Leading Worship Through a Major Church Crisis

Zac HicksWorship and Pastoral Ministry11 Comments

It’s been a while since my last post. Most of you all know what has happened at Coral Ridge, and I’ve personally received a lot of love, prayers, and support from so many of you. Thank you! This blog, for me, has always been a place to think out loud by wrestling thoughts to the ground, processing in real time the ins and outs of one local worship leader who is asking questions about worship and pastoring in his little corner of the globe. I’ve been encouraged to see that some of my thoughts have been helpful to others in their contexts. So today I turn to what will be a cathartic post. It will help me to organize the jumble of thoughts and emotions that go into trying to keep your head above water in a pastoral crisis.

I’ve been serving churches as a worship pastor long enough to have gone through several crises. Though none have been this large and this public, on the ground there are certain common themes that have emerged for me over and over again that I now perceive as “givens.” I want to talk about these in hopes that my very immediate reflections might be of help to others. I am on the front end of this new season in our church’s life, but I’m already witnessing things that, though painful and difficult, are quite predictable simply because every church is full of train-wrecked sinners like me who tend to exhibit the same types of behaviors in moments like these. So, here goes…

1. The Vacuum

Whenever there is a shakeup at “the top,” it leaves a leadership hole. That vacuum tries to get filled in a bunch of ways. On the leadership side, it means that we church leaders need to rally as a team, pray and seek the Lord together, and lead strongly and visibly. In a sense, for the time being, it is our job to fill that vacuum. It means more time, more emotional energy, more prayer, more burden. This is a given.

One of the negative sides of the vacuum is that there are unhealthy ways that congregations can seek to fill it in short order. Many times, when a leader is gone, it becomes an opportunity for some to declare the things they’ve been holding back. These things include ministry emphases, visionary choices, but also (maybe especially) things relating to worship. This has certainly been the case for me, and based on my past experience, it won’t really let up for quite some time. In fact, we’re still sort of in “shock” phase, which means that as the newness wears off, people will be able to process more…which means that the best is yet to come. 🙂

But knowing that the vacuum always happens and will continue to cause weird things to occur is half the battle. And all this leads to the second point.

2. The church needs stability and familiarity in its worship.

In moments like these, people’s concealed desires for what worship “should have been like all along” become revealed. In some cases, these desires are the worship leaders’, too. (Not in my case. My senior pastor and I thankfully saw quite eye to eye on most of it.) It can be very tempting to start implementing all those desired tweaks and changes, but this is exactly the wrong time to do this. What churches need in moments of crisis is stability and familiarity in their worship. Whatever the liturgy has been, stick to it. Give them more songs that everyone knows and loves. People don’t need to be raising eyebrows or tweaking their heads. They need to be crying out to God.  

3. The church needs stability and familiarity in its leadership…but not mini-Messiahs.

Every church is different, but in my context, I was one of the two faces of leadership that people were used to seeing more or less every Sunday. One of those faces is gone. Mine is the only familiar face left. It’s really important that I’m there. It’s really important that I’m present and undistracted. It’s really important that I exhibit a non-anxious presence and display a confidence in the one and only Head of God’s Church–Jesus Christ.

At the same time, I have to wrestle with very honest “Messiah complex” feelings. I am not the church’s Savior. I had a moment where I started to think I was, though, when I almost cancelled my vacation plans coming up in a few weeks, feeling the burden of the fact that “the church needs me.” In one sense, the church does need me. But I know my heart, and my wife knows my heart. When I started to hint at the transgression of our vacation plans, I knew that would be disaster for me (and my need for rest) and disaster for a family who needs their husband and dad. When that got some clarity, it became as simple for me as remembering that Jesus loves His church more than I do and that I’m not Coral Ridge’s Messiah. Praise God for that, for my sake and the church’s.

4. (1) and (2) mean that I need to find safe places off the beaten path to process my own personal pain and confusion.

Yes, I need to be a strong, stable, non-anxious leader in this time. But I still have anxiety. I still am weak. I still question my calling. Like my congregation, I’m going through my own version of the stages of grief. I need safe places to explode, to cry, to vent, to strategize, to collapse. On the one hand, it would be very “authentic” of me to do that in front of the church. But the church doesn’t need that, and I actually think it would be detrimental to her health. 

But if I bottle it all up, I have no doubt that I will find myself in my own crisis in a few short weeks or months. And then I’m no good to anyone. So, I’ve chosen a few friends, a few safe havens. And they have been a wellspring of life for me. They have been Jesus.

5. No emotions are off limits, and we should expect (and in worship make room for) every kind. 

When churches go through crises, congregations experience the full spectrum of emotions. It brings up PTSD-like symptoms for some. Others get depressed, angry, or cynical and jaded. Some people surprise you by leaning into the church like they never did before. Others surprise you by becoming quite oppositional. Some get upset over very peculiar and specific things that happen. Others seem upset over everything. Some retreat and go into radio silence. Others are emailing, texting, calling every day.

Knowing that all emotions will come, and knowing that they are all perfectly valid ways of handling situations like these, we need to be ready for them by giving voice to them in worship. In my experience, a great place to handle this is in the church’s moment of confession. I’ve been given to praying more extemporaneously to help give voice to some of these emotions. My prayers, privately and publicly, have sounded like this:

God, this is a very confusing time for us. We confess that we’ve been angry…with others and with You. We confess that we feel hurt. We confess that these moments cause us to doubt Your goodness, Your promises, Your faithfulness. We struggle at times to see the good in these moments.

We confess that some of us feel numb and cold. Some of us are finding it hard to honestly and earnestly worship You. For others of us, it’s all we can cling to. We confess that we aren’t the kind of people that can handle this well apart from Your grace. We’re weak. Be strong for us.

As odd as it may sound, the last three weeks of worship at Coral Ridge have been sweet times of community. We’re more broken open, leaning a bit more on God and a bit less on ourselves. Desperation is a remarkable catalyst for authentic, vibrant worship. And our emotions have been all over the map. I’m grateful that God has created enough of a safe culture of worship at Coral Ridge that at least some can feel free to be honest before the Lord in community. God has been faithful and good to us.

6. Care very little about what is being said “out there.” Care very much about what is being felt “in here.”

In all honesty, I’m paying very little attention to what’s happening in the sphere of blogs and social media. So much of it is partially informed and feels distant, cold, and dispassionately clinical. It can be very distracting, though, and it can raise fears and concerns that simply don’t need to be there. Through past experience, I’ve learned to pay attention to the flock in front of me. What are their hurts, their fears, their concerns? I don’t need to answer the critics. They’re not the ones God has called me to keep watch over. I need to be close to our flock, spend lots of time with them, and really listen. So I’ve been sending lots of emails, making lots of phone calls, and drinking way to much coffee with folks. My office has been a revolving door.

As a workaholic and a task-oriented person, I’m tempted to think that all this people time is very un-productive. (I’m not getting anything done!) I’ve learned, though, that such thoughts spring up more from the enemy and my own idolatrous heart than they do from any good place. My call now is to be very, very present for people that need it. I feel a bit relationally stretched thin, and I feel like some important goals are getting sidelined. But there’s just a strong sense that I’m doing the right thing. So I just have to let the chips fall where they may.

7. The church needs the hope of Jesus.

Worship needs biblical lamentation, which is another way of saying that the church needs to be able to cry out “How long?” WITH HOPE. In times like this, I’ve found that emphasizing the following themes are important and powerful:

  • God’s faithfulness generally
  • God’s faithfulness specifically–His mighty deeds of the past
  • Confession & Lamentation
  • Death & Resurrection (both literally and symbolically)
  • Jesus’ undying love for His Church
  • The Eschaton–the End when God will make all things new
  • The nearness of the Holy Spirit

All these things, when emphasized, become a soothing balm for the anxieties, fears, pain, anger, and sorrow of a congregation going through crisis. Thankfully, there are so many Psalms, songs, and prayers that speak right to these things, because, well, suffering seems to be one of the few givens for every human being. 

You feel it in the air of Coral Ridge right now, and I think any Gospel-oriented community would feel the same: hope abounds. This doesn’t mean that everyone is feeling hopeful, but there is a kind of communal sense of hopefulness and trust when we gather. We’re still smiling and laughing. And some of us are getting very energized for where God will take us as a local church in this city. 

Still, right now, we’re a jumble. If you’ve seen Inside Out, it feels like we’re in that deconstruction-reconstruction phase that characterizes most of the movie’s storyline. It’s an unsettling place to be, and it’s a blessed place to be. I’ll write more when I have something to say…and only then!

11 Comments on “Leading Worship Through a Major Church Crisis”

  1. Have been, and will continue to hold you and the CRP family up in prayer. I know what a minefield this is for leadership. Pax

  2. Zac…I was glad to read your post…to "know" how you are doing. We've been wondering how it was going for You and your family. You said some very good, healthy things. So glad you see the need for family time and you time as well as being there for your church family. We're praying God's strength ,peace, and guidance for you and Abby, your kids and your church.

  3. Zac, wow what excellent points you have raised in your blog. As you may or may not know our St. Andrew's Kirk in Nassau had a crisis approx 8 – 9 years ago. The comments in your blog are so very true. So many different emotions run wild through the congregation. I pray our God will give you all strength and wisdom as you move forward. Truly God is in charge and He will show you the way soon. Our Clerk of Session would point you to Ephesians 3:20-21. May I also point you to Colossians 3:13. Hugs from your friends in the Bahamas.

  4. Discerning post, Zac.
    Keep to the Psalms, O chief musician. They will be your solace and inspiration.

  5. Thank you for sharing your heart with us Zac. I've been thinking about you. A lot. I do miss you and your worship service, but I've been in a state of limbo with regard to Coral Ridge. I wish I wasn't so human sometimes. I want back what is familiar and comfortable and what drew me back to the Lord in the first place. I want the levity and the honesty and the life that nourished me. So, I've not tuned in. Selfishly, I feel betrayed. I know that it's not the messenger, but the message. I get that. But to me, you guys were the whole package – you, and Julie Ann, and Tullian, and Rob, and even Victor in the front row. The peace I felt after every sermon and every replay of every sermon was palpable. We will all heal. I know that to be true from…well, just life. And this helps. Feeling understood helps. You will never know how much your worship means to me, how much my children learned from watching with me, and how much closer I am to understanding human brokenness and the grace we have been granted despite it all.

  6. It is powerful and clear to read & hear Christ through you Zac. Prayers from Georgia for you to know Him & His astonishing love for you personally in Jesus.

  7. Zac, I resonated with so much of the wisdom you put forth here. The (much smaller and much less public) church I serve went through a similar circumstance 5 months ago, losing both the pastor and the operations manager in the process. Thankfully I can say that the church has stepped up and weathered some storms on the way, though we are now faced with the really big question: what next? Brother, know that there are people here with you, praying for you, trusting for you. I really appreciate your heart, your ministry, and your willingness to stay and serve. Blessings to you.

    As an aside, I believe we have a mutual friend: Sam Myrick, one of my absolute favorite people on this or any other earth.

  8. Thanks for your heart, Zac. There are a LOT of people praying for you, your family, your church.

  9. Thanks for sharing your wisdom and experience, I will have to keep this post in a place where I can find it when I need it! CRP was a part of our prayers for the city a couple weeks ago. Tullian's preaching and writing has been and continues to be very near and dear to many of our messed up hearts, as well as your ministry and leadership. Can't wait to see what God grows from all the seeds of brokenness. I've enjoyed catching a portion of your worship service online before our service starts. My ramblings boil down to: Thank you and we are praying for you.

  10. Zac,

    My heart aches for you and for the family at Coral Ridge. Your blog post is so thoughtful–you shared your heart. I really appreciate your vulnerability.

    I would like to suggest something for the Coral Ridge leadership to think about as healing begins. One of the things I appreciate so much about CRPC is that it is–or at least has been–a bridging community rather than a bonding community. By that I mean rather than the church focusing inward at its own stuff, it reached out to those of us who are states or even countries away.

    Even though I am in another state and a member of a Lutheran Church, I often felt like CRPC was my real church home. The bridge that CRPC created ministered to many hearts. That bridge is a significant part of its ministry.

    I know there is much hurt and healing needed in Fort Lauderdale. In no way do I want to diminish that struggle. Bonding with those right there in the hurt with you is necessary.

    Please remember that many of us who were "with" CRPC every Sunday from a distance are in that same hurting/healing process. We need the bridge–the connection. Don't lose that important part of your ministry as a result of one sinners behavior who needs law and gospel just like us.

    Thanks for writing and thanks for considering those who are part of the church from a distance.


  11. Thank you for sharing these insights as you process this crisis and walk
    faithfully in the calling God has given you at Coral Ridge. I will be praying
    for you and the flock there in FL as He brings healing and leads you all
    to the next steps. He is faithful and He will do it!

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