In Interview: The Hymn Society

The Hymn Society is holding its convention digitally July 11-15. Pray Tell spoke with Executive Director Mike McMahon, Director of The Center for Congregational Song Brian Hehn, Operations Manager Courtney Murtaugh, and Administrative Assistant Steve Blondo.

The Hymn Society sets out to “encourage, promote, and enliven congregational singing.” How do you do that?
Mike McMahon: Our mission statement is actually quite broad, and our circle has widened in recent years. The Hymn Society [THS] has for a long time been broadly ecumenical. We have become more deliberately inclusive over the years by seeking out greater racial, cultural, ethnic, and gender diversity among our members, leaders, and dialogue partners to expand our vision and our reach.

How are the membership numbers? Are you expanding your reach?
Courtney Murtaugh: We have 1103 members. The membership has been steady over the past several years and during the pandemic. THS has increased its programming to include online events that address current issues faced by church communities and ministers. This past year more than 575 members and friends participated in the Ambassador Series and “We Will Sing” Series. The monthly gatherings averaged 40 participants with one month attracting over 100 participants. We will continue to identify timely issues for future programming.

Say more about your membership.
Mike McMahon: Members of THS belong to more than 50 different Christian denominations – mainline Protestant, Catholic, and evangelical. The organization has served as a meeting place where hymnal editors and denominational leaders have learned from one another and have influenced the repertoire of each group. A quick look around our Annual Conference reveals the presence of professors, students, hymn and song writers, composers, music directors, pastors, hymnal editors, publishers, song leaders, and more. We have also seen a growing diversity in age, race, sexual orientation, and gender identity. These are all people who value both scholarship and practice and can’t imagine being involved in one without the other.

Many church organizations have an aging membership. How are you doing?
Brian Hehn: The membership has actually become younger and more diverse over the last five to ten years. Because the idea of singing to God is baked into the biblical witness, I have no anxiety about the future. There will always be people who are passionate about caring for the church’s song, and we’re here for that!

 Mike McMahon: Of our 1103 members, about 850 are individuals and about 250 are institutions, mostly university and seminary libraries that promote research into congregational song. About 250 of the individuals are life members, which provides a hint about the deep level of investment that our members have made in this community.

Steve Blondo: In my brief time with THS, I’ve been impressed by the level of engagement and enthusiasm that members have for this organization. With an eager base and the variety of our offerings – from webinars to collegiate outreach, competitions to collections, and, of course, our Annual Conference – I am confident that this organization will continue to thrive in the years to come.

The term “hymn” almost sounds old and stodgy. I bet you don’t mean it that way.
Mike McMahon: Over the past twenty years or so, we have been paying attention not only to hymns in the traditional sense, but also to any kind of congregational song. Historical and textual studies continue to be important areas of research, but we are also seeking out scholarly work influenced by and based on many disciplines (e.g., ethnography, congregational music studies, performance theory, theology, ethics) and involving scholars from a wide variety of cultural, racial, linguistic, and gender perspectives. Much of THS’s really important work takes place at the intersection of theory and practice.

How do you think about diverse musical styles?
Brian Hehn: I think the most concise way of answering this question is to borrow an idea I learned from John Thornburg. He often says that the question we should be asking of any song of the church isn’t “do I or did I like this?”, but “How can, how will, or how did God use this?”. The other key concept that I’ve learned from my mentors is that it is disingenuous to refer to any singular “tradition” of church music. It is clear that this generation has inherited a variety of traditions (plural) of church music. Adding yet another style, genre, or tradition of making music together becomes yet another addition to an already diverse canon instead of a threat to some monolith.

It sounds like your work is evolving.
Mike McMahon: A few years ago, our board adopted a vision statement that contextualizes our work: “We believe that the holy act of singing together shapes faith, heals brokenness, transforms lives, and renews peace.” That statement has provided a helpful way of thinking about everything we do – recruiting members, planning conferences, creating publications, or establishing relationships. We believe deeply that singing together makes a difference.

 You convention has gone online. How does that work?
Brian Hehn: Last Spring was crazy! We had planned most of what was supposed to be an in-person conference when COVID hit. We went all-in on offering a digital conference. It’s amazing that we pulled it off! Everyone involved showed grace and flexibility in what was otherwise a terrible situation. Somehow, we managed to have a gathering of THS members where we felt connected, sang “together” digitally, and learned a lot. The most common feedback we got from folks who attended was just simple gratefulness. People were grateful to feel connected to a group that they look forward to seeing each Summer.

This summer we’re doing it again! The conference will be structured in a very similar way to last year, but we’ve got a few improvements! We’re adding a few more opportunities for social time. Our folks really love each other and want that time to just catch up and chat. The other thing about this summer is that we’re all better at doing digital stuff! The editing will be higher quality, more collaborations are happening, and so on. It’s going to be a blast.

 Mike McMahon: We had participants from 15 countries on 6 continents and increased the number of attendees by about 60% over the previous year’s in-person conference. We learned that the virtual conference was far more affordable and accessible for some members who could not travel because of age, sickness, or expense.

 Steve Blondo: The feedback we received was overwhelmingly positive! All of the leaders showed their creativity with the ways they presented their various sessions, and the evening event leaders were excellent at crafting programs that didn’t merely feel like we were merely watching a video of a concert. With last year’s experience under our belts, I am eager to see how this year will take us to even greater lengths as we “gather” for just one more digital conference.

Will the conferences go in-person again?
Mike McMahon: We will be celebrating THS’s centennial next year with an in-person international conference at The Catholic University of America, July 17-22, 2022. We are also planning to include an online component that will allow some level of participation by those unable to attend in person.

You have something called the Center for Congregational Song. What’s that about?
Brian Hehn: It’s about reaching out. The Center’s job is to go out and make new friends. Find out who is doing great work in our field and report back to our members with new ideas and resources. At the same time, The Center works to introduce THS to those folks who we encounter as we reach out, inviting them to join our conversations and work.

 Mike McMahon: The idea for the Center was developed by the Executive Committee beginning in 2012. We needed to develop an intentional way, as Brian expressed so well, of reaching out to new dialogue partners that would expand our cultural, racial, ethnic, denominational, musical, theological, geographical, and methodological limits. The Center was formally established in 2015 with Brian Hehn as its first director and was described as “the outreach arm” of THS. There was a series of launch events around North America that set the tone for creative programming and expanded relationships.

Six years later, how is the Center doing?
Brian Hehn: When we first started dreaming of this thing we call The Center for Congregational Song, there were a lot of ideas of how/what/when we would do things. Some of those dreams came to life exactly as we had hoped. Some of those dreams just never quite worked out. Some of those dreams sort of worked but ended up leading to new ideas which then took off in an unexpected direction. But we’re on the journey and God is certainly journeying with us on the road.

Mike McMahon: While some of the original ideas have been put aside or modified, there have been lots of new initiatives. The guiding principles from the outset have been to embrace new ways of doing things and to expand our reach.

How are the Society’s finances?
Brian Hehn: It’s important to toot our own horn here. We’re doing well and people should know it.

Mike McMahon: Under the leadership of former Executive Director Deborah Carlton Loftis and former President John Thornburg, THS raised more than 1.5 million dollars to create an endowment to support the work of The Center and expand the organization’s staff. Next year we are launching a campaign to raise that endowment to 2.2 million dollars. We have managed to exceed our budget targets in each of the past two years.

You sound very positive about the work of The Hymn Society.
Mike McMahon: I think the most important contribution of THS to faith communities is connection through congregational song – to their own tradition, the ecumenical and global church, the diversity of the communities in which we exist, the social issues of our day, scholarship – and through all of that, to the God who has given us the gift of song.

This interview was conducted with Anthony Ruff OSB by email and was edited for length, clarity, and question order.

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