Difficulties with Music Ministry

The many difficulties with music ministry in a California Central Valley Roman Catholic parish.

Cultural differences

Due to the high percentage of Spanish speakers at the Catholic parish, many of the approaches used in reaching out and working with the Spanish speaking community (SSC) are utilized or expected to work in the English mass community (EMC).

This approach fails for many reasons: the expectation of involvement, the expectation that there are qualified members in the community, and the expectation that qualified candidates will work for minimum wages or volunteer.

Motivation toward involvement

There is an expectation that those from the EMC will volunteer at the same rate as the SSC. This is incorrect. The SSC consists of more foreign-born parishioners who find a cultural home in their Catholic parish. Thus there is a personal motivation to get involved as involvement brings to them a sense of belonging and familiarity and a connection to their country/culture of origin. Particularly in considering those who immigrated from countries who experienced persecution, these parishioners have learned to keep the faith at all costs.

It is a different matter for the EMC. The EMC likely consists of more native-born Americans whose immigrant ancestors are not personally known. Thus they have grown generationally in American values of materialism, freedom of choice, feeling-driven morality, and individualism. Americans on the whole are increasingly moved by visual and not verbal approaches in advertising, and expect to be impressed or entertained in order to keep their interest.

Those members of the EMC are also more likely to have other sources of community. American culture is not Catholic, so for those who were public school educated and work in the world, the likelihood of having only Catholic friends is slim. The parish must do more to make the parish a cultural center. To do this, it must offer something unique the culture at large cannot offer. This is a bigger issue than music ministry but highlights the difficulty in obtaining volunteers.

The differences in a culture that has originated in a developing or impoverished country and/or has been persecuted for the faith and a culture raised in international, financial and religious security cannot be understated. The recognition of these differences should shape different approaches in outreach and evangelization.

A singing community

The SSC is a singing community. They know their songs. They utilize their songs. There is no expectation that one must be gifted to sing because all in the culture sing. Therefore it is a much smaller matter to obtain volunteers.

In contrast, the EMC is not a singing community. There are few songs other than some Christmas carols and patriotic tunes that the EMC will know by heart or spontaneously sing with the choir. While some believe the music must be made more simple in order for the EMC to grasp it, the reality is, as a non-singing community, the directors of music must make it worth their while to join in. This can be seen in the Life Teen or youth group community masses where the youth are taught St. Augustine said, “singing is praying twice,” and “God loves a joyful noise.” They are led by musicians who use music as a prayer of praise and therefore choose songs with words one might think to pray to God: “I will sing of your love forever;” “You alone are all I need,” “Blessed be the name of the Lord,” etc. If the EMC would like to see what motivates the youth from a non-singing culture to sing, it should consider how outreach is done for the youth: through sincerity, through witness, through the teaching of the meaning of singing as prayer. It is not necessary to copy particular music styles, although seeing musicians play well is another factor all in itself in this problem.

Further, as a non-singing community, fewer members of the EMC are trained as musicians. It will be more difficult to find qualified directors of music. In order to retain the services of qualified musicians in the EMC, it is necessary to provide a stipend or salary. Blindness to this reality is one of the greatest reasons music ministry programs in the EMC are failing.

Work requirements and the degradation of paid work

In some parishes, through the combination of cultural differences and financial security, some appear to place a higher value on volunteered time over paid time. “They should do it for the Lord,” or “they should want to give to their community,” are not unheard of sentiments. At the same time, job postings for a music director often require some form of higher education. To require a bachelors or masters preferred or years of experience and not to even consider paying wages at this level is one of the many professional insults levied at qualified musicians.

Additionally, many new music directors who are trained in traditional methods and education according to Catholic tradition are young men and women who have children. To both encourage families to bear many children according to ability and expect them to volunteer 5 to 10 hours a week is unrealistic and dismisses the primary vocation of parenthood for the vocation of service to one’s parish.

On one hand, the parish is requiring, along the American tradition, to choose from qualified candidates, but on the other hand, refuses to recognize the value of qualified candidates in that same tradition. They cannot have it both ways. They will either have candidates who have no more training, skill, or education than a minimum wage job would pay, or must pay more.

Unrealistic expectations

I’m sure parish priests can attest to the difficulty of implementing changes in a parish. A good leader first assesses the situation and gets to know the community. Only then, based on knowledge of the community, are changes slowly implemented.

Too many music directors are hired on the stipulation that they produce results either in the form of increased donations to the parish (supposedly a sign of increased attendance), the formation of multiple well-attended choirs, and a general increase in the singing of the community.

To expect these results in 6 months to a year, on low wages, in an environment resistant to change is unrealistic and harms the morale of the music director and potentially his or her willingness to work for a parish in the future.

If a parish would invest in a music director and realistically consider how a music ministry program develops, taking into account the unique qualities of the EMC, then they might see results.

If the parish does not believe the liturgy is worth investing in, that skill is not worth investing in, than the music programs and attendance will reflect that. There will be no pearl of great price for new members to invest in, no evangelization through music, no worship through music, and no growth in the community via music ministry. Trained professional musicians will learn their talents are better used elsewhere. To support their families they must invest elsewhere. Show the community that the programs are not worth it and they will respond in kind. Demonstrate that there is no higher art, beauty or prayer than the mass, and they will respond in kind. You cannot have it both ways.

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