In my world, there are two kinds of religious services – those in which the people sing, and those in which they don’t. The Catholic Church my wife and I attended for many years in Iowa fit the first category. There was a great deal of energy present during each service and it materialized in the voices of the participants. The first book the churchgoers grabbed was the hymnal. It was expected, that no matter how proud or self-conscious you were, you sang. It wasn't always harmonious (especially in my case), but the point was that you felt compelled to join in the chorus.
There is another church I attend frequently that is almost the complete opposite. When it comes time to sing, attendees just silently stare straight ahead. The hymnals go untouched. Not even the children sing, mostly taking the lead of their parents to simply sit and listen. It definitely diminishes the environment and almost sucks the life completely out of the place.
It’s always made me wonder – what compels a congregation to sing? I’m sure there are many reasons, but I’ve started to build a theory based on recent experiences.
The current church our family goes to is a wonderful and warm place, infused with a culture of singing. Last weekend, however, I looked around and noticed that hardly anyone was singing. On that particular day, a choir had been assembled at the front of the church, and they were doing a beautiful job. However, no one else in the room felt compelled to join them. We all just listened. The room was full of music – thanks to the choir – but there was a peculiar lack of energy in the room.
As I began to reflect on my churchgoing experiences, I began to separate the ones in which there was a choir involved from those in which there wasn’t. I determined, unscientifically, that the congregation seemed to participate more fully when there wasn’t a choir. I can’t fully explain why – but I tend to believe it is another reflection of a common quality of human nature: when someone else is doing the work for us, we tend to step back.
Whether or not this is definitively the case, it does raise an interesting parallel to leadership and fraternity life. When individuals feel as though someone else will do the “singing,” how likely are they to contribute?
There are various levels in the fraternity and sorority world where choirs can take over the singing for the congregation. For instance, a chapter’s executive board may act without input from members and subsequently, a culture of member apathy results. National headquarters can also overwhelm the undergraduates with policies that drown out their “singing.”
As I reflected on this analogy however, my mind went first to the set-up of university offices that oversee Greek-letter organizations. I have observed over the years that campuses with a small and efficient fraternity/sorority life staff tend to get more out of their undergraduates than staffs that are bursting with directors, assistants, and grads. In fact, the campus that I found to have the greatest student empowerment only had one full-time professional (at a large state institution). It seems to me that students voluntarily do more and take on more responsibility when they need to – which is the case when staff is stretched thin. Larger staffs can often take work away from the students because there is more capacity to do it, and we inherently believe that professionals can do it better. For example, the students don’t need to care much about Greek Week if it falls under a staff member’s job description. It’s almost become an expectation in our field that a bigger staff is better. Assessments always seem to mark that as an area for improvement. A common refrain at gatherings of fraternity advisors is “if only I had more staff…”
Should we always advocate for more staff? Well, is a bigger choir always a good thing? The music may sound more beautiful, but the congregation walks away feeling empty. It’s enjoyable to listen to music, but it’s much more meaningful to make it ourselves. How else would we ever learn the words? How can we gain kinship with our fellow churchgoers if we don’t all raise our voices? These are questions of engagement versus passivity; efficacy versus dependence; confidence versus fear; and spirit versus desolation.
We work too many hours in fraternity/sorority life. And, because of that, we tend to take on too much. A natural consequence is that we add even more hours to our week. Then, a logical solution emerges: more staff would reduce this overwhelming workload. Perhaps this solution expands the problem – by setting ourselves up to take on even more of the work. I think we need to constantly remind ourselves of what the students are capable of – even if they have failed before. Also – have we utilized our chapter advisors enough? Do we really need to be at every meeting? Can we do more with interns and practicum students? There are better solutions than just adding staff; solutions that can limit the “choir” effect.
I remember many moments in my past work in higher education when I didn’t believe in the students. Almost all of the time, they surprised me. It’s hard to fight against our doubts, and difficult to relinquish control. We can ensure that there will be some singing if we build a big choir. But is the singing as loud as it could be? In our good intentions, are we actually silencing voices? In our efforts to create something that sounds beautiful, are we forgetting the power of the unexpected?
You may not sing very well. But at least I can hear you. I know that I don’t sing very well. But I’m glad you can hear me. If given the choice, I’ll take the congregation over the choir any day.