The Inner Battle of the Mind and Soul: On Perfectionism in Music

We as followers of Christ are set apart, we are called to do things differently than others. The mission that Christ gave us, to go and make disciples throughout the world is not a request, but a mission. Music ministry certainly falls into this mission. However, there are perils and challenges to music ministry that I would like to address, and the inner battle that Faith-based musicians and directors can encounter. We are called to not only use our talents to glorify God, but also to be skilled using these talents. The intersection of perfectionism and ministry is a tightrope of a line to walk. Let’s dive a little bit deeper into this philosophy.

In Matthew Chapter 5, the closing section of the chapter speaks on Loving your enemies but ends in a way that may seem peculiar if taken out of context. “Be Perfect Therefore as your heavenly Father is perfect” NRSVue. This calling to perfection is speaking upon the terms loving your enemies, wherein even those who despised Christ, sought strongly for his death, he pursued with unfathomable love or Agape. We too are called to love one another perfectly, even those we are hated by.  This verse is commonly used by Christian musicians to proclaim their Biblical right to seeking perfectionism, of which I believe is founded in a misunderstanding of the context, or otherwise a complete disregarding of the context. I believe that this verse does not speak directly to the development and performance of our skills and talents, if it did, it would be a beckoning to perpetual failure. When a student first begins a new instrument and study of the arts, expecting perfection is not only unhealthy but is the fastest method to traumatize and jeopardize further study for the student. It seems slightly unreasonable that we could be compared to His Perfection in our talents. Τέλειοι (te-li-os) is the word used in the Ancient Greek to mean “Perfect” as we translate it today. However, other translations have marked it as “Completed”, such as in the Luther German Bible. If we see that this verse cannot mean, be perfect in your talents, we must look deeper for a way in which to strive for perfection.

Psalm 33 mentions likely the most well-known and famous instances of Music Ministry and Worship verses for inspiration, “Sing To Him a New Song: Play Skillfully on the Strings and Shout Loudly” NRSVue. This verse is used as a forefront of music ministry as it is a true calling to lead music ministry well. This verse indicates that there is an expectation of skill and talent that is to be used for those who lead or participate in music ministry. This skill that is expected is not interpreted as perfection, further leading me away from the philosophy that Church must be Error Free. I think there is certainly a greater emphasis on skillful presentation, but the err of “Strive for Perfection” seems to me to be unfounded. If Music Ministers are not called to be perfect in their presentation of skills but rather be Skillful, what do we make of those who participate with the music ministry who are not professionals.

The philosophy I carry for working with non-professional musicians is that there is no expectation of perfection, rather there is room to demonstrate skill and grow in understanding of various levels of skill. From Colossians 3: Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters[.] NRSVue. This text comes from the section of Colossians 3 that is instructing the roles for a Christian Household, and this specific verse is a part of the instructions for the Slave. I believe there is a funny joke in being a “Slave to Music” as it is such a tedious practice that requires diligent effort and training, but aside from the verse location I think there is a great deal that can be learned from the verse. As a non-professional volunteer musician, participating in music ministry is a blessing not only to the congregation but also to yourself. There is a self-reward that comes from being able to make music amongst others in laudation to God. However, even as a voluntary non-pro musician, there is an expectation of effort into producing quality presentations. Working at something with all your heart, in my opinion, does not dictate this necessity to constitute high-levels of skill, but rather presenting as much skill as possible for the given time. The differences between those who are directing and those who are participating to me comes in the expectations. As a music director and musician, I believe I have an expectation to God, the other members of Staff, and to the congregation to present as high of a caliber of skilled presentations as I can. The difference for our volunteer musicians is certainly different. We rehearse, we practice, we breakdown sections, but we do not drill and dissect music to the same level as a professional would, because of the expectations. I believe there is a strong need to NOT do that with musicians who are offering their talents in worship.

There is always more room in the church for more people to participate in Music ministry, in fact I would love to work with more people. With the departure of Shelly, there is certainly going to be a time of growing pains as we as a Staff work to find her position’s replacement. Shelly was the inspiration for this writing, as she and I were discussing the role that perfectionism plays in Church Ministry. Here are my final thoughts on that specific topic: Directors should strive for perfection, with the understanding that they likely will not reach it, however, they must maintain the awareness that the only person they can directly control the level of perfection is in fact, themselves. Professional musicians should always be seeking to demonstrate their skills as an act of worship. There is a strong separation needed between a demonstration of skills and a fight for perfectionism as the latter is not only unhealthy to the mind but can be damaging to the soul. Perfectionism is not what we are called to do, but rather to skillfully worship where able and always. Those of the congregation participate in the activities of the Music Ministry should avoid perfectionism, but rather should work to the fullest of their abilities to ensure that all they do be Glorifying to God. The act of worship in and of itself is glorifying to God as we read in Psalms 100, Make a joyful noise unto the Lord and come before him singing serving him with Gladness. The dichotomy, or contrast, between those who are active professionals in directing the music ministry is the application and striving for high caliber skill. Much as a director is also to do all of which they do with joy unto the Lord, so should they seek to do so as skillfully as possible.

I leave you with this, there is nothing to limit the scope in which a person should seek to enhance their skills. Having a goal to improve at a skill is never an unhealthy challenge, until our human heart makes that skill and/or the improvement of said skill an idol. My position on Perfectionism in music ministry is this, the expectations of those who lead is higher than those who participate, but those who lead must also fight the bend to sinning through the idolization of perfectionism while keeping the course to achieve the quality of work that is expected by and owed to the congregation. Those who participate bare a similar challenge, to avoid the temptation of lusting for perfection when it is not called for, but maintaining the goal of bringing Glory to God through the talents that God has blessed you with. This is the epitome of music ministry and the fight of perfectionism, that all you do be done as well as you can, knowing that if you have given all of your ability it may be seen as perfect in the eyes of God.

In His Grip,