By Rev. Dr. Daniel Paavola

Jenny hadn’t belonged to St. Paul’s Lutheran Church long. She hadn’t grown up there, as most had, but we could count on seeing Jenny, her husband Charlie, and their three boys every Sunday.

One day, after church, Jenny asked me the question that had no good answer. “Why don’t we have a handbell choir?” Well, there are so many reasons. One: no one in that small northwoods Wisconsin town had likely ever played or even touched a handbell. Two: we had never had a handbell choir and no one was asking for one, until now. Three: (if you need more reasons): there wasn’t a handbell choir within 80 miles of our town, so who could lead one here?

But Jenny persisted. She had grown up playing handbells in a Methodist church near Green Bay. She could direct the choir. She was sure we could get people to play. As for the $3000 cost of the first two octave set, Jenny was sure it could be raised. So, the church council agreed to put forward $500 and to ask members for the rest. One couple that loved music gave $500 right away. The rest came from an elderly man who hoped that his daughter would play the bells since she also loved music. Suddenly there was the money and, a few weeks later, there were the bells, cases, and stands waiting to be used.

What a joy! Jenny did it all. She recruited a wonderful choir, including the daughter of the man who gave the $2000. No one had ever touched a handbell before. No one from the truck driver to the school teacher knew how they should sound. But Jenny taught them and in no time, they were in harmony with each other. St. Paul’s loved hearing them. They played up front so we could see them in action. They were so successful, Jenny had parents asking if their children could play the bells. So she started a youth choir. Soon, we were the only Lutheran church in the northwoods with two bell choirs.

It all came from the boldness of Jenny. She asked the simplest, hard question: “Why don’t we do this?” She knew there would be objections but she had the simple answers of energy, optimism, and hard work. She had done this before and there was no reason it couldn’t be done here too. And she was not going to just ask others to work. No one worked harder than Jenny to recruit, lead, and fund raise for the bells.

No one needed to embolden Jenny but she passed to us all her boldness and spirit. Think of the handbell choirs and more that are waiting to be raised up when every Jenny asks simply, “Why don’t we….?” Perhaps we could all follow a bit of Jenny’s boldness by these steps. Look at what works elsewhere and ask why it couldn’t work here. Handbells are handbells and neither Methodists nor Lutherans have an exclusive hold on them. Be willing to be the change yourself rather than saying, “Someone should do this.” But then invite and recruit others to share your vision. There’s a balance here. You can be the spark but not the whole fire. Start the project, but let others be drawn into the work and be a bright part of the fire themselves. Finally let the project grow beyond your first thought. Jenny and I never expect a youth handbell choir, but the mothers did. So start with the question, “Why don’t we…” and see where it grows.


Rev. Dr. Daniel Paavola

Concordia University Wisconsin Professor—Theology

Former pastor of St. Paul’s Lutheran Church, Butternut, Wisconsin

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Posted on: November 17, 2018, by :

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