As Pray Tell announced yesterday, Brian Hehn has just been named first director of The Center for Congregational Song of The Hymn Society. Fr. Anthony Ruff sat down to visit with Brian last night.
It’s exciting and humbling. Exciting because I will get to interact with people from every denomination, having conversations with them about how they get people singing and connecting them with new ideas and resources that can help their congregations sing even better. Humbling because I do this work on behalf of a society which is comprised of some of the greatest hymnologists and song-leaders of the 20th and 21st century.
Tell us about yourself. How did you get interested in church hymns?
I grew up in southern Georgia and attended a Presbyterian (USA) church. My congregation had a strong music tradition singing traditional hymns from the 1990 Presbyterian Hymnal, and my family also had a deep love for music-making. Both in church and at home, I was always making music in community. When I left for college, I decided I wanted to be a music educator, so I did a bachelors in music education. During that degree, however, I realized that I was called to teach music specifically in the church. That calling was solidified through a music ministry internship, my first Hymn Society conference at St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minnesota, and my experience volunteering on the island of Iona, Scotland for a summer.
How much has THS set your job description, and how much will you be creating the position for yourself?
The big picture of what I will be doing as the founding director of The Center for Congregational Song is set. The dreams have been dreamed and many new programs have been conceptualized. However, the actual implementation of those programs has not been accomplished, and that is where I come in. So my job description is set, but the realities of rolling out new initiatives will surely result in the need for lots of flexibility from both me and the Executive Committee on exactly what I need to be doing. If a program works well, we’ll want to run with it. If a program doesn’t work out as we planned, we’ll need to be able to step back, re-evaluate, and try again.
We have recorded music on all sides…do people still sing? What will the Center be doing about this?
People definitely still sing! As long as the human voice is a part of our anatomy, people will be singing together. There is something mysterious and transformative about a group of people singing together. That will never change and so I have faith that singing will always have a place in our lives.
Who should come to the Center? Who’s your audience?
When The Center for Congregational Song opens, which will be after the endowment campaign has concluded, it will be the go-to resource for anyone who wants to enliven congregational singing in the United States and Canada. Our audience is anyone who believes that because congregational song transforms and heals.
What will success look like? Where do you hope to be in, say, two years with the Center?
In two years I hope to have the endowment campaign concluded. We are raising $2.2 million and need those funds to be able to fully fund all the initiatives that the Executive Committee has decided to role out. In two years’ time, if we have The Center for Congregational Song fully endowed, I can move forward full-steam ahead by officially launching it and making it an available resource. I also think that success means that The Hymn Society has forged new partnerships and collaborations with other church music organizations like NPM to begin promoting, encouraging, and enlivening congregational song.
People aren’t joiners as much anymore, and church music organizations in particular are struggling with decline. And here THS has a great endowment campaign going and a new Center being funded. How did that happen?? What’s your secret?
THS has some great momentum going, doesn’t it!? I think it’s a combination of things. First, THS has a rich history (founded in 1922) which includes some of the finest hymnologists and song-enliveners of the 20th and 21st century. Second, THS has a great program named after hymnologist Austin Lovelace that brings in around 10 students every year to our annual conference. Each year, these young people have found each other to be trusted friends and colleagues, and so they continue to come back each year to the annual conference to build their relationships with each other and join together in song. Finally, THS has strong leadership that listens to the membership and responds with wisdom, enthusiasm, and creativity. Leaders such as our executive director Deborah Carlton Loftis, past-presidents Mel Bringle, John Thornburg, and John Ambrose, current president Jacque Jones, and president-elect Geoffrey Moore, have been influential in moving us forward into the bold and exciting place that we are now as an organization.
And if the other half of the $2.2 million of the endowment campaign comes in, what plans will be next?
Once we reach our goal of $2.2 million, The Hymn Society’s endowment will be able to fully fund all the programs that were envisioned and planned for over the past few years.
Some Catholics on the more traditional side liturgically would like to see us move away from hymns and songs at Mass and move to proper antiphons. What would you say to them?
I have no place or interest in getting in the middle of an argument such as that! Instead, what I hope The Center for Congregational Song can offer is place where, no matter your tradition or singing style, you can go to get better at leading God’s people in song. So whether you’re singing hymns, praise songs, or antiphons, The Center for Congregational Song is the go-to place to find resources and skill-building opportunities for leading congregational singing. I look forward to when I can announce that The Center has launched and can start offering resources for everyone in the United States and Canada.
We wish you and the Center every blessing, Brian.