Pastoral Worship Leadership

When I was a young person, I focused on establishing myself as a conductor, composer, and music theorist. I earned my doctorate and spent four years teaching at a Christian liberal arts college where I had an office with a nice view of the ocean—not bad. When I made the professional decision to test the waters of church worship ministry, however, I experienced some transitional whiplash. To that point, my peers were musicians and artists. Suddenly, I found myself surrounded by “pastor types.”

This new environment, and a growing understanding of worship, presented a radical paradigm shift for me. At a pastoral-level team-building retreat, we sat in a circle, and each of us was asked to name something we respected about the person to our left. It was intimidating. I felt vulnerable with several older pastors in the room, and wondered what the person on my right would say about me. Charles was that person—the Christian education pastor—and a musical person as well. I assumed he would mention something about the growth of the choir, my compositional skill, or my conducting. I was not even close. When his turn came, Charles said that he observed and affirmed what he called a “pastoral heart” in me. I was caught short. I had two internal responses. What is a pastoral heart? And, I’m not sure I want one! Inside, I was screaming, “No! No! I’m a musician! I don’t want to be one of them!”

Important parts of my identity that I had worked hard to cultivate were being chipped off. This professional shift I had made to do “good music” in the church suddenly wasn’t just about doing “good music” anymore. That team-building event began to shape me and send me on a path of discovering what it meant to be “pastoral” as a leader of worship. As it turned out, I didn’t have to give up who I was, but I was forced to add new dimensions to my philosophy of ministry.

A New Perspective

In the quest to understand the nature and role of being pastoral, I was pulled back to my study of Latin and my recollection of the word “pastor”—which I knew meant “shepherd.” When we think of worship leadership, it is not usually the picture of a shepherd that we visualize. The picture of worship leadership looks more like someone behind a microphone with a guitar, or maybe standing in front of a choir. However, the Bible refers to each of us as the sheep of God’s pasture, which makes him the Great Shepherd. So we are to be his under-shepherds to the sheep we serve, musical leader of worship or not.

In his book In the Name of Jesus, Henri Nouwen points out that Jesus asked Peter to “feed His sheep and care for them, not as ‘professionals’ who know their clients’ problems and take care of them, but as vulnerable brothers and sisters who know and are known, who care and are cared for, who forgive and are being forgiven, who love and are being loved” (p. 61). As pastoral leaders, we are to lay down our lives for the sheep.

Nouwen takes an honest swipe at modern culture when he states, “the world in which we live—a world of efficiency and control—has no models to offer to those who want to be shepherds in the way Jesus was a shepherd” (p. 62). A pastor lives out leadership as a servant, a circumstance “in which the leader is a vulnerable servant who needs the people as much as they need their leader” (p. 63). It is a form of “leadership that is not modeled on the power games of the world, but on the servant-leader, Jesus, who came to give his life for the salvation of many” (p. 63). Nouwen rightly contends that pastoral leaders are men and women who are “always willing to confess their own brokenness and ask forgiveness from those to whom they minister” (p. 64).

Not a “Gig”

These soul-forming, pastoral attributes are not necessarily mentioned in the job description for those in musical worship leadership. Perhaps they should be. Often those of us with musical training find that we have skills that are quite different than those needed to be a shepherd. Our training teaches us to be better, to sing higher, and to play faster than others. We are pushed to be first chair. We learn quickly that “out in front” is where we aspire to be. Perfection is a goal, and a great performance is of supreme value. The model Nouwen promotes is one of “downward mobility” (p. 92) compared to a worldview of ladder climbing.

So often those who lead music in worship are admittedly in their role for the pay they are receiving for the job of providing a worship experience. There are many who have no sense of spiritual calling and faith expression, but do it strictly as a job—the “gig” mentality. It may be akin to playing in the club they played the night before, or leading the high school choir in town. These people may be highly skilled organists or guitar players, but their whole reason for being there is for the pay involved.

Blessed are the Musical Peacemakers

Robert Kingby Roberta R. King
In an era of interfaith misunderstanding and apprehension, Fuller’s Global Christian Worship and Ethnomusicology program has recently conducted a 3-year research project entitled “Songs of Peace and Reconciliation among Muslims and Christians,” through the auspices of the Brehm Center and a generous grant from the Henry Luce foundation. Our project asked: “What is the contribution of music and the performing arts to peacemaking in the religiously diverse world of the 21st century?” Collaborating with 18 scholars from Lebanon, Egypt, Turkey, Libya, Malaysia, Indonesia, and the U.S., a key research finding was the unveiling of “hidden” leadership roles of musician-scholars for fostering interfaith dialogue and peacemaking. Our project sponsored concerts in Beirut and Yogyakarta that were based on local music-making and liturgical traditions. Let me set the stage with one concert that impacted all who were involved:

Beirut concert 2009The scene is April, 2009, Beirut—a city known as a Middle Eastern theater of national and interfaith conflicts that have repeatedly played out, including the infamous 15-year civil war (1975–1990) ascribed to peoples of differing faith traditions. Yet there they sat on the chapel stage: a Muslim sheik, a Christian Orthodox priest, and the Classical Arab Music Ensemble of Beirut. The instrumentalists included an Orthodox believer playing the Arab violin, a Lebanese qannun (Middle Eastern zither) player, and an Egyptian Muslim playing on the ‘ud (lute). . . .
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No pastoring or shepherding thoughts have ever entered the minds of these people as they perform their assigned tasks. They may have artistic motivations for being in the position, and this naturally tilts their efforts toward producing an artistic product, with little regard for the lives of those they serve. Those leanings may even attract others to the church who are also looking for their own artistic outlets. The concept of worship has never entered their thoughts, unless they erroneously equate worship with musical performance. Often they do not participate in the life of the church, and quite possibly, may not claim to have a Christian faith. How can musical worship leadership take place with such a systemic set of contradictions? While I know that God can work in the lives of people under adverse circumstances, I would suggest that God should not have to fight through wrong motivations in order to speak and be spoken to. Those who work in some of these contradictory modes limit and potentially eliminate God’s work in the corporate worship experience, making it difficult to place them in the category of shepherds of the sheep.

Music Leader Job Description

If a music leader is truly to perform a pastoral role, then she or he must willingly enter into dialogue and function with other members of the ministry team, whether as a professional or as a volunteer. For those who happen to be a part-time or volunteer music leader, there are situations in which you can be a pastor to pastors. If you are able and welcome, attend pastoral meetings that deal with general, nonmusical, nonworship issues of church ministry. If you are able and welcome, be an ear and voice at the table of your church’s governing board. This may include discussions about budgeting, counseling, or church vision and direction. Your interest and presence will also connect you to the life of the church and its larger role in your community. It will allow you to hear about more than what’s going on beyond the Sunday service. These conversations will enhance your knowledge of the people you lead before God, and sensitize you to the manner in which you provide leadership, both from the platform and with those who serve closely with you. Your presence will also serve as encouragement to your ministry peers and those who govern the life of your church community.

A pastoral worship leader must consider himself/herself a pastor first and an artist second. The arts become a centralizing force that joins people from your faith community together so that ministry can take place. However, the art is not the main reason for the ministry. A pastoral approach to worship ministry will be about much more than the music or other art forms. I think it is interesting to note the qualities that Gordon MacDonald listed for someone assessing a leader of worship music:

  1. How does he/she pray in public?
  2. Do they give dignity to the public reading of Scripture?
  3. Do they allow for corporate silence and encourage historical reflection?

I’m sure you noticed, as I did, that there is no mention of any artistic skill in his listing of qualities. These sound much more like qualities of a senior pastor than those of a music leader, don’t they? MacDonald further points out that people in their 20s are living life asking different questions than those in their 30s. Those in their 40s are at a much different place in life than those in their 50s, and 50s are thinking differently than 60s, 70s, 80s. The point is that people from all of those groups are sitting in the pew every week. As pastoral worship leaders, how are we sensitively choosing songs, preparing prayers, and selecting Scripture to assist them all as they connect with God? A pastor will care about those aspects, while someone who is strictly taking an artistic approach likely will not.

Nouwen illustration by D.KlitsieNouwen on the Limitations of Words
Henri Nouwen was a Dutch-born Catholic priest and writer who authored 40 books on spirituality. What is most personal is most universal, he felt, so he was convinced that the soul of the artist “cannot remain hidden.” By giving words to intimate experiences, he said, “I can make my life available to others.” But he knew very well the limitations of words to achieve that high calling: “Somewhere we know that without silence words lose their meaning, that without listening speaking no longer heals, that without distance closeness cannot cure.”

So often, the music leader may not think in terms of being pastoral during the service. If that is the case, then he or she is missing a great opportunity to affect lives at strategic and important moments. Knowing and being a part of a congregation will be helpful in understanding the needs of the worshipers as each service progresses.

Pastoring implies a desire to make sure the congregation is led from place to place through the “pasture” of a worship service, not just be involved in singing a group of songs. Particularly in free-church style worship, a pastoral leader will sense moments needed for prayer, even if it may not be in the planned service order. A truly pastoral leader will sense a time when celebration or lament may be more appropriate than what had been planned. I learned from a worship leadership hero of mine, Dr. Howard Stevenson, always to have resources available in either head or hand that might be the appropriate resource for a moment of change during the service. He was known to tell his music leadership members to let something happen in their hearts that may not be in the service order. Often, an a cappella song is the right thing for a certain moment, or silence, or kneeling, or the reading of an inspirational poem, or the repeating of an appropriate verse of a song. One of the great delights for a pastoral worship leader is sensitively guiding people: knowing the sheep, including the needs of the moment—planned or not. Be prayerfully prepared for the moments when the Holy Spirit might prompt you. Don’t miss those one-chance moments to form the lives of the people in your congregation.

Extended Ministry of a Worship Music Leader

One of the great blessings of my life has been to know the many people who have served as leaders in music ministry with me. These have been family members, choir members, small vocal group members, instrumentalists from orchestras to ensembles, drummers, guitar players, children, and adults. Many of these people have joined me in feeding the homeless and in traveling the world on mission trips. We have sat together on hot buses and set up sound systems in Eastern Europe. They have been my congregation, my best friends, and peers in ministry. Many have been professional ministry staff, but most have been faithful volunteers. They have allowed me to be their pastor, and my deepest investments have been into their lives. These sheep have indelibly etched into me stories of great joy and shared sadness. They are also the ones who have given so much to me by allowing me to be their shepherd.

The privilege of living life together as people of God, and not just musicians of God, has formed my life, and I trust that there has been some lasting value for them as well. My sometimes inadequate approach to them as pastor has been an extremely influential set of experiences in my life. While pastoral training and learned skills should be encouraged, at times all the learning in the world is not the pastoral need of the moment. Often the need is to love and care for those precious people in the best way you can, knowing that God loved them and gave his life for them. How could I not love them as well—sheep though they may be? It has been such a privilege to not only be a musical leader, but a pastoral leader as well.

My memory leaps through many moments of both sadness and joy—all significant moments in the lives of people. There were joyful births and weddings, difficult moments of sitting with people in severely stressful situations, being near bedsides of people in pain, and memorial services for spouses and other family members. In so many cases, I found myself saying, “Wait a minute. I went to music school. How did I get here?” I didn’t always feel prepared for the circumstances, but found great fulfillment in being with people who sincerely wanted and needed my presence, prayers, and best attempts at comfort in moments of great need. I am so thankful that I learned to value the process of living life with people over only creating a Sunday product in my role as music leader. Imagine the moments of great ministry opportunity I might have missed had I decided to just be a musician.

This article was published in Theology, News & Notes, Spring 2012, “Groanings Too Deep for Words: Engaging the Senses in Worship, Theology, and the Arts.”