How to Respond When Worship Materials are Implicated in Abuse

Developing a new hymnal is a huge undertaking, and it’s been my privilege to have a very small part in the new Mennonite hymnal that’s launching this fall. Mine was a very limited role: serving as one of the writers for the funeral resources, reviewing some of the worship resources written by others, and contributing a prayer about mental health. But being involved in even a small way has meant that I’ve followed the development of Voices Together with interest.

So when I heard of the recent accusations of sexual misconduct against hymn writer and composer David Haas, I wondered how the Mennonite Worship and Song Committee might respond. As their press release makes clear, they take the recent accusations seriously and are taking these actions:

1)  Removing all songs by David Haas from the forthcoming Voices Together worship and song collection. Though prior planning identified seven Haas songs to be in Voices Together, the editorial team, backed by full committee consensus, reversed this decision in order not to amplify his voice and increase the possibility of ongoing harm.

2)  Urging pastors, worship leaders, and song leaders, if choosing to use Haas’s songs in worship, to center the goals of harm reduction and ongoing pastoral care in ways that care for the needs and voices of survivors of trauma.

3)  Developing a resource to support individuals and communities as they navigate these questions.

Since this announcement, the committee has released a list of alternative songs and their resource for individuals and communities listed below.  I’ve also included their initial press release and another article from a congregational perspective. In each case, I’ve included just a brief excerpt and the link for the rest of the article.

Haas Songs Removed from Voices Together Hymnal
Press release from the Mennonite Worship and Song Committee

The Mennonite Worship and Song Committee takes seriously the recent multiple accusations of serial sexual misconduct and spiritual manipulation by composer David Haas. Recently, Into Account and SNAP, two nonprofit organizations that specialize in advocating for survivors of abuse in church contexts, have been processing numerous statements about Haas using his authority and influence over decades to perpetuate abuse.

Replacing the Songs of David Haas
with recommended alternatives by Katie Graber, Sarah Kathleen Johnson, Anneli Loepp Thiessen

Many communities are choosing not to sing these songs to prevent possible harm and to act in solidarity with survivors of abuse who are likely in their midst. Determining whether or how to continue singing these songs requires difficult community conversations with substantial leadership from survivors of abuse. Many communities will be best served by choosing not to sing these songs at this time.

We grieve the loss of these beloved songs, and at the same time we recognize that other songs occupy similar musical, affective, and theological territory. We know there are intangible aspects that cannot truly be replaced, but we offer the following lists to recommend alternatives that cover comparable theological themes in related musical styles.

Show Strength: How to Respond When Worship Materials are Implicated in Abuse
by Hilary Jerome Scarsella, Carolyn Heggen, Katie Graber, Anneli Loepp Thiessen, Sarah Kathleen Johnson, Bradley Kauffman

This resource offers a survivor-centered perspective on how individuals and communities of faith can respond when it is discovered that beloved songs and prayers were written by a person who has perpetrated sexual violence.

Why My Church is Done Singing David Haas’s Songs
Melissa Florer-Bixler

My congregation will not sing the songs of David Haas again. This isn’t because we are vindictive or because we lack grace. Thankfully for me, we don’t expect perfection in our leaders. We have no qualms about the difficult and complicated act of living.

But we do want to assure all those who would follow in the steps of David Haas, Bill Hybels, or John Howard Yoder, those who use their position of authority to take advantage of others, that they are not indispensable. We will mourn their loss for a time, but there are other songs to sing.

I’m sharing this article with those in my congregation responsible for our worship liturgy and music. How do you respond when worship materials are implicated in abuse?
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For more encouragement and resources on doing ministry better:

Author: April Yamasaki

Embracing the writing life in all its delight and challenge: I currently serve as resident author with a liturgical worship community, write online and in print publications, and often speak in churches and other settings. Publications: On the Way with Jesus, Four Gifts, Sacred Pauses, and other books on Christian living. Websites: AprilYamasaki.com and WhenYouWorkfortheChurch.com.

3 thoughts

  1. This is a difficult topic, to be sure. Somewhere along the way, I became acquainted with the idea that a creative work, whether a hymn, a book or a play, not only *can* be separated from its creator, but that separation is unavoidable and inevitable. The work takes on a life of its own, engendering a response that may have little to do with authorial intent. Maybe that’s a theory that simply no longer applies in real life, if it ever did, but it is something I wrestle with. Thanks for bringing this issue to our attention.

    1. Thanks for your comment, Russell. One person commented on Facebook, “if this kind of reverse editing keeps happening, there will be no songs fit to sing,” including the psalms of David in the Bible. Another in real life said to me, “The passing of time might make a difference, like with the psalms of David.” So yes, it’s a difficult issue with much to consider. “Show Strength” which is listed above is a helpful resource for individuals and congregations wrestling with this.

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