Across the UCC: The Music in Us
Written by Carol L. Pavlik
September - October 2009

The Rev. Scott Ressman at the Bedient tracker pipe organ in the Amistad Chapel of the UCC Church House in Cleveland. "Music speaks in ways that words cannot," he says. Photo credit: Gregg Brekke photo.
Music ministry breathes life into work, worship of local churches

Memory, says the Rev. Scott Ressman, is the powerful thread that connects church music so inextricably to our hearts. Ressman, the UCC's minister for worship, music, and liturgical arts, says that whether the memories are positive or negative, music shapes the way we feel about church music, and quite possibly about church itself.

"Obviously, people feel comfortable with what they know," says Ressman. "That's why word changes in well-known hymns make some uncomfortable. Putting drums, guitars, etc. in worship is a shock to many who've grown up with the piano and an organ and a choir. But when one opens up to the possibilities and the experience, wonderful things can happen."

Pigeonholing church music into "traditional" or "contemporary" categories is a gaffe many churches make. "I am not a fan of churches breaking their worship into [those] labels," says Ressman. "To say that 'traditional' music only speaks to a certain generation, or 'contemporary' to another, is a mistake. All music should work together in the church, dropping the labels which tend to separate people into musical camps.'

'God will be pleased'

But how does a church defi ne its music ministry? Ressman is well aware of the huge range of resources available to local UCC churches. There are certainly more than a few churches that have the means for extensive music programming. But, says Ressman, "we also have churches which struggle to pay the bills and cannot afford a professional musician or even an adequate one."

Ressman says those music ministries also are pleasing to God.

"It's about doing the best you can with what you have at any given time," he says. "If you only have a piano and a teenager taking piano lessons to play for worship, then run with it. God will be pleased! If you have a local band that plays for worship on Sundays, that's great. If you have a choir of 60 or 70, the music will soar if the effort matches the intent. Music speaks in ways that words cannot."

Get connected

Ressman oversees the UCC's Musicians National Network (UCCMNN, Inc.), affiliated with the national setting of the UCC. It is a group designed to create a common ground for church musicians, pastors, worship planners and liturgical artists to gather for brainstorming, support and networking.

UCCMNN holds a conference every two years (the next one is slated for summer 2010), but members can discuss topics and share ideas any time on myUCC at Membership is free.

Connecting with other church musicians can be valuable, says Ressman, since a music director at a local church often wears many hats. In his years as a music director, Ressman often found himself playing a pastoral role to his musicians as well as being their director. "To develop a musically tight group, it is necessary to build community and trust," he says. "When folks feel connected to one another, then they are more likely to commit to a more substantial role in the group." And a higher commitment level from the musicians will benefit everyone sitting in the worship service, Ressman adds.

Just as important, he says, is forging a symbiotic relationship with pastors and worship planners. As a musician, Ressman says he remembers many times when his selections didn't meld with the minister's readings or sermon.

"It was unfortunate," he says, adding that when the sermon, readings, music and other worship elements are constructed to work together, it moves the worship to a new level of meaning.

"Periodic meetings to brainstorm and plan worship themes and needs are a must," he says. Advance planning leaves plenty of lead time to track down music and musicians for certain themes. "You can tell when the worship is coordinated and when it is not," says Ressman.

Stretch your budget

Ressman encourages congregations to explore putting more dollars into their music ministries. He notes that the common expectation for musicians to "donate" their gifts is unfair. "This is well-intended," says Ressman, "but musicians need to make a living just like anyone else."

Still, there are ways of stretching the music dollar. For instance, budding musicians at local schools often are glad to to offer their talents for minimal compensation. The musicans get valuable experience, and the congregation benefits by being part of the musician's growth.

Ressman also suggests scouting out hidden talent in the congregation. "Often people won't respond to requests to participate unless they are directly asked," he says.

If you feel you've exhausted your search, Ressman suggests branching out to asking sons, daughters and grandchildren of the congregation who don't attend church, or those who play unique instruments. Talk to private teachers in the area, he says. Search the internet for musical groups that travel the country and stop at churches along the way.

Many such groups will book a date at your church in exchange for a free-will offering. And don't forget the children.

"Young ones can easily add rhythm to a song by shaking an emptied water bottle half filled with beans, rice, etc. The rhythm might not be perfect, but the joy will make it so," Ressman says with a smile.

Finally, once the music ministry is up and running, Ressman says the next step may be thinking outside the confines of Sunday morning. Music is a great way to get community members into your church for, say, a Friday night program, he says. Or, church musicians might go out to local nursing homes and assisted living centers.

"Once the music program gets established and begins to 'work,' don't be afraid to move beyond the worship service to other settings," says Ressman. "Face-time at secular events might just reach people enough to encourage them to show up on a Sunday morning. 

Top 10 keys to music ministry success
A handy Letterman-style list by Scott Ressman

10. COMMUNICATE with everyone, especially the pastor.
9. COORDINATE the music with worship themes and/or the lectionary.
8. COOPERATE and be a team player. Establish "diva-free" zones.
7. DIMINISH the use of "traditional" and "contemporary" labels. It's all music!
6. DEDICATE yourself to excellence. Do the best you can with what you have.
5. DISCOVER the possibilities as you invite people to share their musical gifts.
4. EXPLORE all types of music and all kinds of instruments. Remember the youth members of your church!
3. EXCITE the congregation as you keep them guessing.
2. EXPECT the presence of all things Holy.

And the number one key to music ministry success ...