Yale ISM Congregations Project: An overview

For a week in June each year, a group of pastors, musicians, lay leaders, students, and faculty explore together the intersections between worship, music and the arts, through the lens of various practical issues that face congregations nationwide.


Preface to the Congregations Project Reports

The Yale Institute of Sacred Music, an interdisciplinary graduate center, has worked since its inception to prepare students for careers in church music and pastoral ministry, as well as in other endeavors in music, worship, and the arts in Christian communities, diverse religious traditions, and public life.  A few years ago,  the ISM began also to look for a new way of working more directly with Christian congregations.  The result is the Congregations Project, an ecumenical initiative dedicated to creating a network of dynamic faith communities committed to strong ministries in music, worship, and the arts.

The Congregations Project celebrates communities of faith as settings in which music, worship, and the arts take on vibrant life in particular times and places, to the glory of God and for the sake of abundant life for all.  In congregations, ancient practices, venturesome faith, and thoughtful contemporary creativity converge as the gospel is proclaimed and communities of witness and service come into being.  Clearly, congregations face challenges as they seek to respond to the social, cultural, and theological challenges to faithful, creative ministry today.  At the same time, however, many are in fact responding to such challenges with remarkable skill and grace, addressing urgent needs both within and beyond the congregation in amazingly thoughtful, life-giving ways.   This series of reports lifts up some of these faith communities, shares some of their conversations with one another and Congregations Project faculty members, and invites other communities to reflect on implications for their own ministries.

We begin with a word about the structure of the Congregations Project.  As the ISM considered ways of serving congregations and sharing their wisdom more widely in the church and the academy, a distinctive model emerged.  In contrast to numerous large, open conferences for either pastors or musicians, the Congregations Project offers a more intensive approach.  Crucially, this model involves drawing on and drawing together the distinctive gifts of various contributors within congregations—pastors, musicians, and lay leaders—at every step along the way.  The central activity is a week-long summer seminar for leadership teams from selected congregations.

An annual theme provides a focus for the selection process and seminar. Each theme identifies a concern that touches deeply on human experience and that has particular saliency in both Christian tradition and contemporary society.

  • The 2011 theme explored commitment to place as a troubled dimension of life in a mobile society.  How might a congregation’s literal place in the
    world shape how it worships God, and how does participating in worship, music, and the arts enable the people of a certain place to seek the
    welfare of that place?
  • The 2012 theme focused on how congregations worship God from the midst of the days, weeks, years, and lifespan that shape our human
    experience of time.  How might the temporal rhythms of Christian worship help contemporary people to find abundant life in a 24/7 society?  And
    how do seasons of change–including passages of dying and rising—shape both individual life and congregational life?
  • The 2013 focus was on welcoming and inviting new Christians to worship, a practice that calls for theological discernment, cultural sensitivity,
    strategic savvy, and confidence in the grace of God.
  • The 2014 theme is embodiment.  What does the human body have to do with the body of Christ?  How do the worship, music, or art of the body of
    Christ inspire faithful responses to the suffering and joy of embodied others, and how they might do so more fully?

Participating congregations develop a project or share current work related to the theme that is both generative for the congregation and inspiring for other faith communities.  For each seminar, the ISM assembles a host of relevant resources:  a cycle of daily worship, lectures and arts events, a hymn festival, meals, explorations of places, times to rest, and workshops on skills and special issues.  Equally important resources come from the participating congregations themselves:  seasoned sensitivity to specific cultural contexts or urgent human needs; a deep sense of each community’s heritage and calling; on-the-ground experience of yearning and hope; theological insights grounded in regular sacramental practice over time; and much, much more.  A series of 90-minute workshops, each focused on a single congregation’s project, brings the insights of the whole group to bear on local efforts, while also inspiring ideas for work in other contexts.

This Report shares some of the resources developed for each year’s seminar with a wider audience.   Because much of the seminar consists of workshops that cannot be replicated here, this is not by any means a complete account.  However, the report does contain reflections on each theme and its importance to contemporary congregations, as well as questions to help other congregations as they reflect on these themes in their own situations.   Also included are a few faculty lectures, selections from the annual hymn festivals, and worship resources.

Most importantly, each Report includes stories of the participating congregations and their projects.  The the ISM Congregations Project faculty and staff thank the congregations for sharing their amazing work.  We also thank the YISM students who have written about it.  The purpose of these stories, and of this entire series of reports, is to encourage other congregations to reflect on their own ministries, in order to imagine and bring to life creative, faithful projects of their own.


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