Welcome to this summer series on questions and possibilities for a new era in our personal lives, professional lives, the choral landscape, and in society! I’m so glad you’re here for the journey.
For over 50 years, the Worship and Music Conference at Montreat has inspired attendees. Sponsored by the Presbyterian Association of Musicians (PAM), it takes place at the Montreat Conference Center in Montreat, NC, close to Asheville. Each year, hundreds of adults, children, and youth attend one of two week-long sessions to worship, learn, make music, rest, reconnect with long-time friends, and make new friends.
For years, I’ve heard how fantastic the conference is. Happily, I was able to attend for the first time and it was exactly what I needed. I was able to worship, make music, learn, make friends, and enjoy the beautiful Montreat setting without needing to lead a worship service or rehearsal. Although it was sponsored by PAM, there were attendees from a variety of denominations. From my perspective, church musicians from different denominations would appreciate the conference and be able take practical ideas to their home congregation.
As a first-time conference goer, I was thrilled at how easy it was to meet other attendees. During meals, I don’t think I ever sat with the exact same group of people twice! I asked Meg Granum Gurtcheff, co-Director of the conference, if that was typical at Montreat. She said that the welcoming and friendly nature of Montreat is part of the DNA of the conference. No wonder people keep returning year after year!
According to Meg, the planning committee had three main goals: that everything would be focused on worship, to embrace the intergenerational heritage of the conference, and that there would be practical applications for a variety of local contexts. From my perspective, having clear goals was crucial. I saw them clearly put into practice during the conference.
Regarding worship, we were treated to six creative and moving worship services, each centered around a different festival in the church year: Pentecost, Baptism of the Lord, Reign of Christ, Ash Wednesday, All Saints, and World Communion. Each service was well crafted and I felt both spiritually and musically nourished.
Each worship and music conference at Montreat is planned starting three years out. According to Meg, When COVID struck, there was a hope and flexibility phase from July 2020 – January 2021. Plan A was to have the conference in person. Plan B was what needed to happen if the conference had to be 100% virtual. In January 2021, the PAM Board decided to have an in-person conference with an online conference simultaneously during Week 2. Even with this plan, flexibility was needed. For example, before the Ash Wednesday service, the planning team had multiple discussions whether or not imposition of ashes would occur due to safety concerns related to COVID. As of the printing of the conference booklet, the team was still unsure whether or not it would happen and where in the service it would occur. As a result, it was not included in the conference book. In my own context, there were a lot of discussions whether or not to include imposition of ashes on Ash Wednesday, so I fully understood if that was unable to happen. Luckily, the planning team at the conference developed a system by which they felt that they could distribute ashes safely. This was only finalized during the beginning of Week 1 of the conference.
Regarding practical considerations, there were a number of ideas I gleaned that I could use in my local context. For example, the All Saints service was particularly meaningful. At the beginning of the service, about a dozen people had candles of varying sizes. One person stood up, lifted a large candle, and proceeded to the altar. The others followed, but at their own pace.
Early on in the planning stages, a conversation was whether or not to have an Adult only event. Overwhelmingly the decision was to embrace the intergenerational heritage of the conference. As a result, Youth and Children helped lead worship at various points not only in choir anthems but also in prayers and bringing Scripture passages to life.
There were so many amazing moments of the conference that I wish I could share all of them. However, I had a few lessons I will continue to ponder throughout the summer and beyond.
- I was inspired by the intentionality of instruments used on the hymns in worship. Small adjustments to hymns can go a long way. For example, adding an instrument or small instrumental ensemble can help the congregation sing more expressively.
- Even if a conference is a mountaintop experience, having practical elements to take home is essential.
- Collaboration, when done well, is a joy. One of the classes I attended was entitled “Worship Reflections”, where the planning team would discuss the prior worship service and we could ask questions. At almost each session, people on the team gave others compliments. I was struck at how each of the members of the team exemplified being a servant-leader. That example was a reminder of one of the vital roles of serving as a church musician.
What are some small adjustments you’ve used on hymns that have yielded powerful results? What does it mean to you to be a servant-leader? Comment below!