The Freedom of Long-Term Worship Planning

For much longer than I’d like to admit, I lived in the weekly tyranny of song selection. Monday morning would come, the upcoming Sunday would again be approaching (they have a way of doing that), and I’d be back where I was a week earlier. I’d put together a list, look at the Scripture readings and sermon topic for the coming week, consider anything special coming up (baptisms, communion, etc.) and try to find the right balance.

Oftentimes, I’d look at the upcoming readings or sermon, and realize that the *perfect* song was a song I had just used a week earlier, so I couldn’t use it again. Bummer.

Similarly, I’d realize that a particular song would work great as a sermon response, or as a service closer, but the congregation didn’t know it. If only I had taught it for a couple of weeks before. Bummer again.

And on many occasions I’d realize that I was going back to my favorites too often. Or we weren’t cycling through enough of the wonderful hymns that my congregation knew. Or we weren’t going back to new songs quickly enough to reinforce them. This weekly cycle I was stuck in wasn’t good. But it was all I knew. And it was how I thought I could stay “fresh”. And it was awful.

A couple of years ago I tried something that was new for me, which was to plan out the song lists for the upcoming four months of services. In August, I would plan out of the songs for September through Christmas. In the weeks after Christmas, I would plan out the songs through Easter. And in the weeks after Easter I’d plan out the songs through the summer.

This would require a lot of time, and several days of locking myself away in my office and not doing much else besides thinking about the upcoming services. It was tedious and a bit grueling, but I noticed several things began to happen.

I introduced new songs more strategically. I wasn’t repeating the same songs too often. When I needed the *perfect* song, I could schedule it and make sure people weren’t sick of it. We were cycling through a broader repertoire of hymns. And I wasn’t living in the weekly tyranny anymore.

Now when Monday morning came, I could look at what I had prayerfully planned months before, and see if it still felt right. I might make some small changes, rarely some major changes, but most often, I was happy with what was planned, and I was freed up to do other things. And when I would hear a new song and think “we’ve got to introduce that!”, then I could look ahead and see where it would make the most sense to include it, even if it meant bumping something else off of the list.

My process looked something like this (keep in mind I serve in an Anglican/liturgical context, and we sing about 291 songs per-service):

1. Choose the opening hymns
2. Choose the closing hymns
3. Choose the song that goes in between the readings
4. Choose the opening song(s) of praise
5. Choose the last song of communion (we usually like this one to be an upbeat song of celebration)
6. Choose the first two communion songs, trying to weave them together and build towards the closer.
7. Choose the call to worship (sometimes these are congregational, sometimes they’re choir pieces, and sometimes they’re instrumental, varying from contemporary to classical).

As for the offertory, which is usually a choir/band piece, my colleague Andrew and I usually map all of those out for the entire ministry year by the time we get to August. We’re just about done with that process as I speak.

This kind of long-term planning did not come naturally to me, and seemed unrealistic to me for a very long time. But now that it’s become the norm, I find that I enjoy no longer living in the weekly tyranny, and that I’m freed up to be spontaneous when I need to be.

Most of all, I’ve been freshly amazed at the wisdom of God and his kindness in helping me plan songs months in advance that will end up ministering to specific people or responding to certain current events in ways that there was no way I could have foreseen. He has a way of doing that.

Don’t Surprise Your Pastor

Every pastor is different.

Some want to be very involved in the music portion of the service. They want to help choose the songs, they express their opinion on what songs they do and do not like, and they expect/facilitate regular communication with their music leaders.

But others don’t want to involved much at all. They let their music leaders pick the songs, they don’t express an opinion unless you ask them, and they don’t expect/facilitate any kind of regular communication with their music leaders.

In the first case (the involved pastor), you have to learn how to receive regular feedback from someone who you have no choice but to submit to at the end of the day. This can be tricky depending on their personality and management style.

In the second case (the uninvolved pastor), you have to learn to exist sort of like an island, but you’re also never quite sure if your pastor is happy with what you’re doing or not. And you usually will only hear from him when he’s not happy.

Some pastors are a little of both. They’re involved, but also a bit uninvolved, and your job as their music leader is to try to read their minds half of the time, while also accommodating their wishes and requests when they make them known.

But while every pastor is different, I can guarantee you that in one respect, every pastor is the same. They don’t like being surprised on Sunday morning.

Think about all the hundreds of things on their minds, not the least of which is the sermon they have to deliver. They are having to balance so many different demands, needs, dynamics, personalities, politics, and expectations, while also attempting some sort of mental and spiritual focus in order to execute all of the different Sunday morning responsibilities.

The last thing they need is for their music leader to try to sneak something past them, or do something that shocks them, or do something that’s totally different from what people are used to, or do something that is sure to result in several emails in his (and your) inbox that afternoon.

I’ve learned this lesson the hard way, by the way. I offer it to you for free.

Take the time – ahead of time – to communicate with your pastor anything he needs to know. I put these things in a “heads up” category for my pastor. It can be anything. I’m using a new drummer and he might be a little loud. I’m doing a different arrangement of this hymn and it might feel strange at first but it will work, I think. I’m going to do two songs before the welcome this week, not one. I’m going to have the congregation read a Psalm during this song. Whatever. Anything that might catch him by surprise.

And then give him the opportunity to give feedback. Ask him for it. Yes, you’re opening yourself up to have to make a change. That’s the point.

So, whether your pastor is involved or uninvolved, do yourself, your congregation, and your pastor a favor and keep him in the loop. I promise you your pastor will appreciate it.

Having a Good Rehearsal… In Your Head

Did you know that you don’t need a room, a stage, equipment, a microphone, an instrument, or any other musicians to have a good rehearsal? Sometimes, all you need is your head.

Not that having an actual rehearsal in a physical space with real live human beings and some sort of instrumentation and equipment set up can’t be helpful. It’s a good idea to have that kind of rehearsal when you can.

But if you’re going to be leading worship for something, you should be running through the songs, and the transitions. You’ll be going over what you’ll play, what you’ll say, and what you’ll pray. You’ll hang out on the parts where you’re not quite sure what to do. You’ll run through different scenarios. You’ll fiddle with different arrangements. All within the confines of your brain.

This way, when you do have an actual rehearsal, and when it comes time for the actual service, your head will (literally and figuratively) be in the game. You’ll be able to lead your fellow musicians and fellow congregants with more ease. You’ll be freer to worship because you won’t be wondering what you’re going to do.

Find some quiet time to mentally prepare and rehearse for leading worship. You might find it helpful to do this while you exercise (for me, it makes running go by more quickly), sit in traffic, drive to church, stare out of a window, sit at a piano or with your guitar, or just lying in bed. Try to focus and run through things from the beginning. Make mental notes or actual notes if you think of anything that you need to remember. Otherwise, just walk through the songs and transitions and get comfortable with where you’re headed.

You’ll be glad you did when real rehearsal or real service starts. All the time you take in advance of leading worship or rehearsals will pay off. Even the time you spend in your head!

Say No To Winging It

Yesterday I shared a summary of the first thing I pressed my church’s worship team away from at our Monday tune-up night: sameness. The second thing I suggested we should “say no” to is winging it. Here’s a summary of what I said:

Say no to winging it!
The goal is not to be scripted, flawless, flashy, or impressive. The goal is to be ready.

There is a difference between being expectant, open and obedient to the spontaneous direction of the Holy Spirit – and being unprepared, under-rehearsed, and messy. Not being controlled by a script is wise. Not being ready is foolish.

When we “wing it”, we can end up doing things the same way we’ve always done them, sacrificing the level of excellence, raising the risk of distractions, and increasing the amount of stress and anxiety. Sometimes this is unavoidable, and we just have to do our best, humbly and prayerfully. But most of the time, we’re winging it by choice.

Let’s choose to say no to winging it, and step up our pursuit of humble excellence across the board. Here is how this might look:

Before the weekend:
Musicians: rehearse at home. Once the songs are posted (Thursday night at the latest), make time to listen to them and practice them.
Sound engineers: listen to the songs (either once they’re posted, or download them somewhere). Get a feel for their arrangements, and if the song is mixed well, let that influence your mixing once the weekend arrives.

Weekend rehearsals:
Start on time: Rehearsal shouldn’t start 15 minutes after it was scheduled. Technical volunteers should arrive early enough to have equipment set-up, plugged in, and turned on by start time. Musicians should arrive early enough to be able to start making music at start time.
Start earlier: Unless we give ourselves enough time to rehearse and prepare, we won’t be ready. To avoid “winging it”, we need to have longer rehearsals.

Rehearse fully: After figuring out arrangements, we’ll aim to run through each song once, with the lyrics operator running lyrics, and sound engineer finalizing the front of house and monitor mixes.

Pursuing a “stepping up” of excellence in all areas – musical and technical – requires a sacrifice of each of us, namely our time.

I always want to honor and value all of the various volunteers by not burning them out or taking their precious time for granted. If either of those things start happening, please let me know! But just as we slide towards sameness without being pressed towards growth – we are also at risk of sliding towards sloppiness without being pressed towards excellence.

Let’s go into our services ready, rehearsed, and prayed up – listening for and responding to the leading of the Holy Spirit.

Lessons from the Blizzard of ‘09

I left work this past Thursday evening around 7:00pm after a long day of finishing up plans for this past weekend’s lessons and carols services. It had been a long and busy week, preparing for what are probably the most musically intensive services of the year for the worship team and me. I was tired but really excited for the weekend.

I got in my car, turned on the news station (I’m a news junkie, by the way), and was quite surprised to hear that a major east-coast blizzard was forecast to bombard the Washington D.C. area with two feet of snow beginning late Friday night and continuing into Sunday morning.

By Friday morning it was clear that this blizzard was indeed going to give us a direct hit – and that the services for which I had prepared so diligently were most likely going to be snowed out. Sure enough, on Saturday afternoon, with snow falling at a rate of 4 inches per hour, the decision was made to cancel all weekend services.

Many of you who read this blog will never have to deal with a blizzard forcing your church to cancel all weekend services. (Jonathan in the Philippines – I’m thinking about you.) But whether it’s a blizzard or a hurricane, are you prepared for a weather emergency?

(This isn’t the most exciting question that worship leaders face, but it just happens to be on my mind today.)

In those rare circumstances, a worship leader needs to be able to keep his volunteers informed, stay (very) flexible, and remember that God is sovereign. Our planning and preparation are critically important, but we need to hold to them loosely.

A few other practical tips for dealing with service-altering weather events:

Be prepared to lose your email capability
On Friday morning, I realized I didn’t have one of my vocalist’s cell phone numbers. I emailed her and asked for it, just in case I needed it. Sure enough, on Saturday afternoon in the middle of the blizzard, our church email servers went down. But since I had everyone’s phone number, I was still able to communicate the news that all services were canceled. My email is still down, by the way.

Stay cool (no pun intended)
I stayed late every night last week. 2,000 bulletins were printed. Extra equipment had been rented and set up in the Sanctuary. A ton of administrative work had been done. Special arrangements had been written. Hours of rehearsal had been spent. But then along came a blizzard.

If I had been given the opportunity to pick one weekend when a blizzard would cause all services to be canceled, this past weekend would have been very last on my list. But I didn’t have that opportunity. There was nothing I could do. Stressing out about it and lamenting the timing of the blizzard would be futile.

Stay flexible
A number of things could have happened this past weekend. We could have canceled the Saturday service but kept the Sunday services. We could have had only one combined Sunday morning service. We could have canceled all weekend services except for Sunday evening. I had no idea. No one did. One thing I did know for certain was that this weekend was not going to be normal and I was definitely going to have to adjust my plans somehow.

Don’t let your preparation go to waste
The songs and arrangements I had intended to use this past Sunday? I’m totally using them this coming Sunday. The bulletins we printed for the lessons and carols services? I’m putting them in a box and using them next year. (It helps that we didn’t put dates on them). The lyric projection files? Saved. The hours we spent rehearsing? They made us better musicians.

This time last week I was preparing for services that would never happen. Now I’m preparing for Christmas Eve services, end-of-December services, and first weekend of January services. They’ll probably happen as scheduled, but they may not. If they happen or if they get snowed out, I’ll try to be as prepared and ready as I can.

Photos of The Falls Church taken by Justin Wills. Used by permission.