Interview with Ken Medema

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Interview by Brenda Diehl

[Question 1: How did you find your way from music therapy to performing?] 

“Being a concert pianist was my dream…,” Ken Medema said in a recent interview, “…but you study something so you can get a job.” Therefore, Medema studied music therapy at Michigan State University. He remembers, “My teacher pulled me aside and told me I was, “…good, but not that good. You don’t have the chops to be a concert pianist.” Two years later, he went to get his master’s degree in voice and his dream was to sing. “I wanted to sing tenor so I could sing all of those fabulous arias,” Medema said. The voice teacher said he was, “…good, but not that good; find a teaching position.” At the end of his educational experience he reflected, “So I was a pretty good piano player and a pretty good singer and a pretty good songwriter, so I continued to work [as a music therapist].”  

After landing a job in New Jersey, Medema sang in churches around the state. One day, someone heard about him and he was invited to Texas to a big church meeting. There he met a record company representative, who told him, “You don’t exactly fit in any category…” and the rest is music history. He was able to leave his job and pursue a slightly different dream, but one that had elements of everything he was drawn towards and had studied over the course of his life. 

[Question 2: How did you know you were listening to God when choosing a direction for your life?] 

Medema has found that one’s abilities may not necessarily fit into a certain niche. “Someone’s gift may be sitting with old people holding their hands, or reading to children,” he said. “That’s the secret: find your unique gift.” Medema sees a role for churches to play in helping individuals find their place in service. He notes, “If a church said ‘Let’s help people find their unique gift and built up the church with the gifts that were there,’…things would be better…It might look different…but, we could alter how we do things.” He remembers a time when he was in Hawaii and a pastor there was explaining how difficult it was to conduct worship without someone who could play the piano. Medema recalls the conversation, “I thought for a minute and asked him, ‘Do you have any ukulele players?’ He said ‘Yes, there are several,’ so I suggested he try that. He hadn’t thought about doing that, even though he had several ukulele players in the congregation.” That is just one way to adapt ministry needs to the gifts that are available in the church. This advice resonates with Medema’s experience of being good…but not good enough. God used what he had to offer and has blessed people across the globe with this unique talent. 

“It takes time to find a gift,” Medema admits. “You have to ask yourself, ‘What are my side interests,’” he said. The hardest part is, “You need to recognize the leading of the Lord, Medema asserts. “For me, I knew God was in my life and was the ruler of my life. I had turned my life over to him. I assumed, if I prayed, studied, and thought God loved me, I would find it,” and eventually he did. Medema said he never experienced an audible voice directing him in a specific direction. However, he provided a good measuring stick for knowing if the area of ministry one thinks they are being called into is going to be fruitful. He believes the clue is to be able to recognize when the direction one thinks they have is “self-aggrandizing or self-serving.” These are “red flags” and it is not likely to work out well for the person, nor the people they serve, he warns. It’s important to stop and wait.” Medema added, “I think ministries change. When you’re young you have energy and you’re spreading your wings but when you’re older you move from self-focus to other-focus.  

Another facet to finding the right direction is to find how serving is compatible with one’s makeup. He cites an example: “I was at a big youth evangelistic conference and a leader was trying to tell the young people they must have a quiet time of study in the early morning. Afterward, a high school junior came up to me and said she was trying to do quiet time first thing in the morning but fell asleep. I asked her if she was an extrovert. She said, ‘Yes,’ so I suggested she get church kids together 20 minutes before school for a different kind of quiet time. They could bring their Bibles, read and discuss the meaning. I later got a letter from her saying that they had been studying the Bible every morning together. What works for some does not work as well for others. You have to do what fits your personality and gifts.” The prescribed niche may not fit you,” he observed. Medema shared an old saying, “Do you what you love and praise God.” That is how you find your way in ministry.  

[Question 3: Have you experienced messy moments in your career?] 

Even when you are on the right track with your work, there will be uncomfortable moments. Medema recalled a time when he was totally surprised as he looked at his performance calendar and saw nothing booked for two months. That meant two months without salary. “You know intellectually, but you don’t know emotionally, that God provides,” he said, “then something comes along.” In that season of his career, the ‘something’ that came along was a grant to write some children’s songs and develop a program. It was outside his normal performance focus but he saw it as God’s provision, and enjoyed a slightly different pace and new challenges. Medema has an ally when tough times come, “My manager has an amazing ability to tell me to relax,” he confided. When you relax, “You use your good mind that God gave you to figure out something outside the box.  

[Question 4: How do you get through the dry periods? Do you have a routine that carries you through? 

There are, indeed, many challenges in his career and to remain productive for the long haul, it is important to remember you are human. You have limitations. Medema addresses this reality, “it’s good to get some downtime.” For him, scheduling involves periods of being on the road and periods of home time. These work well for him. When it is time to be at home, Medema says, “I read a good book or go to a coffee shop and sit with my wife drinking coffee or iced tea.” A support system is also part of Medema’s self-care plan, “I have ‘church’ all over the country. When I have a half a day off on the road, I will visit over a long lunch with people I know love me and support my ministry. Those are some of the ways I get down time.” 

It is this idea of resting that led to Interlude, a three-day retreat held on a college campus during the summers. “We lead these retreats to help people learn how to reboot, through resting, reading, and time for thinking, and then we send them home new and refreshed,” he said. These retreats are especially important for introverts, Medema asserts, “They need a lot more quiet time. Extroverts go around town talking to everyone. That works for them.” To deal with the dry times, Medema says, “You have to tune in to what your soul needs right now.” He releases those in various service careers from feeling as if they cannot take time away by helping them see, “When you’re in a ministry there’s always someone who needs you. You can lose yourself. The key is not allowing guilt to paralyze you. You need to be off duty.” For him, Medema said, longevity in his career has taken a lot of support and prayer; those kept me going.” He remembers, “I had people intervene when I was in a bad place.” Christian community can be a powerful influence on servants. Medema illustrates, “My pastor uses the analogy that she is the producer and we are the actors. She helps us learn our part and cheers us on…she reads us the script when we forget our lines…”  

These insights and experiences enable Medema to join with Ted Swartz in asking audiences, “Can We Talk?” Life has uniquely prepared these two to speak frankly about faith, challenges, and moving forward in life. The talk will happen at Bridgewater Church of the Brethren, 420 College View Drive, on Saturday, March 7, at 7p.m. 

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