After 52 years of serving God through the local church, the final 32 of those at First Baptist Church of Pensacola, Bob Morrison, one of most respected and influential Ministers of Music in Baptist life, is retiring in July 2019.
To put his tenure in perspective, one study indicates that the average pastor tenure is 3.6 years and the average associate pastor tenure is 2.9 years. I suspect that the average Minister of Music tenure is slightly longer but not by much. When compared to almost any benchmark, Morrison’s tenure and effectiveness are remarkable.
Because both Morrison and I are from the same region of Alabama, I was familiar with his name and reputation, but didn’t have the opportunity to meet him until I moved to Florida. Little did I know that in 2005 I would be called to serve as the senior pastor at First Baptist Church of Pensacola and would have the privilege of serving alongside Bob for 12 years. In my 41 years of ministry, Bob would become the Minister of Music I served with for the longest period of time, and likewise, I would become the pastor Bob served with for the longest time frame during the course of his ministry.
Through the years I have been blessed to serve with many great staff members. However, Bob Morrison is one of the hardest working ministers I have ever encountered. In the words of Robert Frost, Bob’s vocation is his avocation.
Nix Daniel, a long-time church member, was chair of the Personnel Committee that recommended Morrison as Minister of Music at First Baptist Pensacola in 1987. Daniel remembers the call process clearly. “While Bob was relatively young, he had many years of experience in smaller churches and had developed a reputation as a very good minister of music with the potential to be a great one. We could look at what Bob had done but I truly felt that God led us to call him. He caused us to see some good reasons but ultimately we trusted what we felt was His guidance.”
As Morrison prepares for retirement, I asked Daniel why Morrison has enjoyed both effectiveness and longevity at First Baptist. Daniel summarized, “My father once told me that you will find people in life who do well because they are extraordinarily talented and others who do well because they have an exceptional work ethic. The people who are truly great at what they do, however, combine those traits. They are extraordinarily talented and have an exceptional work ethic. Bob is extremely talented, has an unparalleled work ethic and a clear calling from God to ministry. That is why he has been a great minister of music for so many years in my opinion.”
After serving alongside Bob Morrison, I can easily affirm that he is a music minister that majors in ministry. Some ministers of music are siloed and are only interested in music. At First Baptist Church of Pensacola, Morrison inherited a great music program and helped to grow it into one of the most outstanding church music programs in the country. But as gifted as Bob is in bringing out the best in choir and orchestra members through music, he excels even more in his care for all in the greater church family.
Morrison’s renowned program at First Baptist is grounded in a graded choir program led by a capable team of volunteers. In addition to his conducting of the Sanctuary Choir and Orchestra, Bob provided hands-on leadership for the Chapel Choir (high school), Surrender (high school auditioned ensemble), and the Singing Seniors (senior adults).
During his 32 years in Pensacola, Bob’s choirs have toured around the country and internationally including multiple trips to sing at St. Mark’s Cathedral (Venice), St. Paul’s Cathedral (London), Notre Dame Cathedral (Paris), St. Michael’s Cathedral (Vienna), St. Giles Cathedral (Edinburgh), First Baptist Church of Rome, and St. Peter’s Basilica (Rome).
In the fall of 2018, Bob received an invitation to be the MidAmerica Productions’ Guest Conductor Series’ “featured musician of the week” at Carnegie Hall. To put this honor in perspective, among the renowned conductors who have led MidAmerica Production concerts are John Rutter, Sherill Milnes, Lukas Foss, and Helmuth Rilling. More than 700 conductors have conducted on MidAmerica’s series in New York, sharing the stage with 1100 solo artists from the world’s greatest opera companies and concert stages, and 3500 choral ensembles from the U.S. and abroad.
Even though the invitation to conduct at Carnegie is extended to the director specifically, Bob would only agree to accept the invitation if he could bring his own choir. Morrison contends that the credit for his invitation belongs to his choir members. “We would not have been noticed at all without the reputation they have generated,” he said.
In April of this year,186 members of the Sanctuary Choir and Orchestra (including alumni and friends) presented a “Carnegie in Pensacola Concert” as a local preview of their upcoming presentation in New York City. On the following weekend, Bob took 160 choir members and friends to historic Carnegie Hall where they presented “The Peaceable Kingdom” by Randall Thompson, an unforgettable experience that served as a pinnacle moment of Bob’s 52 years.
Bob’s demeanor and approach to ministry are appreciated by a diverse group of friends and colleagues. Those of us who served as Bob’s pastor have a firsthand knowledge of Bob’s influence. Bill Shiell, the president at Northern Seminary in Chicago, was elected as Morrison’s first Chapel Choir president when Morrison arrived in Pensacola and later served as Morrison’s music associate. Through the years, Shiell has looked to Morrison as a mentor and confirms that many of the core values that shaped his ministry as a pastor and now an administrator, he learned from Morrison. Shiell reminisces that, “When I served as an interim minister of music, I imitated his style and followed his lead. Even though God’s call didn’t lead me to music ministry, I’m still imitating Bob’s professionalism, vision, and organization. His professionalism and his public and private character have molded me into becoming who I am today.”
Randel Everett, executive director of the Wilberforce Initiative and a former pastor at First Baptist Church of Pensacola, says “Bob and Annette have both made a tremendous Kingdom impact on countless number of lives including mine and our family. It was an honor and privilege to be able to serve with both of them during our time at First Baptist Church. During my tenure I accompanied them on the trip to Sweden and Russia with the choir and orchestra, a trip that is still one of my fondest ministry experiences. I look forward to seeing how God will use Bob and Annette during this next chapter of their lives.”
The current pastor at First Baptist Pensacola, Dave Snyder, has only served alongside Morrison for one year, but he already has profound gratitude for Morrison’s commitment to God and the local church. Snyder says, “Bob Morrison has a genuine love for the church. He maintains a consistent flow of integrity, passion, structure, intentionality, and humility in his work. People around him feel important to the mission of the church through music. Bob is a team player and demonstrates remarkable flexibility in working with his pastor and the staff team.”
Music ministers around the country have been inspired by Bob’s work ethic and his creativity. Billy Orton, Minister of Music at the First Baptist Church in Huntsville, treasures his friendship with Bob Morrison. Orton says, “Blessed with talent, personality, wisdom, and patience, Bob Morrison also possesses that indispensable quality found in truly great people–the willingness to work very hard. Bob has succeeded in myriad ways in the challenging field of church music ministry because of all these significant attributes which God effectively mixed with the love for people so evident in his spirit. Bob’s gifts and heart have touched countless lives. I am grateful for his enduring friendship and support as a colleague in music ministry.”
Across his many years in ministry, Bob has become friends with many well-known composers including Joseph Martin, Heather Sorenson, Pepper Choplin, Mary McDonald, Benjamin Harland, and Bob Burroughs. Harlan says, “Bob Morrison sets the gold standard for music ministry. From the time I first met Bob, I have treasured his friendship, his shared experiences, his ministry insights, his counsel and encouragement, his dedication to excellence, and the warm, compassionate heart that sets apart those who are musicians only, to those who use music to love people in Jesus’ name. It is one of life’s great blessings to have Bob as a friend.”
When I asked Bob Burroughs why composers have such appreciation for Bob Morrison, Burroughs replied, “Bob Morrison is the consummate Church Musician. He has a gentle spirit, a love for his people, a witness for Jesus. Bob Morrison is one of my heroes!” Burroughs composed a musical piece as a tribute to Bob on the occasion of his retirement. Burroughs said, “I wanted my anthem to send him out with joy – hence the title: Go Out With Joy! (Isaiah 55:11-12).”
Most of Bob Morrison’s choirs have included a few exceptional musicians, but most of the members have had little or no music training. However, Bob has a gift for bringing out the best in others. Throughout his ministry he has insisted that when individuals bring their best gifts, especially their voices, as an offering to the Lord, the blending of those voices produce a sound that far exceeds the talent level of any one individual. That is when “choir happens.”
And we can expect that during his retirement years, Morrison will continue to seize every opportunity that comes his way to bring out the best in others and to advance the ministry of the local church, but this time as a faithful participant.
Well done, Bob Morrison! Well done!
You might also want to read “Faithful to God’s Call: An Interview with Bob Morrison” at http://www.barrysnotes.wordpress.com.
(Barry Howard is the retired Senior Pastor of the First Baptist Church of Pensacola. He now serves as a leadership coach, congregational consultant, and columnist with the Center for Healthy Churches.)