For a long time, I've wanted to write something about what it means to be a creative whose work is geared toward the church. I love watching so many young people taking up the mantle of offering really beautiful, creative works in the faith arts. When I started my own journey, it was difficult to find anyone to really mentor me through. So I wanted to write this, in hopes that those who are beginning the journey might find something to lean into.
It's not about you. REALLY.
Instagram. Facebook. Twitter. How many followers do you have? How many people liked your video? How many people replied to that photo of you singing over the Thames River from the London Eye? In this age of discovery, especially for musicians and new music, having social presence is important, don’t get me wrong. But literally everything about the way that we live our lives so publicly now seemingly would say that it is, indeed, about us. But, to quote Jesus, “it can not be that way with you”. You've chosen a life of making art for the church? Excellent. And you’ve been given some pretty amazing gifts and talents? Lovely. But now come the questions: why are you doing it, and who are you doing it for? The ego is a very large thing indeed. Part of being a creative means that we struggle with the ego constantly. It is a battle ongoing within our very human heart…to be noticed, to be seen, to feel loved. But all of these things will stand in the way of your relationship with God, which has to be the base and foundation of everything you do. If you are so hyper-focused on your own image, instead of the image of God, it's going to be very difficult for God to work in your life the way he actually wants to. You will stand in the way of your own good work.
I struggle with ego so much, and have all of my life. Truly, I get it. A very loving friend of mine, who saw my struggle, gave me this prayer many years ago to pray before each event: "God keep me humble, and move me out of the way". I pray it every single event, to this day. It helps.
If we are to be meaningful creators for the Creator, then loving the Creator must be first and foremost. And reminding ourselves constantly of who we are doing this for is crucial.
Success looks different in God's economy.
I was just having this conversation a few days ago with two of my dear friends. We were marveling at the thought of ourselves when we were younger, and what we used to think success would be. When you are young, and just starting out as an artist, success looks like being able to afford rent and food for the month. As you grow, you get a little hungrier, want a little more. Maybe a tour. Maybe some radio play. You might get that. Then maybe that next big event, and when you get that, then you want the next bigger one. Fulfillment has a funny way of leading to more want. And the world tells you that if you haven't achieved certain things by a certain age, you'll never be considered a "success".
In the economy of God, nothing could be further from the truth. These two friends have both had what I consider real measures of “worldly success”. Yet our conversation was about e-mails that they have received from people who were healed or helped somehow by a song they wrote. Success as an artist/writer for the church is not money or notoriety, being invited to that big conference, or having twenty thousand “followers”. Success, I submit, means that what you are speaking or creating helps to move a human heart closer to the Lord. God’s economy.
My husband used to work for a Christian music company in Nashville. It was an exhausting job, and I remember at the end of one day he came home particularly down. He was a recording engineer at that time, and he said that he wondered how pressing buttons and recording songs was serving anyone. He hadn’t had a raise in two years. He had been overworked and overlooked often, and a “thank you for your good work” was not very often on the lips of those around him. It could be a defeating job. I often told him “honey, remember, because of what you do there’s some little girl sitting in her room in Kansas, listening to the music, and offering her heart and her hurt to God.” I knew that, because I was that girl…music is how I personally came back to God many years ago. Our work is beyond us.
Your job is to create “something beautiful for God” (as Mother Theresa says), to leave your fingerprints, and trust that your offerings will be used however they are most needed. The fruits of our labors we may never hear, or see, while we walk the earth. But that has to be ok, because this is not why we do what we do.
People can see through inauthenticity.
I was asked to give a chastity talk once. So I gave a chastity talk.
It was an absolute disaster.
All I can remember about it is that the entire time I spoke about all of the reasons why you shouldn’t have sex before marriage, and what the church says about sex before marriage, is that there was one young lady in a crowd of about 300 girls who sat with tears streaming down her face. I could not stop looking at her. I ran straight to her afterwards to give her a hug, and just let her cry on my shoulder for 10 minutes. I swore I would never give another chastity talk again.
But there was a bigger reason it was a disaster…because it was not what I AUTHENTICALLY wanted to talk about. Being good at “the chastity talk” was not who I was, or will ever be. There are those who do it incredibly well; I am not one of them. Because who I was, my history, was as an extremely scared, messed up, confused girl who grew up without a father and wrestled with self-love. Who I am now is the woman who figured out how to love myself, believe in my worth, and let God love me, too. So WHY would I talk about something that is not authentically me? Now, what I talk about with young women is self esteem, and self love, and worth in God. I talk about how all the life choices a young woman will make stem from her belief in herself, and her belief that she is loved and of endless value to a loving God. That is MY truth, the one I have been given to speak. And now, I know it. So I speak it.
The same goes for our music. If we are just trying to parrot the most recent big worship movement with our songwriting, or copy that style of singing that everyone seems to love right now, or put the instrument of the hour into every single track on our recording (banjo, hello?), it may sound fine. But will it sound like US? God gives each of us a very particular style, something authentic to say, profess, sing. Tapping into it takes time, prayer, and work. You won’t sound like everyone else….AND YOU DO NOT NEED TO. As my kids would say, “you do you”. This is the way to serve the Lord, authentically. Just as you are.
To add...be cautious of what you “put out there” from the start. Make sure your work represents you, as best as you can, early on. Things have a way of sticking.
Jealousy and comparison will never serve you well.
There’s so much I could say about this…SO MUCH. But I just am going to leave it here: if you are modeling yourself after another artist or writer thinking "I'm just as good as they are and I should be doing what they do!" then friends, you need to know...there is only one of them. Thank God for them, and their beautiful ministry! But all y’all, everybody…quit trying to be someone else. To reiterate: God needs you to be YOU, not someone else. If you keep comparing, letting the green-eyed monster enter into your being, then all of your honesty and authenticity goes out the window. YOUR heart is what the church needs, not your heart trying to be a facsimile of someone else’s.
Don't focus on numbers. Focus on hearts.
In October of 2013, I had a week I won’t ever forget. It started with a beautiful, incredibly fun event at Six Flags in California, playing for about 3000 teens in the Oakland diocese. From there, I flew straight to Rome, where I had the weird and huge honor of playing for Pope Francis and crowd of 150,000 people at St. Peter’s Square. It was overwhelming. I flew back to Nashville, was home for a day, then flew to Indiana, where I played a concert in a tiny little church in the middle of nowhere for about 40 people. If you were to ask me which event was my favorite that week, I would tell you that it was - hands down - that little church in Indiana, filled with the most loving, grateful, sincere midwestern folks I’ve ever had the pleasure to know.
All artists are different. For me, I prefer a church event, a parish mission, a small women’s conference; a crowd less than 500 people is always my ideal. When I first began as an artist, I hoped for crowds and numbers and sales. I really - sadly - believed that sales dictated whether or not I was doing a good job. Over the years, I have experienced a huge shift in my heart. Now, I simply want to see faces, shake hands, offer a shoulder, give hugs. My focus is hearts, not numbers, anymore.
But in order to get there, to gain maturity in your approach, you will have to...
Learn to love people.
Which can be exhausting.
Aside from giving your all to love your family, your friends, your co-workers, all the people in your life you are in relationship with, you have to learn how to love total strangers.
I’m speaking primarily now to those who travel itinerantly. From the time you arrive at an event to the time you leave, how you love others will be what is remembered about you. Not just how you played or sang, not just what you said, but how you treated them, served them.
I’m going to be bluntly honest here...churches talk. I can’t tell you the number of times I have been at an event where I made small talk about other concerts or events they have given in the past, and heard “oh yes, we had them last year, but they just played and didn’t stay to meet anyone afterwards/were rude to the sound people/kept complaining about XYZ, so we will never have them back.” What a shame, for both the church and the artist.
Of course, we are all human, and we all have our bad days. But do everything in your power - from the time you step off the bus until you get back on it - to love. Those folks have gone to a lot of trouble to get you there. Love them, and everyone who comes to see you, to the best of your ability. God will always give you the strength to do it, if you ask. Even on a bad day.
Hone your danged craft.
There’s a joke that runs around in music circles…someone approaches an established songwriter with a song and says “God gave me this song”…to which the songwriter replies, “that’s probably because He didn’t want it”. Hahaha…and OUCH.
There’s some truth in that statement. Songwriting, creating, speaking…none of these are things one is automatically good at, at least not most. Even the people who are the most naturally gifted have to work at honing their craft.
Recently I wrote with a friend of mine who is an incredibly gifted writer, but also one who has worked incredibly hard. She began telling me about a session she had just had the day before, where the co-writer had been unprepared, disinterested, and not present, leaving her to write the majority of the song herself. She said “you know, I really, REALLY resent people who don’t do the work. Read the danged dictionary! Get a thesaurus! Read some stinking poetry, for crying out loud!” It was funny, but I also could relate.
Too many people want to be good at what they are trying to do, but do not want the work involved. If you want to be a gift to the church, spend time and get good at what you do. Hone the basic gifts you have been given. DO THE WORK. There’s holiness in it.
What does that mean, “do the work”? It means take a poetry class. Go to some songwriter nights. Get your head and your heart in the scriptures. Find some speakers you admire, listen to their talks, study their approach. Read more. Write more. Practice your instrument. Whatever your creative endeavor, just care.
If you do not value your gifts and talents, no one else will either.
Early on in my journey to now (very early on, ahem), I was making zero money on the road. I went on a couple of early tours, where my record company actually had to pay for me to be on tour, a common practice. I would end each three weeks exhausted, smelly, emotionally spent, with no clean laundry and with no money in my pocket. Soon after that, I decided touring was not for me if that was how it was going to be. So I began doing more individual events, “one-offs”. People were offering to pay me $100 or $200, which, when you are a young starving artist, seems like a lot. But quickly, I realized there was no way I could make ends meet.
When I spoke to a friend about this, she said something very powerful that has stayed with me always. She said "Sarah, how do you value what God has given you?” I did not even know how to answer. She then said to me “if you don’t value your gifts, no one else will either". I thought and prayed about that ad nauseam. Because I wasn’t sure if I was “good enough”, or had anything to say, or write, or sing. But I spent the next year working on it. Hard. And then, I raised my rate, enough that I could actually pay the rent, buy gas and groceries, and quit my job as a hostess. I also learned how to say “no” (LEARN THIS). At the end of the day, I was the one who had to value what God had given to me, work on getting better, and figure out how to offer it to others. It’s not just valuing ourselves, but valuing what God has given us to work with.
When I am in concert, I always talk about how the Catholic Church was once one of the greatest commissioners of the arts. We live in a different time now, where the church commissioning the arts is not as commonplace as it once was. So I always tell the crowd “thank you for being here, and for supporting the faith arts. It is meaningful and not unnoticed.” Make sure that as you work toward valuing yourself, you value those around you as well. You show that you value those taking the time to come and sit and partake in your craft by valuing your gifts, and offering them to the best of your ability.
Life on the road is hard.
As I write, I am in an airplane. On the first of a three leg journey. It was a fantastic weekend...but man, am I drained. And then when I get home, I need to muster all the strength I can to be truly present for my family. It's beautiful, but exhausting. And, since I gave up caffeine 8 months ago, it’s especially exhausting!
When I first began traveling, it was so much fun. I loved the freedom of movement, seeing new places. Then I got married. It became harder. Then I had a family....and it became, at times, unbearable. Aside from the logistical things - suitcases, layovers, cancelled flights, rental cars, trying to stuff a guitar into an overhead compartment or go to the bathroom at 30,000 feet, hotel rooms that are less than desirable, lack of healthy food choices, etc. etc. etc. - there is a psychological toll. And though people are kind, event hosts genuinely loving and so helpful, and your work meaningful and fulfilling, the road can still be an extremely lonely place.
I remember talking on the phone to my husband late at night once, he at home and me in Iowa . We were having your typical "how was your day?" conversation. Very much in passing, he mentioned to me "oh yeah, Evie (my youngest) lost her first tooth". I immediately sat on the floor of that hotel room and sobbed. And sobbed, and sobbed. I recall sitting on the floor of an airport bookstore in Minneapolis, MN, openly weeping, not long after my grandfather passed away (the bookstore attendant came over and, not knowing me from Adam, put his arm around me…learn to love people!) There are moments you will miss, things you can not get back. Learning to live with this and accept it somehow is one of those road-life realities no one talks much about.
Which is why the next topic is so important.
You desperately need a support system.
People are so genuinely wonderful out there. They are happy to see you, they want to spend time with you, shake your hand, give you a hug. They are supportive. They may even cheer you on in your work. But this is not - and should not be - the support system you will need.
People often kindly tell me "I will be praying for you!", and I always respond" could you please pray for my family?" The people in your life whom you love the most and hold the dearest will be the most important ministry partners you will ever have. My husband and children have sacrificed so much - so much - for me to do the work that I am doing. Often, I don't even understand how difficult those sacrifices are for them. But what I do know is that their love keeps me afloat. There is absolutely no way I would do this work if they were not in it with me, praying for me and I for them, with each other in heart and spirit at all times. If my husband said tomorrow "honey, you have to quit....we can't do this", I would. I lean on their love and it informs every word I say, every song I sing or write, every event I say “yes” or “no” to, every decision on this path. I do nothing without them.
I also have an incredibly strong handful of friends who I lean on, no end! I thank God for them and do not take them for granted. These people are a must, in any life. Many of them are not involved in music or in any creative job at all. They just love me, give me advice, and call me out on my crap when I need it. Who is that person/are those people you can ugly cry to? Who you can call to blow off steam and you know they will understand? Who you can text when you're having a really lousy road experience or you feel like you just failed? Cherish those folks. And be the same for them.
There will be days you need help. Physical help, mental help, spiritual help, financial help. Let people help you. Remember that Jesus had his mom, Mary Magdalene, and a network of 12 dudes to rely on. Even if you pride yourself on self-sufficiency, the Lord knows you can't - and none of us can - do life alone.
You are loved...not for what you can do, but for who you are.
This is perhaps the well you will need to draw from the most.
All of our lives, artists are told things like"you're so talented! You're so amazing! You have so many gifts!" All of this may be true. But somewhere down the line, many of us end up equating love with performance. Which in turn sometimes leads us to extreme extroversion or exploded ego, and the grossly desperate need for approval. For many artists, approval-seeking has sadly led to even worse. I have fought this all of my life, too, so I get it. It's very difficult for the artist, writer, or musician to separate themselves from their craft. Creatives are woven with their creativity.
But above anything you create, beyond anything at which you set to work, at the beginning and end of each and every day, you are simply a son or daughter of God. You are loved because that’s who God is: love. You are not a dancing elephant or a monkey with an accordion. You are beloved, precious, your life is important, far beyond your accomplishments or endeavors. And you don’t serve your craft; you serve God (and thereby others) with your craft, the same God who entrusted with your gifts, because he loves you.
In all you do, may you remember that above all else. You have nothing to prove. You have so much to offer. More than just your art. You are loved, just as you are.