Gabrielse begins term as third Churchmen director
In its 50-year history, the Singing Churchmen of Oklahoma has had two full-time directors.
The brainchild of Baptist General Convention of Oklahoma Church Music Secretary Gene Bartlett, it is one of the oldest and most successful groups of singing music ministers in the Southern Baptist Convention. Since the Churchmen were formed in 1960, most every state convention has started its own group of singing men, but none has reached the success of the Oklahoma group.
Bartlett started out directing the men, but quickly gave over to James D. Woodward, then minister of music at Tulsa, First, whose musicianship created a unique blend of voices. Woodward, who later moved to Oklahoma Baptist University and eventually became dean of church music there, continued to direct the group until his death in a private plane crash returning from a Singing ChurchWomen concert in Woodward. He was also director of the ChurchWomen.
Also killed in the plane crash was Paul Magar, director of church music for the BGCO. Four months later, when Bill Green was appointed to lead Oklahoma Baptists’ music department, he also became director of the Singing Churchmen and Singing ChurchWomen. He continued in that capacity for 17 years, until he announced his retirement as director following a Churchmen mission trip to Armenia and Israel in April.
After Green’s retirement, the mantle fell on Ken Gabrielse, BGCO music and worship specialist, who came to that post in August 2008.
On Sept. 14, Gabrielse lifted the baton for the first time as the Churchmen gathered at OBU for their annual retreat to learn music for the year.
Gabrielse is no stranger to choral music. He came to the BGCO from New Orleans Seminary, where he was a tenured professor of church music and chairman of the division of church music ministries. He is a member of the American Choral Directors Association, and has served as conductor with the Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra and the New Orleans Civic Symphony.
He is also no stranger to Oklahoma. As a resident of Enid, he grew up going to Falls Creek. A graduate of Enid High School and a member of Enid, Emmanuel, his first job was as interim minister of music at Emmanuel.
Gabrielse said he only knew Woodward from his association with Youth Choir Festivals where Woodward was involved. He met Green when his class at New Orleans Seminary went to Richardson, Texas, First, where Green was minister of music, to observe his ministry.
“Just to think I have a chance to step in and continue that legacy is exciting,” said Gabrielse. “God has prepared me through 31 years of training, but 18 months ago, I had no idea I would be in this position.”
Gabrielse said to even think he can be a part of Oklahoma Baptist music and what has gone on through the years is humbling.
“This state has an incredible heritage,” he said. “It’s not about a particular style of music, but the heritage is in the congregational and choir singing. The heritage is in the activity; it’s who we are, what we’ve done.”
When Woodward was director, only full-time ministers of music could be in the Churchmen. The year before he died, the group had experimented with opening up to part-time and bivocational music ministers. As Green came to the helm, he made it clear membership would be wide open with a shift from ministers of music to ministers who were also musicians.
With a good thing going, Gabrielse said he doesn’t want to make major changes.
“I hope to encourage guys in their own church setting as they work with choirs,” he said. “I want guys to encourage their people to sing better.”
The ministry of music will be successful, Gabrielse said, when all the guys who are leading churches can say their churches sing better and their choirs are better because they are in the Singing Churchmen.
“I’m a local church guy,” he emphasized. “The only reason to do groups like these is to strengthen the local church.”
He said he definitely wants to maintain the encouragement of the brothers, but believes what will draw the men together is passionate singing about the Lord.
“I’m passionate about choral music,” he said, “But only when it is done well. That’s how musicians fellowship together—by sharpening one another.”
Gabrielse said his dad, who died in 2004, did revival meetings with Emmanuel’s pastor, Bobby Sunderland, and also filled in for music ministers and did interims.
“Dad would have loved to be involved with the Churchmen, but at that time, it was open only to full-time music ministers,” Gabrielse said. “It would have helped him help the local church.”
In addition to directing the Singing Churchmen, who had 264 out of 302 members at the retreat, Gabrielse also directs the Singing ChurchWomen, with 442 members, and the Oklahoma Baptist Symphony, with 63 members.