It took John Priddy a while to accept the title of “minister.” But somewhere along the way, he said he started to see his work as the music director of First United Methodist Church as the very thing senior pastors had been telling him it was: ministering through music.
Priddy led his final worship service as music minister at First United Methodist Church of Denton on Sunday. After the service, well-wishers, church staffers and congregants gathered to celebrate his 18 years of service in a retirement reception. (Priddy prefers, jokingly, to refer to this transition as a “graduation.”)
“The most satisfying thing was the slow realization over many years that I am a minister,” Priddy said. “I came from the classical world. I worked in Europe. I resisted that title. I was a musician. I don’t know exactly why, but somewhere along the line, with (former senior pastor) Matt Gaston and definitely with (current senior pastor) Don Lee, they always used ‘minister’ as part of my title.”
It was a combination of experiences that led Priddy to see his work as a way to teach and share his Christianity. There was the time, talent and emotions of the volunteers at First United Methodist who found greater depths in their own faith that shone a light on the significance of music direction in a church. And then there was the emotional response to the music he’s provided at the funerals of late church members.
Priddy came to the downtown Denton church in 2001, just months before Sept. 11 would shake the country and Denton. Priddy said he stands on the shoulders of talented directors who built the music program he shepherded: organist and occasional Chancel choir director Dale Peters, former University of North Texas faculty member and seasoned choirmaster Will May. Priddy heaps praise on Denton High School choir director Mark Baker who forged the youth choir — the Credo Choir — into an ensemble that performed on par with the choir at Clare College at Cambridge.
Priddy said he knows there have been more musicians to breathe beauty into Sunday worship at the 140-year-old church than he can call up, and he appreciates the tradition they created. Priddy said he felt he inherited a gift in the program.
His job was to help the church grow through music.
“We created a contemporary service, which consultants told us would be good for young families with children,” Priddy said.
That service became today’s Mosaic worship, which really came into its own when the late J.R. Byrd took over, built a full rhythm section, brass and two singers. Priddy said he was delighted when someone recommended Byrd for the job, because Byrd had played the role of Jesus in Jesus Christ Superstar that Priddy directed for Music Theatre of Denton.
Today, the church has the Chancel Choir, which sings each Sunday in worship, the Credo Choir for youth, the longstanding handbell choir directed by Carol Lynn Mizell, and both a chamber choir and a men’s ensemble. Jonathan Perry started the Open Worship service, a service for seekers of all different identities, and pulled together contemporary worship music for it. For years, the church nurtured Foo McBubba, a big jazz band that even appeared at Denton Arts & Jazz Festival.
He routinely wrote and arranged music for the program, and got to see that music come to life for the congregation and audiences.
Priddy said he and the church tried some music initiatives that never caught on, but those projects were learning experiences, not failures. Students and faculty at the University of North Texas College of Music have been a long-running presence in the church’s program, as guest artists and section leaders in the choir.
For Priddy, who worked as a music director in professional theater in Germany, good worship and good theater overlap. The audience — or the congregation — come together from all different places and experiences.
“It’s an experience that is very disparate at the beginning, and you’re someplace else by the end,” he said. “We’ve been through the ringer together.”
Priddy said the church has given he and his wife, Jean Wilkinson-Priddy, more than he’s given.
“My parents moved here to Lake Forest (a local Good Samaritan Society community), the church was an instant family. Just instant,” he said. “And then when my parents passed away, they were there for us, too.”
Priddy said he and his wife have plans to travel and take biking trips overseas, and he’s already accepted the music director’s position for the upcoming production of Jesus Christ Superstar by Music Theatre of Denton.
“I’m looking through the score and going ‘I don’t remember playing that,’ and seeing how sophisticated it is,” he said. “I’m thrilled to have that on my schedule. I’m tickled to have that immediately on the list.”