Developing A Songwriting Community Through Your Church, Part Three


Now we’re diving into the middle of how to start a songwriting group, so if you haven’t read part one and part two of this series, I’d encourage you to begin there.  I’m going to begin this article by addressing pastors, elders — whoever is in charge of “shepherding the flock” of your church. If this doesn’t describe you, then you still have a role to play in this article: show it to your pastor. You’ll need to give him an idea of the kind of sub-group you’d like to launch within his church’s music ministry, and you’ll need his counsel.

Pastors: if you desire to cultivate songwriting in your church, prayerfully consider if you are the one who should be leading this effort or if you should delegate authority. This will depend on the size of your church, the scope of your responsibilities, and your own talents and affinities. Maybe you have the time, the skills and the desire to lead a songwriting group, but maybe you’re thinking, “I don’t see how I could add one more thing to my plate.”

At Sojourn, Worship Arts Pastor Mike Cosper is in charge of all the worship leaders, songwriters, sound techs and visual artists. He’s also part of a team of elders who, together, are ultimately responsible to God for the church.  Mike is very good at delegating responsibilities when God sends people his way who can be shepherded into those roles. When he sees someone with a gift that can be useful in the ministry, who has a desire to serve, then he encourages and empowers them.

When I came to Sojourn almost four years ago, we had around four established writers including Mike, and another three or four novices who wanted direction. Everyone thought it would be good to have some kind of “songwriting group” but no one felt like they had the administrative gifts necessary or the time to lead such a group. I kept urging someone to lead it, saying I would help out. I didn’t want to seem like a pushy newcomer trying to take over. But finally after I’d been there around 10 months, Mike said, “I share your vision for a songwriting group, but you need to lead it.” He is always free with direction and support, but I handle the details so he is free to do more pressing pastoral tasks.  So:

Step #1: decide who will facilitate this group. It needs to be the pastor or someone the pastor trusts.

Step #2: Talk to interested parties and potential group members. Lay out your vision and listen to feedback.

Step #3: Define your immediate goals. Our goals at Sojourn are to provide a community in which songwriters can feel at home and grow, and to create new songs. You can’t fully talk about one without the other, but we’re going to save most of the “create new songs” goal for the next article in this series.

Step #4: Decide on a date for your first meeting and issue invitations. After some meetings with Pastor Mike, Jeremy Quillo (Sojourn’s first and most experienced songwriter) and worship leader Lorie King (an experienced worship leader and hostess for many of Sojourn’s early events) I sent emails and talked with about ten church members who had expressed an interest in songwriting, and I posted a notice on our church message board.

The initial plan centered around an informal monthly workshop open to anyone — writers, musicians, vocalists, poets and anyone interested in songwriting. Six people attended our first workshop, sitting around each other in a circle. We took turns playing our songs for each other and providing feedback, as we did for each monthly workshop thereafter. This is literally all we did for the first year, in terms of “work”. We met most often in Lorie’s home but also the home of worship leader Rebecca Dennison — most of our members prefered the “hominess” of meeting in a church member’s house rather than meeting in the church building.  The various writers took turns bringing coffee and dessert. Every few months we centered the group meeting around a larger dinner or breakfast, and we also had a few “songwriter movie nights,” watching things like Martin Scorcese’s Dylan biography, No Direction Home.

I kept Pastor Mike informed after each meeting. He only attended twice. At Sojourn, Mike ultimately decides whether a song is going to make it into our repertoire or not, and he recognized that it would be too intimidating for our newer, younger songwriters to bring rough drafts of their work to the circle if he were there. This is not to say that he has no role in critique and team-building – I’ll get more into that in the next article in this series. For now, I’ll close with five things that we learned during the first year of the Sojourn songwriting group:

1. Some people need writing assignments. It’s just how they’re wired. If you say, “See you next month,” they’ll either come back with no song or they won’t come back. But if you conclude group time by saying, “For anyone who wants an assignment, here it is: ____” then they’ll go home and work on it.

2. Don’t assume that everyone wants the same degree of critique. We learned, especially when someone new would come to the group, to ask how we can help them. Some people just want to share something they wrote with fellow writers. They might even feel that it isn’t very good, and have no desire to improve. They just want to hang out with other people who like to make music. And that’s fine. Other people will say, “Be hard on me. Rip this apart. I want to get better, so please don’t hold anything back just to spare my feelings.”

3. Don’t micromanage things. One of our major goals has always been the creation of new music for corporate worship, but quite a few Louisville singer-songwriters came to our workshops, wanting to share songs they wrote for reflection or entertainment. We also drew people who wrote in different ways or who performed in different genres, from rock to folk to country and jazz. That’s cool — music is music, and each artist has something to teach us.

4. Make people feel welcome, regardless of their background or skill level. You never know how people are going to grow. We looked for church members who were songwriters, of course, but also encouraged worship leaders, musicians, poets and anyone who loves a well-crafted song to come. We also issued open invitations to visual artists, and to theologically astute Christians who care deeply about the theology behind worship songs.

5. Keep people in the loop. I got as many email addresses from interested parties as I could, creating a “Sojourn songwriters” contact list. I sent out regular group emails informing everyone of meeting times, optional assignments, and other challenges that Pastor Mike issued as the group began to grow.

I loved seeing people in the group begin to hook up and play shows together in local venues, to write songs together and to develop close friendships with each other. But the group couldn’t sustain itself forever as an official church ministry if we didn’t provide some sort of goal. People need something to reach for, an objective on which to work together. We came to a place where we seemed to be treading water. And this is where we’ll pick up in the next part of this series, so stay tuned!

In the meantime, I realize I’ve thrown a lot of general information at you here so if you have any questions, feel free to comment below and I’ll do my best to give you a good answer.