I’ve been a worship pastor for a long time, and I know a whole lot of worship pastors and leaders, both locally and around the country. Most all of them are good-hearted, hard-working, God-loving leaders, charged with the responsibility of leading God’s people in worship.
But there are a lot of misconceptions about what worship leaders do that would surprise you. And a lot of things we think about the job that you might not realize. Here are Seven Things a Worship Leader Won’t Tell You.
One: This is hard work.
I like to tell the story of the mother who asked her little son what he wanted to be when he grew up. The boy answered enthusiastically, “A garbage man!” Puzzled, the mom asked why. The boy replied, “Because they only work on Wednesdays.”
Many people have a misconception that the worship leader just straps on a guitar on Sunday morning and starts to sing, and everything just kind of flows out of this God-bathed spirituality. After all, how hard is it to play a Chris Tomlin tune anyway? And while I would like to believe that God is at the center of it all, the reality of worship leading is that it is a lot of work.
The roles of the worship leader are varied and simultaneous: front man, vocalist, instrumentalist, music director, technical manager, spiritual leader, pastor and shepherd and friend, the guy who unlocks the doors in the morning and rolls up the cords after everyone goes home. And Sunday always seems to be right around the corner. In my experience, the typical part-time worship leader is working 20-40 hours and the full-time 50-60 per week.
And then there’s the emotional exhaustion that goes along with it too. By nature, worship is spiritually filling but also emotionally draining. (One of the seemingly universal practices of the worship leader is the Sunday afternoon nap.) Adding to that, pastoring people (especially creatives) toward spiritual transformation is messy and imperfect and takes a lot of time, and can also lead to emotional jet lag. Ministry burnout is a real thing.
Two: This job can get pretty weird.
In my role as worship pastor, I’ve written funny parody songs, dressed in an animal costume, hung disco balls, washed dishes, consoled the homeless and the well-to-do, written drama scripts and liturgy, pounded nails and dug trenches, produced videos, baptized in a freezing river, danced in tights (not my idea!), and hung from 30-foot rafters to run audio cable. I’ve led at children’s classes, prison chapels, worship conferences from Europe to Asia, funerals and weddings, even at street corners and water parks. We once had a “Lord of the Rings” themed wedding at our church where the pastor was supposed to say, “Bring forth the rings!” Then there’s the monotonous side of the job, like managing budgets, upgrading computer memory (in every church, the person who is the least intimidated by computers becomes the IT guy), and replying to the never-ending tide of emails.
Recently, we had the idea to create a 16-foot sandbox at the front of our stage to signify a walk in the desert during the season of Lent. As I was single-handedly delivering 500 pounds of sand into our auditorium and spreading it onto our stage, I had this distinct and singular thought: I might have the weirdest job in the world.
Three: We are (mostly) normal.
Worship leaders are often a little off-of-center in a lot of ways. After all, we are musicians, with artistic dispositions and complex temperaments and unique ways of expressing ourselves. If there are tattoos in the sanctuary, chances are, the worship leader is the one wearing them.
At the same time, we’re just like anyone else. We have fears and doubts, goals and aspirations, secret dreams and hidden angst. We juggle the need for acceptance and approval with the desire to be humble. We are driven by insecurity and anxiety more than you realize. And ultimately, we want what anyone wants—love and grace and community and significance. We aren’t perfect. Please don’t expect us to be.
Four: It’s not just about the music.
Many people equate worship with music these days. And that’s unfortunate. Most worship leaders are concerned with the overall flow of the service, sweating out the details of liturgical elements, technical issues, sacramental acts, visual and video elements, even stagecraft. And of course, we serve the speaking pastor, creating meaningful responsive elements to the sermon when possible. While corporate worship is mostly expressed through music, it is so much more.
Five: We see you.
When we lead worship, we can see you. We can tell when you’re texting, nodding off, disengaged. Your body language speaks to us: The teenager who really doesn’t want to be there, the married couple who seems disconnected from one another, the toddler crawling under the pew.
But we also can see when you are engaged and worshiping and alive to the reality of God in the room. And when that happens, you are a great encouragement to us. When I am up front, and I see someone with their arms raised and their voice strong, that person leads me in worship. And that keeps me going, to lead with continued passion.
Six: Sometimes we lead worship even when we don’t feel like it.
Yes, we sing and close our eyes and strum our guitars, and we earnestly seek the presence and power of God during worship. And we hope to encourage you to do the same. But the reality is, sometimes our hearts aren’t in it. Sometimes God may feel far away from us, or we are distracted by some issue, or we are simply going through a dry time in our spiritual walk. It happens to everyone, so why shouldn’t it happen to the worship leader?
When that happens to me, I remind myself that the quality of the worship is not dependent on my earnestness or my feelings. This may seem counter-intuitive, but the quality of the worship is ultimately not a function of my personal ability to feel His presence. Because the reality of God is true regardless. If the object of our worship is God, then worship has more to do with how we make God feel than how I personally feel about Him.
It is in those dry times that I lean more on the Truth of God than the experience of God. In other words, I worship more with my head than my heart. And that’s okay. Because God is still glorified, still lifted up, still praised as an act of genuine obedience and submission. Thankfully, this doesn’t happen to me very often. And I thank our gracious God for that.
Seven: We love the church.
It’s true. We love you guys. We love the church. Not just the theoretical church, but the actual warts-and-all church—the people who stand at the pews on a Sunday morning, and graciously allow us the privilege of leading them. It is an amazing calling, one which we don’t take lightly. We are thankful that you allow us this sacred opportunity—week after week after week.
Worship Leaders, do you have anything to add? I’d love to hear your thoughts, and I think the other readers would like to hear them as well. Please add a comment below.
10 thoughts on “Seven Things a Worship Leader Won’t Tell You.”
Thank you. As usual a thought-provoking blog. You say “Many people equate worship with music these days”. I would add that worship is so much more that anything that happens in church on a Sunday. To be honest this false idea of worship really irritates me. Where did it come from? (I can guess, in part it’s compartmentalizing our spiritual lives so we don’t have to intentionally, mindfully worship God every day.) I’m an artist – one of the things I try to practice is to consciously worship God while I’m creating art works in my studio. Don’t always succeed, in fact don’t succeed all that often, but to me worship is this, and when I go to a refugee camp or a girls’ home and lead art sessions. When I sit in a cafe with a young guy who is recounting how he was beaten and left for dead by police. When I give to a homeless person. Whatever. I’m no paragon, all I’m saying is that worship is to be wholistic thing. Instead people tend to treat it as a little taste of what they see us doing when we get to Heaven … saved for Sundays.
Totally agree Zoe. Worship is both a big word and a small one. It can mean what happens on a Sunday morning, and it can mean how we live our life before the Lord. Because the English language is somewhat inadequate to express this, I am using the word in the context of what a worship leader does, which is the point of the article. But I do agree wholeheartedly with the “big” definition!
This is solid, thanks a lot for this post. As a worship leader, this makes me realize some things about myself that I haven’t been able to notice before.
Completely agree! Good stuff. I remember in my BC days playing clubs and concerts where people would come up and say how they wish they could be on stage. I would tell them to come back at 3:00 in the morning when we are loading the truck and we can talk.
Serving in worship is an amazing and fulfilling service to our Lord. Our worship leaders deserve to be noticed and applauded even though that is not why they do what they do!
There is a second category to this as well. These are the people who for the most part are in that 20-40 hr. part time status but don’t get paid for it. The volunteer/leader. They don’t wear a lanyard and also do a big chunk of the lifting. They do it with a smile and for service to His kingdom. They do these things anonymously without a voice in the meeting or much of a say in the outcome and can be counted on to be there no matter the request.
I salute, honor and shout out a praise for all of the leaders and worshippers in the ministry that we all love. I am honored to be a volunteer and serve beside the amazing leaders and selfless people of our team.
Oh and make no mistake, and we also embrace and protect the Sunday afternoon nap and wouldn’t have any of it any other way!
Everything you say is true–and I say this from over 40 years as a pastoral musician and 30+ years as an educator, where all of the same principles apply. Leading worship and teaching use the tools of theatre. I once had the opportunity to talk to Phillip Glass about collaboration on theatre and opera and he said that the key is remembering that you work with four elements: set, text, movement and music. I firmly believe that if something doesn’t work in theatre in some fashion, it won’t work in worship–it’s all about the tools to help people encounter the Divine. Which gets to your last points. We are merely conduits of God’s grace and set the stage for others to encounter God’s presence–while it is nice for us to be fully inspired and engaged, it is really unnecessary, as the encounter isn’t with us, it’s with the Divine. Thanks for the thoughts!
Great job on this. So many truths presented in a humble way. Thank you!
If the PWL is acting as the technical director, you might be a one man show in a small church setting. You need a real technical director to be able to realize your PWL potential, and trust them. Burnout? Yeah, you are doing too many jobs at once. If your calling is music, then do that, not everything else.
Wow, I love this! Gets right to the heart of what a worship pastor truly is. To me, being a worship pastor is so much more than the calling of music; the most divine parts of music ministry can happen outside the worship circle, and often have for me. That obedience to God and service to His body, the church, is what you illustrate so well, especially with the 500 bags of sand! I couldn’t help but laugh, because I’ve been there. Thanks for the reminder that even when we don’t feel that emotional connection through worship, we are still glorifying our Father through our obedience and submission. That really spoke to me! Looking forward to reading more.
Worship leaders are my favorite Pastors. They just seem to get it.