LIMA — Until recently, Jill Coston played music in three different churches each weekend. Coston, who only took formal lessons for a few years and mostly learned through experience, started accompanying the choir at Lima Baptist Temple when she was very young.
“We were in between worship leaders,” she explained. “I was in seventh or eighth grade and my sister-in-law suggested to the new worship leader that I play for the choir. I didn’t think anything about it. I just sat down and started to sight read the music.”
While Coston has played at her own church for years, it was not until she was going through a difficult time in her own life that she considered playing for other churches who needed a musician.
“I was going through a difficult time in my own life after the loss of my father,” said Coston. “I was feeling sorry for myself, and God just really spoke to me and told me to do something for someone else.”
Shortly after that, Coston saw the advertisement in the paper looking for a church pianist at Liberty Chapel United Methodist Church.
The Rev. John Maynard, pastor at Liberty Chapel United Methodist Church for the past seven years, said that they were very thankful that Coston answered the advertisement.
“We had a pianist for years,” he said, “but she was in her 90s and went to live in a nursing home. For one year, we didn’t have anyone. After much praying, we decided to put an ad in the paper.”
Maynard said three people responded to the advertisement, but Coston was the only one that showed up. Coston said when she showed up, the church did not expect her to play, but she did anyway.
“They told me I could just observe,” said Coston. “I couldn’t take it though, so I asked if I could play. I looked out and saw people crying. I was so blessed when I left.”
Coston heard about the open music position at New Creation Evangelical Lutheran Church from a fellow member of the Lima Symphony Orchestra where she also plays. She hesitated because she was already playing at two places, but the service there was at 4:30 p.m. on Saturday, so she decided to give it a try.
“I went to see what it was about,” said Coston, “and the next thing I knew I was the worship leader.”
This fall, Coston took a job at Lima Senior High school as their choir supervisor and accompanist, so she had to let one of her weekend music positions go.
“I work at Lima Senior from 7 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday, and I have music activities most evenings until 9 or 10 at night,” said Coston. “Because of this schedule, I only play at New Creation on Saturday and Lima Baptist Temple on Sunday. Something had to go.”
Fortunately for Liberty Chapel United Methodist Church, Coston had enlisted several different musicians to substitute for her when she could not play. One of those substitutes, Kaye Heath, took over playing for the small church.
“The transition went really well,” said Maynard. “Kaye had sat in for Jill before when Jill couldn’t be there, so the people were used to Kaye playing for them.”
Because Heath plays from 9 to 10 a.m. at Liberty Chapel United Methodist Church, she can still attend Lima Baptist Temple where she is a member which doesn’t start until 10 a.m.
Although Maynard said his congregation continued to sing during the time they did not have an accompanist, it was difficult. “We just sang a cappella, and it was nice,” he said, “but when you put the music behind it, it’s just better. It lifts people up and people sing louder. People are more willing to sing songs they haven’t tried before.”
Maynard said the problem of finding a musician is not unique to his church. It is a growing problem for small and medium sized churches around the country. Not only is there a general decline in church attendance, but there is also a shortage of experienced church musicians that can accompany people which is a different skill than simply being able to play the piano.
“The thing is most churches keep the pianist until they die or go to a nursing home,” said Maynard. “Every small and medium church has this problem. There’s no one waiting in the wings and we are left to scramble around to find a replacement. Jill was a real answer to prayer.”
He added that getting Heath without having to wait, was also an answer to prayer. “The only thing we can do is praise God,” he said. “He was watching over us and sent us Jill who knew all these other pianists. She sent someone to us without us missing a week.”