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Anneli Loepp Thiessen on Collaborative Songwriting and Copyright

Anabaptist Worship Network used a Vital Worship Grant from the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship to host a songwriting retreat. A diverse group of Anabaptist songwriters gathered for three days to collaboratively write songs, raising questions around copyright justice and remuneration.

Anneli Loepp Thiessen is an interdisciplinary musicologist who researches and writes about women in music. She is completing her doctorate at the University of Ottawa, where she’s writing about gender in the Christian music industry for her dissertation. She is the Canadian director of Anabaptist Worship Network and served on the committee for the 2020 Mennonite hymnal Voices Together (VT). In this edited conversation, Thiessen talks about collaborative songwriting and questions of copyright. 

Please briefly describe your 2022 Vital Worship Grant.

The Voices Together hymnal (VT) was published in 2020 as a new resource for the “broad middle” of the Mennonite church in North America—predominantly white, upper-middle-class communities who worship with hymnals. The hymnal has quickly become beloved in many of those communities. That same year, Anabaptist Worship Network (AWN) was born to help implement the hymnal and provide ongoing resourcing for Mennonite communities who didn't adopt the hymnal.

AWN applied for a 2022 Vital Worship Grant because we knew that many congregations fell outside of this broad middle, such as those that worship in languages beyond English, primarily sing contemporary worship music, do not invest church funds in hymnal purchases, or have other reasons for not using a hymnal. Our CICW-funded songwriting retreat emerged as a way to continue developing relationships and resources with Mennonite communities for whom VT is not the most useful resource.

Who attended the songwriting retreat?

In May 2023, we gathered twenty-four songwriters from North American Mennonite churches. They or their ancestors had roots in Burundi, Canada, Colombia, Congo, Germany, Indonesia, Laos, Mexico, Ukraine, the United States, and elsewhere. We spent three days praying, worshiping, laughing, and writing songs. Despite our varied backgrounds, worldviews, and experiences, we shared the conviction that the Holy Spirit is guiding Anabaptist songwriters to write new songs. These songs may not sound like what has come before.

Did you suggest that songwriters focus on certain themes, Bible passages, or liturgical seasons?

Our theme scripture for the songwriting retreat was the Beatitudes, Matthew 5:1–12. We encouraged participants to write about any scripture or theme they chose, but we offered a theme to inspire those who needed it. We provided these scripture prompts for people to reflect on individually or collaboratively:

What is the kingdom of heaven like? What might the Beatitudes sound like if they were written today?  Which beatitude speaks most to you? Why are you drawn to it? Which has been most overlooked? What message from this passage does the church need to be reminded of? 

How did you make room for songwriting at the retreat?

Each day at a set time we invited those who were interested in collaborative songwriting to meet at a designated spot. Some pursued collaborations outside of this process, while others appreciated the more formal process. Some songwriters came to this short gathering with a partially developed song—sometimes as short as a simple hook or phrase—and were looking for others to provide input on how the song could continue to evolve. Others already had a scripture verse in their head to explore and were looking for partners to help them expand on the theme. Still others had most of a song structured but wanted input on accompaniment and harmonization. Some people arrived with no ideas in mind and were glad to contribute to another project already begun or to start from the ground up with a new group.

Can you suggest a basic, step-by-step process to other groups that would like to write worship songs together?

We suggested the following series of steps as one way of working as a group. Some of these suggestions were inspired by literature on Christian songwriting, such as Krissy Nordhoff’s Writing Worship: How to Craft Heartfelt Songs for the Church (David C. Cook, 2020) or John G. Elliott’s The Heart of Songwriting: A Comprehensive Guide to Writing Memorable Songs (Forerunner, 2019).

  • Open with worship. Share your favorite worship songs and reflect on what you appreciate about them.
  • Share about how you're doing and what thoughts and feelings you're bringing with you to the songwriting session that day.
  • Spend time quietly reflecting on the chosen passage. Share what stands out to you about it.
  • It could be helpful to discuss what "mood" you want the song to have. What might the overall feeling or affect be?
  • You may want to start with a part of a tune, a title, a chord progression, or some ideas for a text, or see if you can write it all together as you go. Notice which aspects of the song you are most drawn to contributing to.
  • Remember to be gentle with yourself and with others as you find some ideas you want to use and others you might let go of.

What did songwriters say about this opportunity to write, whether alone or together?

One recurring theme we heard from participants is that it is very difficult to find space in life to write songs without a dedicated block of time or location to do so. This was especially a strong message from younger women, who are, of course, a voice that we need to uplift in our congregational song. We heard from multiple people that they hadn't been able to write songs since they had kids.

By day two, people were talking about next year and the kinds of songs they could write at the next retreat. We recognize we only had funding for one event, so we have been exploring if there is a way to make subsequent retreats happen. In the meantime, we hope to continue offering space and time for songwriters and creatives in our churches. We might explore hosting a monthly Zoom call that offers one hour of dedicated space for people to write and a thirty-minute "report back" opportunity after.

Some people say that music is a universal language. Did retreat songwriters agree?

Our group will be quick to say that the common trope that music is the universal language has complicated meanings, particularly in the context of common prejudice against certain styles and expressions. However, although music is not a universal language, we experienced a shared worship expression across cultural and language differences. With songs we previously knew and songs we learned together, we developed a new shared vocabulary. As planners, we shared worries about communication across a range of political and religious beliefs, yet coming together in worship seemed to put those differences to rest. This was particularly evident on the final morning of the retreat, when we gathered for a time of commissioning with anointing and prayed for each other in different languages and through a range of individual expressions and styles of prayer.

So, despite differences, were people able to write songs?

We left the retreat with about a dozen complete songs, including new liturgical folk songs, contemporary worship songs, and songs influenced by musical styles from Africa, Asia, and South America, among other styles. Mykayla Turner wrote “Psalm 104 (Renew the Earth) partly in response to record-setting 2023 Canadian wildfires and smoke that affected people in Canada and the US. Her song uses the language of Psalm 104 to invoke God’s reign over forest fires and other climate change effects. Songwriters from Canada and Liberia/Germany—Nichelle Bauman, Erik Mohr, and George Makinto—collaborated on “Hope Is Ringing Out,” which encourages people to seek Jesus in time of need. Stephen Zaccheus, a Mennonite pastor from Indonesia now living in California, wrote “Salt and Light of the World.” He based the call-and-response song on a traditional Indonesian scale. These are just a few examples of many.

Where can people find and use songs created at the retreat?

We are gradually uploading retreat songs to Together in Worship (TiW). This website offers free curated worship resources that align with Anabaptist theology, such as songs, sermon starters, prayers, and litanies for every part of worship and various worship seasons.

Are there cultural differences in how Mennonites think about who owns a song?

Yes, as there are in any diverse group. We can find many examples of Mennonites who view their songwriting as a free offering to the church and who do not see royalties or copyright as part of their ministry. In contrast, there are also Mennonite text and tune writers who recognize that songwriting has been an undervalued labor. They acknowledge that their ministry of songwriting needs to be accompanied by structures for payment in order for them to continue to be able to write the church’s song.

At the retreat, we identified that although we aspired for songwriters to be paid for their songs through copyright, many songwriters did not prioritize getting copyright credit. Indeed, when we offered that folks could host their songs for free using a Creative Commons license (meaning they wouldn't get paid when their song was used), most individuals took us up on the offer without concern that they wouldn't be paid. 

What would it take for songwriters at your retreat to be paid for their work?

We recognized at the retreat that copyright bodies expect published music to reach a certain popularity level and conform to their congregational song standards. Both factors limit songwriters who are writing unique expressions of song, are still emerging as songwriters, or don't have tools to navigate these complicated systems.

While it would be possible for songwriters to create their own websites where they could copyright their songs and communities could buy them, we acknowledged that most people find new songs through established websites such as CCLI, OneLicense, or, in the case of Mennonites, Together in Worship. Individuals who host their songs on their own websites may not get as much traction as if the song is hosted elsewhere. This created a difficult tension.

How did you approach copyright at this retreat?

Since AWN is not a music publisher or copyright permission body, we did not directly have the capacity to take care of copyright for newly written material. It was a difficult reality check about how we acknowledge songwriters in worship and how the labor of songwriting is recognized by our denominations. In the end, all of the songwriters eagerly agreed to having their song hosted using a Creative Commons license on Together in Worship.

While I am encouraged that this means that their songs will be available for the wider church to use and that their songwriting voices can thus be amplified, I am discouraged that this means that already marginalized songwriters (women, people of color, songwriters from around the world) are not being paid for their labor. For a variety of historical and contemporary reasons, the majority of paid songwriters of congregational song are white men (for more on this in hymnody, see Graber and Loepp Thiessen 2023; for more on this in contemporary worship music, see Loepp Thiessen 2022). Relying on a Creative Commons license unfortunately doesn’t help rectify this problem.

Do you have any idea how many Mennonite congregations report their song use to licensing groups?

Copyright in congregational song continues to be a constantly evolving, complicated conversation. Some have noted that many regularly sung songs fall outside of established copyright mechanisms (such as CCLI and OneLicense). Even with copyright mechanisms in place, we don't have a strong sense of what communities actually sing in church. Reporting to existing copyright mechanisms can be a barrier for small communities with limited budgets, those who use music that is not listed in their catalogs, or those for whom acknowledging copyright is simply not a priority. While Mennonite communities in the broad middle largely report to CCLI and OneLicense, we recognize that many Mennonite communities do not. 

Is there anything else you want to say about copyrighting new music for worship?

Given the ways that I believe songwriting should be publicly and financially acknowledged as an important church ministry, I wholeheartedly affirm that those who hold copyright under OneLicense or CCLI should continue to be paid. I also recognize that songwriters who do not feel the need to pursue a form of paid copyright should be able to do that. And I continue to lament that marginalized and emerging composers are not receiving the remuneration that they deserve.

Our songwriting retreat illuminated these tensions for me, and I will continue to consider how our copyright processes might be updated to better recognize those who present music that challenges Western Euro-American expectations for congregational song. This is an important conversation, and one that will surely continue to evolve as we negotiate new boundaries of congregational song.


Sample songs created at the 2023 songwriters retreat and explore Together in Worship resources. Read stories about Anabaptist Worship Network’s 2022 Vital Worship Grant-funded songwriters retreat on the AWN website and in Canadian Mennonite. Check out this Voices Together copyright flowchart.