Tone-deaf in church

Dog Abby,

We attend a small church in a rural town. One of our parishioners, an influential woman in the town, has her children performing in the praise team. The daughter is a competent pianist and guitar player. The son is a vocalist. The problem is that he’s not a good vocalist. In fact, let me be very clear… he is close to tone deaf. He tries his best, but he’s just not talented in that regard. He is otherwise a bright boy with an amazing future ahead of him. No one in the church wants to hurt him or his mom, but his voice drives away potential members. I have actually heard guests complain and they did not return!

How do we address this?

Conflicted in Connecticut

Dog Abby paw print


Dear Conflicted,

Mom says that church is not American Idol. I remember once Mom was watching that show, and the singer was so bad that I had to leave the room. I would not want to inflict a voice like that on other people, maybe not even God. That being said, I also would not want to be mean to the person. This is a delicate situation.

As a Golden Retriever, I am very good at retrieving things. You throw a ball, no matter how far into a field, the woods, or any body of water, and I will bring it back to you with a smile. I am not, however, any good at catching. I try. I would like to be able to do it. But, like many other Goldens, it is more likely that the treat or toy will bonk me in the head and/or hit the ground before I ever get my mouth around it. I am also not good at jumping. I will never be a Frisbee dog. I am not called a Golden Catcher for a reason. And, you know what? I am OK with that. My gifts lay in fetching and advice, so I focus on those.

Some people may think that the kindest thing to do would be to let this kid continue ruining services, and doing your best not to wince when he sings because telling someone they cannot sing is not kind, so the rest of you must suffer. I say this is the cruelest thing you can do to everyone involved. By allowing this to continue, you are setting him up for a worse fate. What happens when he finds out the truth in a larger, more public arena later? He not only will be more hurt and embarrassed, but he will know that you all lied. He will assume that you were laughing behind his back all this time. That is very unkind.

Since this is for a church, there is a concept called “spiritual gifts” that must be investigated here. This gift is what you want each member of your church to contribute whenever possible. If they are serving in another way and not using their spiritual gift, then they are not serving themselves, the church, or God in the best way. We all have our talents, but not every one of them is a spiritual gift. Mom says that in order for it to be a spiritual gift you must have three things. First, you must actually be good at it. Second, you must be passionate about it. Third, you must be successful at it. One or two out of three does not qualify.

As for your bad singer, there are a couple of steps that you will have to take to fix this in the kindest way. To pull him or his mother aside and simply ask that he stop singing will bring up too many questions and force you to tell them both that he cannot sing. This may destroy your relationship with them and their relationship to the church. For people who cannot hear that they are out of tune, they also cannot hear when others are IN tune. They simply may not know that they are not gifted or what someone with a gift does sound like. This may come as a total surprise to them, so be aware that they may feel ambushed, hurt, and defeated. I recommend instead taking a two-pronged approach.

First, conduct a class or sermon series on spiritual gifts and ensure that he and his mom attend. Part of the program should be a questionnaire that helps them discover what they do best, what they are most successful at, and where their passion truly lies. This will help the boy focus on his other gifts and hopefully find the one that fits all three criteria.

Next, reorganize your music department. If you do not have a music department, this is the perfect time to create one. This gives you what you should have had to begin with: a layer of prevention. Thank everyone involved for filling in until you could make it official, and then install the new team, even if it is only one person for now. Choirs and praise teams, even small ones, should have an audition process. The fact that you need a certain level of talent and an ear for music should be obvious, but to many, it is not. With even just one real musician in place who is trained, passionate, and successful at their gift, you can then offer to audition those who want to participate. You may even find some talent in your parish that you never knew was there! Not everyone will or should make the cut. This is OK. Not everyone can preach, not everyone can cook, and not everyone can catch a Frisbee in their mouth. That is why we have so many areas of service and so many different talents.

After you do those two things, there may still be some unrest, but nothing like the hurt that could have been caused another way. You can then focus on everyone’s spiritual gifts and get them more involved in different areas. If your boy singer persists (or his mom on his behalf) in wanting to perform, have the music director refer him to a vocal coach who can either help him improve or be honest with him if he cannot. This will both help him learn, if he wants to, and be a test for whether it actually is his passion.

Good luck,


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