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Musician Sally Ann Morris on Seminarians Learning Worship

Sally Ann Morris is the chapel musician at Wake Forest University School of Divinity in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. She’s involved with each of Wake Div’s twice-weekly, 45-minute chapel services.

Morris is also a hymn author and director of music ministries at Parkway Presbyterian Church. In fall 2013, she taught a one-credit worship course as part of Wake Div’s Vital Worship grant from the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. In this edited interview, based on email conversations in July 2014, Morris talks about what seminarians need to learn about planning and leading worship.

What do you do as the chapel musician?

I began in fall 2011 primarily as the keyboard/service player for once-a-week chapel services planned by third-year students who signed up to lead chapel and preach. I played the hymns and songs they selected. The following year, as a result of our previous worship grant, we began a much more intentional and structured team-planning approach. I was invited to join that team and was named a faculty advisor. My role expanded in worship and continues now as a worship planner, the main "go-to" person for music resources, as well as the primary service player, song-enlivener and choral director. In fall 2013, we expanded weekly chapel from one service to two.

Can you say more about the chapel planning team structure and process?

Our chapel team, officially called the Community Worship Committee, meets weekly. Chris Copeland, our 2013 grant project director, is the chapel team’s organizer, facilitator, motivator and spiritual director. Jill Crainshaw, who teaches worship and liturgical theology and is the academic dean, fills in for Chris if he is away.

The chapel team is divided into student sub-teams who parcel out upcoming services and serve as the contacts for the scheduled worship leaders and preachers on given dates. They begin their contact with that leader about three weeks ahead and help guide them through the planning process. I serve as the music resource contact for all the teams, but I do not attend every meeting between sub-teams and the worship leaders. At our weekly meeting, I am informed of the worship leader's scripture and theme, and I am usually asked to supply music suggestions. The worship leaders and teams also offer music suggestions and often make specific requests, which we try our best to honor.

What common gaps do you see in seminarians’ ability to plan and lead chapel worship?

The most common weakness I noticed when I first came here was that chapel services typically felt disintegrated. They seemed to have no sense of flow, movement or development. Often the leader would choose a favorite song, hymn or poem with no apparent relation to the scripture and message. I realize I have biases in that regard, because I too am learning, as a chapel team member. Our team represents many traditions, including non-liturgical ones, where music is often used purely for its emotion and momentum. Nevertheless, I felt a lack of connection between what was being read and preached and the music, poems and ritual actions. Most students have very good and wonderfully creative ideas, but they are largely inexperienced in how to put them all together in a cohesive, meaningful way.

Wake Div offered six one-credit worship courses during your recent grant year. What did you want students to take away from your course on congregational singing?

I wanted them to know that their own personal experience in their own tradition is not the only way church music happens around the world. The world is now so connected, and our congregations are more broadly different in demographics than ever before. Students don't really know what church environment they may find themselves in, whether in the near or distant future. I wanted them to have a taste of congregational song from vastly varied traditions, ancient to modern, with a large dose of global song.

However, I was almost not needed in my course. The class make-up of ethnicity, cultures, traditions and generations was richly diverse, and they shared their songs and stories with each other. There were lovely surprises and insights, and I feel I learned the most of all. I also wanted them to have a basic nuts-and-bolts understanding of how to use their own hymnal, so they could search by meter and tune and realize the usefulness of scriptural, topical and other indexes. 

What traditions were the class auditors from? Did they introduce any changes in their churches as a result of your class?

There were five auditors—two from the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, two from the United Methodists and one Moravian. The Moravians have an especially strong presence here in Winston-Salem. The Moravian auditor told me she shared some of the materials with her music director. Other than that I don't know.

What changes did you notice in chapel as a result of the one-credit worship courses?

Most of these classes took place in the spring semester, but because three of the class teachers are also on the chapel team, there were certainly influences. In my role as musician, I took every opportunity in chapel planning to diversify sounds and styles and to model congregational song from varied traditions—while also making sure such music fit the day’s theme and occasion. We hope to offer these or similar courses again. I hope that students’ increased exposure and experiences will positively influence their leadership experience in chapel and their future parishes.

How many churches have you served as a church musician? What have you noticed about what pastors need to know about planning and leading worship?

I served a Roman Catholic parish for seven years, and I am starting my seventh year in a PCUSA church. I came to this career rather late, starting in my late 40s. I am now in my early 60s. Pastors need to know the same thing I did, especially as a latecomer to the "business.” And that is that worship planning and leading is best when it is done as a team, in concert, in sync with one another, with trust in and respect for one another's particular roles, gifts and skills. Long-range planning offers the best opportunity for preparation and practice. It's an idealistic, but worthy, goal.

How does the worship knowledge and experience of a pastor or church musician help worshipers?

Hmm. Interesting question. It might not help at all if that knowledge and experience is not skillfully and meaningfully employed. It could even be a dangerous thing, particularly if the pastor suddenly changes the worship order, music, styles or actions without explanation. Communication is always the key. The best help for worshipers, besides modeling beautiful worship practices, is teaching them about worship. We need to explain the parts and acts of worship and their meaning. Most of all, we need to emphasize and encourage their role as "full, conscious and active participants in worship."  That phrase comes from the Roman Catholic liturgy documents. Active worshipers are absolutely vital and necessary for beautiful, meaningful, faithful and Spirit-filled worship.

Sally Ann Morris used New Songs of Celebration Reader: Congregational Song in the Twenty-first Century edited by C. Michael Hawn for her course on congregational singing. While attending a Vital Worship grants event, she says she learned a lot from the Day of Learning presentations (also scroll down here) and drama scripts for choral scripture reading.