Modulating/Adjusting to a New Era: St. Olaf’s Long-Time Conference on Worship, Theology, and the Arts Goes Virtual

This post was written by St. Olaf alum and church musician Austen Wilson ’03, and originally published on ChoralNet, a blog operated by the American Choral Directors Association (ACDA) and used with permission by the author.
St. Olaf worship moment from CWTA 2021

In even-numbered years, St. Olaf College hosts the Conference on Worship, Theology, and the Arts (further called CWTA in this post). It is a profoundly moving week-long conference attended by both church musicians and clergy from a variety of denominations. Nationally-renowned faculty from the college and around the nation provide a rich environment for learning and worship. One of these conferences would have happened during the summer of 2020. Unfortunately, due to the pandemic, it was cancelled. Thankfully, a few of the organizers held a half-day online conference on July 20, 2021. Based on the original theme of the 2020 conference, “Scatter the Imagination of our Hearts,” it was an inspiring and thought-provoking conference, despite it being held through Zoom.

The conference started at 4:30 pm EST with an address by Dr. Anton Armstrong, conductor of the St. Olaf Choir. In the message, he spoke on the power of music to help worship leaders and faith communities grapple with issues of equity and inclusion. In the address during CWTA, Dr. Armstrong posed a number of thought-provoking questions. How have we been scattered in body, mind, spirit, voice with twin pandemics of COVID and systemic racism? How might we be brought back together? How might church musicians be pastoral servant leaders and both priest and prophet? How do we transform ourselves to do the work of diversity and inclusion? We have the charge to lift every voice, not just a few or a handful of voices.

How do we transform ourselves to do the work of diversity and inclusion? We have the charge to lift every voice, not just a few or a handful of voices.

After the address, we had the opportunity to enter into breakout rooms for 15 minutes to discuss the talk and then ask Dr. Armstrong questions, some of which dealt with resources we might use in expanding repertoire. These included Choristers Guild, GIA, pieces by Rollo Dilworth, and the Justice Choir Songbook. He also discussed how in the past year, the St. Olaf Choir had discussions about inclusion and all signed on to a social contract. 

Following the discussion was a worship moment, which was recorded ahead of time and lasted about 10 – 15 minutes. The sole leaders were an organist, eight singers, and two pastors. It included prayers, readings, and a few sung components where participants were encouraged to sing while their Zoom screen was muted.

After a short break, we watched a presentation by a number of creatives behind A Sanctified Art, which is an organization that creates artistic and multi-media resources for the church. Thankfully, their work was represented at the Montreat conference this year and I can attest to the profound nature of their work.

For more information, find them at the following website:

https://sanctifiedart.org/

They led us through two different exercises. One was a guided meditation of a large image of the biblical account of Jesus scattering the money changers in the temple. Another was a series entitled “I’ve Been Meaning to Ask….” We saw a few video vignettes based around the questions “Where are you from?… Where does it hurt?… What do you need?… Where do we go from here?” These vignettes were followed by introspective questions. I could easily see this series used as a part of a reflection on worship, for a small group, or to build community. 

Following the presentation, there was a dinner break where participants could log off or keep engaged by watching the St. Olaf Choral Spring Showcase.

After the dinner break, Joe Davis gave a presentation entitled, “Radical Joy! Finding Your Freedom Practice and Deepening Healing.” Mr. Davis is a nationally-touring artist, educator, and speaker based in Minneapolis, MN. He encouraged us to find a practice first thing in the morning where we could stay grounded. Even before we look at our phones in the morning, we might consider finding a time of pause and stillness, writing and processing, and thinking of something compassionate to tell ourselves.

At the end of his presentation, we watched a very moving video he produced, entitled To My Beloved Children. 

Learn more about Joe Davis here.

Finally, we learned about a project created by Tesfa Wondemagegnehu, entitled “To Repair,” which involves collecting narratives from activists and community leaders about repairing and reparations. He led this session live from Tulsa, Oklahoma, along with Antron McKay-West, an entrepreneur who helps his community in Jackson, Mississippi. Among the many insights in this session was that in the Bible, God didn’t always choose the most polished people to serve. In addition, we were encouraged to think how the church relates to the day-to-day suffering of communities in our context.

Who is our neighbor? How might I embody the role of priest and prophet in my context? Finally, what do I need to change in the music ministry in my context with regards to diversity, equity, and inclusion?

Although the conference only lasted for a few hours, there are a few lessons or questions I will be thinking about. Who is our neighbor? How might I embody the role of priest and prophet in my context? Finally, what do I need to change in the music ministry in my context with regards to diversity, equity, and inclusion?

Watch the full recording of CWTA 2021: