Lessons from Choir Directing about Volunteer Management

choir-clipartAs some of you may know, one of my current roles involves me leading and directing a church choir.  As its a church choir, this means that this is a group of people who give up an hour or so every week to rehearse on a weekday evening, and who volunteer to help lead worship a couple times a month.

Since I have served in this way, I have often been asked, how are you able to bring a group of people together and form a choir?  This question could just as easily asked, “how do you bring a group of volunteers together and get ______ done or created?” *

The thought then hit me last week, as I sat at my desk preparing to lead another weekly church choir rehearsal, that what I am really doing is leading a group of volunteers.  So in a sense, unless you are directing a professional choir or a choir that one takes in school where credit and grades may come into play, musical directing is really another example of volunteer leadership and management.

Leading a church choir then is genuine volunteer management.  To serve in this way and participate in this ensemble is a voluntary thing.  There are three things I have found that are essential to make this happen:  Trust; Authenticity and Passion.  A sense of humor doesn’t hurt either.

By trust I mean that there has to be an openness by the director to be honest about what he/she is trying to accomplish.  They have to trust that the ensemble will give them the benefit of the doubt, listen, and follow.  The ensemble has to trust that the director’s goal is to help the group prepare for Sunday worship, provide a fun and uplifting community, and that the director knows something about what they are trying to do.  (Some weeks this is probably more true than others.)

In terms of authenticity, there needs to be an acknowledgment that things may never be “perfect.”  That’s okay.  That’s not the goal.  The real goal for a church choir is to sing and lift the collective praise to God.  (Outside of a congregation, this would be like a nonprofit volunteer manager knowing that not everything will work, but everyone is involved because they want to help and do something for their community or people in need.) Thus, if we can transcend the goal of perfection, we get to a place where the journey is just as important as the end outcome.  For example, while preparing a difficult piece, the choir may have doubts about their ability to do it, or they may think the director has lost their mind (this happens a lot).  A funny thing happens as time goes on, the director’s authentic self- one of listening, hope and persistence, pays off, as the ensemble learns, grows, and eventually even feels confident in their ability to do something as a team that they previously thought would be daunting or downright impossible.

As for passion, if one does not have a passion for what they are participating in, it follows that it won’t be done with all their heart, mind, spirit, and soul.  This is true in work and business.  It’s especially true though in what people volunteer with.  If people do not have a heart burning desire to participate, they won’t give fully of themselves.  They won’t grow to their potential.  Therefore they are under-served, and the larger group will be under-served.  In reality, if one does not have a passion for it, they aren’t going to volunteer for it either.  So in order to put together a volunteer choir you have to be able to connect the individual’s desire to be a part of group with the larger story of what a choir can do and mean for the larger community (and/or congregation).

The benefits of a sense of humor are probably obvious.  If you are doing something where perfection is not likely to be achieved, and you are working with a host of volunteers, you might have an idea of where you are going, but in reality, life has a funny way of happening.  The best thing to do is usually to do your best to accomplish what needs to be done, but to do so with grace and an ability to laugh (especially at yourself).  I remember directing the choir, and my wife was in the Alto section.  It came time to rehearse in the months ahead of Christmas for a series of songs which included the image and word of “bosom.” For some reason, my wife (and others) cannot sing certain words without laughing.  I could have let that bother me, but instead it gave the choir something to consistently laugh about and something to grow and support each other with.  This authentic reality also helped the choir to always sing with a smile on their faces, something that I think is essential.  (If it doesn’t look like you are enjoying what you are doing, you probably aren’t.)

What does this say about volunteer management?  Be your authentic self.  Be open and willing to risk to trust.  Connect your passion with other people’s passion, and connect and tell the story about why you are passionate and doing what you are doing.  Finally, be able to laugh and not take yourself so seriously.  If you are able to do this, your chances of connecting others at least seems to me to be greatly improved.  What do you think?  What are some experiences of volunteer management that you have had? What lessons have you learned from your own experiences?


*I should note that I try to never refer to choir members as “volunteers” when directing them because they are truly “leaders” who are entrusted with great responsibility and are called to serve in some capacity.  I have found that from a recruiting standpoint, most of the time when there’s a call for “volunteers” few sign up because “volunteer” isn’t nearly as empowering as an identity as “leader”.

Image Credit: Choir

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