A Conversation about Planning Ahead in Music Ministry

by vernsanders on July 5, 2010

Last week, in my Monday Morning Email newsletter, I posed the following questions:

I’ve been thinking about one of my favorite subjects: planning ahead. I certainly believe that if you fail to plan, you plan to fail. But I also am an improviser, and so it sometimes appears that I have done no planning. Now I know that for some planning is difficult, because they don’t believe in it, because their supervisors don’t value it, or their lives are too chaotic…whatever. But what do you think? Is planning ahead useful for music and worship ministry? Do you find that it is more stressful to plan, or to just “go with the flow”? How far ahead do you plan? How have you arrived at that window? What is the single thing that most impacts your ability and/or willingness to plan?

MME June 28 2010

I had a number of replies.

Devon Brooks came right to the point:

I find that planning ahead is indeed helpful, especially for worship services. The stress associated with planning ahead has never compared to that of, not only being unprepared, but feeling as though I have let down the congregation. Luckily, my congregation is small. Planning ahead consists of little more than picking the songs and running through them a few times during the week to make sure me and my partner have it down (ie transitions, harmonies). I definitely say plan ahead, don’t overdo it though. Give God the room to intervene and speak to the process as much as possible.

Roberta Foreman was even more emphatic:

Do I plan ahead? Absolutely! I plan five months at a time — half my work year. All anthems are chosen to reflect or to be compatible with the lectionary readings for each Sunday. I give a copy of my plans along with copies of each anthem so he can prioritize his practicing. All plans are subject to change due to ”singer availability.” So nothing is really set in stone.

Anita Hughes had a lot to say, particularly about quality, and she provided some specific things that she does:

The question is “do you plan ahead for music and worship ministry” The answer is wholeheartedly YES!!!

I am often “taken back” when I see sloppy work done in the arts whether it’s music/dance/etc.  and I hear people around me say “well that director is an artsy type so that’s why everything is so unorganized.”  That’s nice that people can overlook our many faults but not organizing/or finding someone who can help you organize leads to many problems.

Yes, we want the Holy Spirit to have his place in our worship but the Holy Spirit works in us on Monday (when we might be planning) as well as on Sunday morning when we are executing the worship.  Why is it that we limit the Holy Spirit’s work to performance time only?  I find the Spirit’s leading even stronger in my one-on-one time with the Lord or in my quiet planning times.  I see evidence of the Holy Spirit’s leading during worship through my team/myself/and the congregation but at that time it the fruit of worship that I see.  Fruit cannot grow where it has not been planted!

There are two different groups I am currently planning for – the Worship Choir and the weekly Praise Team/Praise Band ministries.  Planning for the choral group is very specific…for instance – all Christmas music is ordered and planned out by September 1.  Singers, instrumentalists, soloists, audio, visual, stage designers, etc will all know what will be needed for the Christmas program very early in the season. There will always be things that come up last minute but if you are not on top of things early – you will be a basket case the two weeks prior to a performance. In January, everything for Easter will be set – sometimes this is a hurry job if Easter comes in March…but the choir immediately begins working on Easter music and the Good Friday service.

The weekly praise team is another story.  I send out a weekly music newsletter to all the musicians every Tuesday morning. (planning)  Specifics for schedules, music, devotional thoughts, upcoming events are all posted in that newsletter.  Prior to a Wed rehearsal – some specifics will have changed – music changes as I continue to read through the sermon topic or speak to the Pastor  – rarely does music change after the Wed rehearsal but occasionally it does (through the urging of the Holy Spirit) sometimes I don’t know why it changed/why I felt it needed to change but God knows why. Music is typically chosen 3-4 weeks ahead of time as I receive sermon titles but refined as the sermon gets closer. (constantly planning and revising) I have 4 specific praise teams that sing one Sunday a month (always the same Sunday) but because we work with volunteers I am usually busy keeping up with the schedule (lots of planning)

Because I have been doing this for ten years at the church where I serve – it is calming to know how everything is running.  Sunday mornings are worship times for me as well as for my teams and the congregation.  This is accomplished because we plan, plan, plan during the week.  We are located in Houston, TX – a busy town with busy people (like everywhere else) – it is part of my job to be a calming presence in the lives of my volunteers – they come into rehearsals and worship tired and worn out.  The music lifts their spirits and helps them fix their eyes on Jesus.  When I have not planned a rehearsal well – they are agitated and I go home from church exhausted and discouraged.  There are always glitches – we are working with people at rehearsals…and I put a lot of energy into every rehearsal and performance.  Being organized and relying on the Holy Spirit’s leading everyday is what gets me through and keeps me serving with gladness and joy!!!

You asked what is the single thing that most impacts your ability and willingness to plan?  I think it is knowing (through good and bad experiences) that if I don’t plan, I have not done what God has asked me to do.  Look, sometimes you plan and God changes your mind at rehearsal – be open to the Spirit’s leading – but give God something to work with in the first place.  Serve with excellence as the skilled musician you are.

God is a planner!  Ephesians tells us that we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do!  Sounds like planning to me!

Robert Pentecost uses a 6 week planning schedule:

I think planning ahead is best very useful for any church ministry with allowances for change and spontaneity always a factor.

I print and hand out a 6 week music schedule a few Sunday’s before it is to begin. I highlight their times(s) and put their name on the front for each: soloist – ensemble members, our choir accompanists [who also do our piano duets and or organ/piano duets] and any other of instrumental soloists, kid’s choir and hand chime directors that might be involved in that 6 week span.

Obviously there are always some changes because I don’t know work/travel schedules, children’s church, nursery, parking lot security or other ministry rotations for everyone. I will switch one for another when possible and they and I mark them on our copies so we both remember.

I have had to improvise more in the last few years with the new pastor than I ever have in my ministry. He sometimes forgets to tell me until 5-10 minutes before a service, before Bible classes or as early as late Friday – that we have a presentation, a report, a DVD, a missionary presentation or guest musicians along with the guest speaker…etc…I still try to plan by asking every once in awhile if there is something coming up that I need to know before finalizing the plan each week. It works OK most of the time but I just wonder if these things just spring up on him at the last minute or what. I can just hear the response if the board asked him before a service to change subjects or shorten his message because of something they thought of or wanted to have instead.

I like to plan ahead in my family life also but am very susceptible and open to spontaneous outbursts of unexpected and unplanned fun things to do.

Finally, Danny Von Kanel reminds us that even if you do plan ahead, people skills are also necessary:

Effective planning is an absolute necessity if we want quality worship experiences. I cannot imagine going into a worship service without detailed plans. With praise teams, choirs, instrumentalist, sound men, powerpoint leaders, and pastors, everyone has to be on the same page for it to work – and that says nothing about the amount of planning needed to get music ready for all participants.

Church musicians must have people skills because relationships are 99% of our work but that doesn’t minimize the great need for administration skills. Great administration frees up time for spending it with parishioners. Without planning, our Sunday experiences are open to chance and disaster.

I try to plan for a whole season, music-wise, although that has varied based upon the pastoral leadership with which I have worked. At one point in my ministry I was able to plan a whole year ahead, on a rolling schedule. On the other hand, I have finished my ensemble rehearsals having no idea what the preaching pastor was going to talk about…or worse, having a pastor change their mind on Saturday night.

For worship planning, I try to use an 8 week planning schedule, a technique I learned from my friend and colleague Doug Lawrence. An 8 week schedule allows you to plan from the general to the specific, while allowing time for plans to change somewhat along the way.

What do you think? I’d love to hear how you plan. Please leave a comment below.

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