Pay It Forward: The Importance of Mentoring Musicians
Dwight was an elder in my church—a man I deeply respected. I was impressed with the seriousness of his faith and the way he did what he thought was right, even when it was difficult. When I realized that I could use a little wisdom about being a husband, man, and follower of Christ, I thought of Dwight. So with some nervousness I called him. “Hi, Dwight. I . . . uh . . . was thinking that . . . um . . . it would be really beneficial for me to learn about the faith from an older man. And I was wondering if . . . ah . . . you would be interested.” As if he had been expecting my call for a month, he immediately said, “I would be honored.”
Those four words were the start of a long and fruitful mentoring relationship. Dwight shared his life, his faith, and his struggles with me. He listened to the mundane details of my life and answered even my most uninformed questions earnestly. We studied the Word, prayed, and laughed together. If you had sat in on one of our weekly meetings, it wouldn’t have seemed like much, but the cumulative effect was that he imparted to me his vision of God. I follow Christ more faithfully because of Dwight’s investment in my life.
That experience of being mentored spiritually led me to wonder if a similar mentoring process could be applied to my music ministry. And I’ve become more and more convinced that this is what pastors, music ministers, and Christians do: live their call faithfully, then pass on what they’ve learned.
Jesus took a similar approach in his ministry. He preached many important sermons to large crowds, but his message didn’t take root there. He lived with twelve disciples, sharing with them his day-to-day ministry, answering questions, and teaching by example. And he invested even more intentionally and personally in an inner circle of three: Peter, James, and John. Isn’t it incredible that the Christian church—billions of believers throughout history—rests on the witness of such a tiny group?
I began to use this model as a blueprint in my own music ministry. Instead of obsessing about the whims of the “crowd” (the whole congregation), it seemed to me that lasting impact would come through living openly in front of the “twelve” (the musicians who take part in worship ensembles) and intentionally investing in the “three” (a few mentored musicians).
With this fledgling philosophy of musical mentoring, I cast about for some people to mentor, as I had been mentored. Lynn was a tenor who had extensive musical training and a keen interest in theology. Caralleen was a pianist with great musical instincts who wanted to explore her role in music leadership. Eventually I asked if they were interested in entering an ongoing conversation about music ministry. We began to meet weekly.
Each week I prepared a short lesson on some aspect of music ministry: sometimes on a theological issue, other times on some practical aspect of music ministry such as conducting, planning a praise set, or modulating. We discussed the decisions that led to the upcoming week’s bulletin or evaluated past services.
This may sound like a lot of work. It certainly was a commitment, but none of us found it burdensome. Lynn and Caralleen were energized by learning new skills and moving into areas of ministry that had previously been closed to them. I was energized by having an inner circle with whom to develop a vision of worship. The very act of articulating such a vision not only helped me clarify that vision. It also clarified something else—the sense that God was calling me to teach worship. He soon opened a door for me as the director of music ministries at Northwestern College in Iowa.
Discerning God’s Call
The beauty of my position at Northwestern is that musical mentoring is built into my work. Over a four-year period, students attend my classes, observe my worship planning and leading, and work with me as they lead their own services. I am able to encourage their gifts, observe their growth, and help them discern God’s call on their life. As students mature they move in new directions based on their own experiences and personalities. And I, in turn, am blessed by them.
I encourage you to consider mentoring the musicians you work with. Is there a fledgling musician who needs encouragement? A young person who is trying to discern God’s call? A musician who is ready to move to a new level of leadership? Let’s share what God has given us, boldly proclaiming with Paul, “Follow me as I follow Christ”?
Some Questions About Musical Mentoring
RW: How many people should I mentor at the same time?
GS: I’m reluctant to take on more than three people. However, not every mentoree has to be “full-time.” Your relationship with one person will be different from that with another: one needs periodic musical pointers, another spiritual guidance, still another may commit to a long-term mentoring relationship that includes spiritual friendship, musical apprenticeship, and vocational discernment. The most important thing is to be sure you have enough time to make an intentional investment in each mentoree’s life.
RW: How do I identify potential mentorees?
GS: For me, it usually starts when someone in one of my ensembles shows musical talent and ministry interest that goes beyond his or her obligations. I try to get to know the person better, exploring abilities and interests. I may offer a solo, invite the person to take part in a special ensemble, or ask for feedback on some aspect of music ministry. If we “click” on a personal level and the person seems invigorated by his or her increased activity in the music ministry, I suggest he or she pray about entering into an intentional mentoring relationship. It’s important that this whole process is saturated in prayer. By prayerfully seeking mentoring opportunities, our ministry changes from “how can these people contribute to my ministry?” to “how can I help the people God has given me to grow for his kingdom?”
RW: Do I need to be concerned with others who may think I am picking favorites? What about someone who would like to be part of the “inner circle” but in whom I don’t see the same gifts or abilities?
GS: Ego and jealousy are very real problems, especially in music ministry where prima donnas and rock stars abound. I often remind myself that choosing to mentor a mediocre musician may rob the Sunday school program of a fantastic teacher. If we truly believe that God calls each of us to an area of ministry, we have to be very serious about helping people discern their gifts. Sometimes that means directing someone away from music ministry. We don’t need to advertise the special relationship we have with a small group of musicians; then again, we don’t need to apologize for it.
RW: How long and how often should we meet? What should be included in mentoring meetings?
GS: Weekly meetings of an hour or less work well. I often combine them with rehearsals the mentorees are already attending. This conserves time and provides a natural opportunity for discussion of upcoming services, evaluation of rehearsals and past worship, and coaching on things the mentorees will be doing in rehearsals (sectionals, accompanying, and so on). A meeting may include a ten-minute lesson on a particular topic, an illustration of the topic from a current worship service (this makes me walk my talk!), and discussion. It’s important to make it less like a classroom and more like a conversation. Use current issues in your church’s worship, articles you’ve read, or things that are on your heart as springboards for discussion. It’s also important to take time to listen attentively.
RW: Is it better to do this as a group or one-on-one? If one-on-one, can it be someone from the opposite sex?
GS: I have found that small groups (of two to four people) work best because it allows mentorees to learn from each others’ experiences. When mentoring someone of the opposite sex, make sure your pastor, church secretary, and spouse are informed and that your meetings take place in a public part of the church during office hours. This protects you from any suspicion that might arise and helps avoid any inappropriate kind of intimacy from developing.
RW: Can you recommend a list of topics that could be covered in a mentoring situation for worship planners, choir singers, or praise team members?
GS: Each of these groups will take slightly different directions, but leaders in all areas of worship should have some foundation in worship theology (Scripture study—especially the Psalms, writings of major worship theologians, your own church’s tradition), repertoire (congregational song, choral literature, and so on), service planning (meaning of worship elements, choosing music, the order and flow of worship), instrumentation (introduction to worship instruments and vocals, balance, instruction in their own performance area), and rehearsing and leading (up-front worship leading, praise team rehearsal technique, conducting). A mentoring relationship should also include discernment of gifts and calling, and time for worship and prayer.
Of course, not every situation will be so comprehensive. Sometimes mentoring can be as simple as giving a choir member a voice lesson. This may not seem like much, but it may bear fruit later on. It is important to leave room to explore the unique gifts of both mentor and mentoree. I wouldn’t expect composition to be a standard part of a mentoring relationship, but it may be the very gift that a mentor needs from me. God calls and equips each of us uniquely, and mentoring can play a vital role in exploring our calling and gifts for work in his kingdom.