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.

Sermonizing Harmonizing

One of the ways worship leaders can better serve their congregation and their pastor is by choosing songs intentionally and purposefully to underline and respond to the preaching of God’s word. Not every song has to line up perfectly with the theme of the sermon, or be based on the same passage of Scripture, but when all of the songs during a service are completely unrelated to each other and the message, it can result in no single message standing out at the end of the day.

In most of the weekend services at my church, the sermon comes toward the end of the service. Because of this, I’m usually most concerned that the closing song, which comes directly after the sermon, is carefully chosen.

For years I tried to do this mostly by guessing. If the pastor thought to mention something to me about what kind of song would work, then that would be great. But most weeks I was just hoping I got it right. Sometimes I would. But other times I would find myself sitting in the service thinking, “I wish I knew he was going to say that!”

So in recent years I’ve become more diligent about hounding the preacher in the week leading up to his sermon, to get as much information as I can to help me pick songs, particularly the closing song, that both underline and help people respond to the message.

Here are some ways you might be able to do the same:

If he writes it out word-for-word, get a full transcript
Whenever John Yates, our senior pastor, is preaching on a weekend, I will get a word-for-word transcript of his sermon on the Thursday leading up to it. This is invaluable. I take time to read it, chew on it, and then prayerfully discern what songs would help people respond to this most effectively.

If he preaches from an outline, ask to see that outline
Some of the other pastors at my church don’t write their sermons out word-for-word. So I’ll just ask for their outline, or any notes they have. Sometimes I get a lot, and sometimes I get a little. Either way, it’s still something.

If he hasn’t yet finished either a transcript or outline, ask him what he’s thinking
I’ll oftentimes email whatever pastor is preaching and say something like: “I’d love to have any crumbs you can throw my way to help me pick a closing song that works well with your sermon. Any ideas? Specific songs? Themes? Anything?” I’ll almost always get a helpful response. I don’t need an awful lot of information – just some sort of indication of the direction of the sermon.

The key question to ask yourself and the preacher is: how would you envision people responding to this message through a song?

Don’t try to summarize the entire message in a song. You probably won’t be able to, and even if you are, it might be information overload. Just help them respond. It will look different every Sunday, but by asking yourself this question, you’re helping to avoid a mishmash of messages. Say that five times fast.

Learning from General Stanley McChrystal

The news story that has been all the rage in America for the last few days has been the fallout caused by General Stanley McChrystal’s interview with Rolling Stone. In this interview, both the General and his aides are openly dismissive and insulting toward other members of the United State’s national security team, the Vice-President, the President, and our allies in Afghanistan. The question on everyone’s mind has been “what was he thinking?” Apparently his answer to that question wasn’t very good, since he was fired yesterday.

How could he be so careless and undisciplined? How could he speak that way of his commander-in-chief? Didn’t he know what a stupid idea that was?

It’s a rare moment in American politics when people on both sides of the aisle can agree on anything. It seems like most people agreed on this: what he did was inappropriate.

Here’s my question for us worship leaders: what if a Rolling Stone magazine appeared on your pastor’s desk tomorrow morning with word-for-word quotes of things you and your “aides” have said about him? Your opinion of other people on your church’s staff? Your derogatory nicknames for certain people? Your critical words of him?

General McChrystal was careless in saying what he said in front of a reporter. But he was wrong to say what he said in the first place. It went beyond the appropriate communication of differences and the respectful dialogue between two people. It was more than confiding in a trusted friend your struggles and difficulties. It crossed the line and became insulting, petty, immature, and unprofessional.

We can all struggle with crossing this line – but in particular I think worship leaders cross it with respect to their pastors. We start off with our opinions, then our opinions become facts, then we tell people those facts, then we become careless about who we share those facts with, and before we know it we’ve said stupid things we can’t take back.

In Psalm 64:8, we see that one characteristic of the wicked is that: “They are brought to ruin, with their own tongues turned against them; all who see them will wag their heads.”

General McChrystal is an honorable man. And most of us worship leaders are good guys too. But we dabble in wickedness when we let our tongue loose. God cautions us in Psalm 34:13 to “keep your tongue from evil and your lips from speaking deceit.

Of course this truth applies to everything we say – not just about our pastor. But every once in a while it’s good to be reminded to keep our tongues in check, to watch what we say, and to be careful who we’re saying it around.

Odds are that a Rolling Stone reporter isn’t listening in on you and reporting to your pastor what you’re saying about him. But it’s damaging and unwise and inappropriate nonetheless.

Let’s serve our pastors well, honor God with our tongues, and be faithful at doing our jobs.

When Your Pastor Asks You to Drop a Song

Yesterday morning, about two hours before our 11:00am service, I got an email from the pastor who would be leading the service, asking me to drop one of the opening songs. Here’s what he said:

JB, Morning and a question.  We have the introduction of a Chinese delegation of pastors this morning, and several announcements and a video, and a really long reading, and JY doesn’t think he’ll be short (Melchizedek takes some ‘splaining).  In light of that I think we should drop one of the songs from the first set.  Does that work?  Can you zip me a reply on that so I know how to configure the other stuff?  Thanks, Dean.

I wrote back very simply:

Sure. No problem at all.

When your pastor asks you to drop a song, you should say “yes” every time.

Sure, I was looking forward to leading all four songs, and I thought doing all four songs helped the opening set be well-rounded and balanced. Part of me was bummed to have to cut one of them out. But, me being bummed doesn’t matter one bit. Submitting to my pastor(s), being a team player, and seeking to lead out of humility requires me to graciously do whatever I’m asked to do. Even dropping a song.

This doesn’t happen every week. It actually doesn’t happen very often. If it did happen regularly, it would probably be good to have a conversation about it during the week, and figure out exactly how much time we envision the different segments of a service taking. This would be the time and place to “push back” if it felt necessary. But a Sunday morning isn’t the time or place.

Worship leaders can quickly become territorial and protective of the time of singing as being “their time”. When that happens, requests to cut a song and/or shorten the time can be viewed as personal attacks warranting extreme defensive measures. This is a mistake and it will put you firmly on the pastor’s bad side. You don’t want to be there.

Get into the habit of reminding yourself the entire service is “worship”, and you just help lead one small part. Then it’s not so hard to say “yes” when and if it needs to be a little smaller.