NOTE: This article originally appeared in the March/April 2018 issue of WorshipArts magazine.
By Kathy Richie Toole, MWAW 2019 Worship Chair
Each year, there is a migration into the heart of the mountains of North Carolina of church musicians, choir members, dancers, handbell ringers, visual artists, worship committee members, pastors and more. Cutting across generations, children, youth and adults all find a place to explore and grow at The Fellowship’s Music & Worship Arts Week, as they practice their particular passions in worship arts with others. New relationships with people and with nature are formed, others are renewed.
In this time, set aside, the Spirit moves – breaking through to our spirits in worship, rehearsal, and around the table, offering encouragement, new visions, and challenges.
More than continuing education
I first began attending Music & Worship Arts Week, often referred to as MWAW, in 1996 when I began working in my first (and only) United Methodist church. I went with the expectation that it would help me as I sought to expand my denominational understanding and grow in my music ministry skills. Having been a child of conferences in a couple of other denominations and finished seminary with an M.Div. with a focus in music and worship, I was not a novice.
In those early years, I came by myself, preferring not to give up my continuing education time to responsibility for others. A colleague, however, suggested that I could bring our youth choir singers without sacrificing my continuing education funds simply by working that expense into our music budget and using my continuing education for a different event. I was able to make that work, and thus I began to bring youth choir members with me to MWAW (along with a chaperone who accompanied us year after year and assumed “head” status!).
These MWAW events worked on and with me in ways known and unknown, especially at that time. I regularly came away from conferences renewed and inspired. But at MWAW, we worship under a leadership team that is not only particularly gifted, but that has had a year to plan a week of services knowing that it will have a significantly higher percentage of participants who love to dance and sing than is found in most of our home churches. Through this daily worship, we are challenged in faith and practice. We join our hearts in lament and praise led by the collaborative efforts of leadership and participating attendees.
A seminal moment
I have cherished the opportunity to sing under master directors, who not only bring their choral skills, but also weave their faith and grace as we seek to live into the promise of the music. Those of us who are directors get precious little opportunity to sing. Besides learning from their modeling and teaching – besides learning from the perspective of our own singers – we are renewed as the text and music reach in and resonate with our spirits as we sing through phrases again and again and again.
A seminal moment continues to burn brightly in my heart: I was in rehearsal one morning in the late 1990s, feeling overwhelmed and burned out. We were working on Robert Lau’s setting of “Spirit of God, Descend Upon My Heart” when the words “take the dimness, dimness of my soul away” leapt up from the page.
In that moment, I found words to a prayer I didn’t know I had. Perhaps I would have found that discovery another time; I can’t say. What can be said is the value of time set aside. Lake Junaluska becomes a “thin place” for those who migrate to Music & Worship Arts Week. A “thin place” is a place where the boundary between heaven and earth is especially thin. It’s a place where we can sense the divine more readily. That time, set aside, where all has been made ready, becomes a deep well which continues to nourish beyond the event.
I return from events like this re-centered, full of ideas and techniques I intend to incorporate with my choirs. But, the following year when back at MWAW, I have been discouraged at notes from the previous years not read and intentions not followed. I have sat in rehearsals while appreciating the director’s leadership, feeling my own inadequacy as a director.
However, after I had attended MWAW over a number of years, I began to realize that unbeknownst to me, many of the techniques I had experienced were working themselves into the way in which I functioned. I have found this to be true in both my choral and worship leadership. Returning year after year has been formative in my growing in leadership in music ministry.
Returning consistently has another under- appreciated benefit – developing friendships and strengthening relationships as colleagues. Since coming into The United Methodist Church, I have come to appreciate its identity as a connectional church. Conversations with each other in which we share woes, celebrate successes, share ideas, and work out matters of faith and living draw us together in community as we go through the week. It is not unusual for this connection, established at MWAW, to extend beyond our stay in the mountains, as we draw from leadership for events in our churches, collaborative events in our communities, and as we cross paths at other events.
Worth the investment
Coming to Music & Worship Arts Week at Lake Junaluska is an investment of time and of money. The return is often intangible, but real.
It is a major investment particularly for churches to bring children or youth. I KNOW that my attendance as a child in my denomination’s Junior and Youth Music Weeks is foundational to my entry into music ministry. I believe it is no accident that each of the four former youth in our church who have recently become pastors or are working in that direction attended MWAW.
For other youth, MWAW broadens their perspective, offering experiences beyond what most of us can provide in both choir and in worship in our churches. It also offers us, as their directors, valuable time for conversation and relationship building as we get to know and appreciate them more fully.
More recently, as I have gotten to know more of the leadership of The Fellowship and specifically this event, I have realized that we are a vital part of the church moving forward.
To get the most out of any event, come with expectancy and with open minds and hearts. Don’t expect every aspect to translate to your home church. Expect to encounter more hymns and musical styles that are new, in a condensed amount of time, than would work in the average church. Give worship leaders space to push the boundaries. If there are issues with repertoire or aspects of the leader in whatever performance track you choose, work to remain accepting and open.
You might be surprised how the Spirit chooses to influence you.