Does Your Church Have a Worship Pastor Yet?

Now that so many churches are advertising for worship pastors, Calvin Theological Seminary has introduced a Master of Arts in Worship program. A feature story on the unique and important role of the Worship Pastor.

Church publications and websites are advertising for positions unheard of a generation ago. Worship pastor. Music and worship pastor. Director of fine arts and worship. Worship coordinator.

Paul Ryan first learned about the worship pastor concept when he worshiped at High Mill Church of the Resurrection in Canton, Ohio. "In a charismatic setting, worship is really valued," he explains.

While studying vocal performance at Indiana University, he attended Evangelical Community Church in Bloomington, Indiana. "That's where the idea formed in me that I would want to be a worship pastor. I led a team of college students who planned and led worship. We had a drama ministry and a band.

"I wanted to go to seminary, because if I'm going to communicate Jesus through music and drama, then I need to know Jesus, theology, and how to exegete scripture. I came to Calvin Theological Seminary so I could take several classes from John Witvliet," Ryan says. Witvliet, director of the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship, was a leading force behind the new Master of Arts in Worship program debuting in fall 2004 at Calvin Theological Seminary.

A worship pastor's impact

"A worship pastor is first a pastor-and music and arts happen to be the tools for ministry. It takes as much care to plan worship as for a preaching pastor to plan a sermon," says Ryan, who served three years as music director at Seymour Christian Reformed Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Now in his final M.Div. year, Ryan also leads LOFT, the weekly student worship service at Calvin College.

"A worship pastor has a lot of influence in liturgy, music, and introducing creative arts that sometimes have as much impact on a congregation as the sermon does," he says.

He recalls talking with students who, when school began, would ask, "Why do we have to do confession in worship? Why can't we just praise God?"

"To see them over the year first get why we do confession and assurance, and then see them creatively find ways to help worshipers experience confession and assurance, is great," Ryan says.

At one LOFT service, the worship leader asked everyone to sing the first two verses of "What Wondrous Love Is This?" Then he asked worshipers to say-and chant in the same key-"perdónenos, Señor," which means "forgive us, Lord."

Over the top of everyone chanting, the worship leader prayed the prayer of confession. Next the congregation sang the verse, 'And when from death I'm free, I'll sing on, I'll sing on.'

"So we embedded the prayer of assurance within confession. We experienced it all in one moment, like we do in life," Ryan says.

One student who'd attended the service contacted Ryan later that summer. The student's home congregation hadn't done confession in services for at least five years. But after listening to the student's experience, church leaders decided to try including confession and assurance in worship.

Seminaries respond

Ryan acknowledges that in one sense, every senior pastor is a worship pastor or worship leader. "But before the rise of praise and worship, you learned about worship by doing what was in the back of the hymnal. Seminaries didn't usually have courses in worship. As a pastor, you weren't expected to make creative changes. You just did what had been handed down.

"A senior pastor needs to focus on preaching the Word, doing pastoral care, visitation, maybe leading youth ministry, missions, evangelism, and administration. Being spread so thin makes it hard to give attention to detail that congregations want now in worship," he explains.

John Witvliet agrees. "About 20 years ago, many seminaries started M.A. in education programs, because churches were asking for directors of education. Now churches are trying to hire worship coordinators and worship pastors, and people call seminaries looking for training," he says.

Some church members still wonder why, say, an enthusiastic guitar player-someone gifted in inviting congregations into rousing praise-would choose more schooling in leading worship. In his short guide to the new worship M.A., Witvliet suggests several reasons.

For example, learning about the history of Christian worship helps worship pastors and leaders discern how to embrace or resist cultural influences. "People will say things like 'Luther and Wesley wanted to use music from pubs; why can't we?' or 'In the early church, they celebrated the Lord's Supper all the time.' Having the ability to assess the strength of these arguments (and knowing which resources to trust as you study them) is an enormous asset in ministry," Witvliet says.

Likewise, learning about the doctrine of redemption can help worship pastors choose music and artwork "that conveys that God's redemption applies not just to us, but to the whole cosmos."

Inaugural students passionate about worship

Rachel Klompmaker is in the inaugural M.A. in worship class at Calvin Theological Seminary. While majoring in music at Calvin College, she took a religion elective, "Introduction to Worship," with John Witvliet. "The light bulb went on. It was a key turning point," she says.

She began working as a chapel assistant for Cindy de Jong, who plans student chapels and oversees worship apprentices at Calvin College. Playing piano, keeping track of chapel songs and speakers, and "doing general crowd control" for daily chapels inspired Klompmaker to join the college's first worship apprentice team.

"I and two others planned LOFT services and ran rehearsals. I love seeing that 'wow' expression on other people's faces. I love it when a service ends and someone comes up to say 'I really noticed how important confession was in that service' or 'Those songs helped me pay more attention to the Bible readings and other parts of the service,'" Klompmaker says.

She also worked as a research assistant for the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. She researched American hymn texts and writers for a forthcoming international dictionary of hymnology and put together a 400-CD collection of church music, from Gregorian chants through gospel music.

"I anticipate a mix of theology, music, and worship in my life-but I don't know in what balance. Getting my M.A. in worship lets me keep the doors open," Klompmaker explains.

Learning from each other

Becky Boender, another inaugural class member, also appreciates the program's breadth. Depending on the electives and master's project they choose, students can prepare themselves to serve in churches, colleges, schools, publishing houses, retreat centers, and other parachurch organizations.

Boender grew up in a large farm family in southeastern Iowa. She says, "My family was somewhat unique in that we were active in evangelism in our community outside of the church. We sang at community church services and the county fair, visited nursing homes, and got involved in the Fellowship of Christian Farmers. My parents sacrificed finances for the church and finances and time on service trips to Bolivia, Brazil, and New Zealand. I grew to understand how comprehensive God's mission is."

While earning a custom-designed degree in ministry administration from Dordt College in Sioux Center, Iowa, Boender worked for a semester at Focus on the Family Institute in Colorado.

"When I was at Dordt planning chapel services, often times I could have used more perspective. I want to learn more about how to teach and inspire other people about worship. Getting my master's in worship will give me a big picture perspective-more relationships, experiences, knowledge, and understanding than I'd get from staying in Iowa," she says.

Both Klompmaker and Boender say they're glad their classes will include seminarians from other programs, such as divinity, educational ministry, theology, missions, and new church development. This diversity offers a real-world context for discussing worship and music issues with students less immersed in such ideas.

"Having students from many programs in the same class lets you learn about congregational dynamics as well as liturgy," Klompmaker says.

The seminary's new worship courses appeal to M.Div. students such as Jana Bos-Vander Laan. She earned her M.A. in sacred music from Luther Seminary and is completing her M.Div. at Calvin.

A self-described "organist who loves to sing," Bos-Vander Laan has been a church musician in several congregations. She also helps plan seminary chapels.

"I want to bless others by enabling them to participate deeply in worship. I don't need any more worship credits, but I hope to audit as many worship courses as possible.

"I enjoy studying both theology and church music and am confident that God will place me where both these passions can proclaim the good news," she says.

Learn More

Learn more about the Master of Arts in Worship at Calvin Theological Seminary. Other seminaries that offer courses or degrees in worship include: Briercrest Seminary, Haggard School of Theology, Trinity Lutheran Seminary, Luther Seminary, Northern Baptist Theological Seminary, Fuller Theological Seminary.

Worship team or praise and worship team? Read Paul Ryan's essay on why names matter. (See pages 1 and 3.)

Do you wonder what worship pastors do? Read survey results in this Enrichment Journal article, published before the term "worship pastor" was as widespread as it is today.

Just as many people believe that worship pastors need seminary training, this Baptist Standard story explains why music ministers need to know theology.

If you want to broaden or deepen your church library worship list, then spend an hour or so with this guide for students entering Calvin Theological Seminary's M.A. in worship program. Each category ends with book recommendations on topics such as the history of worship, liturgy and theology, worship and evangelism, worship as pastoral care, and worship for specific groups.

Would your church like to hire a worship pastor? Study how other congregations advertise for this position. Besides checking ads in your denominational magazine, you might peruse ads in interdenominational magazines, such as Worship Leader Magazine, or on websites, such as ministrysearch.com, churchstaffing.com, and churchjobs.net.

It's important to clearly state what you're looking for in a worship pastor, so you can avoid a high turnover rate. These Worship Institute resources will help your search committee clarify your congregation's needs for worship staff.

Start a Discussion

  • When did you first hear the term "worship pastor"? Do you know any worship pastors or know of churches that have worship pastors? What do these churches or pastors have in common?
  • Can you recall times when someone leading worship or music at church didn't seem well-informed on the Bible or theology?
  • In what ways does your worship help worshipers understand or feel their connections to worshipers from other cultures or eras of history? How important is it that your congregation members see themselves as members of an age-old, worldwide church?
  • What opportunities do your pastors, worship leaders, and musicians have to learn more about how and why to make worship choices?

Share Your Wisdom

  • Did you develop a process or template to decide when your church needed to hire a worship pastor or worship coordinator?
  • Did you develop a checklist or clear set of goals to help your worship pastor or worship coordinator measure his or her effectiveness in involving more people in designing and leading worship?
  • Have you pulled together a formal or informal network of worship pastors and coordinators from other churches in your denomination or geographic area?
  • What are your best insights on how to involve more members in designing, leading, and understanding worship-while remaining true to your congregational and denominational values?

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