Pastors and Musicians During a Pandemic During Advent

In this strange Advent, a lot of our work is either finished ahead of time or simply not happening, and that can sometimes mean unexpected room for thinking. We are missing the colleagues and friends whom we don’t see or interact with except on screen. I’m thinking of other musicians, of course – but also of my colleagues, past and present, who are pastors, and of what that partnership is.

 

It’s a partnership well represented, in some ways, by a service we often look forward to in December: Lessons and Carols.  Those three words say a lot about this season – or any season. We proclaim and we sing. Words and music. Sermons and songs, led by pastors and musicians.

 

We also look forward to Handel’s Messiah. We often call it The Messiah, but its title is actually Messiah. That isn’t a nerdy detail. It makes the work bigger, showing us that it concerns both “Messiah” as a theological idea and “the Messiah” as a person, Jesus. Lessons and Carols, church, theology, liturgy – they are concepts and people, patterns and practice, ideals and reality. I think pastor-musician is the same: an aspirational, vocational idea as well as an evocation of colleagues, relationships, workplaces, and the inevitable range of flourishing and wounding that these bring.

 

In some pastor-musician relationships, we glimpse something so joyful, fruitful, and Spirit-filled that our gratitude is hardly expressible. In other cases, that relationship buckles and even breaks because of incompatibility, unprofessionalism, fear, insecurity, power needs, misunderstandings. Most travel, one way or another, the complex gamut that is true of relationships. Sometimes things are the way they should be; other times they aren’t. In Advent-speak: already and also not yet.

 

What do pastors and musicians share? I think that, above all and beneath all, it’s this: they know what it means to be called. A mystery has seized them, whether it’s theology or music or both: a mystery that calls them into their life’s work, a work they can’t not do. This is a common space – at least as an idea. The reality is, as always, messier. The idea of a call or vocation doesn’t remain “spiritualized” – it plays out in real time, among real people and in real places. But the reverse is also true: the workplace, the nuts-and-bolts, the finances, the job tasks will never flourish if the idea, the call, is sidelined or forgotten. And among colleagues, the call is both “mine” and “ours.”

 

Thanksgiving was last month, but here I’d like to give thanks - for Max, Gene, Tim, Glenn, Sarah, Jack, Pete, Margaret, Beth, Lynn, Michael, Margaret, Mark, Paul, Carol, Ann, Keith, David, Jen, Kim, Ted, Paul, Matt, Dean. These are some pastors with whom I served and from whom I’ve learned (there are more, of course). Has it been glorious and full of wonder? Yes, thank God and thank them. Am I always easy to work with? No - thank God they put up with me anyway. Were there, are there hurdles or hiccups? Yes. Thank God those don’t define what pastor-musician means, or at least what it can mean.

 

It doesn’t always flourish – we know this all too well. On Advent 3, Isaiah tells us that “they will be called repairers of the breach” and “restorers of the streets to live in.” There are pastor-musician breaches that won’t be fully repaired. Sometimes there are necessary, professional reasons for partnerships to end. But we don’t always treat each other well; relationship, vocation, and actual livelihoods are sometimes needlessly disrupted because of power grabs, insecurities, turf-love. What good is it to glare at each other, to vie for an imagined congregational spotlight, to ignore professionalism, to be cynical or snarky? What good is it for a pastor to be troubled by a musician’s perceived “success”, or for a musician to resent the realities (non-musical and sometimes musical) of the pastor’s responsibility for worship? Are we helped by remaining in our corners, eyeing each other across a great empty space?

 

That great open space is the place. It’s where we do the work. Pastors: the greatest thing you can do for your musician is invite them into the conversation. Rejoice in their gifts, seek their good, let their craft be a blessing, don’t compete. Prayer isn’t always words, as Paul tells the Romans; that’s part of music’s gift. Musicians: our work is sharing our craft with the church; it won’t be any less music just because it’s also being theology. We serve with pastors: let’s rejoice in their gifts, seek their good, let their craft be a blessing, don’t compete. We can’t be Christian alone. If we are to prepare a way for the Lord, what does it mean for pastors and musicians to prepare a way for each other as well? What does it mean to want that, to pray for that?

 

I google-translated the Latin for “I believe in pastors” – it came up as credo in pastores. Pastors, shepherds – this is Advent, where shepherds are overwhelmed by a lesson (“For unto you is born a Savior”) and a carol (“Glory to God in the highest”). Though a pandemic seems in charge in this moment, Advent and Christmas tell us otherwise. The birth stories of Jesus begin by telling us where we are and who seems to be in charge, only to re-orient us. The gospel writers never deny a painful history or present – they also never deny a way forward.

 

Credo in pastores. Right or wrong Latin, it’s one of my creeds. I can’t do this calling without them. I won’t do it without them. I won’t forsake that open space, where we can walk a common ground of call, for an easy corner. I’ll teach this to seminarians, who’ll be stepping into this call. I’ll work for a just, fair, joyful relationship between pastors and my musician colleagues. I’ll pray for the times, places, and people when that relationship is fractured and where wounds seem like they won’t heal. If I’m ever in that situation, I’ll want folks who’ll pray for me. I won’t stop hoping for energy, intelligence, imagination, and love. Love is at the end of the sentence because without it, the others are clanging cymbals.

 

And in love, I’ll expect, even demand, that pastors say, to the best that circumstance and soul will allow them, Credo in cantoribus – “I believe in those who sing”.

 

Because the only purpose is for pastors and musicians and artists and educators and church members and shepherds and angels to say and sing together Credo in unum Deum: I believe in one God.

 

 

Eric Wall

Assistant Professor of Sacred Music and Dean of the Chapel,

Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary

 

President, Presbyterian Association of Musicians (PAM)

 

Montreat Conference Center Musician