I’ve been a worship pastor for a long time, and I know a lot of worship leaders both locally and around the country. Most of them are good-hearted, hard-working, God-loving leaders, charged with the responsibility of leading God’s people in worship.
Even so, there are many misconceptions about a worship leader’s job, and a number of difficult elements that go unnoticed. Here are seven truths 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 the misconception that a worship leader straps on a guitar on Sunday morning and starts to sing, and everything merely flows out of his or her God-bathed spirituality. After all, how hard is it to play a Chris Tomlin tune? And while I believe that God is at the center of it all, the reality of worship leading is that it is a considerable amount 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 a week, and the full-time pastor 50-60 hours per week.
Additionally, there’s the emotional exhaustion that goes along with the job. 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, leading to emotional jet lag. Ministry burnout is real.
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 worship 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 thought: I might have the weirdest job in the world.
Three: We are (mostly) normal.
Worship leaders are often a little eccentric. 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, and even stagecraft. And of course, worship leaders serve the speaking pastor, creating meaningful responsive elements to the sermon when possible. While corporate worship is often expressed through music, it encompasses 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 doesn’t want to be there, the married couple that seems disconnected from one another, the toddler crawling under the pew.
But we can also see when you are engaged and worshiping and alive to the reality of God’s presence. 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 allows me 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, 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 counterintuitive, but the quality of the worship is ultimately not a function of my personal ability to feel His presence. The reality of God is true regardless of my feelings. 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 OK. 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.
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 know other readers would appreciate them as well.