Old South Church News

Gregory Peterson to take New Position
at Luther College

May 10, 2005

Minister of Music Report to Council

Thank you very much for the opportunity to speak tonight. Unlike other reports, this will be more of a valedictory address as I must announce that I have accepted a position at Luther College in Decorah, Iowa as College Organist and Assistant Professor of Music on a tenure-track beginning with the 2005 fall term. My wife Ann will also join the College as Director of Development, Principal Gifts. My last Sunday at Old South will be June 26.

I am particularly honored by this appointment in that Luther is my alma mater. I will succeed my principal teacher and mentor, William Kuhlman, who is retiring after 37 years of service. That being said, Ann and I still went through a long process of discernment leading up to our decision to accept the offers. The college president called in February to inquire about my interest in the opening and Ann’s interests as well. While I was flattered to have been asked to apply, I told him that I expected to earn the position and we agreed to let the process unfold. The week after Easter I learned that I was one of three finalists out of a rather large pool of applicants. I was asked to interview on campus April 18 and 19. Ann was asked to come at the same time and interview with development personnel including the Vice President and President. I was the last finalist to interview and things did go very well. Quickly upon returning to Boston I learned that the faculty search committee’s decision was unanimous and to sweeten the deal, a leadership position was offered to Ann. We are thrilled!

Luther College is a nationally ranked, Phi Beta Kappa liberal arts college of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (the liberal Lutherans!) with an enrollment of 2,600 students. Music is one of the largest majors out of some 60 available majors and pre-professional programs in the curriculum. The fully accredited Music Department has some 300 majors and 52 faculty members. Nearly 1,000 students participate in music ensembles. My responsibilities will include teaching organ and church music as well as serving as organist in the Center for Faith and Life where there are six services per week during the academic year. In addition to playing Sundays, special events and some weekdays, I will mentor student organists who cut their service-playing teeth as I did by playing for chapel on a somewhat regular basis. Luther is a place committed to diversity and its student congregation is “Reconciling in Christ,” which is the ELCA’s language for Open and Affirming. I am one of two major new appointments to the music faculty. Luther’s legendary choral guru Weston Noble is also retiring this spring and his successor, like me, is a Minnesota boy who spent a considerable amount of his career in the East, most recently in Manhattan.

Decorah, Iowa is in the far northeast corner of the state, about two hours south of Minneapolis/St. Paul and an hour south of Rochester, Minnesota, home of the Mayo Clinic. It is considered one of America’s best small towns. The Upper Iowa River runs through the 800 acre campus and the picturesque cliffs and hills have earned the title “Switzerland of Iowa.” Alright, that’s a relative term! But it is a destination for bike riders and cross country skiers from around the region and it’s a great place! Luther alumni are a loyal bunch and return to campus in droves, especially for Homecoming and the annual Christmas at Luther concerts.

I believe that God is working in my life! I believed it eight years ago when I was called to the Old South Church in Boston as an unlikely choice for this auspicious position. I believe it now as I pursue what I consider a higher calling. Many of you may ask “Why now?” “Why at this time when there has been so much staff transition?” The simple answer is, of course, because this position is my dream job and it is available now. But I also think that God is calling Old South to new ventures in a new era, and under the capable and creative leadership of its Senior Minister, Nancy Taylor, a staff will take shape to carry out a vital, public ministry in this venerable place at the corner of Dartmouth and Boylston Streets in the “hub of the Hub.”

I am grateful for the opportunity that you gave me by calling me here. I thank God for it! I told the faculty search committee at Luther that I was a better candidate for the position of College Organist because of the time I have lived in Boston and worked at the Old South Church. I bring a significantly broader musical, theological and spiritual dimension to my faculty position than if I had come to it by the usual route following the doctoral degree. There have been many highlights, not the least of which was the extraordinary partnership I had with Senior Minister Emeritus Jim Crawford (who, by the way, did play role in the successful garnering of my new position). Jim and I talked the same language and we had a rich conversation indeed about hymnody ranging from the chorales of Martin Luther and Bach’s treatment of them, to the hymns of Isaac Watts, the Social Gospel movement and the music of Thomas A. Dorsey and Duke Ellington. We mined the treasures in The New Century Hymnal, unknown to me when I arrived, now an old friend. We also talked politics, sports, travel and culture, a conversation that continues still. We enjoyed planning worship and selecting hymns. I learned a lot from Jim and in turn, I think he learned from me, respecting my Lutheran background, appreciating my liberal outlook and treating me with the utmost collegiality. I have to say that I do not know too many people (other than organists) who can be heard whistling a Bach fugue subject later in the day after I had been heard practicing the Prelude that precedes it! To say he loved the Skinner organ is an understatement!

Over the course of eight years the choir has consistently expanded in the number of volunteer singers. Many of these singers have joined Old South Church through the choir and the ministry of music. The choir is has become a well-oiled machine. It is a community of faith that supports each of its members as well as ministering to the congregation every Sunday through hymns, anthems and musical responses. Even though there are paid staff singers who lend great support and confidence to the ensemble, everyone carries her or his own weight. The choir is quite egalitarian and I have insisted that the professional singers check their egos at the door. I have learned not only the importance of auditioning for those spots, but interviewing as well in order to find people who understand the particular nature of the church choir and find joy in making music in worship. I have been blessed with a good deal of loyalty from the staff singers and I think the choir continues to grow musically and spiritually with each passing year. We have experienced annually the depth of performing some of the great cantata and oratorio literature of the ages, accompanied by first-rate instrumentalists from the Boston area. Truly a gift!

In February of 1998 I put a notice in the Sunday bulletin asking those interested in handbell ringing to gather in the Chancel after worship. Fifteen eager folks showed up and thus the Old South Ringers was born. There are still five charter members of the group. Like the choir, this ensemble is a community of faith, enjoying the joy of ringing together, but also fun-filled social events and supporting each other in times of trial. This group has also been intergenerational with the addition of talented high school students from time to time. Unlike the choir, there are no professional musicians in the ensemble and from the beginning there has been fear and trepidation about offering music in a place of such high expectations. The congregation, however, has been nothing but enthusiastic about this ministry, offering words of appreciation and encouragement and gifts of money enabling the purchase of a fourth octave of Whitechapel bells, a whole host of needed equipment and a three octave set of Malmark Chimes. The group will make its second appearance at the Perkins School for the Blind Annual Handbell Festival next Tuesday, May 17 and hosted an invitational festival of its own in March of 2002.

Old South has a fine reputation for hosting professional musicians. These people are hired for the Meetinghouse service, Christmas Eve and Easter services, Choral Vespers and special music services in Lent plus the ever-popular annual First Night bash of Brass, Organ and Timpani. This has been one of the great joys of the position. Our Old South Brass, Organ and Timpani CD “Heroic Sounds,” released by Denouement Records in 2001 has received high critical acclaim. I hope this tradition can continue. Old South is a responsible employer of musicians in that we pay wages to union scale and also contribute to the Musicians’ Pension Fund at a modest cost to Old South added to the contribution of the individual players. There are no greater “giggers” in the country than what we have in Boston and believe me; they like to play at Old South!

There is still work to be done. We have made modest strides in a children’s music ministry. The Chime Choir, now in its third year, has been a good outlet for musically inclined children. This year the Sunday school music has been split into two groups to accommodate younger and older children of varying abilities. This has yielded some success, but there is still much more that can be done. As you search for a new Minister of Music, perhaps experience and ability with children’s music will be one of the criteria. I think the discipline and joy of singing regularly in a trained choir from an early age in the service of worship is unprecedented in what it can offer young people in terms of living in community, spiritual formation, musical development, transmitting the faith through the great hymns of the church and instilling the value of being a life-long worshipper. And, as Interim Senior Minister Carl Schulz deftly observed, an active children’s music ministry is also a mark of a growing congregation.

The E. M. Skinner organ, opus 308, is a gem and worth every penny that has been spent over the years to install, make repairs, modernize and maintain it. There is no better instrument for leading congregational singing and it will behoove Old South to call a new Minister of Music whose skill and repertoire are worthy of it. It should not be forgotten that even though the church carries five million dollars in replacement insurance, this instrument is irreplaceable. Such an instrument will attract strong players. Find one that also knows and appreciates its role in the corporate worship of God.

Jim told me in 1997 that I might have an opportunity to do my best teaching at Old South. One of the ways that manifested itself was through the weekly “Notes on Today’s Music” in the bulletin. It has been a challenge to keep up with, but gratifying to hear so much positive feedback about this information including composer’s biographical sketches and the some of the meaning behind each Sunday’s choices. I hope, in a humble way, that what I have taught is an appreciation for the church’s rich musical heritage. We were also able to inaugurate the Music Intern program in 2001, which because of its first and only very gifted intern, Jeanne Lucas, has morphed into the Music Assistant position.

There are many people that I will need to thank over the course of the next few weeks. Thanks to all of my staff colleagues over the years, but in particular to those who have labored with me this year. I won’t name them all – they’re all wonderful! I do want to thank Jennifer Mills-Knutsen, however, who has been a fabulous colleague. Jennifer, I appreciate your intellect, your outward faith, your bountiful spirit and your keen insight into how a church works. And also Nancy Taylor: Though our time has been short, I’ve appreciated your liturgical insights and creativity that helped us shape, among other things, a particularly meaningful Holy Week and Easter this year. Carl Schulz is a friend whose sage wisdom was particularly important to me over the past two years. I also want to mention the 1996-97 Search Committee including Debra Berman, Roger Burke (Moderator), Lois Corman (Clerk), Dave Elliott, Chip Huhta, Judie Pierce, Pam Roberts, Doreen Siddall (Chair) and Don Wells. I also wish to thank all of the Leadership of Old South over the years, but particularly those who have chaired the Music Committee, Doreen Siddall, Jeff Makholm, Judie Pierce and Peter Coulombe. Randy Steere has been a reliable, supportive and gifted volunteer Assistant Organist. I’ve already run the risk of leaving people out so I’ll stop except to say thanks to all of you for your partnership in the Gospel.

When I came to Old South in August of 1997 the New Century Plan was in its infancy of execution. It was a good five-year plan, one that I was excited about and better than my job description for guiding me toward the congregation’s vision of a Ministry of Music. I humbly hope that my legacy will be a model of such a ministry and that I have indeed taught you something. I saw my first movie when I was three years old. It was Mary Poppins. At the time I could not understand why she had to go away at the end of the film. I think I understand now! The wind has changed direction and it is leading me to a different place. I go with the wind that is the Holy Spirit calling me to a new ministry – a ministry of teaching undergraduates and continued performing as a church musician and concert organist. I go confident that I can take my leave, knowing that this wonderful church and congregation will continue its legacy of welcome, good church music, strong preaching and grace. And so I say Soli Deo Gloria, which is the motto of Luther College: To God alone be the glory.

Respectfully submitted,

Gregory M. Peterson
Organist and Minister of Music
May 10, 2005

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