Should You Join the Church You Serve?

by vernsanders on May 10, 2011

This #3 in a series of posts that might be called “Tales from a Life.” Everything you read here has either happened to me, or occurred to me as a result of serving in some sort of music ministry position. I suppose this series of posts could also be called “Change Happens…Deal With It.”

I realize that in some denominations, the question posed by the title of this post is not debatable. But for those who are interested, play along anyway…

One of the reasons I bring this up has to do with how serving in church music and/or worship ministry has changed over the past generation or two. As I’ve pointed out in Music/Ministry/Equal Pay: Pick Two? the job description of a church musician has morphed immensely. So has the relationship between the church and its musician(s).

Where once people stayed in the same town (and often, in the same job) their whole careers, now society as a whole (the great recession notwithstanding) moves around…and, in the music ministry profession, this is particularly true in a large city. At the same time, pastoral leadership has evolved to a place where “what have you done for me lately” and “how hip are you” can be driving forces behind personnel changes.

The result? In many cases, a church musician/worship leader is like an athletic coach: tenure is performance based, and a change in organizational leadership often means a change in ministry leadership.

In this context, loyalty, while still very important, is often a one way street.

So…should you join the church you serve?

The answer, I believe, depends upon what kind of a position you (will) occupy.

In my experience, unless there is an overwhelming reason to do so, a “professional” musician is probably better off not joining the church they serve. It keeps the relationship clean, and there are no complicating factors if the relationship needs to be severed, for whatever reason.

At the same time, an “amateur” musician is probably by definition a member of the church from the outset, or, in most cases, at least before they are placed in charge of a ministry. They have been a part of the church, and will be even if the leadership relationship is severed.

The question then becomes: What is a “professional” musician?

I know this topic can be fraught with angst in churches, with people playing “dueling scriptures” over tentmaking versus calling, and a myriad of other things. In the strictest sense of the word, however, a professional is one who is being paid for their services.  As such, let me give you two clear indications of how you can judge whether the relationship is a professional one:

  • was there an audition process in order to determine a “best fit” for the ministry position
  • is there a formal contract between the church and the leader which defines duties and benefits

Yes, you can be a professional without these things being present (and I have served in situations like this). And yes, you can be an amateur even though you have a contract (I have seen evidence of this in many churches). But if there is an audition process, and a contract, I would say, serve, but don’t join the church unless there is a compelling reason to do so.

But astute readers will have surmised that there is one bit of difficulty in my advice: how can you be a church musician/worship leader and not be a member of a church? Doesn’t being a church member indicate, in some manner, that you are qualified to hold a church ministry position?

The answer, for me, has been quite simple. I have kept my membership with my home church…the one in which I was baptized and confirmed. I have only made one notable exception to this rule, and full disclosure requires me to say that my relationship with that church did not end well, and it was messy because I had joined the church. It was a church I served later in my life, and I thought it was time to make an exception to my rule. In my case it was a big mistake. Leadership changed, and…well, most of you can fill in the blanks…

What is your policy? Join the church you serve or not? Please leave a comment and let me know what you think.

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{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Janice Timm May 10, 2011 at 12:22 pm

Well… I agree. for a myriad of reasons I wish I had not become a ember of the church I have been serving since 1988 (through better and worse). However, it was made a requirement of “calling” me to the position of Minister of Music. The UCC requires that local pastors join their churches — so therefore if I was going to be called “Minister” then I needed to be a member, too.

I much prefer the Anglican and United Methodist ways of being a member of “the Church at large.”

vernsanders May 11, 2011 at 9:53 am

I think that when you have no choice because it is a rule that is applied across the board, then it makes sense, as long as you understand the potential issues that might result.

Interestingly enough, the one “mistake” I made was one of those grey areas. It wasn’t that I “had” to join, but it was very clear, in context, that it would be a good thing, and we thought this would be our church home for a long time…stuff happens, as they say…

Jeanny House May 11, 2011 at 10:53 am

In the United Church of Christ, authorized (ordained, licensed, or commissioned) ministers are required to be members of the congregations they serve. Local churches may require staff who are not authorized ministers to be members as well.

I have served in and worked with churches who employ both members and non-members in staff positions — musicians, Christian Educators, youth workers, office staff, custodians, etc. In general, I think it’s better if at least some of these positions are not held by church members. When the secretary or custodian is a member of the church, it becomes very difficult to do helpful evaluations and performance reviews and it’s almost impossible to fire that person if it should become necessary. My preference is that those positions not be held by church members. This also allows those folks to worship at their own churches on Sunday morning and not be besieged by requests to “get this, copy that, or find this” by church members who are trying to get a whole to-do list accomplished in the time they are in church on Sunday.

Program staff? That can go both ways. I would want to know that a paid CE director or youth adviser was at least in sync with our church theologically. Actual membership is less important to me than that. If good leadership were to arise from within the congregation for positions like that, I’d hate to see it turned down because they were members. As long as I can work with musicians in good collaboration, I don’t care if they’re members or not. One of my best pianists was a Jewish high school student who took over for our organist the year she was on sabbatical. We both learned a lot that year.

vernsanders May 15, 2011 at 12:19 am

Thanks for the comment Jeanny.

I couldn’t agree more about admin staff. I have seen good (and good hearted) people have to leave positions because congregants (and some staff) couldn’t distinguish between “office” hours and worship. It is in those situations where the difference between a servant heart and a “you are our servant” mentality becomes sadly clear. Unfortunately, in small churches, the congregation is often the default hiring pool when filling such a position.

I also concur with being in theological sync for program staff. I would add vision-, work-style-, and relational- sync as well, if at all possible.


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