Ending the Student Era
For basically the entire time I have lived in Austria I have been a student – first at the University of Music and Performing Arts and then the last eight years at the University of Vienna. There is a certain irony to this: I still remember walking across campus as an undergrad student, having just turned in my last paper, and feeling as if I were waltzing across a cloud. Such relief! Never again would I have to write a college essay! …A couple years later, however, I somehow ended up at the University of Tennessee, writing several more essays and also playing a lot of nerve-wracking piano performances. Back then, when anyone asked about whether I wanted to go on to do a doctorate in music, the answer was an emphatic no! …Then I ended up in Austria and nearly ten years later, I’ve added a master’s degree in Religionswissenschaft, which included writing one big essay to beat all previous essays. Lately, when anyone asks me about further study, I say that if I start to exhibit symptoms of such aspirations, they should immediately consult a psychiatrist on my behalf.
The last big hurdle of the study program was, of course, writing a thesis. After brainstorming a number of topics, discarding one I thought was quite promising but that didn’t meet my supervisor’s approval, I ended up deciding on a topic relating two major interests: music and church, or more precisely: “The Role of Music in Church Services of the Freikirchen in Österreich, with Special Focus on the Congregations Located in Vienna.”
It’s worth mentioning here that the way church functions in Austria at a denominational or confessional level and in relation to the state is utterly different than in the U.S. To be as concise as I can, for a very, very long time Austria was staunchly Catholic. Although Reformation teaching was very popular in Austria, it was suppressed by the Hapsburg state, with Protestants either emigrating or going underground. Eventually, the Lutheran and Reformed Protestant traditions gained recognized status, but many Freikirchen (“free churches,” with historical and theological ties to the Anabaptist wing of the Reformation), long remained officially unrecognized. …Who cares? Well, one (of many) reason(s) that may surprise American readers especially is that being an officially recognized religion means the right to offer confessional religious education in public schools.
My thesis project focused on a coalition of five denominations that jointly gained official status as a recognized church in 2013. These denominations hold in common foundational theological and ecclesiological convictions, yet vary widely in other respects, such as understanding of the gifts of the Spirit. Partly because the coalition is a relatively new development, which hasn’t yet been thoroughly researched, it is of interest from a religious studies perspective. And because of my background in music, as well as involvement in weekly service planning in my church (not part of the coalition, due to baptismal practice and different church governance structure, even if similar in many other respects from theology and general church culture), I settled on a topic relating to music and the weekly church service. And since that is obviously too big of a topic, I focused in on the perspective of pastoral and musical leadership.
What proved really daunting was trying to do justice to a massive topic in a way a) that would be credible and accessible to the religious studies department at a secular university (albeit a sub-department of the Catholic theology institute), b) that would honor the musical and pastoral leadership and the local congregations of the denominational coalition which was the focus of my research, and c) that would honestly reflect my own observations, conclusions, and also open-ended questions arising out of interviews, questionnaires, church visits, and song repertoire analysis. No doubt precious few readers will want to tackle the whole thesis (totaling about 75,000 words and 180 pages, if you count all the footnotes and bibliography, etc., etc.!), but perhaps of interest to some is the official abstract:
This master’s thesis explores the role of music within broader aesthetic and liturgical practice in church services of congregations of the denominational coalition Freikirchen in Österreich (FKÖ) located in Vienna, Austria. Primary research methods were expert interviews conducted with pastors, questionnaires completed by music leaders, participant observation of church services, and analysis of lists of songs sung in congregations over a three-month time period. An anonymous church member survey was also conducted. The FKÖ was recognized in 2013 as a gesetzlich anerkannte Kirche (“legally recognized church”) but traces its roots back to the Anabaptist movement within Protestant Reformation history. The five member denominations are united around key theological doctrines (Jesus as Lord and Savior, the authority and dependability of the Bible, the universal Church united around the Apostles’ Creed, the mission of the Church) and classic free-church emphases (personal conversion with believer’s baptism, autonomy of the local congregation, separation of church and state). Church services are a central expression of faith and practice and exhibit individual and communal aspects of a multifaceted understanding of Christian worship. Services are generally characterized by an informal atmosphere, falling along a spectrum from “familial” to “trendy.” Service elements, with special emphasis given to the music and sermon, are embedded in flexible liturgical forms. Music in church services draws from numerous sources and is especially influenced by current trends in global Christian music. Songs within this contemporary repertoire draw both on core doctrinal content and on vocabulary of individual experience and lend themselves to flexible instrumentation and to unison singing. Diversity at a denominational and congregational level is showcased in varying degrees of emotional and gestural expressiveness and by a continuum of musical styles ranging between “collective” and “concertlike.” Nevertheless, congregations share extensive crossover of actual musical repertoire and manifest a consistent emphasis on the primacy of authentic worship. The aesthetic and musical elements of church services of Vienna congregations of the FKÖ illustrate historically and theologically rooted characteristics that find resonance in contemporary worship practice of broadly defined free-church Protestantism in German-speaking Europe and beyond.
With the thesis turned in on April 1st (and no April Fool’s Day joke!), I had a few weeks to prep for the Abschlussprüfung, which included a short presentation of my thesis, plus two topics for longer oral examination. This was quite a good experience overall: The two exam topics were 1) millennialism (i.e. End Times as understood by, but not limited to, various Christian traditions) and 2) perspectives on Jesus in Judaism and Islam. The latter question was especially fascinating! Although my thesis was written in English (with tons of German footnotes), the final exam was in German, which felt like a good way to conclude a degree at Universität Wien.
After the exam was over, I sat for a long time in a beautiful garden next to the university — enjoying the warm spring sunshine, talking on the phone with Hannah, having two acquaintances happen to wonder by and getting to chat a bit. In the evening I went out for dinner with a group of friends, and then we enjoyed fancy cocktails in an equally fancy hotel bar. Quite fun! (The photos were unfortunately taken after a few friends had already left.)
While it would have been nice to immediately go on holiday, the weeks since have been pretty intense. I said goodbye to the Ukrainian woman who lived with me for three weeks but decided to return to her home city, wrote two book reviews for my thesis supervisor, and rehearsed for a trio concert that took place this week. I also tied up lots of loose ends for my job at church, which I am leaving at the end of this month. In fact, today was the last morning working side by side with Susanna, the friend who is taking over the job with fresh energy and real expertise.
While the admin assistant position has always been very part-time, it has been the focus of a lot of my thought and energy, and the role has grown and changed a good bit over the last seven and a half years…including everything from posting sermon files to the church website, to keeping up with internal and external correspondence for a growing congregation, to helping prepare portions of weekly service liturgies, to managing the church calendar, to making sure there are enough Cherrios on hand for the nursery, to sending out a bilingual weekly newsletter.
It’s been a real privilege to observe a growing church from the vantage point of a staff member! It’s also become clear I can’t stay on in the same capacity long-term: With my studies completed, I need to find a full-time job that allows me to have a work visa instead of a student visa. Additionally, I’ve increasingly found it difficult to wear the “church member hat” and the “church staff hat,” however compatible they may at first glance appear to be. So I decided at the end of April to take one hat off. Easier said than done!
While the last weeks have been challenging, there have been very good parts. One of these has been working with Susanna, enjoying a series of mornings at the same desk, sharing a delight in detail, and finding humor along the way. There was a very special staff lunch last week with my two pastors and their wives, plus an impromptu visit with the assistant pastor and his wife today, who brought in pastries to share to mark the official handover.
And tomorrow I fly to the U.S. for eight weeks (hurrrrahhhhhhhhhhhh!). In case it’s not obvious, I’m pretty excited…even if also aware I won’t get to see everyone I would like to see, and that the time will probably seem too short with friends and family.
Speaking of family, one highlight of the spring — in the middle of final edits on my thesis — was a visit from my cousin Ben! He lives in New Zealand but had a work conference in Germany. Based on Covid regulations at the time he booked flights, he realized he could escape the hotel quarantine requirement in NZ by delaying his return by a week, thus deciding to spend a week in Vienna!
It was a novel experience doing home office with company at my usual spot at the kitchen table! I worked on church and university tasks, and he worked on computer programming (including work calls that sounded like English but were in parts incomprehensible!). Besides working, we did a lot of walking and whole lot of talking. We also attended a wonderful concert (Bach’s Johannespassion) the evening he arrived, did a lot more eating out than I usually would, and took a day off to go hiking. It was a great time; Franci, thanks for encouraging Ben to make the extended trip…but next time you both have to come!
Speaking of trips, since the alarm is going to ring before 4 a.m. tomorrow morning for a dash to the airport, I’d better sign off here and get a bit of sleep.