On Seminary Worship Classes and Lack of Training for Pastors and Worship Leaders

Zac HicksChurch & Ecclesiology2 Comments

Over the last few weeks, I’ve gained some perspectives I didn’t have before. I have new viewing angles on what I perceive as a continued problem that relates to the multi-layered reality of why worship leaders and their lead pastors often struggle to truly work together in that most central experience of the Church–worship. These insights have been gained as a result of being on the other side of this arena (for the first time for me, really), looking at the game from a totally different perspective.

Convos at Samford

Last week I was in Birmingham spending some great time with the excellent, way too talented worship faculty team at Samford University. Dr. Eric Mathis and soon-to-be-Dr. Emily Andrews (she’s working on a thesis…stay tuned…it’s going to be dynamite) brought me in to guest lecture for a few classes and then give a two-hour workshop on what it means to lead worship from a pastoral perspective (yes, some the content of my book that comes out this October). Eric, Emily, and I shared many conversations in between the “on” moments, reflecting on the joys and challenges of the academic system. Ultimately, for people like Eric, trying to design degree programs and curricula to thoroughly equip emerging worship leaders in the 21st century, there are a host of understandable tensions that one must faithfully manage. Worship programs can’t be designed ex nihilo. They must operate within the broader scheme of the academic vision of the institution. They must play well with others. Where the rubber meets the road: the simple fact is that there probably aren’t enough credit hours to thoroughly train undergrads in all the theory and pragmatics of worship leading. The tension folks like Eric and Emily feel is that you need full training on the one hand in Bible and Theology and on the other hand in music. It always seems like worship degrees struggle to offer both robust theological/theoretical training and thorough musical training. After stepping into the university context for 48 hours, I get it. And I don’t know that there are easy answers.

Prep at Knox

Simultaneously and by God’s providence, I find myself in the final stages of preparation to teach THE worship course that Master of Divinity students down here at Knox Seminary will take in preparation for ministry. From the practitioner’s perspective, I always looked back on my own seminary worship training with heavy gobs of criticism. I felt like my one worship course was woefully inadequate to prepare me and other pastors for one of the most important and ongoing things we do. I lamented all the pastors out there who I sense are operating out of an under-developed philosophy and theology of worship. But again, now I’m on the other side, prepping to teach that very course. I’m feeling the weight of it, and, if I’m honest, I’m already predicting failure for myself. I don’t want to let these future pastors and future churches down. At best, I can offer a few central hooks to hang some really important ideas in hopes that these smart students will follow up on the trajectories I aim them toward.

Tackling the Problem

How do we tackle the very real problems here? To me, it seems like a key toward change, growth, and more health is relationships. On every level, from the academy to the church, the day won’t ultimately be won merely through massive curriculum overhauls or increased credit hours in worship for divinity students. Relationships will win the day.

On the academic side, we need worship faculty who can bridge the relational gaps between them and their superiors (the deans, president, and other visionaries of the institutions) and between them and their peers (the other music and Bible faculty…both of whom can understandably look upon these hybrid “worship” people with great suspicion). We need talented people on the worship faculty who have the pedigree and chops to be respectable among the theologians and the musicians. This is a tall order, I know, but it needs to be said. We need worship faculty who understand the role of relationships among all these parties for the sake of forward progress. These relationships need to be genuine and heartfelt, otherwise they downgrade into mere academic politics, which helps no one and hurts everyone. 

I also perceive, on the academic side, that the academy needs to (continue to) extend a hand to the church and invite thoughtful practitioners to speak into the programs that they’re developing…maybe even help teach in them. We need academics who sympathize with the pragmatics of on-the-ground worship pastoring, and we need practitioners who are thoughtful enough about their craft to be of use and help to the academic institutions. Another tall order. But, again, more achievable when people on both ends pursue genuine relationships, true friendships. 

On the church side, we need bold pastors who will initiate formative relationships with their worship leaders. Just recently, after having given several “worship pastor” presentations in Grand Rapids and in Birmingham, I’m struck by the amount of worship leaders coming up to me who desire to read my forthcoming book alongside their pastors. This is very telling. The subtext is that not only do we need worship leaders who will start to view their jobs more pastorally. We need pastors who will start viewing their worship leaders the same way. And we need to bridge the distance, once again, relationally. 

Could it be that for pastors, professors, and worship leaders, coffee shop conversations will be just as much an engine for change and growth as think-tanks, curriculum research, and workshops? 

I can’t get away from the fact that our three-in-one God exists as a unified Community of persons, forever pouring themselves out in mutual self-giving. I can’t get away from the fact that our one God’s relationships drives His planning, not the other way around. 

2 Comments on “On Seminary Worship Classes and Lack of Training for Pastors and Worship Leaders”

  1. Zac, these are fantastic thoughts. I can't help but wonder, as well, about the cuts in seminaries of liturgical studies professors (I am, admittedly, married to one). Liturgy gives us a broader perspective on integrating music and ordo; pastoral sensibilities and historic guides. Thanks for this!

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