Church music: Vocation and avocation?


Music Musings
By Dean McIntyre

In 1934, American poet Robert Frost wrote this final verse to his poem Two Tramps in Mud Time:

But yield who will to their separation,
My object in living is to unite
My avocation and my vocation
As my two eyes make one in sight.
Only where love and need are one,
And the work is play for mortal stakes,
Is the deed ever really done
For Heaven and the future's sakes.

Frost’s theme is one for many church musicians: Live to make your vocation and your avocation the same. Our vocation is the work we do to exist from day to day, to live as productive members of society, to pay the bills and provide for our future. Our avocation is what we do because of who and what we are, what we do because it interests us, what motivates us to achieve our potential, what we do for the love of doing it. It is work that we choose to do because it defines us as human beings. It is work that we do because we can't not do it.

In wonderful imagery, Frost suggests a life's goal of making vocation and avocation the same. Unfortunately for many of us, they remain separate. Charles Ives worked hard at selling insurance and building his business so that he could compose music at night. Albert Einstein was a patent clerk while he wrote his theories that revolutionized science. How many of us have unrelated day jobs that allow us to pursue our love of music and ministry in the church? Some of us are blessed to live lives in which avocation and vocation are united. But don't miss Frost's last line: "for Heaven and the future's sake." It is not only we, ourselves, who benefit from this uniting, but also heaven — the Kingdom of God.

But in whichever category we find ourselves — vocation or avocation — our task as church musicians is to do all that we can to make music and worship the best that it can be for our people. Too often we may think, "I just don't have the time," "I'm too tired," "The church doesn't pay me enough for this," "They don't appreciate all that I do," or some other reason for not offering our best. Such thinking is at best an excuse unworthy of the task and the calling. At worst, it is an ongoing rationalization for carelessness, laziness or financial exploitation.

If church music is our avocation, then we should dedicate ourselves to the same excellence, drive, diligence, and commitment that we give to our vocation. And if church music is our vocation, we should approach it with the same kind of excitement and joy that we might have for gardening, sports, stamp collecting, travel, reading or some other non-vocational endeavor that we do for the simple joy of doing it. Do all church musicians receive a level of compensation, appreciation, support, and love from their pastors, congregations, and choirs they may deserve? No! Is that an excuse for not doing our best? Likewise, no.

Church music, whether it is our vocation or our avocation, is presumably something we do because of something God has placed inside of us that needs expression. Whether vocation or avocation, we will be church musicians. In the words of a Chinese proverb, "A bird sings, not because it has the answer, but because it has a song." Church music for church musicians is literally a song that demands to be sung. Let us do all we can to prepare, study, rehearse, execute, evaluate, change, grow, and improve as we sing that song.

McIntyre ( is the director of Music Resources for The United Methodist General Board of Discipleship.