3 Things I Wish I Knew When I Became a Worship Pastor

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In 2002 I graduated from college with a degree in music ministry, an internship at a church, and a head full of church history, music theory, and pedagogy. After my internship, I landed a part-time youth/part-time worship job, which meant that I had two full-time jobs for the price of one. I was gaining the trust of volunteers and staff while performing my ministerial duties. 

I have played at many churches across the front range over the last eighteen years, and I've seen the blessings and curses of worship leading. Some of the challenges were unique, but mostly, every church struggles with the same issues. They might struggle with balancing the tension of mission-urgency with a sustainable soul-care habit, or maybe recruiting more volunteers, or negotiating the competing needs of lead, worship, and executive pastors. We all wrestle with basically the same challenges. 

Many of you have a fantastic community of support or mentors that invest their time and years of experience in helping you mature in your leadership. However, there are a lot of worship leaders who are doing the work alone and hoping that merely applying more effort will get them out of their rut. 

The average turn-over for a worship leader in the U.S. is approx. 3.6 years ( Lifeway Research, 2011), which seems hardly long enough to see any meaningful growth in a team. Of course, there are a variety of different reasons for someone to leave, but I know that most people don't want to leave if they don't have to. 

The average turn-over for a worship leader in the U.S. is approx. 3.6 years

I know the experience of both being fired as well as quitting from a church. Even though I'm very glad now for both of those experiences, at the time they were painful, terrifying, and costly for me. They were also expensive for the church who needed to search for, interview, onboard, and train a new worship leader. If I've done it twice in my career, think about how many times a church does this with each position in ten years! Ouch!

I think it would be a lot cheaper, in the long run, to care for and develop the staff so the church can benefit from the fruit of their investment! I genuinely want The Church to get healthier and stronger, but what about you, the worship leader? What do I hope for you? Well, here are three things I wish someone would have drilled into my head after I left music school and I was in my first church job: 

  1. Be a leader first and an artist second.

Like many worship leaders, I got into this business because I loved Jesus and liked to perform and create. I wanted my chance to make beautiful moments happen in worship services! I wanted to play with an awesome band! I also got a lot of approval from people when I led worship, so I kept doing it! I believed it was my responsibility to make the band sound great, direct cool videos, and use moving lights to create a service that was always better than the last one. This is precisely what an artist and performer should do. However, this is not the role of a leader. A leader might also be an artist, but they are always looking for ways to step out of the spotlight to invite others to embrace their own leadership role. A leader is on the path of self-emptying, not self-actualizing. They are defined by the performance of those they lead not by their performance alone. It's true that lead pastors and church leaders definitely should be looking for and supporting artists, but I think sequence matters. Churches need creative leaders first. Leaders are the ones who create the environment for churches to benefit from artists! I made the mistake of believing that I had to choose between these two roles. I thought I could not be both an artist and a leader. The truth is, of course, I can, but when I was working at a church, I had to choose which one came first, and in my experience, it must be leadership. 

A leader is on the path of self-emptying, not self-actualizing.

For recommended reading on this point, I offer: "Multipliers" by Liz Wiseman and "Originals" by Adam Grant

  1. Boundaries are your responsibility, not your lead pastor's

Another way I am like most worship leaders is that I'm more emotional than analytic. I was drawn to ministry because it's in my DNA to be empathetic to the lives and stories of others. I'm motivated by making other people happy. I've come to see this as my contribution to the world. Like all gifts, though, it has a shadow side. Because I feel things deeply, I can take on too much of the responsibility for the emotions of others. Conversely, I can unconsciously expect them to take responsibility for my emotions. Once you add my "messiah-complex" and the toxic misunderstanding of self-sacrificial service rampant in Evangelical Christianity, then you've got yourself a potent little codependent cocktail! 

I've been blessed to work with visionary lead pastors, that have given me challenging and rewarding places to work. I'm proud of what we accomplished, but leaders like them also struggle with always chasing the vision of the future at the expense of living in the present moment. To please them, I quickly got caught up in their chase and lost my connection to my contribution to The Kingdom. This issue arose because I didn't know and enforce my own boundaries well. I expected the pastor to see me working too hard and stop his job to come and help me manage mine. Can you imagine if this destructive wish of mine would have come true? I would have added to my misery, not solved it. Still, when we've slipped into a reactive way of thinking, the "victim story" takes root and spoils everything.

There needs to be a healthy tension between you and your pastor. They need to continue to pull everyone toward the vision without having to manage the needs of everyone on the team. You need to contribute the fresh, creative, and unexpected ways for people to worship and engage with the vision. Managing the rhythms of work and rest that are right for you is your job!  Communicating these boundaries clearly, consistently, and humbly to your pastor ( as well as the rest of your team ) is critical as well.

Recommended reading on this topic: "Boundaries" by Dr. Henry Cloud, Crucial Conversations by Joseph Grenny and Kerry Patterson and 

  1. Replacing yourself is the best way to keep your job.

One of the most significant gaps in my worship ministry education was how much I didn't learn about established business wisdom. Granted, when I went to college, I wanted to learn about music, theology, and history, best business practices were the furthest from my mind. My college had prepared me to be a continuing academic if that was my goal, but I wanted to be in ministry with people in the real world. The disconnect here was that the evangelical church in the real world was mainly an entrepreneurial effort. 

Silicon Valley has had more impact on the structure and strategy of the American evangelical church in the last 20 years than anything else. Churches pop up like spunky little startup companies with a few employees that wear multiple hats to keep the small boat from sinking. Most of them sink, but the ones who make it can't afford to have a full-time person who does one job, they must create value that grows with the church. This kind of wisdom comes from economics, not worship ministry training.

To become the kind of creative leader that churches find value in, you have to grow beyond merely being the girl who leads cover songs with a band each week. You need to know all the repeatable tasks your job encompasses; in other words, you need to build the machine. Then you need to immerse yourself in the necessities as best you can; ("manage" the machine). Lastly, you need to empower other leaders to own the ministry and do it better than you can. 

There cannot be love where there is no choice. You will be trapped by the job you will not train someone else to do, even if the job is something you love!

The reason worship leaders don't do the work of growing this way is that it challenges their current identity, and it forces some hard questions! "What is my value if I'm not the one leading the music every week?" "Performing is the part of the music I love the most, why would I give that away?" The reason is this: There cannot be love where there is no choice. You will be trapped by the job you will not train someone else to do, even if the job is something you love! It is tragically painful to be trapped by something you love. Your love, talents, skills were meant to be given away. The role of the worship leader, not to find a stage to perform on but to create the stage where others can use their gifts, talents, and passions for the good of the whole church. 

 Recommended reading on this topic ( yes, they're business books ): "The E-Myth" by Michael Gerber, "Making Money is Killing Your Business" by Chuck Blakeman