Working in the Vineyard: the Church Music Institute

In this installment of “Working in the Vineyard,” Pray Tell presents the Church Music Institute in Dallas, Texas.

How did the Church Music Institute come about? Tell us your history.
CMI was founded in 2006 by an ecumenical group of musicians, clergy, and laypersons who wanted to create an educational and resource entity that would provide a healthy foundation for church music now and into the future. We work closely with professional, secular music organizations like the American Guild of Organists and American Choral Directors Association whose members serve churches, and with seminaries and clergy to enrich their educational options to include a theology and practice of music in worship. These goals are met in giving online access to thousands of pieces of music searchable on dozens of criteria for planning worship, online and onsite workshops and short courses, and regular for-credit graduate courses.

 You’re about “the advancement and stewardship of the best sacred music for the use of Christian congregations.” How do you do that?
At CMI we are continually asking “What is the best_______(fill in the blank)” in choosing the best options among the many available. We try to answer the question in the context of the long trajectory of history and the characteristics of music and worship that have lasted, beginning with scripture, the vast treasury of sacred music, and continuing with tradition, believing the past has much to teach us.

What does that look like?
We look to those most skilled in the present, who seem best able to bring the past forward in practice and new resources, musical and otherwise. Our job is not unlike that of clergy who work with the primacy of texts thousands of years old yet very relevant to today, as music supports those texts as they work in the liturgy. We have a trifold moniker about CMI: “Informed by the past, committed to the present, preparing for the future.”

Who is your audience?
Clergy who understand the importance of music in worship and are interested in planning coherent spoken and sung worship, especially in collaboration with their musician(s). They may or may not be trained in music, and are always seeking to understand how better to utilize musical ways of accessing God in worship.
Musicians who likely are trained in music but may not be trained liturgically or theologically, and who want to become fine church musicians. They want to know how to access the best music for their congregation to worship, and for the musicians in their parish who lead worship.
Congregations who understand the power of music and want to know more about how it works. These are the people who sing in the choir, serve as church leaders, make sure funding is available to provide for excellent music and worship. They seek information to make good decisions about music and worship.

And there is a need for that?
CMI’s membership has grown steadily since inception. The pandemic has solidified the importance of music that lasts and is transcendent in worship. Life is precious and time is not to be taken for granted. What we do in worship matters. The CMI online resources, with their flexibility to adapt for any size congregation and to utilize resources already available, have provided new ways of achieving meaningful worship during this time.

It sounds like you have a message people need to hear.
Music may be the most important and underused “tool” of the church today. Biblical directives to “Sing to the Lord” are abundant; neuroscience now tells us of the power of music for remembering what we sing far longer than words we speak or hear. We know of the benefits of singing together for building community. What might happen if the beautifully written Catholic documents on music were reflected in budgets for educating and empowering skilled musicians, music programs, and helping parishioners sing?

Tell us about some of your exciting current work.
We were recently given the music, theology, and liturgical libraries of Fr. Jan Michael Joncas, undergirding CMI’s intent to train worship leaders. The pandemic has forced CMI to think more broadly in its programming and think creatively how to offer virtual education that complements but not replicates what educational institutions are already offering. The interdisciplinary/multidisciplinary nature of worship lends itself to expertise of multiple people, all possible with virtual offerings, in contrast to residential education. Likewise, students from a wide variety of locations and backgrounds can learn from each other without having to travel to one location. The drawback is the difficulty of live singing and making music together virtually. We are thinking. . . .

What do you see as your unique contribution to the life of the church?
Bringing forward the best music from the past and present from whatever Christian tradition and making it known; seeking out best practices and allowing them to influence practice; being the place for almost-unending-options for planning music for worship.

May God prosper your  work!

The interview with Charlotte Kroeker was conducted by email.

The group picture is of a 2019 Festival of Church Music in Meyerson Symphony Center in Dallas where CMI “raised the roof” with 2,000 singing attendees and a mass choir. The zoom shot is of the “Congregational Song” class in Summer, 2021, with students from Beijing to Cork County, Ireland and every time zone in the U.S.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *