by the Rev. Matthew Wise
From the Spring/Summer 2017 issue of Reflections magazine.
The bright and swelling sounds of my dad’s 12-string guitar backing him and a few dozen singers at gatherings of people who had been to Cursillo are some of the earliest memories I have of what you’d call “contemporary worship music.” I remember sneaking away from the childcare workers and up the hallways of Trinity Episcopal Church in Victoria to try and hear my dad and the likes of Jim O’Neil and Jim Friedel harmonizing and leading music together.
I have no doubt that my eavesdropping on those Sunday evening sing-a-longs played a huge part in my desire to learn to play guitar myself.
Several years later, just before my freshman year of high school, my dad started teaching me chords and finger positions and soon I was hacking away on my own guitar along, with the Mass Music Team at my Roman Catholic high school. Throughout that time, I helped lead music at diocesan youth events. When I went off to college, I played for contemporary services at Sewanee and then at Texas A&M. I led music teams at diocesan summer camps and for the youth group at St.Thomas Episcopal Church in San Antonio.
But I was never officially trained or taught how to effectively lead music. I began reflecting on this odd reality last year when, while serving as chaplain for a session at Camp Capers, I learned that the staff didn’t have a music director. The diocese hadn’t had a good pool of applicants for that position, so counselors and other staff members were called on to step in and lead music here and there. The absence of a consistent musical leader at camp and my own recollection that I’d never myself had the benefit of any training, led me to wonder about our intentionality around this style of music in the Diocese of West Texas.
I began conversations with friends and fellow musicians from across the diocese – those who have led music in different contexts for our church. I asked them two questions:
How are we raising up music leaders?
And how are we equipping them to lead music in these settings?
Across the board, the answers to both questions were the same: “We’re not.” Not really, anyway. Most of them, even those who are professional musicians, have stories similar to mine when it comes to leading music for a worshipping community: No real training on how to do it. Lots of making it up as we go along.
Now, this may not seem like that big of a deal. But think about the role of music in many of our diocesan formation offerings, like Camp Capers and Happening for our youth and events like Cursillo and Council for adults. Think about how important music is in the contemporary worship services that many of our churches have each week. What we sing and how we sing it has the potential to shape our spiritual journeys just as much as the liturgy does. If we expect an organist to have some formal training, and if we demand that our lectors and chalice bearers be trained to fulfill those roles in our liturgies, why wouldn’t we expect our guitarists and keyboard players who lead music in many different contexts to have at least some training in how to do it?
While asking these questions, I gratefully fell into an ongoing conversation among some colleagues about the challenges of this style of music and how it fits into our Episcopal identity. Together, we began to imagine how we might become more intentional in this critically-important ministry in our diocese.
With the endorsement and financial support of both Bishop Reed and St. Mark’s Church in San Antonio, we invited musician and worship leader Fran McKendree to lead a workshop for contemporary musicians. McKendree has a distinguished musical career, having shared the stage with performers such as Fleetwood Mac, Elton John, and Van Morrison, but he’s also devoted his life to music ministry and empowering other music ministers in the church. And he is an Episcopalian. He’s led music for conferences, retreats, and national gatherings, including The Episcopal Church’s General Convention and Fresh Start.
On the Sunday evening following Diocesan Council this past February, an inter-generational gathering of clergy and camp staff and college students and praise music leaders all gathered at St. Mark’s and spent the evening learning from McKendree. In his totally disarming and easy-going style, McKendree led us though challenges like choosing appropriate songs for different settings, finding theologically-sound music, teaching new songs to a congregation, and encouraging everyone in a gathered group to sing.
We spent a few hours making some incredible music together (you can hear some rough recordings of it at the online version of Reflections at http://www.reflections-dwtx.org) in every style from contemplative Taizé to modern tunes heard on Christian radio.
We worked together, honing the craft of musical leadership.
It was a wonderful way for 14 of us to more fully live into our shared love of music. It was an opportunity for us to claim the importance of this ministry that we each feel called to, and to be more intentional about how we are equipping one another to carry out these ministries well.
And it has sparked the desire for our diocese to begin hosting an annual retreat that will focus on the training of new and seasoned music leaders as well as creating a space for us to share our best practices from the various contexts in which we are called to lead. For now, we are calling ourselves the Guild of Contemporary Musicians, and our hope is that everyone who leads these styles of music throughout the diocese will join us on retreat next fall (dates still TBD). Fran McKendree will likely be with us again as part of the teaching faculty, and this time I’m inviting my dad.
Want to listen to some of the music created in that session with Fran McKendree? Click the far-left arrow in each of the tracks below.
The Rev. Matt Wise is the Associate Rector for Family Ministry, Outreach and Parish Life at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in San Antonio. Reach him at
For Further Reflection
If you want to know more about the Guild of Contemporary Musicians, contact Matt, email above.