Clergy-Musician Relations

Organ Pipes

Nearly every denomination reports that there is inherent tension between the senior clergy of the parish and the musician. Not unlike mother-in-law and daughter-in-law, there is something in the DNA of the relationship that creates challenges, if not outright warfare or even separation.

What is the source of these tensions? Must we simply learn to live with them, or is there something we can do to promote healthy relationships that not only make individuals happier but the workplace more pleasant?

Perhaps it would help to examine the underlying causes of the conflicts. Conditions vary greatly, of course, with different individuals, but here are two broad phenomena that can adversely affect clergy-musician relations.

Training in disparate philosophies. Clergy are trained in seminaries. In general, musicians are trained in colleges, conservatories or universities. In rare instances, courses are offered in church music, but often church musicians must gather information on their own in order to function successfully in a church.

What is more important than information, however, is that philosophies differ greatly in these educational environments. We hope that clergy are exposed to principles of liturgy and music that prepare them for designing effective worship. In most seminaries there is at least one course that deals with these principles, and in many seminaries there are several courses. Musicians, on the other hand, especially those trained in secular institutions, are taught a very different approach.

In music schools there are two general principles that are instilled in students: 1) Find the very best music available; 2) Perform it at the highest possible level of musicianship. While those are admirable goals, even in a parish setting, they do not begin to cover the most important matters in church music.

Musicians, then, must learn on their own: 1) how to find music appropriate to the season and lessons; 2) what is entailed in selecting hymns for the congregation that are not only appropriate to the occasion, but, even more important, are within the capability of the congregation; 3) judicious methods of slowly and gradually teaching new hymnody to the congregation; (I often tell seminarians that, on the Sunday you do three unfamiliar hymns in a service, don’t go to coffee hour. Get in your car and go straight home.) 4) how to work harmoniously with staff and parishioners who have very strong opinions about music that are different from the musician’s; 5) developing a choir so that they sing with confidence and beauty, using repertoire that is within their capabilities, while also pushing them gradually to develop increasing skills; [See blog from 8/14/16 for more information.] 6) offering music in parish social settings that might not be different from the repertoire the musician learned in music school, but which nevertheless engages people and makes them more amenable to singing in church. The list could go on.

What is more important than the skills just described is the attitude they reflect.

Clergy sometimes have good music training themselves, allowing them to facilitate the development of and harmonious working relationship with a successful church musician. These clergy will also have some sympathy with the perspective of the musician, knowing the environment in which the musician was trained. More often, however, clergy don’t have adequate music background to provide leadership. When clergy are defensive on this point, they will dig in their heels about matters where opinions far exceed knowledge. On the other hand, when clergy are relaxed and open, they will develop a relationship with the musician in which skills, education, and perspectives are shared collegially.

Sharing the Stage. Finally it must be noted that clergy and musicians share the same small “stage” on Sunday. Both are performers in the best sense of that word (not in the inflated ego sense). Whereas the Director of Christian Education might do a splendid job that is never witnessed in public, clergy and musicians appear each Sunday in the highest profile setting we have, public worship. This can test the strength of one’s ego, resulting in the most important matters’ being obscured by our own neediness.

Like all relationships, the one between clergy and musician will be strengthened by doing things together that have nothing to do with work. Playful outings and social activities lower our guard, invite us to develop concern and empathy for others, and make a relationship more enjoyable.

In most clergy-musician relationships, the clergy is the boss, having the power to terminate employment. That’s a lot of power. It can’t be ignored. Pretending that the two people are on absolutely equal footing is foolish and unproductive. A healthy relationship will recognize the power dynamics, but will exercise them in such a way that one person doesn’t feel under constant threat. (I once had a supervisor in a secular job whose technique was to come around to employees regularly and announce that he was thinking of eliminating them. Eventually it became obvious that this was his way of encouraging higher performance—a technique that not only didn’t work, but created a hostile atmosphere.)

Two resources are suggested for further reflection:

  • The chapter on clergy-musician relations in Music and Vital Congregations (Roberts, Church Publishing, Inc.)
  • A DVD that is designed to implement a workshop for clergy and musicians together, called Creating Worship that Works: Clergy and Musicians as Partners in Ministry (through the website of the Association of Anglican Musicians). Like marriage seminars, this resource will do the most good if used long before conflicts develop, not on the way to divorce court.

Prayer, as in all things, focuses the heart on important matters and opens us to the Spirit’s leadership in navigating these perilous waters, inviting smoother sailing and a journey that is enjoyable and productive


The Rev. Dr. William Bradley Roberts is Professor of Church Music at Virginia Theological Seminary and a faculty consultant for music for the Center for Liturgy and Music.