Worship Leading, Qualifications, Compensation, Expectations…it’s complicated!

Zac HicksWorship and Pastoral Ministry, Worship Leading Tips2 Comments

There are lots of great forums out there for online dialogue between worship leaders about important issues. But one group has always, for me, been a HUGE cut above the rest…Liturgy Fellowship. Many of the posts and conversations are thoughtful, pastoral, and move beyond the typical “What songs do you all do?” and “What’s your fav verb pedal?”

Recently, my friend Wendell Kimbrough (check out his thoughtful site and great music here) offered up a provocative and powerful set of questions, and they were answered in equally provocative and powerful ways. I have everyone’s tacit permission to post the thread here, but because I only have Wendell’s approval in particular, he’s the only one I’m going to explicitly name.

I have filtered and mildly edited the comments, and I have categorized them into “realms.” There are some incredible insights in here. You might not agree with them all (I don’t), but they are worth consideration.

Some Overall Thoughts of My Own

Like the original post, I too get countless calls from church planters, pastors, and headhunting organizations telling me they’re looking for worship leaders “like me.” Like the original post, I often have to tell them, “I don’t know anyone, but I’m working with a few people. Call me back in two years.” Like the original post, I am exasperated by this.

To set the stage, here are some of the summary insights for me:

  • Pastors (of the non-worship leading type) are often oblivious about the level of training, experience, and sophistication they’re looking for when they set out to find a worship leader…resulting in the expectation that a worship leader’s hours and pay can be much less than they’re really worth
  • Worship leaders are sometimes oblivious to those same needs/desires and get blindsided when they enter a church and find that their leadership is appraised as highly inadequate
  • Worship leaders need theological training!
  • Worship leaders are pastors!
  • Our post-Christian era, where churches are going to have to be leaner, poses unique challenges to the future of the “professionalized” worship pastor/leader ministry.
  • The local church is going to be the best primary context to train and raise up Worship Pastors.
  • Our educational institutions (Christian colleges, seminaries) haven’t fully figured all this out quite yet, and the shift from the older model of a “sacred music” or “church music” degree to the new model of “worship leading tracks” is playing catchup to the changing landscape.
  • More churches (including mine) need to think about investing in long-term internships and apprentice programs.

I have reorganized the comment thread below into broader categories. Check it out. It is GOOD.

The Original Post

Wendell Kimbrough:

Friends, I need to let off some steam/frustration and try to articulate some thoughts. Can y’all read this and a) talk me down from my self-righteous ledge or b) affirm what’s true, or c) tell me to shut up and go back to work?

I just got off the phone with a church planting pastor who is asking the same questions I keep hearing over and over again from church leaders and lay people. “Where can I find someone to lead the kind of musical worship we are all longing for—the best of traditional and contemporary songs, presented in a way that really fosters singing and participation?” We talked a little about his journey—from traditional to contemporary, and how unsatisfying and alienating both can be. All he can find are people who get up and perform for his congregation. He called me looking for help. I listened to his story, affirmed his desire, and basically said the same thing I always end up saying, essentially, “I can’t help you.” Unless you have a budget to do a national job search for a full time position, in which case I can post a job description to Liturgy Fellowship and you can hire an experienced worship leader away from a church where he or she is currently serving. Otherwise, I can’t help you because: 

  1. It seems like very few people understand how to do what you’re asking, and 
  2. I don’t know anyone training new people to do what you’re asking, and 
  3. The handful of people I know who can do what you’re asking all figured it out in different ways—trial and error, mentors, apprenticeships, and experience.
  4. Although leading worship is not rocket science, it’s too complicated to teach in an elevator speech. And many of the resources available will simply train you to perform better for a passive audience, not lead people into a shared participation in corporate song.
  5. The resources available for traditional music are hymnals, which are designed for congregations that can sight read in parts. Which is to say, almost nobody. 
  6. And the resources available for contemporary worship are built around the paradigms of the radio single and the rock concert, neither of which are ideal for fostering participatory song. 
  7. Therefore, it’s that much more important that you have a worship leader who can swim upstream against the current of contemporary worship and rework and adapt traditional resources to fit new contexts. Which leads me back to the top of this list—very few people who know how to do this, no one training new people, etc.

Can you feel my frustration here? What can I tell this pastor besides, “Sorry, I can’t help you”? Do you get these questions?

Thanks for reading.

1) On Finding Worship Leaders in a Church Planting Context

Comment:

Church planters must develop that in the church. They probably can’t lure someone away, but they CAN raise up someone and work with them to that desired goal. As a church planter, you’re building. You’re looking towards the future and building with that in mind. In essence, if you build it, they will come.

Comment:

 To church planter: go get involved in the art culture in your community. Befriend, support, encourage local artists, share the gospel and then disciple. Share your heart, teach sound doctrine and let artists flourish in your church and eventually lead. That’s a lot harder than stealing a worship leader with money, but it’s a much better idea. In the meantime don’t hide your deficiencies in music, let the need be known and deal with what you have. 

Comment:

I’d echo the sentiment here, particularly as it relates to planting – a world that I am very much immersed in. If the idea of planting is more like “transplanting” – taking something that’s mature and developed and just putting it in a new context (be that pastors/leaders, laity, etc), then this frustration will be compounded. In my experience, it’s more important in the long run to communicate the “why” of corporate worship then it is to be able to execute on the “how”. That is something the lead guy/planter can start doing now even if it means the music is rough for the next few years. If he can start regularly articulating a solid philosophy/theology of worship (and maybe you can help him in this) then the foundation will be laid to train up local leaders. The training centre you are describing is the local church. The results will be slow but I think its the best (only?) way for new church plants.

Comment:

I really like what was said above concerning churches being planted in new communities. If you can train up a music leader in that community then his/her understanding of that culture could more naturally fit into the desired style. However making sure they have the theological and liturgical understanding could be a challenge. Maybe that pastor’s first disciple needs to be a musician….

Comment:

In my experience, I have found 2 types of planting pastors: The first wants exactly what you have described but they want them in a 23-33 year old body that plays guitar and the second, if they can find the first, wants them for as cheaply as possible. For those of us with “the goods” – the theology, the skills to lead, arrange, choose selections from every generation and package them in a way that are singable to the congregation – there are often not churches nearby that understand just why this is so important for them as a congregation. At least that’s what I have found in the Baltimore area. To do it well, it takes a lot of thought and prayerful consideration for the worship leader and then we stand as one crying in the wilderness, “Where are the churches that will teach the whole council of God through the entire Word with the Gospel at the center of the preaching?”

Comment:

What a fascinating conversation. I love this! Isn’t it interesting that the success of a church plant these days depends as much as it does on having a solid worship leader? A danger in this, and maybe some wisdom we can give our church planting friends, is searching for and treating the worship leader as a commodity to achieve the planting pastor’s dream of a successful church. Good musicians are artists, and artists can sniff out utilitarianism from a mile away. I hate feeling like a tool. At the same time, churches need to sing, and artists need to bring their gifts. At least we all can be aware of the consumer temptation to treat worship leaders as hot commodities in the church marketplace.

Comment:

What these pastors don’t often say overtly is they also want someone young, hip and cheap. They also don’t realize that in 2-3 years the congregation gathered may be very different from the one imagined in the church planting prospectus/plan.

2) On Training for Worship Leaders

Comment:

Wendell, you know I’ve shared your frustrations in this area. That’s why we’ve been doing our one-year worship apprenticeship program here. it’s been going great for the last five years, and I’m really happy about our placement rate of apprentices into just these kinds of jobs you’re talking about. I think it’s incumbent upon us as churches to be thinking about using our resources to not just lead our own people in worship but also to be training and equipping the next generation. I challenge any churches with membership of more than about 200 people to consider creating a position like this at their churches. In our case, we’re able to offer a full-time apprentice position for a very small salary, as the apprentice receives room and board for free in the home of a congregation member for the year.

Comment:

I would encourage the pastor to contact schools like The Robert E. Webber Institute for Worship Studies in Orange Park, FL as they are actively training worship leaders to have an understanding of Biblical, Historical and Cultural worship contexts.

Comment:

I affirm your frustration, Wendell; and more importantly affirm your sense of what is needed: pastorally and theologically and musically trained worship leaders as well as congregations willing to be led by them. I teach at a seminary (Western Theological Seminary in Holland), and though most of my students will go on to ministries of many different shapes, every year I have a few students whose specific aspiration is to be worship pastors, but they’ve submitted to the three-years discipline of ministerial formation because they understand how important this work is. We will typically find apprenticeships for them — both at WTS where we have worship every day, and at local congregations. Building on our success, we hope to offer a Graduate Certificate in Worship Leadership within two years, and an M.A. a few years after that. All of that to say, I suppose, that there are some places that are trying to offer the sort of training you’re longing for. We don’t do it flawlessly, but we’re trying.

Comment:

Honestly I get too many of these calls and wish I had more trained people to recommend. 

Comment:

In Australia, we start with the congregation’s existing musical giftings and invest into these, knowing that the administration of the team may develop into a paid position. Certainly not foolproof but we don’t end up with the same entertainment vibe as in Nth America. It’s interesting that many of your comments come across as lobbying for more money. 

(Of course I relate to the need to eat meals, just not sure how to coincide both goals of a great church & a professionalized national wide musical service)

Comment:

I echo all the thoughts about a need for training these types of pastoral musicians, and for churches to honor the calling with living wages … It’s a big part of why I went the route of an MDiv. I was lucky/blessed to find a church that would call me as a full-time ordained pastor to a position centered around planning and leading worship. There aren’t that many out there.

Comment:

Andy Piercy said he can help…and he can. I’m one of his poster children. 

Comment:

Wendell I’ve gotten these questions several times and I basically give the same answers. Maybe a decade down the road when these training institutions are bearing steady fruit, we will see some positive change in availability of well-trained worship leaders. But it’s a long hill to climb, mostly because of the tectonic cultural forces you mentioned, among others. So I affirm your frustration.

3) On Qualities of Great Worship Leaders

Comment:

What i’ve found is some people have the vision but not the talent, and a lot of people have the talent, but not the vision. it’s hard to find someone with both.

Comment:

When we say “worship leader,” do we really mean “music leader”? Liturgical worship, imho, involves so much more than being able to read and lead music. My advice, as stated before, is to find some layman in the church who shares his views and work with him as a “liturgy leader.” The “liturgy leader” (or “liturgist’) could then work with the musicians in the church. Speaking as someone who has no musical abilities, I have a huge desire to sing with the congregation in worship and NO desire to be sung to. And I love liturgy. But, there is an assumption that the person in front (on the “stage”) has to be a musician. In the times I’ve planned and led the liturgy in my small church–as a layman–I’ve stepped back from the mic during the singing and allowed the stronger singers in the congregation to “lead” from the pews. This worked in our small setting and may not be best in a larger facility.

Comment:

Great thoughts and is a level-headed frustration, Wendell. I echo what others have said in that there has to be less of the “right guy” for worship and more of a collective embracing of a vision at the outset of a church-plant or in a church seeking worship renewal. The type of full-bodied role this is with pastoral sensitivity, musical proficiency, improvisational ability, aesthetic awareness, and all else that comes with the territory (leadership, organization, administration) is a role that has to be valued for it to be sustainable!

Comment:

I think some of you have said this (but in different language), but isn’t it less about finding someone perfect for the position and more about formation/discipleship? What does the charismatic, extroverted, worship leader tell a visitor to the church about God? I was so impressed by the worship leaders at our church the first time I visited because they were so quiet and gentle, their lives seemed so tucked into the heart of God. I’m now at a church where I’m “leading” for the first time, but leading is so not a helpful word – on the wise council of a worship leading friend, I have thought about it as facilitating the communal singing. The worship leaders I admire have just given me the advice of just being myself and by doing that people will feel invited to join in this worship. 

So, how to understand that church shouldn’t be a performance? A stronger doctrine of the Trinity, the Torrance brothers would say; this sounds like what J.B. Torrance called Unitarian worship—that it’s all about me and Jesus and not about the community that is supporting and contributing to worship. 
No concrete answers here but I echo what others have said: pool on the resources you already have. And a real spirit of throwing yourself into things – one worship leader I know recounts leading worship the 3rd or 4th time she attended our church. 

And, what I don’t think I’ve seen mentioned yet: pray!

4) On Compensation for Worship Leaders

Comment (discouraged):

these guys so often want someone mission-minded who will move to their city for a part-time gig too…

Comment:

Here’s the thing that’s not being spoken: that pastor is (likely) getting paid a livable wage to plant that church. If worship leaders (directors/ministers) regularly got paid livable wages, Wendell wouldn’t be getting these phone calls. Instead, there would be seminaries and colleges producing talented, knowledgable worship musicians with hearts for ministry and that pastor would pick from a great pool of candidates. Instead, it’s (generally) treated like an avocation, and unfortunately lots of good candidates have to take work elsewhere.

Comment:

Having gone through a search process in the last 5 years, I have found most expectations to be insulting. Candidate must have a degree in music with Theological training preferred. Must be organized, disciplined, and a self-starter. Must be able to engage with artists and be a fantastic musician. 5 years experience preferred. Part time. $15k.

Comment:

We wanted gifted artistic types who also can seamlessly navigate a corporate environment, all the while shepherding the congregation through song, prayer, and discipleship and yet pay them like they are bagging groceries.

Comment:

Let’s form a union!!!

Comment:

Strike!

Comment:

Well, that escalated quickly.

Comment:

What we’re lobbying for is a recognition that there is a difference in training, experience, and ability. A church should consider its ability to support its pastoral staff and let that be part of the equation when deciding who they want to hire. We cannot (and should not) expect a professional with a family to support to work for an unlivable wage when we expect a professional level of leadership and development of a ministry.

Comment:

RE: some of the statements around pay and the economics of all this… I get it, but in the church planting world (and especially in my Canadian context) the lead church planter is often not even making a decent living wage. I really believe that the future of church planting in the west is about organic multiplication – more plants, sooner and on a smaller scale. Neighbourhood parish plants, missional communities, small inner city plants that don’t utilize building infrastructure, etc. I’m seeing more models all the time that are bi-vocaltional by design – often for the long haul. If we can’t imagine a scenario where the church can really be the church as a vibrant, healthy worshiping community (solid leaders and leader development and all) outside of the existing models of full time paid vocational ministry… well, I think that’s a problem if we want to plant in many places where the Gospel is most needed.

Comment:

To be clear, I’m not advocating that we all become money-grubbers. (I think my own life show that if that were my intent, I’ve been unsuccessful.) Certainly, situations like bi-vocational church plants can’t afford full time music ministers. I usually recommend that ministry staff earn 75%+- of the senior pastor–that gives a good ballpark figure for most situations. I do still think this is one of the most pressing issues in worship today. I don’t think a strike is going to be helpful, but I’ve long hoped to form a multi-denominational union/guild that could provide salary guidelines, skill certification, and advocacy. The Liturgy Fellowship Guild has a nice ring to it…

Comment:

I found this gem – “Because Sunday morning worship is a corporate experience and is not considered compensated time. It is part of your volunteer duties as a Generic Church member. Understanding this, your 20 hr workweek should be spent on the aforementioned duties.”

Comment:

Yeah, I once had a pastor say, “Of course, I’ll expect all of you to be at the prayer meeting.” And those of us who were paid by the hour just couldn’t make him see that it wasn’t really fair to require something but not pay for the time– he felt it was just something any Christian would want to do.” Oh, I want to pray, but I don’t want to give up my shift delivering pizzas to do it!

5) On Congregational Singing

Comment:

I’ve found that where I am at right now, I am considered a radical because the performance worship before was all they knew. I’m making the Sunday morning team smaller (6 musicians rather than 10 or more!), bringing down the sound, using mainly acoustic instruments and avoiding electric, bringing the musicians closer to the congregation visually, singing hymns and songs that are orthodox only, no long intros, no instrumentals, no interludes. The congregation is there to SING to God, not stand there and listen to us play for awhile. I also do nothing fancy with my voice like runs or deviations from the melody so the congregation can follow me completely. I smile. I put energy—as much energy as I can into the old hymns (a little faster, brighter, folksy). I figure if I can’t hear the congregation while I am leading music, then it’s a fail. I haven’t done my job. For me, this works and it is in many ways, for a musician, a death to self. I can’t sing all awesome because it is not helpful to the people. I can’t show off instrumentally either. We are there to guide and aid the VOICE of the congregation. If we think this way as worship leaders and base all our decisions on it, it will produce the results needed for engaging participation. I’ve seen it happen over and over. 

Comment:

Can I challenge your fifth point: “…hymnals, which are designed for congregations that can sight read in parts.” Is that a USA-ism? Over here in the UK, congregational hymnbooks are words only, no music. A small number of places may make the melody edition an option in the pew. Almost never, anywhere, these days, congregational harmony books. So the hymn culture here is that the congregation are doing the tune from memory, rather than reading. So… one can argue this case various ways. But to me, that point is relatively minor, compared to all the others which are much more significant.

Comment:

Yup. Valid frustrations. From my experience, here are a few ways that pastors can instill in developing leaders a value for congregational singing: 

a) provide song leaders with the congregation’s home repertoire – what they already know and love to sing (even in church planting setting)

b) insist on familiarity and limit introduction of new songs. E.g. my rector will not let me start or end a service with a new/unfamiliar song. Ever. I’ve come to appreciate the need for the congregation to begin and end with high participation. 

c) place musicians somewhere other than center stage. This is about the congregation, not them.

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