leadership (that makes community)

This is the fourth post in a series on Music that Makes Community

I want to think about the chanted psalm I described yesterday — and indeed the music that we sang in New York, generally — in terms of the sort of leadership that it models in the church.

In the psalm, it was quite clear that there was a leader: one person held the text, initiated the singing and built the foundations for the rest of us.  Our ability to enter into the psalm was based on our willingness to listen to the person leading, respond to him (in this case, him), and accept the premise of a very sophisticated game of ‘follow the leader’.

That’s how it started, at least.  But the leader was improvising just like the rest of us.  He held the text.  He had shaped the idea, and brought certain skills and experience to the task.   He initiated, and we responded — at first.  After a while, though, the flow of leadership changed.  There were times when the leader’s chant began to echo or build on notes that others had offered.  Our ‘echoes’ became his raw data — part of the movement of the Holy Spirit in prayer, the ‘voice of God’ that then filled him and shaped his notes.

We had seen this happen earlier in the day when we were doing a physical improv, mirroring our partners.  After a while, we stole from each other, and the group began to move as one.  In that improv, the experience helped form the group.  Now, the experience embodied God in our midst.

What fascinates me in all this is how perfect a balancing there was between clear leadership and shared responsibility.  We could not have done what we did if the cantor had not given us a clear lead.  He offered us a structure (a chanted Psalm) and a way to engage with it (echo back).  He offered a theological vision (God speaks now, as words jump out) and an invitation to participate in that vision (sing what you hear — share God’s word).  He offered us beautiful chanting that stirred our response and brought energy to the task at hand.

And then, once we’d begun our task, he mirrored it back: listening to us — hearing God’s word there — echoing it so that we could hear it too.  He followed our lead, and led us forward again into the word of God.

There are times when the energy in a room rises, the air becomes electric, and you know you are on Holy Ground.  This was one.

One cannot manufacture those moments.  But it is still worth noting the circumstances:

  1. The leadership was clear: in vision, role and offering — the leader provided the context for our song and prayer.
  2. The leadership was fluid: the group recognized and established the leader’s authority by risking doing what he asked and responding to his song. The leader recognized and established the group’s authority by listening and responding to new leads, and building them into his own work.
  3. God’s word was free to move around the community  —  we moved beyond the human constructs of ‘follow the leader’ into a game of creative response to the initiative of God.

The trust involved in improvising a psalm together is huge.  We had to trust the concept, trust the leader, trust our ears and our voices, and trust what God was doing.  That sort of trust might come easily — if the group is already well formed,  the relationships are secure, and it is generally a trusting group — or it might feel like climbing to the very end of a high and flimsy branch.  Once you are out there, though, swinging on that branch, it is a glorious and liberating thing.

Part of what makes Music that Makes Community work is that we are all out on a limb together.  It is risky for a leader to step out with a text and a drone and to make something up.  It is risky for a congregation to join in, and speak or sing aloud in response to the nudging of God.  And crucially — as we get used to being in that place of risk, we get closer to others who may have to take risks to join us.

And that takes us back to what happened in St Paul’s, when people who came to remember 9/11 found themselves in the midst of an all singing all dancing eucharist.  Tomorrow’s post: the riskiest risk-taking of all.