish council meetings, women's club gatherings. These are prime opportunities to "learn the river"—to serve, educate, plant seeds, and network. Opportunities such as chaperoning a youth group outing or assisting the salaried sexton to rake leaves. It is in service to people that service to God is proved.
Certainly, such tasks are not listed in most job descriptions for directors of music ministry. But music and musicians should be integrated into all aspects of education and other parish activities as well as into a parish's worship. If a contract doesn't include the word "catalyst," we should probably write it in, or at least express its presence through our actions. Little gestures can cause a chain reaction; a chance meeting can lead to an introduction that might change the course of a life or ministry. Each opportunity to provide musical leadership is a chance to hear new voices. Behind what they say or sing may be a yearning for love and friendship, acceptance and understanding, the voice of the risen Christ calling us to form the living Body of Christ.
Opportunities to serve are endless. One of my piano teachers told me to accept every gig offered to me, whether it paid or not because each one provided an opportunity to make new contacts and learn something new. Besides, we need to practice and one performance is worth several practices.
Involvement in various activities may also spark our interest and unveil hidden talents and skills that we might use in other aspects of our work. Chances are, you will discover that music is only one aspect of a wider ministry. Still, you must care about the music that is the core of your ministry, treating it as so much more than a job, an easy choice, a reliable salary.
Loving the Work
A true fisher simply loves to fish, and so works to improve skills, not paying too much attention to the pile of fish that someone else, perhaps with lesser skills, is piling up just downriver. True music ministers work with enthusiasm, willingness, altruism, and creativity, without paying too much attention to the director of music ministries next door, who may put in a lackluster performance for twice our salary. John Wesley once said: "There is no man excellent in his profession, whatsoever it be, who has not in his temper a strong tincture of enthusiasm and creativity." Creativity is the power of the mind to synthesize new ideas from two or more previously unconnected ones. We feed the fire of creativity when we feed ourselves random information as fuel for creative combustion, asking questions, and seeking solutions to problems-not only in the parish's musical life.
Fishers know that you never go fishing in the same river; weather and other circumstances alter the "real" river, no matter how much it might look like the river you fished just yesterday. Sometimes you meet circumstances that experience hasn't prepared you for, and you either have to adapt or step away from the river. No two musicians are alike in skill, temperament, knowledge, tolerance, talent, or spirituality, though they may have the same educational degrees. No two parishes are alike, although they may have the same schedule of weekend Masses. No two pastors are alike; each is an individual with tastes, opinions, hopes, and demands, and with the power to dictate (in some circumstances) what he wants, its value to him, and its worth to the parish in terms of salary, budget, and other benefits. A previous director of music ministries may have taken on functions for which we are unprepared or poorly prepared, yet which our pastor and congregation expect of us. It may require tremendous enthusiasm and commitment on our part to meet those expectations and, at times, to exceed expectations by developing momentum for new programs and initiating new approaches.
Ultimately, though, the Christ in whom we put our faith can do great things with just a little material. The same Christ who fed a crowd of five thousand and more (John 6:1-15) will feed us. We offer simple bread, and it becomes the Body of Christ. We must be like the young boy in the gospel story, who knew he had only five loaves and a few fish but offered them anyway, to see what Christ would make of them. Jesus waits to transform our gifts and multiply what we do, if only we will offer what we have.