How a church musician can facilitate a smooth transition to a new pastor or priest

June and July are typical times for changes in pastors and priests, depending on denomination. This can be a challenging time for the church, as each pastor and priest brings with them their own habits and expectations for the how the church service should run. Many also have ideas on the music used within the church service. This can include what hymns can and cannot be used, built in “think time” or zero silent time, how long preludes should run before service (if any at all,) and if hymns should or should not be announced.

As a church musician, I think that one of my duties is to help the church service flow seamlessly from one thing to the next, regardless of if the pastor is new, substituting, or has been there for a decade. Over the past 20+ years of playing in traditional worship services in Methodist, Catholic and Lutheran churches, I have developed a few habits that help smooth the transition to new or substitute pastors and priests. And while there are bound to be some hiccups as you get used to the new pastor or priest, this can help make them smaller.

Have a simple conversation with the pastor or priest

The first thing I make sure to have a simple conversation with the person about their expectations. I tell them how much time I play for prelude and depending on the church, that I will stop at a specific time. There are also a set of questions that I ask, and I write myself a note to make sure I remember to ask these questions – otherwise I’ll be 5 minutes into my preludes and realize I forgot! The following are the questions I ask.

Lutheran Church

For the Lutheran church I have just two questions that I ask the pastor.

  1. Do you announce the hymns and different liturgical songs? If yes, you know that you can wait for the announcement. If no, you know you are in charge of starting the songs.
  2. Will you be chanting/singing the liturgy? This is only important if the liturgical setting you use has parts for the pastor.
  3. Is there anything else I should know about how you like the music at Mass to be run?

Catholic Church

For the Catholic church I have some questions for the priest.

  • Will the cantor announce the hymns?
  • How will you let us know you are ready for Mass to start and the Gathering song to begin?
    • This is especially important if you are playing in a balcony and cannot see them gathering in the back to begin Mass. One church had a light that would turn on when they were ready – but it was behind me so I had someone else keep an eye on it. Another would have the priest wave through their side door. Another wanted me to just watch the time and start playing exactly at a specific time.
  • Is there anything else I should know about how you like the music at Mass to be run?

Be Flexible

Be flexible. Remember that just as you have habits and things you’re used to as a church musician, each pastor or priest has their own habits they bring with them. Be willing to make minor adjustments. Write yourself notes – use highlighters and sticky notes if need be so you remember whatever it is that is different.

Be forgiving

I tend to the be the musician that has nightmares about the mistakes I’ve made in the past. Over the years when I have commented about the mistakes to members of the congregation, most say they didn’t notice the mistakes. So when I inevitably make mistakes, I try to remind myself that most likely, people didn’t notice and to give myself grace.

Transitions can be tough on the congregations, pastors and musicians. But one thing we can do as musicians is to think through things that could change, talk to the new pastor or priest about expectations, be flexible, and be forgiving of yourself while everyone gets used to the new rhythm of the services.

Photo by Kati Hoehl on Unsplash

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