Lessons From the Last Decade: Serving Your Pastor Well

1This week I’m getting all nostalgic as I look back on the last ten years of my life serving at The Falls Church Anglican. One of the privileges of being here has been serving my pastor, John Yates. John is a godly man, a good pastor, and has taught me a lot. He took a big risk in hiring me with very little experience and giving me a large amount of freedom and grace. I sure have needed that grace! And I sure have appreciated the freedom.

The relationship between the pastor and the worship leader (or organist, or choir director, or music minister, or all of the above) is notoriously tricky. Today I want to offer a few lessons I’ve learned over the last decade on how to serve your pastor well, and to make this tricky relationship a bit less… well… tricky.

Don’t go around him
The phrase “it’s better to ask for forgiveness than to ask for permission” should never enter your mind when thinking about your pastor. It’s always, always, always better to ask for his permission. Always.

Don’t go against him
Your pastor needs your support, your help, and your encouragement. If you disagree with him, then have a conversation with him and ask him questions. He’d be much happier having a conversation and answering your questions/concerns, then dealing with your flat-out opposition.

Don’t surprise him
It took me 7 1/2 years to realize that my pastor didn’t like being surprised on Sunday mornings. Duh. Now I email/talk with him every week about what songs I’m planning. 99% of the time he says “that’s great”. 1% of the time he says “I’d rather you not…” And avoiding that 1% chance of surprising him has made my life much more enjoyable (and probably his too).

Don’t be high-maintenance
Your pastor has enough high-maintence people in his congregation. Don’t join their ranks. Do your job well, faithfully, humbly, and trustworthily, and your pastor will love you. 

Don’t go outside your parameters
Step 1: Ask and learn what your parameters are. Step 2: Stay inside those parameters. That’s your safety zone, and the protection of your pastor might not extend outside of that zone.

Initiate things inside those parameters
Step 3: Be an initiator. If you know your parameters, and you know where you have your pastor’s support, then just get on with initiating stuff. He’ll be delighted to see you taking charge and will be grateful for your energy.

Help him preach his message
Take the time to find out what he’s preaching on, and do your best to support the preaching of the Word by what songs you pick. A worship leader who ignores his pastor will most likely be ignored by their pastor.

Run your ministry in such a way that gets people involved
Your pastor hears from people all the time who aren’t happy because they “can’t get plugged in”. Plug people in. Have them to your house. Have worship team dinners. Build community. It’s good for the church, and it’s good for the pastor to see you getting people involved. He’ll be grateful.

Be organized
It will be hard for your pastor to trust you with more responsibility if you can’t keep things organized.

Keep track of the history
What times were the Christmas services last year? What about the year before? What did we do about communion on Pentecost last year? These sorts of questions come up in meetings, and if you can answer them, you’ll show that you’re valuable in more ways than just leading music.

Do your part as well as you can
Prepare, rehearse, and lead worship on Sunday mornings in such a way that helps people see and savor Jesus Christ. Work on your transitions and prayers. Help make Sunday mornings a well-run, well-led, and well-received gathering.

Pray for him
A worship leader who prays for his/her pastor is a worship leader who wants the best for his/her church. A church is best served by unified leadership. So, pursue unity with your pastor, and pursue it prayerfully, and your worship leadership will be all the more effective.

What Pastors Shouldn’t Tolerate

1The relationship between pastors and worship leaders is notoriously tricky. On the one side you have the person responsible for shepherding the church. On the other side you have the person who thinks he’s the person responsible for shepherding the church. In a healthy pastor-worship leader relationship, that elephant is named and tamed, and the pastor and worship leader partner together in friendship. In an unhealthy pastor-worship leader relationship, that elephant is ignored and allowed to run destructively rampant.

Pastors should rightfully expect their worship leaders to follow their lead. Worship leaders have a responsibility to serve their pastor, love him, respect him, and help him implement his vision. When this isn’t happening, a pastor is within his rights to address this dysfunction until it either improves or the worship leader steps aside.

I once met with a pastor who told me how his worship leader was consistently late on Sunday mornings, didn’t help set up any of the equipment, ignored his song requests, went around him to church elders and complained, and hadn’t improved in any measurable way in over five years. Luckily for the worship leader, this pastor was a deeply gracious and patient man, willing to bend over backwards to make this relationship work. But I shared with this pastor that, from my perspective as a worship leader and lifelong preacher’s kid, he had every reason in the world to expect (if not demand) that his worship leader shape up or ship out.

The tricky relationship between pastors and worship leaders is, in most cases, easily solvable by the mutual lines of communication being as open as possible. The pastor should be able to speak freely and candidly with his worship leader. And the worship leader should experience the same level of freedom and candor towards his pastor. When it works both ways, then the relationship works. But when it doesn’t work both ways (i.e. either person in the equation is unapproachable, inaccessible, or unquestionable), then the relationship is broken.

When the relationship is broken because of the worship leader, the pastor shouldn’t tolerate this. He should do what he can to fix it. But at the end of the day, a pastor should expect his worship leader to have the characteristics of a servant, not a diva. And when the relationship is broken because the pastor has allowed the lines of communication to deteriorate and break down, then he should do everything in his power to repair them. He shouldn’t tolerate this either. It’s not always the musician who’s the difficult one to work with!

Find the elephant. Name it. And then tame it. A loose elephant shouldn’t be tolerated, regardless of whether it was the pastor or worship leader who first set him loose.

When Your Pastor Doesn’t Expect Enough Out of You

1It might seem like the dream worship-leading job: working for a hands-off pastor who never tells you he didn’t like a song, or he wants you to make changes, or he wants you to do a better job at something, or he has some suggestions for you. Doesn’t this sound great?

Not so much.

When your pastor doesn’t expect enough out of you, the danger is that you fall into a rut of inertia that you’re very unlikely to push yourself out of. And the underlying problem when your pastor doesn’t expect enough is that his low expectations are most likely rooted in a disinterest in worship and an ignorance of its centrality to the life of a vibrant congregation.

So while a totally hands-off pastor might make your worship leading life easier in the short term, it’s actually unhealthy for you and your church in the long term.

So what do you do if your pastor doesn’t expect enough (or anything at all) out of you?

Make a counter-intuitive decision, for your personal growth’s sake, to submit your song selection, your leadership style, your musical performance, and your ministry goals and objectives, to someone who can help you aim higher. Maybe you know of someone else in ministry at a different church who would be willing to evaluate you once a year or once every six months, or be given permission to spy on your Planning Center service outlines, who could speak to you honestly and help you. Or maybe you need to ask around to find this kind of person. The point is that you need to realize you have a pastoral-input-void that you need to get filled.

You also need to start the conversation with your pastor and tell him that you’d like him to be more involved. First have coffee or lunch with him. Tell him you want to start meeting with once a week to go over your plans for worship. If that’s too much, then once a month. If that’s unrealistic, then tell him you’ll email him every week with your plans, and ask him for his input. This will make a slow difference.

And if you’re serving at a church where the pastor is hands-on and quite comfortable letting you know what he wants, what he likes, what he doesn’t like, and how he’d like you to grow, then be grateful to God. Even if it’s uncomfortable, it’s good for you and it’s making you a better worship leader. 

Ten Worship Leading Non-Negotiables

1There is so much good and helpful advice for worship leaders out there that I thought I’d try my hand at condensing it all down into 10 non-negotiables.

  1. You are not the center.
  2. You make Jesus the center.
  3. Your priority is helping the congregation sing with faith.
  4. You support your pastor.
  5. You choose songs that are full of truth.
  6. You use musicians who are gifted and have soft hearts toward Jesus.
  7. You tailor the keys and arrangements of songs to serve the people in the room.
  8. Your family comes first.
  9. You’re never alone with someone of the opposite sex who isn’t your spouse.
  10. You won’t ever compromise numbers 1-9.

May we be worship leaders who, at our core, love Jesus, love our congregations, and love our families.

The Value of Out-of-the-Bubble Advice

News flash: if you lead worship in any capacity, whether it’s full-time, part-time, or volunteer, one thing is inevitable. You will face a difficult situation at some point. And you won’t know what to do. And how you handle the difficult situation will have consequences.

A member of your congregation is so angry at you that he/she threatens to leave the church. How do you respond?

It seems like someone else on the ministry team/staff at your church is out to get you. Who do you go to?

A member of your worship team is openly living their life in a way that’s contradictory to being in up-front worship leadership. How do you tackle this?

Your pastor is critical of you to other members of the congregation. What in the world are you supposed to do?

You inherited a “worship design committee” that is seeking to exert control over you and your song choices that’s not helpful. Do you have any hope of survival?

These are just a few made-up scenarios that either in my own ministry, or in my experience knowing other worship leaders, touch on some of the difficult situations that leave us wishing we were in another line of work.

And while the difficult situation that you’ll face might be different from one I described above, your questions will be the same. How do I handle this? What is my next move?

You handle tough situations by getting good advice. And, preferably, out-of-the-bubble advice. Someone who can look at your situation from a 30,000 foot view. Someone who’s not emotionally involved. Someone who has Godly wisdom. And, most importantly, someone you can trust to be honest with you.

Here’s the thing, though. And I want to be careful how I say this.

Sometimes the worst advice you’ll receive will come from other people who are in ministry. This is because, generally, people in ministry don’t have as much business/management/leadership experience as the people who are, you guessed it, working in the fields of business, or management, or leadership.

I’m not saying that people in ministry, namely your senior pastor (who you need to include on as much as you can) or other pastors at your church, won’t have good advice. Go to these people too. They’ll have great insights and observations and could potentially help you avoid some landmines. You might have a pastor who’s incredibly wise and experienced. (And even if he’s not, you should still keep him in the loop and love him as well as you can!)

But, again I’m making a generalization here, most pastors or people in ministry, are not nearly as experienced or seasoned in the political and managerial realities of real-world leadership issues as some of the Godly men and women in your congregation are.

So If I could give one piece of leadership advice to a new worship leader, it would be this: when you face difficult situations in ministry and you don’t know what to do, stop and take a deep breath. Pray a lot. Talk to your pastor and get his advice and observations. But then get outside the bubble as quickly as you can. Find someone who can be your mentor. Someone who has run a large-ish organization. Someone who’s been in politics. Or someone who is a gifted leader. Spill the beans to them. Then listen to their advice. Give them permission to be honest with you. Because maybe you’re the problem! In any case, listen well and you’ll benefit from them.

Out-of-the-bubble advice will prove to be incredibly valuable to you as a worship leader, and will help you navigate the inevitable difficult situations with wisdom and clarity.

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.

When People Keep Coming to Church Late

Yesterday I received a very kind email from a worship team member at a church who asked how I would address this situation at their church:

We are trying to address an increasing issue of late arrival. We are a large church with two Sunday morning services and one Sunday evening service.

We start on time and our worship is near the begining of our service. We are finding that the sanctuary is not often filled until 20 minutes after the service starts. The worship time has finished by then.

Addressing tardiness is, in my view, 100% the responsibility of the pastor. He is the shepherd of the flock, and it’s his duty to cultivate sheep who see corporate worship as something that is crucial, and who see God’s greatness and glory in Jesus Christ as being reason enough for our getting to church on time. You should feel free, as a layperson or as a worship leader, to communicate your concern to your pastor, and tell him that you think he needs to address this issue with the congregation. Love, support, and submit to him, but don’t be afraid to tell him what you think. If your congregation is regularly very late to a service, he needs to say something and you’re right to encourage him to do so.

The worship leader should never address tardiness from the platform. I’ve seen worship leaders do this and it always creates a very tense dynamic. It feels like you show up late to someone’s house for dinner, and instead of welcoming you in and being a good host, they berate you for being late. Would you want to eat with that person? Would you even want to take your coat off and go inside? I wouldn’t. I’d rather get back in the car and go home. Same principle applies to latecomers and church. The worship leader has reason to be frustrated, but he has to keep trucking and be as good a host as he can be. Leave it to the pastor to address tardiness.

Some people are late because they’re just really bad at being on time. They’re late to everything: dentist appointments, their own wedding, work, and movies. I don’t know if there’s any hope for these people.

Some are late because of genuine hindrances like traffic, parking problems, getting four kids dressed, in their car seats, and in their Sunday school rooms, or newcomers who don’t really know where they’re going. Churches have a responsibility to think through every possible hindrance, and make their campus, schedule, and signage as conducive to moving a mass of people (and visitors especially) to their destinations with ease. If your church is laid out like a maze, don’t be surprised when tons of people come in late.

But some are late because they want to skip the worship. They don’t want to have to stand there and sing the songs. They’d rather take their time getting to church and get there after the singing is over, and be in time for the sermon. They see the time of singing together as being optional and unimportant. Again, I go back to the pastor. If your pastor agrees with this view, then I don’t think you’ll see a change in your congregation. For example, I know that in many churches the pastor isn’t even in the room during the singing. He shows up 30 minutes later when he appears on stage to preach. This sends a message to the congregation that the singing is something that can be skipped.

But hopefully, your pastor would be grieved by a congregation who sees corporate (sung) worship as being unimportant. The responsibility of changing this culture falls to him, and he’ll need your help and prayers as he seeks to change it.

To this end, I’d encourage you and your pastor to watch and seek to emulate this exhortation from Joshua Harris, the senior pastor of Covenant Life Church in Gaithersburg, Maryland, as he seeks to shepherd his sheep to come to church eager, expectant and early.