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Innovative worship institute kicks off

Photo of Rev. Cynthia Wilson from Discipleship Ministries

The Rev. Cynthia A. Wilson leads a new innovative worship institute which will provide training for musicians and worship leaders in the sacred music of Africana church traditions.

Key points:

    • The Junius B. Dotson Institute for Music and Worship in the Black Church and Beyond is being established to honor the late Rev. Dotson, who was chief executive at Discipleship Ministries.
    • The Rev. Cynthia A. Wilson, who worked closely with Dotson, heads up the new institute. Michigan United Methodist may remember Rev. Wilson co-led worship at the 2021 Michigan Annual Conference.
    • The institute will not be based in one place. Rather, it will be a series of educational opportunities for church worship leaders at various venues.

When the Rev. Cynthia A. Wilson worked with the Rev. Junius Dotson at Discipleship Ministries, he decided to learn to play the piano.

At any time during the day, the piano near her office might ring out.

“It might have been lunchtime,” Wilson remembered. “It might have been 6 o’clock in the evening when some of us were burning the other end of the candle, maybe we would hear the tinkle of the piano.”

It was Dotson, chief executive of Discipleship Ministries, practicing.

“He became a consummate pianist playing blues and jazz and gospel,” Wilson remembered. Although Wilson, an accomplished Gospel music singer and church leader, gave Dotson some pointers, he was largely self-taught, she said.

So it’s appropriate that Wilson is heading up the new Junius B. Dotson Institute for Music and Worship in the Black Church and Beyond, which will provide training for musicians and worship leaders in the sacred music of Africana church traditions. It is being established in partnership with Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary.

The institute, which received $500,000 in initial funding from Discipleship Ministries, had an inaugural event Aug. 18-20 at The American Hotel Atlanta Downtown

United Methodist News posed some questions to Wilson about Dotson, who died of cancer at age 55 in February 2021, and the institute named in his honor. 

The interview has been edited for brevity.

UM News: Can you share your vision for the institute?

Wilson: It is a place to provide training and sharpen the skills of persons who are serving in local churches but have not necessarily had formal training in the areas where they are serving. For instance, many of the choral directors, many of the organists, a lot of the folks who are doing liturgical dance, folks who are serving in sound and lights, these are people who are volunteering but are learning as they go. The institute will be that place where they will hone those skills sitting at the feet of practitioners, those who are still practicing and those who may be retired but are interested in mentoring others. They can not only sharpen their skills, but they can make connections with others who are doing what they’re doing.

Will the institute produce new instructional publications?

We are hoping that the professionals who serve as faculty in the institute will come together and create new resources. This is the 21st-century sound, right? The sound of the millennials and the centennials, the ways in which they’re expressing worship, the ways in which they’re expressing music. … So the institute would be that place (where) music professionals can come and put their heads and their hearts into the creativity together and make it happen in the way of a written resource. We also want to try to archive the legacy, the history. 

Where will the institute be based?

It’s not even a place. It’s an experience. It will move from place to place across this country and beyond. This institute is an experience that seeks to bring together those persons who are doing the work of worship. … I’m really believing God that this institute will become that safe space where generations, where cultures, where geographically those persons who are coming from every walk of life can all sit in one place and experience what we like to call “koinonia,” what we call “Ubuntu”: “I am because you are; you are because I am.” It’s what we refer to lovingly as the “beloved community.” 

The institute experience of the West Coast will probably be very different to the experience on the East Coast. But the important thing is, what is needed in order to revitalize, to restore, to re-energize worship, especially post-COVID? We’ve got this thing now called virtual worship. The institute is going to need to try to make some sense of what it means to create a worship experience virtually, and to remember what it means to be in-person in worship. What’s different now about the face-to-face worship? We’ll be trying to discover what that is in those courses that we offer through the institute.

Are there any courses you’re particularly excited about?

There’s a course that we will offer for pastors and musicians, and they have to take it together. It’s called Better Together. You may not know this and you can’t say that I told you: Pastors and musicians have a hard time working together in some places, where they just really struggle understanding how what they do is really moving toward the same end. What about if they could really get on the same page and really head toward the benediction, which is where worship actually begins? What can help them to really create a relationship that really sweetens the experience of worship?

Anything else you’d like to say about the institute?

Every place that I have ever served … there has been a little morsel of some iteration of this institute that I left behind. So much like the story of “Hansel and Gretel,” where they actually drop these breadcrumbs so that they can find their way back, I feel like I’ve done that.

This idea of people coming together from different walks of life, different generations, making sure that they wouldn’t just serve in the choir, that they didn’t just serve as ushers, that they didn’t just serve as liturgical dancers, but that there was at least one time each year that they came together to experience the teachings that would help them be better equipped biblically and theologically.

~ Patterson is a news reporter for United Methodist News. Tim Tanton and Joey Butler with UM News conducted the interview. To read more from the interview with Rev. Wilson, read this related story

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