I was blessed yesterday to do a quick in-and-out trip half-way around the country to worship alongside my brothers and sisters at Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church. Their music leader, Mark Miller, is a fabulous musician, a great worship leader, a funny guy, and a friend of mine, and it was a privilege to step into his very big shoes for a Sunday. He needed a break!
I’m not sure what percentage of worship leaders get the opportunity to lead in contexts other than their own, but I suspect it is higher than we might think. If you lead long enough, there inevitably will come times when you’re uprooted out of your local congregation and leading somewhere else. I’ve now done this enough times where I’ve seen some regular patterns, and I think I’ve learned a thing or two. So, here are 10 thoughts on being a guest worship leader. Take them for what they’re worth!
1. Fight the urge to feel like a celebrity.
No matter if you’re guest leading in a big or small context, they will likely treat you in a way that makes you feel like you’re more important than you really are. They’ll put their best foot forward. They may even take you out to a meal. Continually check your ego. Don’t go there in your head.
2. Approach the opportunity as a servant.
One of the best ways to mitigate point 1 is to view your role as coming in to support the ministry team at that church, particularly the worship leader whom you are replacing.
3. See how you can, even briefly, bless the local church, staff, and pastors while you’re there.
Because I was already acquainted with some of the congregants and staff members of Coral Ridge, I had the opportunity to ask them the “How are you really doing?” kinds of questions. I wanted them to know that I wanted to support the worship and work of their local assembly. I kept mental lists of conversations I’d had, who I could be praying for, and how. One of the other things I did that I think I’ll replicate in the future is before our Sunday morning music rehearsal started, I passed out 3 x 5 cards to all the ensemble members and asked them to write down one thing that I could pray for Mark (the worship leader I was substituting for). That was a good move. I learned a lot, and it will give me ongoing things to pray for in the weeks and months ahead.
4. Use it as an opportunity to learn how to do your job better at home.
Guest worship leading has been one of the places that have benefited my own home ministry immensely, because it pulls me out of my context, lifts my head, and let’s me see “another way” of doing things. I was really impressed with some of the ways Coral Ridge organized the back end of preparing their worship services, and I picked up a few tips on everything from service planning, to how to mic a banjo, to how to structure your tech-volunteer team. It actually exposed some areas that I think I’m deficient in my administrative leadership.
5. Even as you’re being yourself, conform more to how they do things than to how you do things.
If you think of yourself too much like a celebrity, you’ll be tempted to think, “The way I do things is just fine (or better), and I’m awesome enough…they’ll conform to me.” But if you stretch the music team or the congregation with too many new and unfamiliar things, you’ll likely lose them and miss the whole point of why we all gathered to worship. So here I’m thinking of everything from song arrangement to ensemble setup and positioning to the structure/liturgy of the service. Also, as much as is possible (I don’t think I did the best job of this), find out how the instrumentalists/vocalists you’re leading are used to being led. Are they expecting you to dictate a lot of arrangement detail? Are they expecting to have a fair amount of freedom in improvisation? You’re only there for a week or two, and to try to force your leadership ethos on them would only stifle, not help, the creative process.
6. Exegete the congregation and context as best as you can.
Figure out what the “worship ethos” of that local congregation is. Are they active-body worshipers? Are they more cerebral? Are they used to explicit, overt liturgical elements, or are they used to a lot more informal worship style? Check out samples of services from the previous weeks. If they have a database of some kind, expose yourself to the repertoire that they’re used to singing. Get to know their “worship vocabulary.” Even if you don’t fully jive with the way they do things, the structure of the service, or the songs they select, it’s important to understand the way they do things well. Otherwise, your leadership will likely be a resounding gong.
7. Pick just a few spots to interject some of yourself.
On the flip side of 5, I think it’s important to lead in a way that is true to who you are. I don’t mean “show yourself off.” I mean that you should allow some of your passions and convictions about worship to shine through in a way that will edify and strengthen the body of believers in new ways. So in the service-planning, find a strategic spot or point where you might choose to do something a little different. Perhaps it’s a different song or song-arrangement. Perhaps it’s a liturgical element or a type of prayer. Perhaps it’s something that you would say before the call to worship…stuff like that.
8. Practice extra hard.
The times where I’ve failed to do this, it’s come back to bite me. There are so many x-factors that are out of your control that you want to mitigate the ones that are in your control. Know your music and arrangements backwards and forwards. Rehearse not only the individual songs and elements but rehearse the whole thing. Work through transitions again and again in your head. Process, or even write down, what you’re going to say when you’re supposed to speak. Almost like practicing an instrument, I’ve found that practicing this stuff is better done in small chunks multiple times a day than in one big chunk the day before. The same amount of time, distributed evenly over many days, wears stuff into your brain in a better way than cramming at the end. You want to be able to lead the service as “instinctually” as possible.
9. Be ready for surprises.
Anytime I’ve been in a guest-leading context, there have been surprises–things I’ve missed because I wasn’t paying attention or details that were never brought to my attention. Either way, they will happen. Try to be flexible and quick on your feet in dealing with the x-factors. One of the big marks of maturity of leaders are their ability to handle precisely these things. There may be technological aspects that you weren’t expecting (maybe no one told you that they don’t have any floor monitors, only in-ears), or there may be other aspects of the worship service that you were supposed to lead that you weren’t really clued into (like saying specific things in the welcome or makings small announcements here or there). Try your best to handle them with skill and grace.
10. Be perpetually gracious, thankful, and appreciative.
Go above and beyond to thank everyone you’re working with and to thank the folks who brought you out for the opportunity.