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Musical Musings: Miscellaneous

The "Pastoral Musician"

A True Shepherd or the Thief at the Gate?

by Jason A. Pennington, CAGO

This essay, which appeared on 29 December 2005 in the weblog Christus Vincit, is reprinted here with the kind permission of the author, Jason Pennington.

Good Shepherd The role of a good Church music director does not only encompass that of the artist perfecting his craft for the benefit of his congregation. Besides the obvious day to day business, our very title implies much more: direction. Not just directing other musicians, but directing and administrating a music department. Not only must a church musician know his craft and work to develop it daily, he must also function as an executive of sorts, making decisions and striking plans that will allow his department to flourish and grow. One may demonstrate a virtuosic keyboard technique, but, for example, if he is unable to determine what is beneficial for his department or if he can not maintain order at a choir rehearsal or make best use of the allotted time for choir preparation, his work as a music director is ineffective.

Critics (frequently music directors themselves) and liturgists will often pose a curious question to music directors: "Do you think you are a 'pastoral musician'?" Such rhetoric! Better yet, this: "Do you think you act 'pastorally'?" Nowadays we stumble across this concept in written media, at seminars, conferences, and sometimes even at parish staff meetings: the necessity to act "pastorally." It is a product of the pervasive modern double-talk mentality, the fondness to perceive as utterly complex something rather pedestrian. In the old days, we just called it "common sense" or even "street sense." The problem with these old fashioned terms is that they don't really set anyone apart. In plain English, it's trendy to be "pastoral." We can attend a "workshop" to become pastoral. Who would pay money to attend a Common Sense Workshop? So, let's go ahead and be pastoral. It's the in term, so let's use it.

But what does it mean to be "pastoral?" The immediate and simplest answer is this: to act like a shepherd, to shepherd the flock. The Western tradition informs our perception of "shepherding." The Roman poet Virgil describes in vivid imagery the pastoral life in the Eclogues. In fact, literature through the ages, both religious and secular, offers descriptions of the pastoral. The pastoral life is gentle and calm. It is peaceful and serene. Lambs frolic as the shepherd plays his pipe beneath a sprawling shade tree. The twenty-third Psalm is a thumbnail image of all this: "The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want...He makest me to lie down in green pastures...beside the still waters...repose." The lovely, bucolic life! Unfortunately for most who define the "pastoral" musician's attitude in media and workshops, this is often where the image ends: I want – the shepherd gives. There is a medieval German legend about a wonderful place like this. The lucky inhabitants lack for nothing. Hungry? One has only to part his lips and a baked chicken lands in his mouth. Now that's pastoral: I want it, so I get it. Sounds great, doesn't it? But is this really what "being pastoral" should be? If we are to be "pastoral" church musicians, does that mean that we are nothing more than ecclesiastic house boys who happen to read music? As a witty colleague of mine once quipped, "Ganymede, I ain't." Let's read a bit farther along in the Psalm 23: "Thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me."

The shepherd's rod and staff have two purposes. They are used by the shepherd as weapons to keep harm from his flock. They also are used to keep the sheep in line. The shepherd's staff after all has a crooked end to restrain a sheep that has gone the wrong way. Sure, the rod and staff give comfort in protection from harm, but they also dispense discipline. The shepherd gives the sheep what they want, but more importantly, he gives them what they need, like it or not. He leads the flock to good grazing land, but he also has to keep them together and on track. If all they received from the shepherd is what they wanted, the flock would splinter and wander in all directions: All we like sheep. Recently I met with a bride and her mother to discuss wedding music. At the end of such sessions, I typically collect all pertinent fees. This particular family happened not to be parishioners and were assessed what most parishes call the "non-parishioner fee." The mother was outraged at having to dispense funds for the use of the church. She became quite aggressive in the meeting, and told me that she could just as easily have the wedding across town for free. I also knew that the bride's family owned a very successful business in town: money was not the issue. I responded, "as a shrewd business woman, you should know, then, that it is in your best interest to go where you wouldn't have to pay a fee." Surprise to her: profit was not my goal. The only problem with the family's home parish church was its architecture. Built in the 1970s, it was constructed in a round seating format and has an extremely short aisle. The bride's train was too long and would stretch, literally, from the sanctuary to the narthex. They needed, frankly, a traditional church edifice with a long aisle to accommodate the extra yards of trailing fabric. Afterwards, recounting this story to colleagues, I was reprimanded by a few who claimed I had not acted "pastorally," that the fee should have been waived because the bride so much wanted to be married in my parish church. In fact, I had been "pastoral," not in the customary "still waters, green pastures" way, but in the "rod and staff" way. These people didn't need pampering, although they wanted it. They needed discipline, and they got it. Ironically, the groom informed his fiancé some months later that he would not marry her. I surmise he had grown tired of being pastoral.

I never try to conceal the fact that I was not born a Catholic. It does not perturb me in the least that I am frequently referred to not as a "Catholic," but as a "Convert." I started off my journey as a Missouri Synod Lutheran, a member of a rather conservative, largely German parish. I am grateful that I was a Lutheran first. Starting off in this way gave me a greater advantage over my Catholic peers, I think: I had the opportunity to attend Sunday School and to learn "why I was Lutheran." I often remark that I learned more about Roman Catholic doctrine in Lutheran religious education classes than any cradle Catholic learns in a lifetime. That is, however, the topic of another essay. To this day, the role model who demonstrated, in my opinion, perfect "pastoral" conduct was Pastor Fessler, of happy memory. I remember him as a large, stout man possessing an authoritative, often stentorian voice, particularly when speaking the words of the general absolution: "I as a called, ordained minister of the Word, announce the grace of God unto all of you!" After that proclamation, not one soul in the nave was uncertain whether or not the Lord had granted mercy upon a poor, miserable sinner. Fessler had class. Not only was he clearly audible across the vast nave without amplification, he also knew when to keep silence. In parish administrative matters, he was the shepherd of Virgilian verse: reclining beneath the tree as the lambs frolicked, but always with a watchful eye. In Missouri Synod churches, the parish is administered not only by the pastor and the vestry, the equivalent of sorts to the Catholic Pastoral Council, but also by the assembly of voters, comprised of all adult parishioners who had received Confirmation. Fessler and the parish president conducted these meetings. Discussion, I remember, was often very animated, but Fessler would say nothing and offered no opinions. At the end of debating, he would rise and proclaim, "I have heard all the discussion. Now, this is how we will proceed," continuing to give the final word of action. Now that's what being pastoral is all about. He let the sheep play, let them graze, then, using his crook, he herded them together and moved them to another place. He didn't get in the way, he didn't spoon feed them. He let them be sheep. Fessler taught an important lesson about being pastoral. One listens, then guides accordingly.

"Are you a pastoral musician?" To answer yes to this, doesn't mean that one engages in polling the congregation what they like to sing and then delivers those requests at the next Mass. It also doesn't mean that one transposes the hymns down a third so that the altos are content, or up a fifth so that the lead soprano is happy on her high C. Conducting oneself as a pastoral musician, if one must use that term, means to survey the state of the musical life of the parish. Consider the repertoire the parish is used to, and possibly to push the limits of their tolerance or acceptance. Being pastoral doesn't mean always being "Mr. Nice Guy." Mother always said "eat your peas." As a child, I remember several evenings sitting alone at the dinner table, staring down a plate of green peas, while my siblings were upstairs playing board games or watching television. "We only sing Glory and Praise here." To act completely non-pastorally would be to give in and respond, "that's fine with me." It's really not fine. The "we only sing" statements mean it's high time to add some musical peas to the menu. "We don't know that hymn." So the pastoral musician should say, "Oh, OK, then we'll never use number 315?" This pastoral musician says to the we-don't-knowers: "You don't know it? Good, well, then we'll sing it throughout Lent. By Palm Sunday, you'll know it by heart." In the end, they'll be better for it. Why lead the sheep into one small corner of the pasture, when they can be led just as easily to explore the whole territory? That's where the rod and staff come into play. If the church musician doesn't have a "rod and staff," or if he is scared or apprehensive to use them, then he's cheating his flock out what they need.

The music for Mass is meant to enrich worship of the Almighty. It is meant to offer the faithful a glimpse of the Beatific Vision as the earthbound liturgy joins with the eternal heavenly liturgy. A church musician who uses plain common sense, sizes up what needs to be done to enrich the musical life of his parish, listens, and then makes his own conclusions is the one who acts pastorally. Also, a church musician must be informed by Church doctrine and tradition, know Holy Scripture, and have at least a cursory knowledge of Church/Word History. His knowledge must come from Church documents and Holy Writ, not be based upon hearsay or loose opinions gleaned from some hired "workshop facilitator." The truly "pastoral" musician is no drone. He must have a brain and use it - not only for his own good, but for the good of the faithful, whose worship of God he is there to enhance. An ignorant church musician is a stranger to the flock, an imposter who frightens the sheep and drives them away. It takes much effort and much time to be truly pastoral. Anyone can give a congregation what they want. Much more challenging is to give them what they need. Using the metaphorical rod and staff from the Psalm, balanced with timing and education, the flock will get what they need, and come to know that what they need is really what they want, too.

Copyright © 2005 Jason A. Pennington.
Reprinted with permission.

Jason Pennington is a Colleague of the American Guild of Organists and serves as Organist-Director of Music at Our Lady of Fatima Church, Lafayette, Louisiana

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