“Wow, everything on the service today worked so well together!” We often get comments like this after service on Sunday. We receive these comments because our music director and I have planned the music months ahead of time. Yes, we believe in Divine Order, and we believe we are in Divine Order when we plan ahead.
For years I have been the moderator for the “Minister-Music Director Forum” at Unity Worldwide Ministries’ Sound Connections music conference (now a part of the emPower Posi Music Festival). A frustration I hear from music directors over and over is that their minister doesn’t know what the Sunday lesson will be until Saturday night. Sometimes the minister doesn’t even have an idea for a theme until then. This makes it hard to plan for music that will support the mental content and the emotional impact of the Sunday lesson. Yes, many times the music does work out, and there is an opportunity to collaborate in what I believe is a more deliberate and fulfilling way.
The beginning responsibility falls on the minister to plan for lessons ahead of time. There is a minister I know who plans over a year ahead for her lessons. While this creates lots of time to collect lesson material, most of us are not of a mindset for this. At our spiritual community we publish Sunday lesson titles every two months, with a deadline of one month before publication. This creates for me a discipline of planning ahead. Sometimes I will work with our Youth Ed Director to create a series so that my Sunday lesson parallels what the teens and children are getting in their Sunday classes.
It helps to have a book, small group curriculum or a tie-in to a class series for inspiration. Some ministers have a 7-week series in the fall or winter to engage people in supporting their community. I always create a 7-week Lenten series and invite people to meet during the week to go into the material deeper. Rev Diane Venzera has a great seven-week small group series based on The Untethered Soul by Michael Singer called Awakening to Spiritual Power. This has youth curriculum as well. We recently ran this series and we planned the Sunday music ahead of time so our choir and music team has time to prepare.
When I plan a title for a Sunday lesson, I also look for supporting scripture. Also, I write a Key Statement that captures in one sentence what I think will be the main point of the lesson. (This may change when I get to working on the lesson, but at least there is a starting point for ideas.) I also write an affirmation (or Afformation—that’s another 6-week series) to go with the title and key statement. This content then goes to our music director.
Music Director’s Turn
Now the responsibility turns to our music director. He takes my list of a title, scripture, affirmation and key statement for each Sunday and looks for songs to support some aspect of these. He complies a list of 4 or 5 possible songs for each week. Then we sit down together and listen to his selections and, I think this is the brilliant part of our process, I get to pick which songs are used in the services. If he has a strong suggestion or a song that he has been wanting to do for a while, I certainly include that in my selection process. I look for songs that have the words that support our Unity teachings and music that has an energy that I think will lead into and follow the emotional tone I want the congregation to experience.
Once the music is selected, our music director creates practice MP3s for the choir and music team and posts them online on a private website we have for our music program. Our singers and musicians can access the music at any time to aid their preparation.
Our music director also keeps a list of music that he would like to perform. I can look at these pieces and when I find one I like, I can base a Sunday lesson on the song. Having this much of a tie-in between lesson and music can have a great impact on the congregation. This also gives me themes that I might not ordinarily explore for a Sunday lesson.
Another opportunity is to create what we call Music Sunday. Every time we have a Music Sunday, the congregation suggests that we do it every week. But, when your music folks are performing 12 to 13 pieces of music in one morning, it takes a lot of preparation. For a Music Sunday, we pick a theme, “love,” “peace,” “joy” and “light” are ones with lots of music to use. Once the theme is picked, we look for songs that support that theme and start to build a structure for the service keeping in mind that we want to create a flow of energy that provides for the congregation an experience with depth and breadth.
For this structure, instead of having one lesson about 23 minutes long, I create several mini-lessons that fit the flow and content of the music. People leave the service with a clear idea of what the theme is and hopefully a tune or two in the head that will repeat for them some Truth that will support them in their lives.
I hope these models are helpful for you for planning for the music and lesson together. It has been very satisfying to have the members of our choir and music team feel that they are contributing to the spiritual growth of our congregation and they also receive an extra connection to the lesson through their musical preparation. There are other models for lesson/music collaboration, but these have served us well for years.
If you have any questions or would like some resources for this process, please let me know.