Seminary Director of Music Ministries Michael Krentz: Inheriting a rich seminary legacy
Dr. Michael Krentz, who has served as director of music ministries and cantor at LTSP since 2009, is doing exactly what he had a life vision for back when he was earning three degrees at Northwestern University. He earned Bachelor’s, Master’s, and DMus degrees from the Evanston, Illinois school.
“I tell people interested in a church music career that one challenge the church is facing is that it is really difficult to make a living as a church musician,” he said. “You need to be ready to do something else AND serve as a church musician.”
At The Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia (LTSP) and elsewhere, Krentz has managed to cobble together a lively career he thoroughly enjoys. At the age of 60, he said “I am having a ball. The students keep all of us older professor-types young. They are wonderful and reflect an idealism that truly makes the seminary an invigorating place to be for someone like me. Here God has given me another blessing.”
In addition to directing the seminary choir and playing a pivotal role in leading campus worship — a teaching ministry in itself — Krentz teaches classes related to the liturgy and music concentration in LTSP’s Master of Arts in Religion program. One such class is Introduction to Church Music. Another deals with the history and practice of congregational song. Students who take the concentration also meet with him for a 45-minute lesson each week on how to lead a music program in church making use of voice, piano, and conducting techniques. He’s “team-taught” two classes — one on life passages, baptism, confirmation, funerals etc., with the Rev. Dr. Karyn Wiseman of the faculty. Working with retired Prof. Timothy Wengert, he taught a class on Lutheran hymnody. At the seminary he has two other roles. Krentz directs the TEEM initiative (Theological Education for Emerging Ministries), an alternative path to ordination which considers accumulated life experience as part of the requirements for ordination and missional work in the church in some settings. This year he began serving as LTSP’s chaplain. He is also the organist at Christ Lutheran Church in Allentown, near his Lower Saucon, Pennsylvania, home. His wife, Linda Lowe-Krentz, is a professor of Biochemistry at nearby Lehigh University in Bethlehem.
“The texts found in our hymns and choir books are really a key part of faith formation in our congregations,” Krentz said. “They really teach us about our faith and theology. For that reason I think it is wise for the music professional with the most training in a congregation to work with the church’s youth.” He always trained youth choirs during 20 years at Lutheran Church of the Holy Spirit in Emmaus, Pennsylvania, a congregation with five choirs and three worship services. “I’ve seen first-hand how those texts have impacted the lives of young people. I was blessed there to have a great job with benefits, something increasingly rare for church musicians today.” But when LTSP came calling, he decided the challenges at the seminary were perfect for his career.
Krentz considers himself a “cradle to grave” Lutheran. He was raised in St. Louis with five siblings. His father was a professor at Concordia Seminary there. His kindergarten teacher once sent home a note that read, “Michael really likes to sing hymns.” He attended parochial school, and in the eighth grade became a part-time organist for chapel services at his home congregation when the regular organist departed. “I decided I needed lessons to play an instrument like that with so much power.” He claims that if that fill-in opportunity had not arisen “I might not be sitting here at LTSP today. I didn’t take the detour route away from the church that many young people do. If you love to sing and play the organ, you are going to be going to church to do that. So that is what I did.”
He learned a lot about depth of faith from his father, who in the 1970s was one of many seminary professors accused by the Lutheran Church — Missouri Synod of teaching heresy at Concordia. His father and the other dismissed teachers formed a new seminary led by then-President John Tietjen, Christ Seminary — Seminex (seminary in exile). “It was remarkable to see the commitment my father had in going through all of that. Three of us were going to college at the time. He was really serious about his faith.” Krentz explained he has taken opportunities when available to continue his studies of faith, through adult forums and various institutes.
When he graduated from Northwestern, he thought he might teach in a college music program. “But the 1980s were a time when colleges were cutting back on their music programs,” he explained. So when his wife secured a teaching post at Lehigh, they moved to the Lehigh Valley.
In thinking about the challenges facing the church, Krentz indicated, “What I am doing with music these days goes way beyond what I was taught about in colleges and universities when I was trained. At a service today we did a liturgy out of a Hispanic language tradition. I work with gospel music. Our churches today are often becoming more diverse, and they want to be that way. I love to learn new music. What professional musician doesn’t want to do that?” He acknowledges that one challenge is to prepare people with different levels of experience to work with today’s worship and music challenges.
“But I think we are in a healthier place today with church music than we were in 20 years ago,” Krentz speculated. “The worship wars that used to prevail are dying down. I think the attitude is that we are all in this together to serve the folks we relate to in congregations. We need to work together to figure out how to make and do worship and music so that we do what we need to do for people in our churches.” Regarding the future, Krentz said he believes it is a great time to be involved in church music. “The worship resource Evangelical Lutheran Worship (ELW) alone is filled with rich resources you can explore for a long time. But one of the challenges is that in many congregations the average age of choir participants is not young. A question is where will our choirs be in another 10 years?”
But Krentz said a look at music history in the church gives him hope. “Choir music in our churches is only about 100 years old,” he noted. “When Muhlenberg came to North America churches did not know anything about having a choir.” Krentz said the emergence of college choirs was a factor leading to choirs and choral groups in churches. And he believes music in churches will continue to flourish. “In some places the approach may be new. In others it may be the same as before, but I don’t believe the hymn Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silent will ever disappear. It is just too wonderful.”
Krentz readily acknowledges the seminary’s worship and liturgy legacy. He references professors Gordon Lathrop, Luther Reed, Ted Tappert, and Robert Bornemann from the last century, and his predecessor, Seminary Musician Mark Mummert, who is a friend. “Their tradition goes beyond the campus to the church world wide,” he noted. “Mark Mummert wrote music for the first setting in the ELW, and Gordon Lathrop contributed language for the liturgy in that resource.”
Krentz credits Bornemann, who was a professor of Old Testament, for developing the seminary choir, for the tradition of Advent Vespers, and helping with choir arrangements to began to make use of the talents of women when they joined the student body in the period around the 1970s.
“I’m really proud to be a part of a legacy like that,” he said.
Krentz and his spouse have two adult children, Sara, 31, a Business Systems Analyst in the Office of Sponsored Research at Northwestern University, and Timothy, 25, who is pursuing a PhD in Materials Science and Engineering at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Troy, NY.