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Reflections on hard conversations and lessons learned

I have learned some of my most valuable lessons in music ministry the hard way. I made mistakes. And fortunately for me, church folks who were friends were brave enough to tell me they were not happy about it and I was able to listen and learn.

I was still fairly early in my ministry career when I served the First Baptist Church of Meridian, Mississippi. One day I called a choir member to ask a favor. Within minutes I realized the reception on the other end of the phone was not as warm as usual. Then at the end of the call, the choir member confronted me about my failure to reach out to her when her sister died. I was embarrassed. I had indeed failed to do this, in part because it was a particularly tragic death. I didn’t quite know what to say so I avoided the call. And my immature avoidance of my own discomfort was hurtful. I think I said I was sorry. The criticism stung. It was hard to face the fact: I messed up.

Fast forward to my Charlotte years, a choir member and handbell ringer made an appointment with me to meet in my office. I agreed. I had recently decided we didn’t need two adult hand bell groups and had made a decision to disband the one group. The director agreed with my decision. This ringer did not. The backstory on this is that many of these ringers were older or simply did not have the musical experience of the more proficient group. The ringer admitted the group had struggled. I’ll not recount the entire conversation here but that day a vulnerable friend told me the way the decision had been made (by me) smacked of ageism. This was hard to hear. And perhaps there was some truth to it.

It may have been my first Maundy Thursday at Wilshire. We had selected some musical excerpts from one of Bach’s passions to underscore the readings of the passion story and communion. In the course of the service I turned too many pages in my score (I think) and completely missed a solo passage. I was embarrassed and chagrined by my mistake. After the service I texted my apology to the soloist. Later that week the soloist came to me to express their own anger and hurt that I chose to apologize by text instead of in person. I was in the wrong and I admitted it. I am so grateful this person had enough courage to confront me instead of letting this linger. It was a hard conversation .

Three takeaways:

Reach out even when you don’t know what to say. Pick up the phone or write a note or perhaps even make a visit (these nuances depend on local cultures and expectations) when there is an opportunity to offer pastoral support.

As the leader of music ministry, accept responsibility for hard decisions and communicate clearly your reasons. Members’ criticism or unhappiness does not mean you need to reverse course. But respect for others does require that we make ourselves available to discuss matters openly.

Apologize in person when possible. By phone if you must. As a last resort, by text. One of the best ways to defuse a volatile situation is to say, “I messed up. I’m sorry.”

Truth is, church members and colleagues have been my best teachers in ministry and life. I’m a better pastoral musician for it.

Doug Haney

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