Choir members singing at St. James Catholic Church. (Photo credit: San Francisco Public Library).

[dropcap]S[/dropcap]ince beginning my role as Editor of the Ignatius Pew Missal, I’ve had the blessing of being in contact with various musicians and pastors across the country (although not nearly as much as Eric Schoonover, our sales director). From what I’ve been told by Eric and have seen in most parishes, application of the Ignatius Pew Missal has been a relatively simple switch, with some exceptions. This is great news, as our intent was to make this resource an easy switch for those who want to make a change in their music program without upsetting the entire parish. We wanted this missal to be accessible, and I believe it has been.

Nevertheless, there are always going to be challenges when you make changes. With an average parish having, let’s say, around 700-1000 people coming to Mass every weekend, and among those several volunteers who are devoted to their work in the Church (especially those involved with the liturgy: altar servers, choir members, members of the altar guild, etc.), it’s no surprise that one would find a variety of opinions about anything regarding what happens in the parish. And with a variety of opinions come a variety of disagreements. And we Catholics are really good at disagreeing with people. We’ve disagreed with most of the world since the first century!

Over the past couple of years, I’ve gotten a variety of e-mails from some parishes across the country asking how they can move their parish towards a better place liturgically, without upsetting everyone. To some, this may seem like an impossible task, but with the grace of God no task is impossible.

I have some years of experience dealing with parishioners, having worked as a music director or organist for various parishes over the past ten years or so. What I’ve learned from that experience is that every parish is different, and requires different strategies. Nevertheless, below I’ve tried to offer some points based on the average social dynamic of a modern-day parish, the average situation in terms of music, and human nature. Because there are several points I would like to make, and I don’t necessarily have the time to make all of them at once, I’m going to post this article in three parts. Here are the topics:

1. Get to know your pastor.

2. Get to know your parishioners.

3. Meet your parishioners where they’re at.

4. Make a plan.

5. Give your musicians the tools they need to succeed.

6. Less is more.

7. Be patient.

8. Communicate the changes you are making.

9. In non-essentials, liberty.

  1. Get to know your pastor.

First and foremost, you’ve got to be on the same page as your pastor, whether or not you agree. This means talking to your pastor about your vision of change for the parish music program (your principles, your obstacles, how you plan to do it, etc.) A pastor who agrees with your vision will be able to support you in promoting an authentically Catholic music agenda. This obviously works especially well when the pastor is well-liked and sociable to the parishioners.

Pastor with architects planning the construction of St. Elizabeth’s Catholic Church in San Francisco, 1953. (Photo credit: San Francisco Public Library).

This does not mean, however, that your pastor has to agree with you in order for you to succeed (although it’s infinitely helpful when he does). It does mean, however, that your pastor has to back you up when some parishioners complain. This sometimes can work very well, even if he disagrees with you over music. For example, a number of years ago I was working at a parish with a pastor who, after having some private discussions with him about my ideas on sacred music, in the end disagreed with me on my views. Despite that, he agreed in allowing me to make some modest changes in the type of music I played at Mass (for instance, I insisted on using mostly the organ). While he and I disagreed on a lot in regard to music, we met, agreed on a plan, and agreed to support each other. So then, whenever a parishioner would complain, he would listen to the complaint, and try to defend me as he could, or at the worst say “Hmm, let me talk to him about this.”

Dealing with pastors as a music director is a blog post in itself, perhaps for another time. For example, you can have a pastor who agrees with you, but works against you anyway. You can have a pastor who disagrees with you, but defends you. And then you always have the pastors who don’t care. Whatever the situation, it’s important to make sure you’re communicating with your pastor and trying to promote a situation in which he will work with you in reaching your objectives.

       2. Get to know your parishioners; don’t give people a reason not to like you.

It’s difficult to effect change in your parish when your parishioners don’t know you and you don’t know them. In his book The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion, Jonathan Haidt points out that as human beings, we’re very group-ish. We like to have our gang, and then oppose ourselves to another gang. This works for and against us. People who are very different will often come together for a common goal. For example, during the Occupy movements several years ago, radical communists and anarchsits, who are in complete opposite ends of the political spectrum, will often come together against the “establishment.” As Catholics, though, very often we are divided between Gladys Schmidt and her favorite St. Louis Jesuit song and Dan the Music Director and the hymn “Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence.”

St Mary's
Crowd listening to Good Friday services outside of Old St. Mary’s Catholic Church in San Francisco, 1944. (Photo credit: San Francisco Public Library).

As music director, you need to move above that, and you do so by getting to know your parishioners. You should be in a situation where your parishioners are friendly with you, and you with them. This is especially so with your choir members and cantors. I can’t overemphasize how establishing authentic and positive relationships with your parishioners will help in promoting your agenda.

Here’s an example of how it can help. While I was working as a music director at a parish in Kansas City, an elderly woman marched up to me after Mass one Sunday and angrily said, with her slightly foreign accent, something to the effect of “I can’t stand this chanting! Bring back ‘Gather Us In’!” The woman was obviously no fan of what I was doing to the music program. In an attempt to avoid a confrontation, instead of addressing the issue full throttle, I tried to answer her question as gently as I could, and as soon as I got the opportunity to change the subject,  asked, “Your accent…?” Confused, she responded “Excuse me?” I continued, “Where is your accent from? It’s really beautiful.” As it turns out, she was from Bombay, India, and being educated at the British schools in India she developed a sort of high-British accent with an Indian flare. I had some friends from Bombay back when I was growing up, and so we talked a bit about India and Indian culture. After the 10-minute-long conversation, she, with a little frustration lingering from her initial self-introduction, said something to the effect of “Well, now I feel bad for having yelled at you. I may not agree with the kind of music you do, but I know you have a good heart.” Over the course of the next couple of months, this woman moved to being one of my biggest critics to one of my closest allies. Once, I even saw her defending my music program in front of a group of other elderly parishioners!

Now, let me give you an opposite example. I once worked at a Church where my boss was a Director of Liturgy and was very forceful about his ideas on sacred music.  While I agreed with him in general on his views, I always thought his attitude was too forceful. He had a overly-commanding personality that made him deaf to the parishioners’ complaints. The narrative that perpetuated—which wasn’t entirely untrue—was that this director of liturgy was a radical traditionalist, rude, inconsiderate, and mean. Eventually, parishioners got so angry that they contacted the bishop, and he was eventually removed.

What these two stories demonstrate is that people are typically moved little by rational arguments, but greatly by the heart. You could have a list of a dozen good reasons why your parish should make a particular change–be it liturgical or otherwise, but it’s success depends in a large part on the sort of relationship you have with your fellow parishioners.

This is enough for now. I’ll publish more on this in a couple of weeks. If you have any comments, please post below!

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