(photo by Diane Allen)
After 52 years of serving the local church, the final 32 plus as Minister of Music at the First Baptist Church in Pensacola, Bob Morrison is retiring. Bob, and his wife Annette (who has also served as his administrative assistant) are transitioning to the next chapter, which will likely be a more relaxed season of life involving grandchildren, travel, and continued involvement with their First Baptist Church family.
A couple of weeks ago, I had the privilege of interviewing Bob Morrison regarding his remarkable tenure and his thoughts about retirement. Here is what he had to say:
Barry: Let’s go back to the beginning. How and when did you confirm your Christian faith which has been so foundational to your life and ministry?
Bob: I was 9 years old, and it happened on a Thursday night decision service at Shocco Springs’ RA Camp. For a couple of years, I had been attending this summer week-long camp, and for a few years after my decision I continued to attend until I was too old. The climactic point in the week was always a Thursday night decision service. I remember the night I accepted Christ, I couldn’t wait to call my parents and share the good news with them. I was baptized at FBC, Lineville, Alabama, the next Sunday.
Barry: When did you sense the call to music ministry?
Bob: I felt called to actual music ministry while I was serving as BSU Choir director at Jacksonville State University in 1970, but I had made the decision to go into music in some fashion as a 2nd grader in Lineville Elementary School in 1958. My music teacher had selected me to “conduct” the little rhythm band for our spring program, which consisted of me pointing to the appropriate rhythm instrument when it was their turn to play…so, yes, pretty much like I do to our church orchestra now! At any rate, that experience captured me forever, and from that day forward I knew I wanted to do music with my life; I never wavered from that decision.
When I entered JSU as a freshman, I was on track to be a band director, having served as drum major for our high school band my junior and senior years. Through the BSU Choir experience, though, I felt God redirecting me to be in church music. Again, a decision I’ve never second guessed…even though I know that being a band director would possibly have put me more on the cutting edge of evangelism.
While I definitely had a God-called experience back in 1970, answering the call has been a dynamic activity for me, wherein I need to recommit to that call periodically. One of my life verses has been Philippians 3:12b: We press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of us. Staying in the ministry throughout my whole life definitely has been predicated on the truth of this exercise…taking hold of that for which you were taken hold.
Barry: You also started in music ministry at a young age, even before finishing college or seminary. What are the some of the advantages and disadvantages of starting ministry at a younger age and working your way through school?
Bob: Always active in my churches’ choir programs wherever my family lived through my growing up years, I was asked to serve as the “minister of music” during Youth Sunday when I was 15 at the First Baptist Church of Saks (Anniston, AL); I loved it! I remember my minister of music at the time trying to convince me it wasn’t necessary to hold extra rehearsals leading up to Youth Sunday, something I guess we disagreed on.
At any rate, a year later when we lost our minister of music, the church asked if I would direct the choir during the interim, which I gladly accepted. During that time, we did a full program for Easter, a John Peterson cantata as I recall. It went well, and the church asked if I would take the position permanently. Though it was only part-time, the experience I gained leading the adult choir, instrumental ensemble, youth choir and children’s choirs at FBC, Saks, for the next four years was invaluable! So…the experience gained at such a young age affected my life’s work in a major way and became the foundation on which everything else would be built.
Another big advantage of starting young would have to be how it helped determine who I married. I was already doing what I would be doing the rest of my life, so any prospective wife would already know what she’d be getting in to. God perfectly put me with someone that was active in our choir at church, and in my band at school. Annette has been a co-laborer from day one, and in my mind, is just as called as I am.
Barry: I recall that you completed your seminary degree at Southwestern Seminary in Fort Worth. Many individuals bypass seminary altogether and go straight on to a church staff. How important is a seminary degree for a Minister of Music, and how have you benefited from your seminary training?
Bob: In my experience, seminary was a natural progression to preparing me to be a church musician. I can’t imagine doing this work without the knowledge I gained at seminary. There were some of my classmates who were only attending seminary because they felt it would afford them a bigger church ultimately, and who weren’t really buying in to what was being taught.
I was just the opposite. I hung on every word. There simply was not a subject I took that I didn’t grow from and enjoy, but some of my favorites were Music in Missions & Hymnology by T.W. Hunt, Choral Diction by Jack Coldiron, Practice of Church Music by Joe King, Philosophy of Church Music by Cecil Roper, and Conducting Techniques by Robert Burton. A couple of my non-music classes that I totally loved were Evangelism by Roy Fish, and Baptist History by John Baker. Seminary showed me the BIG PICTURE and served to provide impetus throughout my ministry.
Barry: I think you could have been an excellent professor, clinician, or composer. Those who know you are tremendously grateful that you chose to serve in the local church. What are some of the things you have enjoyed most about serving in context of the local church?
Bob: One of my favorite things about being a music minister in the local church is that I get to work with all ages, including children through senior adults. Fortunately, I’ve always had a healthy take on the aging process, and from the very start, some of my closest friends were senior adults. So, yes, this multi-generational landscape within the local church’s music ministry has been a highlight!
The local church music ministry has also been a wonderful place for me because of how diversified my interests are. That is to say, my interests are multi-faceted…music (obviously), choral, orchestral, traveling with music groups, sound systems, video systems, technology, etc. Where else could a person work and be able to delve into all these areas, and more! Whether it’s rehearsing a group to make beautiful music for worship experiences, touring with groups, soldering connections in your sound system, registering the colors in a camera, building cases for speakers to tour with, or…well, almost anything! Working in the local church has allowed me to do it all, and I’m so grateful.
Barry: Although your primary area of service has been Music and Worship, your responsibilities have covered other areas including pastoral care, technology, media, and others. How does serving in areas outside your major area inform and enhance your overall ministry and effectiveness?
Bob: I somewhat addressed this topic in the previous question, but just to add…doing those non-music parts of my job allows me to network and develop relationships with folks whom I may not get to know otherwise. It also helps me easily adopt the big picture of church work and keeps me from being totally tunnel-visioned (which could easily happen). Conversely, it allows the church folk to see me in a pastoral role, helping them to realize that I’m minister first, musician second.
Barry: You have worked with multiple choirs and music groups (Sanctuary Choir, Orchestra, Chapel Choir, Singing Seniors, etc). Do you have a favorite age group or music group?
Bob: You know, I don’t. I guess the best way to say it is, my “favorite group” is the one I happen to be working with at the time. It’s always been a goal of mine for the group I’m currently working with to think – based on how I’m acting toward them – that they must be my favorite…’cause they are (at the time)!
Barry: You have taken many choirs on tours around the U.S and around the globe? Is there one trip that stands out in your mind as groundbreaking, monumental, or most memorable? And do you have a favorite tour location?
Bob: Touring has indeed been one of the trademarks of our music ministries at every church. There are so many benefits and advantages that happen naturally because of touring; things like working hard together to prepare the music, living together for a couple of weeks which allows for deeper relationships, etc. And then the obvious: the opportunity to share the Good News of Christ with our listeners in some amazing places, and the sheer excitement of experiencing God’s creation and His people in far-away places. I simply cannot imagine doing music ministry without the tour experience!
As to a favorite tour, it’s impossible for me to say. They’ve all been my favorite on their year!
Barry: What is your favorite hymn or anthem, and why?
Bob: I have many of each, but I’d have to say “Great Is Thy Faithfulness” is one of my all-time favorite hymns, speaking of God’s constant care for us and interest in us. Also near the top for hymns would be “Here I Am, Lord,” a hymn that speaks to our total surrender to God in service.
As to an anthem, I often kiddingly remark to the choir that such and such song is my “new” favorite anthem…and that pretty much is right, for God keeps gifting composers to write new and wonderful choral and orchestral arrangements, providing for me a moving scale. So…my “new” favorite anthem for now is “More Than Conquerors,” relating how nothing can separate us from the love of Christ, and with His presence in our lives, we can overcome anything this world may challenge us with.
Barry: As someone who has served in the same church for 32 years, what do you see as the primary factors that contributed to your longevity?
Bob: What a great question! And how difficult it will be to adequately answer it. I’ve kiddingly responded to folks, as they’ve made comments regarding the accomplishment of being in the same church this long, “It’s not that hard, actually; you simply have to be someone no other church wants.”
Assuming one serves a church whose people can abide longevity from their staff member, though – which I definitely do – the greatest challenge of staying somewhere this long is simply to keep your own interest up…staying in the game for the long haul. Achieving that in my own case was made easier because our great church resources their music ministry extremely well, and the singing and playing participants themselves are willing to invest their own monies to be involved in some pretty exciting projects.
That means, in addition to leading regular Sunday worship times, we get to do some amazing activities. Things like bringing in big name Christian artists like Joseph Martin, Ken Medema, Steve Green, etc., to do a combined program with our choir and orchestra; like taking the adult choir and orchestra, and our older youth choir, on international tours every two years (each group goes once every four years, offset from one another by two years); like touring each summer with our older youth choir throughout the USA and Canada; like budgeting adequate dollars to support our annual DEO (Christmas) production; like investing in needed props to do the PENSACOLA EASTER PAGEANT; like purchasing instruments to be used in our orchestra program; and on and on I could go.
Knowing I’ve served a church like that gives you a bit of insight into the kind of people at FBCP. They’re the best folks anywhere and they stand ready to do just about anything you can put before them! If they even know about the word “can’t,” I’m not aware of it. It’s unnatural to “want to leave” folks like that! Even now as we’re on the cusp of retiring, I still can’t get excited about leaving this position.
I know it’s time, though, and once past the actual day of retiring, God will infuse me with excitement about what lies ahead. Things like time to spend with my grandkids, my parents, for traveling, and for making new and different kinds of contributions to Kingdom work.
And on a final note: To the person currently serving on a church staff, I would say stay as long as you can under God’s leadership. There are both advantages and benefits that you get to experience – and yes, that the church gets to experience – that simply are not available to short termers. I’m certainly glad I did!
Barry: What advice would you give to a young adult starting out on their journey in music ministry?
Bob: Go back, go back! (Just kidding.) I would encourage them in that, if they are definite in their sense of call to music ministry, then go for it. In my mind, there is nothing that will satisfy you more, or give you a greater sense of purpose and fulfillment, than doing church music. Second, I would advise them to place huge importance on choosing their life’s mate, for nothing can replace the synergy that will exist between you and a wife who also senses a call to music ministry. It’s a win-win (for your marriage and for the church you serve).
I would also encourage them to seek appropriate training. If I were advising a would-be minister of music today, I would encourage them to look seriously at some of our colleges with church music degrees, both on the undergraduate and graduate levels. Recent changes in some of our seminaries give me pause to confidently recommend them to a prospective church worship pastor, though I’m open to being proven wrong, for I’m still very indebted to my seminary experience at SWBTS.
Barry: As you prepare for the next chapter, what are some of the things you plan to do in retirement?
Bob: Top of my list, spend more time with my grandkids! Annette and I are fortunate in that we live in the same city as our grandchildren and oldest son and his wife. We even go to the same church! Same can be said about my parents; both my mom and dad attend FBCP, and I definitely plan to be more present in their daily lives. Our youngest son and his new wife live in Boston, where he is a Teaching Fellow at Harvard University in music; visiting them in their new place will be exciting! So…family takes on top priority!
I also want to further develop a little side interest of mine – which also benefited our choirs for the past 6 years here at FBCP – ChoirPrompt. You can find out more than you’d ever want to know about this at http://www.choirprompt.com.
Getting back to playing my horn is also a goal of mine. While directing groups is wonderful, by its very nature it prevents you from participating as an instrumentalist or singer. It will be fun to personally “make music” again, and not just be “directing music-makers.”
And finally, even though we’ve travelled extensively on our choir tours through the years, I think Annette and I will enjoy some travel. We both love to explore new places and things, and there’s a whole lot of the world we’ve never been to, so occasional travel will surely be in the picture. It’ll be different traveling without 100 of our closest friends and doing concerts, but I’m thinking it’ll be fun, nonetheless.
One of my greatest desires is to continue to be faithful to God’s calling on my life, even in retirement. I don’t know what that looks like, exactly, at this point, but that’s what I want to be. For my entire life I’ve encouraged folks to be responsive to God’s call to serve through music, and to be faithful in that service. Now that I’m here at my working life’s conclusion, may I prove just as faithful as those in my charge for all these years.
Thank you, Bob Morrison, for being faith to God’s call and for sharing your gift with so many for so long. We will miss your leadership, but your friendship and influence will continue to shape us and advance the kingdom for years to come.
(Barry Howard is the retired Senior Pastor at First Baptist Church of Pensacola. He currently serves as a leadership coach, congregational consultant, and columnist for the Center for Healthy Churches.)