Are ministers and musicians allies or rivals?

RNS photo by Kim Jackson
Eileen Guenther, the national president of the American Guild of Organists, reveals behind-the-scenes church struggles in her new book, “Rivals or a Team?: Clergy-Musician Relationships in the Twenty-First Century.”

Eileen Guenther, the national president of the American Guild of Organists, reveals behind-the-scenes church struggles in her new book, “Rivals or a Team?: Clergy-Musician Relationships in the Twenty-First Century.”

(RNS) Eileen Guenther, the national president of the American Guild of Organists, reveals behind-the-scenes church struggles in her new book, “Rivals or a Team?: Clergy-Musician Relationships in the Twenty-First Century.”

Guenther, an associate professor of church music at Washington’s Wesley Theological Seminary and the former organist at Foundry United Methodist Church, talked with Religion News Service about her findings and advice. Some answers have been edited for length and clarity.

Q: You titled your book “Rivals or a Team?” From your research, which is a better description of most clergy-musician relationships?

A: I would say that rivals may well be the most prevalent, but team is our aspiration.

Q: Why is it so difficult for musicians and ministers to sometimes get along and not have an intense rivalry?

A:. Part of it is lack of understanding of roles. Part of it is control. Each of us is used to kind of being in control in our area, but sometimes if the roles haven’t been clarified, then the control issues become simply that, rather than sorting out, ‘OK, who’s going to choose the hymn?’ That’s one of the really big issues.

Q: Who should choose the hymns?

A: It should be done collaboratively. I’m just so into collaborating among staff members, with clergy. We have two services at Wesley and both of them are team planned, with teams from like five to 10 each. If liturgy is the work of people, then the planning of the liturgy needs not to be done in somebody’s office alone with their cup of coffee.

Q: You say that the future of the church may well be at stake if clergy and musicians don’t learn to understand each other better. Is it really that dire?

A: I think it is. In general, the mainline church is having a very difficult time these days. And the role of music in worship is so critical — 40 to 60 percent of a service is going to be musical  — but people can tell when things aren’t going well among members of the staff.

I think everything has to be done intentionally, with collegiality and spirituality and a view of what we are all about for people to continue to attend church. People may well attend for a fine sermon and not very good music or vice versa. But what really builds in success is when people are working together and the sung word and the spoken word are in partnership.

Q: Your book is sprinkled with testimonies from musicians labeled “name withheld” who tell of unexpected firings or verbal abuse. What story did you find the most gripping?

A: Two of them actually put their names on them: Ted Gustin (now in Alexandria, Va.) found out that his job was open from the website at church. And Robert Young (now in Salisbury, Md.) talked about a clergyman who, when there was a point of disagreement, he stuck his finger in Robert’s face and said, “If you do not obey, I will do with you as I do with my wife.”

There was one “name withheld” who actually went to counseling and was diagnosed with something like post-traumatic stress disorder.

Q: You also had many who said they had great relationships – sometimes decades long – at one or many churches. What’s the secret?

A: I think it probably is mutual respect with allied things like when you respect each other, you work together, you talk together, you care about each other, you appreciate each other’s discipline. If there’s some kind of a problem you address it. You don’t let it just escalate. You spend time together. Respect kind of is a snapshot that has lots of other little pixels in it.

Q: Should ministers of music be members of the churches that pay them?

A: I think it’s better not. I don’t think it’s impossible, but it does blur a little bit of a boundary in terms of employment. I have not ever joined the church. I’ve been an associate member but not a full member of where I work. I just didn’t feel like totally joining was something that felt quite right.

Q: What happens when a clergyperson moves on and the musician stays?

A: In some denominations, they change fairly often. A musician may have been in place for multiple clergy. That’s kind of part of the problem because they know the people. But then that can be a threat to an insecure clergyperson ‘cause you were there first. And gosh, how will they ever love me as much as they love you?


About the author

Adelle M. Banks

Adelle M. Banks, production editor and a national reporter, joined RNS in 1995. An award-winning journalist, she previously was the religion reporter at the Orlando Sentinel and a reporter at The Providence Journal and newspapers in the upstate New York communities of Syracuse and Binghamton.


Click here to post a comment
  • Pastors are not the only ones who behave badly when musician clergy relationships go south. This interview makes it sound like musicians are always the victims of tyrannical ministers, This is definitely not the case.

  • In the past decade or so, there has been a major change in the public’s preferences in style of church music, leading to “worship wars” over traditional vs. contemporary styles. Nondenomination churches, that are prolific these days, typically have a band with guitars, electronic keyboard etc, rather than a robed chancel choir with organ as is still the norm in mainline churches. Clergy are on the “hot seat”, trying to manage the changing expectations of their congregants, particularly the youth, while maintaining a sense of tradition and denominational identiy which older members desire. Some organists understand this challenge facing the church and are flexible and creative, others are more traditional and resistant to change.

  • I enthusiastically support the concept that pastors aren’t the ones who are always at fault – and devote a lot of time in the book to the musicians’ role in the relationship (including an entire section on Confessions of a Musician). The playing field, however, is not even, and when there are difficult issues, the clergy basically always “win.” Let me add that the “musician” may be the leader of a praise band as well as the director of a robed choir. The point is the teamwork necessary to achieve worship that speaks to the hearts of people in the pews.

  • clergypersons and church musicians are not rivals. they should be partners in worship.
    i am a christian education director of the UMC, married to a clergy.
    i seem to feel that we are collaborators in preparing a liturgy.