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On Music: A Love Letter to Church Musicians

Mary Margaret Flannagan

Rev. Mary Margaret Flannagan serves as co-pastor at St. Giles Presbyterian Church in Greenville, South Carolina. She previously served as one of the staff for the Glory to God hymnal project.

Dear Friend,

How are you doing? To be a musician in ministry these days means that you are a survivor. You made it through a season of silence—through weeks and months without ensembles or congregations making a joyful noise together. You made it through a season of minimalism, without the usual activities and people and rhythms that keep us in sync. You made it through a season of stretching and bending in ways you never expected—breathing through protective (though stifling) layers and leading virtual choirs and ensembles. You found a way to embody congregational music in a season without a congregation present. You found ways to give more and work harder than you ever had. And, like many survivors of trauma, you put one foot in front of the other, one song after another, determined to make it to the next thing.

After all that we have seen and done, we are tired. So tired. Like inflation, the pace of ministry increased significantly but may not have adjusted back to our pre-pandemic status quo. Neither salaries nor job descriptions were adjusted to reflect the extra time and tasks poured into our programs. Now we must juggle both virtual and in-person worshipers. There is pressure for us to be part of the church that survives and even succeeds beyond the pandemic, though many leaders are exhausted and unsure if they have the energy to continue. Many of us need healing. Most of us want to reclaim a happy balance of life and ministry, though our questions of “how” remain unanswered.

We need to take time to intentionally acknowledge our survivor status, celebrating and mourning and nurturing the parts of ourselves still recovering from that wild season. We need to be gentle with ourselves and each other, naming the things within us that have changed. For we are entering a season of reckoning, recognizing the changed landscape of ministry. Certainly, there are Ebenezers marking the places where we met God mid-pandemic, though we probably raised them in awe-filled moments without time to stop and wonder. Now we need to revisit those memorials, taking the time we didn’t have then to give thanks for who God was in that space and marvel at the ways it has shaped our ministry since. We also need to attend to the scars that we carry from exhaustion and emptiness and difficult conversations. These wounds may or may not be incapacitating, but they are certainly life changing and call altering.

In a recent article published by The Christian Century, Belden Lane wrote about his retreat into the New Mexico desert. He sought emotional and spiritual healing after health crises and his adult son’s death. Surrounded by natural rock formations and dry creek beds, he realized that “to encounter a canyon, we have to resist the temptation to fill what needs to be left open.” He went on to quote Goethe: “It is the nature of grace always to fill spaces that have been empty.” Then Lane continued, “All God needs is a hole that’s left open.”1 God didn’t need Lane to return to some version of his former self. God didn’t need Lane to heal himself. God didn’t need Lane to smooth out the rocky places or fill the dry creeks or grow shade trees where there was barrenness. God needed space to make Lane into a new, good creation, filled with grace.

This story is permission-giving for all of us who have worked hard to fill the pandemic canyons and hold everything together for so many months. It’s time to stop and recognize the hole within ourselves—without blame or shame. Is that a creation canyon or a death valley? What is the wind song blowing through that space? How might God fill that hole?

We are on the edge of the next season. A new thing is springing forth—do you not perceive it?2 God will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert. God will fill the hungry with good things, bind up the broken-hearted, and fill the canyons with grace. It may not look anything like we expected (or even wanted), but it will be good because God is good, and God’s creation is good.

Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann has written at length about the Hebrew people’s journey through the wilderness, toward the promised land, and later into exile. When the people suffered, they dreamed with holy imagination of what life on the other side could hold. The prophets foresaw God’s promised goodness. In his book A Gospel of Hope, Brueggemann describes the people’s yearning in their sung call for a new creation:

The new song never describes the world the way it now is. The new song imagines how the world will be in God’s good time to come. The new song is a protest against the way the world now is. The new song is refusal to accept the present world as it is, a refusal to believe this is right or that the present will last. The church is always at its most daring and risking and dangerous and free when it sings a new song. Because then it sings that the power of the gospel will not let the world finally stay as it is.3

The world cannot, and will not, stay as it was. The world cannot, and will not, stay as it is. So we, ministers of music and ministers with music, sing a new song that calls the church to refuse the brokenness of now. We lead the people in a song of hope for who we will be someday. It is audacious and daring, yet we do not stop singing when some laugh or cry “foolish!” Instead, we continue singing the song until those around us catch the vision and join the chorus.

Sometimes I feel discouraged,
and think my work’s in vain,
but then the Holy Spirit revives my soul again.
There is a balm in Gilead to make the wounded whole;
there is a balm in Gilead to heal the sin-sick soul.4

Friends, you are doing faithful work. You are well loved, even when the suffering people cannot name it for themselves. Your gifts are changing the world one song at a time. Your songs are blowing through the pandemic’s canyons, filling our hearts with goodness, grace, and hope.

I am grateful for the healing God is bringing within us. I am listening eagerly for the new song stirring among us. I pray that you will be reenergized for future years of service. Consider attending the Presbyterian Association of Musicians summer Worship & Music Conference in Montreat, North Carolina. Join one of the organization’s regional groups. Testify to one another what you have heard and seen, then invite others to join the song.

With admiration and gratitude,
your colleague in ministry,


  1. Belden C. Lane, “Back to the Canyons,” The Christian Century (March 9, 2022): 23.
  2. Isaiah 43:19.
  3. Walter Brueggemann, A Gospel of Hope (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2018), 96.
  4. “There Is a Balm in Gilead,” African American spiritual.
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