Interview: Jan Kraybill, New Hymn Society Leader

The annual conference of The Hymn Society in the US and Canada begins today in Waterloo, Ontario. Pray Tell’s Anthony Ruff visited with incoming executive director Jan Kraybill about the work ahead.

You began in May as The Hymn Society’s executive director. How’s it going?

KraybillIt’s both thrilling and terrifying! Thrilling on the days when I can’t believe how fortunate I am that this organization which has meant so much to me for so many years has chosen me. Terrifying when I contemplate the very big shoes I am attempting to fill.

I actually began work on April 1 (perhaps appropriately on April Fools’ Day), a month before Deb Loftis retired as executive director. It was wonderful to have a month of overlap so I could begin to learn the ropes while Deb was still on the job. (And now I’m back to contemplating those terrifyingly big shoes…)

The Hymn Society seems to be in a period of growth and expansion. What are the numbers on membership, capital campaign, upcoming conference registration, and the like? How are the finances?

You’re right – this is a great time in The Hymn Society’s journey! The recently-completed capital campaign was very successful, and the fruits of that effort are enabling many long-held dreams to begin to be realized. One example is the creation of the exciting new Center for Congregational Song, which will be launched this October in Dallas. Registration numbers for our upcoming annual conference in Waterloo have exceeded everyone’s expectations, as have the number and generosity of conference sponsors. Our volunteer leadership, paid staff and consultants, members, and donors are passionately convicted that the mission of THS matters in our world, and our actions show it. We’re prepared to continue the journey. The future is bright!

What are your dreams for THS under your leadership?

You probably noticed the number I ignored in the above question: membership. THS logoEven though The Hymn Society is significant in its members’ lives, it is still a “best-kept secret” in the world in general. As a result, our membership number is too small. I want to change that – not just for the good of THS, but because singing together in community matters, and because our mission is to encourage, promote, and enliven that singing. The work we do is, therefore, essential. When I tell people I meet about THS, the usual answer is, “What’s that?” When I describe the depth and breadth of what we’re about, the usual answer is, “Wow, I had no idea this existed,” and sometimes that’s followed by “How can I get involved?”

I also want to refine THS’s procedures and use of technology to enable our geographically-distributed staff and volunteers to work more efficiently and joyously together. I am the only person in the Independence, Missouri office; our paid staff and contractors are in Dallas, Chicago, and Columbus; our volunteer leadership is distributed across the U.S. and Canada. This is a challenge, of course, but also an opportunity to widen the pool of potential leaders, unrestricted by geographical concerns. I’m excited about the possibilities.

Should THS emphasize practicalities of hymn-singing and music-making, or should it strengthen academic hymnological study more?

I don’t think it has to be an either/or decision. One of the great strengths of The Hymn Society is the diversity of our members’ skills and interests. I can’t imagine why we’d want to emphasize one strength over another – the cross-pollination is what is most exciting!

Why should people join The Hymn Society? What are the gains for members?

How much space do I have? There are so many benefits of membership!

7/12/15 08:07:48 PMI think the greatest asset we have to offer our members is each other. At its core, THS is a supportive network of people who are passionate about congregational song in all of its aspects. No matter where or how you make music in communities of faith, you are welcome here. That’s not to say that each of us doesn’t have stylistic preferences. But, for example, just because organ music is my familiar “native tongue” doesn’t mean that I need to speak only that language. THS mentors and members have taught me the best of other communities’ expressions of faith in song, and I hope that, in exchange, I have contributed to others’ widening musical horizons.

THS’s supportive network is most evident in our annual conferences. I’ve been attending THS conferences since 1999, and nearly every summer I encounter a first-time attendee who comments on the amazing feeling of camaraderie that is evident among us. Many of us have stories to tell about memorable conference conversations with superstars of the hymnic world who, as it turns out, are “just one of us.”

This camaraderie can, and sometimes does, extend beyond our members’ physical presence together. I want to encourage and enhance that, since not all of us are able to make it to THS events. Here’s an example from just a couple of weeks ago: a person who had just discovered us online asked a question about a song she’d learned in church as a child. THS’s network went into action, and within a few hours had found the piece and sent her a scanned copy from an old hymnal (after confirming that it was in the public domain, of course). She was amazed that a group would care enough to help her in this way, and she wanted to know more about us. She’s now become a member.

The new Center for Congregational Song is designed to widen THS’s reach by creating technological meeting places to enable more people to encounter our supportive network. The database at the core of the CCS is being created with that in mind. The CCS will also include community singing, of course. Brian Hehn, our very creative and talented CCS director, has designed an unforgettable launch event which will occur in Dallas this October.

A “launch tour” of local and regional events will follow. Through these and other multi-faceted approaches, THS will be able to touch more lives through the power of singing in community.

Other membership benefits include receiving THS’s highly-respected journal The Hymn, our printed and online newsletters The Stanza and The Verse, and other resources. Members have free access to the Canterbury Dictionary of Hymnology (a few uses of that and you’ve “paid for” your membership dues!). We are part of an organization which has produced and, with partner organizations, contributed to the ongoing development of the amazing online research tool We also produce and/or support the production of new resources that allow the world to sing in response to today’s concerns; a recent example is THS’s on-line collection Singing Welcome: Hymns and Songs of Hospitality to Refugees and Immigrants. This joins other collections in a long tradition of THS’s contributions to community singing that includes and celebrates everyone’s voice.

THS musiciansBottom line, we SING! We celebrate our hymnic heritage and new works which give fresh expression to the peoples’ song. We sing in our congregations, we sing in THS events, and we return recharged to further enliven our local communities’ songs. We sing in praise to the One who gave us voice to sing. We sing to comfort each other in grief. We sing to teach our children important concepts. We sing to inspire each other to be better humans. We sing to strengthen communities of faith. We sing to renew our relationship with God. We sing because we believe we can change the world through our song! Ironically, I’m the one who always has to stop singing halfway through the first hymn of any of our gatherings, simply because I’m blown away by the beauty of the community of enthusiastic voices we create.

Enough? I can go on and on!

Tell us about yourself. How did you get interested in church music?

I was fortunate to be raised in a family who loved music and who very actively contributed to music-making in our church, schools, and community. My home church was Colby Presbyterian Church, a small congregation in a small town in northwest Kansas. My dad, an architect, and my mom, a math teacher, were very active church and community volunteers. I didn’t fully realize until I was an adult how lucky I and my two sisters were to have three music lessons a week each (piano, voice, and a band instrument) and lots of opportunities to make music. My sisters and I are all professional musicians for at least a part of our careers. Playing and singing in church was just a regular part of our family life.

I first noticed, and then fell in love with, the gorgeous poetry we sang in congregational hymns because my mom pointed out certain metaphors to me.

What from your life story especially prepares you for this position?

Oh dear, it’s about me again. I’ll try a shorter answer this time.

BatesonOne of my favorite books is Composing a Life by the anthropologist Mary Catherine Bateson. In it, she interviews five extraordinary women to learn how their various experiences have shaped their contributions to our world. She writes, “Each of us has worked by improvisation, discovering the shape of our creation along the way, rather than pursuing a vision already defined.” Strands woven into the fabric of my life have included degrees and certifications in music education, church music, and performance; contributing to music in a variety of denominations and styles of worship for over forty years; managing a publishing team in a large pharmaceutical company; volunteer leadership in several nonprofit musicians’ organizations, including THS; serving on the steering team which oversaw the creation of the hymnal Community of Christ Sings (published 2013); teaching and performing in diverse communities in many countries; and more. Hmm, not a very short answer after all.

Tell us about Community of Christ’s hymnody traditions. How does it compare to and overlap with mainline Protestant, evangelical, and Catholic traditions?

As you’ve read above, I’m Presbyterian by upbringing, and though I served as a musical leader at Community of Christ’s international headquarters from 1998 until I took on this new role with THS, I’m still Presbyterian by membership. I’m grateful to my Community of Christ colleagues for including me in their faith family and for teaching me about their traditions and practices over the years. When I served on the denomination’s hymnal steering team for over seven years, it was an opportunity to learn even more. Community of Christ Sings represents, as all hymnals do, a snapshot of current beliefs and practices of a people of faith, as well as a look forward toward what the denomination hopes and works for in God’s creation. I have learned that Community of Christ’s faith “umbrella” is wide-ranging, incorporating many of the beliefs and practices, and therefore the hymnody, familiar to me from childhood, as well as new-to-me elements, languages, and musical styles. The core of the church’s message and mission revolves around sharing the peace of Christ and addressing social justice issues. When I have introduced Community of Christ Sings to ecumenical groups, including THS, most of them have expressed surprise over both the number of hymns and songs familiar to many, and they have been intrigued by the number of new hymns and songs that incorporate compelling musical, poetic, and/or theological expressions.

THS organ 1

This is a friendly question from a fellow organist: which is your greater passion, organ or congregational hymnody?

There is no need to choose between the two – it’s an AND, not an OR! As an organist, the privilege of leading a community to sing joyously in harmony is the best feeling I know. The tradition of organ playing and organ building is rooted in enabling and supporting congregations and choirs to sing enthusiastically. Even when I’m performing as a soloist in a concert environment, imagining a community’s song and faith affects how I play, since much organ music was inspired by composers’ intent to contribute to worship in meaningful ways.

But will your new duties deepen your involvement with congregational song?

This is the essence of the gift THS has given me as a member since 1999. I look forward to ever-deepening involvement.

What’s your favorite hymn? Why?

What a difficult question! I don’t have an always-favorite – or more accurately, I have too many favorites to list, and I’m always adding more. How about if I tell you two current lines I treasure from hymn authors, one older, one newer? “… no longer stranger or a guest, but like a child at home.” (from “My Shepherd Will Supply My Need” by Isaac Watts, 1719) and “Your [God’s] voice speaks many languages; just one of them is mine.” (from “Creator of the Intertwined” by Jacque Browning Jones, 2007).

And least favorite?

Blessed AssuranceWhat I’ve usually found is that I’ve gained new appreciation for former least-favorites when I’ve learned the story behind the song, or when I meet someone for whom the hymn means a great deal and he/she shares the reason why. For example, “Blessed Assurance” was not a favorite of mine, strictly because of a musical reason: when sung in community, for me the refrain’s “This is my sto-rrrrrrrrrrrry, this is my song” is as irritating as fingernails on a chalkboard. But when I learned the story of Fanny Crosby and her witness expressed in song, I learned to love this hymn.

Your first Hymn Society conference starts today. Deepest hopes… and fears?

Deepest hope: our singing positively impacts not only those of us in the community we create that week, but also changes lives for the better in the communities in which we sing in Kitchener-Waterloo. Deepest fear: that I’ll make a fool of myself becoming emotional when I hear us sing.

Will you and Brian Hehn be doing any duos on percussion and pipe organ?

We already have, years ago! The upcoming conference and October launch, in addition to ongoing business of THS, have kept us crazy-busy since I was hired. I do hope we can make music together again, in all sorts of unexpected ways, in the future. Perhaps Brian will play the organ and I’ll play the drums!

You once mentioned that playing organ is like riding a Harley. What on earth did you mean?

HarleyDid you know that motorcycle exhaust pipes can be tuned just like organ pipes can? I’ve worked on my bike so that it now has a tone that moves me (yes, pun intended there). Being a biker and being an organist both take a certain amount of physical coordination of all four appendages – two hands, two feet – and a good bit of concentration to do it well. Both involve power and sometimes involve speed, often with a bit of risk and adrenaline thrown in. Both involve fascinating and complex machines. Both make me happy. And I think they’re both very cool.

Thanks, Jan. Have a great convention, and I wish you every blessing in your work with the Hymn Society!


  1. Here at the conference, and had a great chat with Jan at lunch. So glad to see this interview. This is a group like no other I have ever belonged to. Truly ecumenical, and respectful of each other’s traditions, and respectful of each other, whether professional musician, amateur, or simply an enthusiast of hymnody and congregational song. Since I was appointed a Lovelace Scholar in 1990, I have attended 15 out of 27 Annual Conferences, and have had the privilege of being a presenter at 3. As Jan says, this is my tribe. Joe Burgio, Chicago.

  2. Missing my “family reunion” this week, but sending love! Thank you for this interview and yet another affirmation of the quality of THS’s mission, relationships, and promotion of our personal responsibility to be people of hope and harmony in the world.

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