National Lutheran News

Luther Seminary indefinitely suspends its sacred music master’s program

Luther Seminary recently announced that it is “putting on hold” its Master of Sacred Music (MSM) program, effective with the 2013-2014 academic year. The program is considered a premier training ground for those seeking rigorous integration of both musical and theological theory.

According to Dr. Paul Westermeyer, who plans to retire as professor of church music and director of the MSM program in June 2013, news of the suspension came as a surprise. Based on an earlier report of the program’s strengths and successes, the seminary’s Educational Leadership Committee recommended that it be continued and a committee be formed to search for Westermeyer’s successor as department chair. But as he prepared to schedule auditions for prospective students, Westermeyer was stunned to learn that both the search and the MSM program had, instead, been indefinitely suspended.

Dr. Paul Westermeyer

“[Graduates of the Master of Sacred Music program] bring a theological depth and rigorous assessment of our worship and all the music we choose. It influences the creation and direction of our entire chorale program. As a pastor, that’s tremendously invaluable to me and a real gift to our congregation.”

With the recent resignation of President Rick Bliese (see “Luther Seminary makes change at the helm,”) and the announcement that Rick Foss, director of contextual learning, will be the interim president, Westermeyer says he’s not sure what the future of the program will be. “Will the previous administration’s decision [to suspend the MSM program] be reversed? Will a new professor of church music be hired? I don’t really know where we’re headed.” He expresses concern that if the seminary waits too long to reinstate the program, it could risk losing students to music programs at other schools.

Westermeyer says he is sympathetic to current financial concerns at the seminary. “Every month we are bleeding, and we must right that ship. But over the long haul, we must also make sure the vision of this institution is what drives our financial circumstances, not the other way around. And, ultimately, the broader community will need to decide what should happen.”

A program with value to the church

The Rev. Marc Ostlie-Olson, a 2007 graduate of Luther Seminary and associate pastor of St. Anthony Park Lutheran Church, St. Paul, is clear about what he thinks should happen. Calling the decision to suspend the MSM program “short-sighted,” he describes two colleagues who hold MSM degrees from Luther: “They bring a theological depth and rigorous assessment of our worship and all the music we choose. It influences the creation and direction of our entire chorale program. As a pastor, that’s tremendously invaluable to me and a real gift to our congregation.”

Further, Ostlie-Olson wonders if the real issue behind the suspension of the MSM program is the so-called worship wars of the past, in which the classical music style was deemed less relevant than other styles of church music. “Luther’s MSM students are aware of a wide variety of church music styles, but they understand the issue is not just the difference between Bach and Mumford and Sons. As practical theologians, they are more interested in substance than style.”

Mary Preus, a church musician who has co-taught with Westermeyer at Luther Seminary, believes that a changing musical landscape requires some new approaches in training church musicians. “I suspect the seminary understands the need for programs that train music leaders to deal with a plethora of musical possibilities, of styles of leading music. It’s such a huge, diverse, and more expanded endeavor than it ever used to be, which is exciting.”

But, along with Ostlie-Olson, Preus laments one possible outcome of the decision to suspend the MSM program: that the well regarded contributions by Paul Westermeyer to the world of church music could be overshadowed. “It would really be the end of an important era. What Paul Westermeyer has created and established at Luther Seminary has been greatly respected, helpful, and challenging for many students. Hopefully the seminary will acknowledge what he has done and put an exclamation on it,” says Preus.

Susan R. Masters is a 2007 Masters of Divinity graduate of Luther Seminary.

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,