Editorial License

Rob Hammerton, music educator etc.


Today I spent six hours in the middle of the day at a retreat. Participants included all of the professional staff members of the church wherein I do my church musician thing. Under normal circumstances, one might be inspired to run screaming from such a concept – metaphorically or actually – because most six-hour stretches of time spent in the company of a “consultant” or “facilitator” or “coach” stand a very good chance of being Life Imitates Art, As Long As Art Is An Excruciating Episode Of “The Office”.

Fortunately, life didn’t imitate that art. It was, I think, not a waste of time at all.

It helps when the consultant is also simultaneously an actual, active purveyor of the craft. In this case, the nice lady was a pastor herself.

We did a little writing (no fooling, we journaled) … we did a little molding of clay, and not metaphorically but physically (when’s the last time I made something out of clay? The fifth grade, probably) … we paired up and discussed … we gave our personal weather reports (“sunny, with occasional passing showers, thank you!”) … we did all those touchy-feely things that with the wrong sort of guidance can make six hours seem like six months, only without the enjoyable changing of the seasons.

Most importantly for this space, we did a little writing with pens, on notebook paper.

Which meant that we couldn’t really go back and move this paragraph over here, for example.

So, I was thrown back to the days of taking essay exams in little blue books. One had to organize one’s thoughts a bit before setting pen to paper.

It was mere coincidence, I think, that the notebook I chose to write in had a blue cover.


So the first question was in response to the reading of a verse from the Biblical book of Jeremiah. The first six verses went like this:

The word that came to Jeremiah from the Lord: “Come, go down to the potter’s house and there I will let you hear my words.” So I went down to the potter’s house, and there he was working at his wheel. The vessel he was making of clay was spoiled in the potter’s hand, and he reworked it into another vessel, as seemed good to him. Then the world of the Lord came to me: Can I not do with you, O house of Israel, just as this potter as done? says the Lord. Just like the clay in the potter’s hand, so are you in my hand, O house of Israel.

(The Lord goes on to remind nations or kingdoms of the Old Testament’s Middle East that the Lord may be thinking of rewarding you, but if you’re not listening to His voice properly, He may change his mind and visit disaster upon you (Noah!). And if He was considering wreaking havoc upon you, but you turn away from whatever evil, etc. etc., He will change His mind and not wreak, after all. The Old Testament God was many things, but vague He was not.)

I didn’t exactly get hung up on the word “reworked” from the fourth verse – I did read and hear the rest of the passage – but the word did stick with me, enough that I thought it was worth addressing in the context of how a church staff might look to the future, and plan, and do.

So, with no ability to do drag-and-drop editing, I uncapped the pen and waited for the ink to flow. And, in short order, it did:

Is what we’re doing ever “set in stone”? Is how we do what we do ever set in stone? A wise philosopher once said, “The most dangerous phrase in the English language is ‘because we’ve always done it that way’.”

Is it possible for us to let go of our conviction that the “tried-and-true” methods, our “long-standing traditions”, are always going to be appropriate to meet our needs? Can we recognize that the task at hand may be different enough from what it used to be, that we may need to exchange our favorite tools for new “implements of construction”?

Can we convince ourselves of this – and those whom we help to lead – without conveying the impression that the old ways are uniformly outdated and unworthy? Can we honor the old, while adapting to (and embracing) the new?

Can we agree that “reworking” is not the same as replacing?

Not bad for having no opportunity to edit, and sculpt, and hone, and craft. Maybe not Pulitzer stuff, but ah well.

In many fields, not just those of church music, church staff, high school band design staff … that’s the challenge: not letting the past control us – but not innovating quite so thoroughly that we don’t recognize our “sport” anymore. Drum and bugle corps fights that battle every summer. Whether a person strikes you as a traditionalist or a stick-in-the-mud can depend on whether you’re that person or not. Depending upon one’s point of view, the fellow touting the latest innovative technique or concept or approach … might also be thought of as a troublemaker, stirring up the pot for the sake of stirring it up.

We (church leaders, public school music ensemble directors, … lots of other occupations, too) walk that knife-edge all the time. Maintain the status quo, rework, or replace?

It’s a challenge, fraught with risk – of going too far, or not going far enough, often depending upon which stakeholder you ask.  Sometimes we get both kinds of feedback simultaneously, in response to the same decision.

May we have the perspective (even when we’re up to our keisters in alligators, as the saying goes) to recognize it as the opportunity that it also might be. This suburban choir director hopes to be surrounded by people who are willing to open their minds a bit … even while he’s serving up some of the “old chestnuts” for them, too.

August 11, 2014 Posted by | choir, SUMC | , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment