Whether you are leading worship from the heart or leading out of obligation, it gets exhausting! Yes, it is tough, but every week we as worship leaders need to evaluate where are hearts are in leading worship before leading our congregation.
And let us not grow weary while doing good, for in due season we shall reap if we do not lose heart. (Galatians 6:9, NKJV)
There are 52 weekends to lead worship, plus additional services and events. For a worship leader, this means that your work—whether you are even in town or not—is framed with at least 52 projects a year. It is like a train that works as a slave to the clock. Any church has seasonal spikes and maybe a lull here and there. But, the train keeps coming to each of its 52 or more stops. This can become a daunting task. If you are more on the creative side, this makes for stress in trying to make each whistle stop while staying enthused throughout the seasons and even the years. Many burn out while others learn simply to manage the task. All that being said, our churches and leaders need inspired and passionate leadership from us. We need to lead worship from the heart, not the task.
Heart-driven vs Task-driven: How to lead worship from the heart
Being a train conductor might sound great when we were kids, but keeping a train system running while being a warm, heartfelt leader in front of the church pulls us in two directions. On one hand, as a church grows and more services are being led and planned the logistics become a larger percentage of your job as a worship leader. If you started out doing one service and planning it in your pastor’s living room, it might feel less inspiring to be in a corporate-styled office building with a team that has a meeting agenda.
How do you stay “real” when the workload becomes actual work? You once led a youth group and forgot to tune your guitar, and the kids loved it. Now, you found out last week that two lyrics in the worship song slides had typos and the management is not happy about it. You find that youthful zeal to simply pour out your heart now has many more rules, meetings, and unspoken expectations. You are, in fact, afraid that the more you put your heart out there on the table that it will be dissected and critiqued to the point that you cannot bear. You hear the train whistle of the next stop in the 52-week schedule and your organs cave in from anxiety.
Some of us get very good at a survival mechanism that turns off that heart muscle in ministry. We do it at first as a response to pain, then later it becomes rote. Habits for survival, even when we do not like doing them, might work well for a season and therefore we may even feel a momentary relief. It then grows to an addictive buzz and new way of approaching our ministry work. Leading worship takes a lot out of us, especially when we truly worship from the heart. Even when we try our best to fill up, we end up depleted. The effect of closing off seems like a workable option. Until…
The crashing brakes squeal as our locomotive that has run on time for years derails. We are shown the door, run out the door, or in some potentially damaging way escape the vocation we once could see ourselves doing for life. This metaphorical train schedule feels so heartless. Another locomotive appears before we can even dust ourselves off from a fall or from being forced off the tracks. The reality is that our roles as worship leaders are seasonal. We serve at the pleasure of a leader and a church, and that is a good thing. But, if we are not careful we can end up in the locomotive graveyard. Or, the worst case scenario is that we run on fumes the whole time, our heart cold and ministry on auto-pilot. We may actually be effective for a time, but we lose the joy, passion, and inspiration that got us there in the first place.
How does a worship leader stay fresh, then? After years of being a worship leader, I believe there are a few things we can do to revive that aching heart and maintain a restful pace. What I offer is not easy, or necessary popular. I hope some of this wisdom allows you—if you are a worship leader—to thrive! If you are a team member, pastor, or parishioner, my aim is to inspire you to partner with your worship leader strategically to get to a point where you worship from the heart and not from the task.
My church and team members are not merely objects but human beings to love.
One of the signs of becoming whistle-stop-driven is in how we view the people we serve. If we see the church people as blank faces—not taking into account their stories, dreams, and hurts—we objectify them. We silence their voices and instead of empathy we are almost pathological in our approach. We see how a song might move them and are more excited about reading their response than knowing why that song touched them. We evaluate our leadership based on the outward instead of the inward. We value people as objects that perform a function rather than as people who God made in his image.
Psalm 8:5 says, “Yet you have made them a little lower than God, and crowned them with glory and honor.” (NRSV) Did God make us a little lower than himself? Being just below God is shocking because it means we are that important to God. We can’t disregard people and say we understand God’s heart. The principle is this: valuing people will energize your heart while objectifying them will rob your heart. Our hearts are meant to love our neighbors, and when a community is present, we are at our best.
If I have a worship team each week with me, do I know their stories? Do I see them as musicians, singers or tech people who only fill a slot on my planning schedule? Or, do I humbly understand the enormous gravity of their significance and champion their success and health? Do I see them as God sees them? If you want to lead from the heart, then those you serve need to be on your heart.
Keeping physically healthy is a heart issue in more ways than one.
One way we fail is when we see our body more like a machine than a living organism. Sure, tools need care. I take my car for oil changes and replace tires when they wear down. But, all of who we are is not separated from our fleshly, physical frame. My body chemistry impacts my prayer life. My worship devotion integrates with my body’s sense of well-being. We all know how guilt feels and weighs on us. We all can relate to the pain that conflict with a loved one puts in the center of our gut. Simply put, taking care of our body is one of the most spiritual things you can do. If you want to lead from the heart, take care of it—literally.
Leading worship is a physical activity! You will surely get tired from the emotional and spiritual output as well as the adrenaline required to lead well in front of a crowd. The more you express your heart, the more your body will engage. If we do well in leading others in worship, their body and posture are also involved. Leaders have to expend a lot more to model where we are taking others. This expense of energy is also true of our pastors and teachers when they deliver a sermon. It is actual work!
I love what Apostle Paul says to his mentee, Timothy: “Train yourself in godliness, for, while physical training is of some value, godliness is valuable in every way…”(1 Timothy 4:7b-8a, NRSV) The thought of being physically trained and spiritually trained are not necessarily different ideas. While our discipleship growth is the highest aspiration, being physically healthy is valuable. Jesus, the God Incarnate, walked like we did. He needed to rest. He needed to spend time alone with his Father in prayer. He ate and slept. If our Lord was concerned for his physical health, should not we be as well? Leading worship from the heart takes stamina. If we lose our strength physically—as well as spiritually—we might end up performing the task from an empty well.
As artisan-musicians we serve people, not simply perform a mechanical task.
The train schedule of our 52-week lives in worship leading might make it seem that projects are what we are about. That is the farthest thing from the truth. Instead of being a factory worker who sees himself as a cog in a wheel, we directly serve people. An artisan is a creative worker who produces something of use for the public with his or her hands. In a factory, we serve the machine and the clock. Our people, even if we have thousands of them, are best served by a leader who works with the hands.
The quickest way to lose heart is to serve the machine, feed the beast, or become lost in structure. We use our hands to play instruments and our very bodies sing. The danger with the use of efficient tools for planning or modern tech for our production is the focus these require. Sometimes, the beast of the 52-weeks of whistle stops must be fed.
We strive for efficiency when sometimes that works against us. For instance, spending time face-to-face building relationships with our team members takes more time than texting a request to be your bass player for a weekend service. But, that time will save hours later when the human chemistry makes your collaboration more heart-driven than machine-driven. That bass player will be a valued, known participant rather than just a person on your schedule. Never let the machine rule the people factor. The tools and processes we use are only as valuable as they actually serve people. Often, we do this backward.
Empathy is something we can learn and should learn.
One way we end up failing in leading worship from the heart is when we lose our compassion. Empathy is not popular in leadership materials these days. We talk a lot about being “good to great” and not enough about how to actually get better at caring for people. If you don’t know how to have empathy, then your skills at reading people are simply a narcissistic tool to get a result. We should never become so cynical, but the temptation from the wear of this job tempts many of us to grow a bit cold.
I love that in recent years EQ (emotional intelligence) has risen to prominence. Basically, we think our IQ is the indicator of how well we succeed but this assumption has been proven false. If we can be in touch with our emotions and the emotions of others, some studies have said that success is then more likely. So being occupationally smart, but rude, might mean you fail at your job. Emotionally intelligent people lead better and achieve more. The good news is that unlike our IQ, we can gain the skills of EQ, including the important pastoral function of empathy.
When our heart feels what another heart feels, we then have a window into how to lead them in true worship from the heart. Imagine if you could read the fact that your church is feeling heavy from current events. Your planning and execution are then better informed. You lead from a sense of heartfelt information rather than consumer data. Sure, you can take a survey and read what your church members are experiencing and feeling. That is fine, but if you can achieve that on a relational level and navigate both the strategy and tactics of your worship services, you are then a part of the equation.
How we deal with criticism is often a deal breaker.
I remember one ministry I served that published for our Monday morning staff meeting “comment cards” to go through. Between every prayer request or note about news in the lives of a church member, there were complaints about the worship service. These included the volume of the music, the choice of songs, and things that often made no sense. “You don’t look like you are worshiping,” said one parishioner. How do you respond to that? Well, that is the point. How we respond is vital to our success and prevention of losing heart.
Since I perked your interest, my response was to ask for clarification. “Well, Rich, I don’t know. I just feel that sometimes you aren’t worshiping.” That didn’t help. He was kind enough about the feedback, but no action plan was available to me to help myself look like I worshiped for this guy. My insides told me that this was a slight. His comment likely was meant to undercut my leadership. I felt defensive. When we have critics–no matter how accurate or not they are–we will surely feel defensive.
Sometimes in dealing with the critic, their agenda is obvious. Critics are often well-meaning people in our church who simply have an opinion. As humble leaders, we listen to all of it. That is the deal when we are public leaders. However, it doesn’t mean we accept it all. Our pastor is the one who makes sure we filter the feedback appropriately. When we remember that we serve a leader, this makes a lot of this issue workable.
But, back to the guy questioning my heart. There are times when we need not let bad behavior simply go unchecked. We don’t push back with defensive tit-for-tats. We try to listen and be heard. Over time, the mature ones will grow with us. On a rare occasion, we will find an unhealthy individual who trolls us to the point of exhaustion. Still, we can listen. But, we don’t have to validate the bad intentions. We simply address the expressed behavior. “Sir, what you said did not make sense to me and perhaps makes me feel that you are not supportive. Is that what you meant?”
If we condemn our critics, we are out of bounds, in my opinion. But, we can check the critics in a direct, humble way. We are not meant to be doormats. We, after all, have to protect our hearts. The best of us at times act out of character and say hurtful things. How we handle these mishaps, as well as those who oppose us, will either be the deal breaker or maker for our leadership. Worship leaders must learn to handle the criticism that is often subjective and unclear.
Celebrate the small, unseen work in ministry
Behind the scenes is where most of the worship leadership happens. While we judge what we see in front of others as the primary results, how you get there all occurs in the small and invisible places that most people have no knowledge of. If a worship leader only focuses on the feedback about the worship service, the activity needed to improve or maintain the service may very well be neglected. What are the unseen and small tasks a worship leader often performs?
Personal preparation is not seen, but very visible. There is prayer, musical practice, listening to new music, chatting with mentors and reading or learning from media like podcasts. The fire in the belly has to be fanned into flames! It may be that reading a worthy article inspires the discovery of a new song. Keeping your skills honed matters, too. Some are talented enough to fake it and simply phone in their musical performance. The real pros in the secular music world would never expect to work for long doing that. Why would we expect less as church musical leaders?
From soldering a broken cable to finding the right guitar strings for a volunteer each serve as examples of how the gear and tools of worship leadership are crucial. Remember, this is something we do with our hands. Often, we have to get our hands dirty and work on improving everything from the sound system to functionality of the instruments our volunteers use. One broken cable, if neglected, can potentially distract the momentum of a service.
Meetings are necessary. There are those scheduled ones, but also the ones standing in the hallway or the parking lot. Being accessible to your leaders and those you work with is not often seen as your job, but it is! Regardless of how a church sees your role, you know that you cannot do it without the collaboration of other leaders of the church.
Learning to celebrate the things that most don’t celebrate or see is not an easy approach to obtain. However, if you live for the stage or the platform in front of people, you might not be leading worship from the heart. I have seen many become dissatisfied because they expected to be a recording artist and treated as such. As tradesmen and tradeswomen, we perform whatever is needed. And, most recording artists I know have to solder their gear when they are on the road.
Learn the discipline of mining for inspiration
It is one thing to be tasked with providing inspiring worship services, and it is another thing entirely to actually be inspired. When was the last time something made you say “wow” or took your breath away? We become stale when we draw from the same well too often. This 52-week train schedule requires variety if we are to pull ourselves out of the rut of the mundane. The key is this: inspiration needs to be mined, and mining takes actual work.
Some of us are naturally wired to stop and smell the roses, pause and soak in the sunset, or read a life-changing story. Creatives are often naturally wired to know when they need to retreat and recharge their creative tanks. Being in the role of worship leader might not allow the same freedom. Living at an office desk is not where an author truly writes his or her book; it can be in traffic or inspired by a phone call. Ideas come from no formula other than the world is full of them. They need to be caught. Inspiration, on the other hand, needs to be mined. I have to pursue it.
Inspiration means literally to breathe in. When you exhale every week at least once, you need to have air already in your lungs. This breathing is critical to life as well as truly creative work. When we dig for it and find it, what we breathe out not only inspires others, but motivates and energizes us! So, how do we do this? It may be as simple as scheduling your day actually to watch a sunset this week. Do you have a reading list? What movies have you seen and have you journaled how they have inspired you? When was the last time you sat with a friend who charges you with a meaningful conversation? All of these must be intentional, or they won’t happen. How will you mine for inspiration?
In summary, here are seven ways to stay fresh and lead worship from the heart!
- Treat your team and church members like people created in God’s image. People matter to God, which means you matter, too. How we handle people will determine where the center of our heart is.
- Keep as physically fit and healthy as possible. We are physical beings, as well as spiritual beings. To forget this means we may limit our stamina in ministry.
- Serve people with your “hands” instead of checking off a list of tasks. The more we know we serve people and not a machine, the better we stay warm and inspirational.
- Grow your empathy muscle and your emotional intelligence. There is no excuse not to grow our capacity to see others and be truly affected by the process. Everyone wins with empathy.
- Deal well with critics and criticisms or lose your place. Navigating feedback is vital to our survival as well as our leadership position.
- Celebrate the small and unseen work in ministry. Just because most judge us by the public service, doesn’t mean the preparation and invisible ministry is lesser.
- Learn the discipline of mining for inspiration. Stay fresh by breathing in new things. What we take in is what we breathe out.
It may take years or eternity to reap what we sow, so it would be a shame to lose heart and quit. We can quit, both by resigning inwardly as well as leaving our post. Our church community deeply needs worship leaders who can stay the course and inspire worship. It takes work to both keep on schedule with the whistle stop each week as well as do it with a heart that is engaged and warm to God and people. But we can do it!