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Equipping Worship Leaders: More important than ever

Equipping people for worship. The priesthood of all believers. Discovering your gifts. Given how many congregations have no pastor, these concepts are more important than ever. A feature story exploring how to equip lay-leaders in the church.

When she discovered three new books—on the topic she'd planned to write about—Shirley Roels made other plans for her sabbatical.

"Within 48 hours, an unusual convergence of people told me they were concerned about lay leadership in local churches. Because so many churches are without pastors, the Christian church in North America must depend more and more on trained laity," says Roels, who teaches business management and directs the Lilly Vocation Project at Calvin College.

She applied for a student research assistant to help her investigate current practices for training lay and paid worship leaders.

Preliminary results from their surveys reveal lessons for most churches in how to train people who lead in worship, give them feedback, and recognize their contributions.

Nationwide issue

Many people know their own church is without a pastor or priest or that their denomination has lots of vacant churches. Yet Roels says few people realize that the percentage of clergy age 35 and under is dropping. Seminaries enroll smaller classes than they did 25 years ago. And in the next decade, a large percentage of pastors will retire.

"In my own denomination, the Christian Reformed Church in North America, about one in eight congregations has no pastor. But this is a nationwide issue, reported by Catholics and every Protestant group," Roels says.

The situation is worst in churches that are small, rural, ethnic, or unable to support a full-time pastor, according to a recent Pulpit & Pew research report. 

Because the growing need for effective lay leaders affects all kinds of churches, Roels and her student assistant, Kari Slotsema, drew from a wide range of participants in conducting their 15-minute online survey in fall 2004.

Those who answered the survey included lay, part-time, and full-time staff. They represented more than 45 church groups-evangelical and mainline, rural and urban, small and large-across the U.S. and Canada.

Most survey names came from Calvin Institute of Christian Worship, Baylor University, Notre Dame Center for Liturgy, Robert Webber, St. Olaf College, Carl Stam, or the National Association of Pastoral Musicians, a Catholic group.

"Kari was a driving force to make this all happen. We worked as a team, as colleagues. She was instrumental in working with the Calvin College Center for Social Research to create the survey.

"She solicited people to give us their database or include a link to our survey. She and I discussed how to cut the data, but she did the actual analysis and created the PowerPoint slides and graphs," Roels says.

Training leaders

The survey asked respondents whether they were being trained to lead worship, and, if so, to describe their actual and preferred training.

"The good news is that 63 percent got some training for leading worship. Paid staff got the most training. Those who get the least training are involved with children's or youth worship; the fine arts other than music; and technology. In other words, the least-trained worship leaders are the people who don't have the loudest voices in church," Roels says.

In the future, people want structured training, but they'd like to receive it in local workshop settings. "People told us, 'I don't need general ideas. I need things that apply in my context, denomination, or congregation,' " Roels says.

Most respondents said they have a good working knowledge of the elements of worship but need help to manage and motivate others. They also would like training on incorporating media and diversity in worship.

"There were, surprisingly, not many differences between Protestants and Catholics. Catholic respondents received more training and said it was more effective than Protestants reported. However, this could be because many of our Catholic respondents receive training through the National Association of Pastoral Musicians," Slotsema says.

She notes a correlation between church age and training. ("Church age" refers to how long the congregation has existed, not average member age.)

"Churches under 10 years old have more lay leaders, and these lay leaders often go outside their denomination for training. The older a church is, the more likely that a significant majority get trained by their denomination and that the training is professional.

"The older the church gets, the more full-time employees it has, and the less part-time volunteers. This may show that the older churches are more stable and have the money to pay for staff, where younger churches must rely on volunteers. This creates an important difference that must be addressed in the way the individuals are trained," Slotsema says.

Also, as churches grow larger, they offer more training, and the people who are training are more likely to describe that training as effective. Slotsema reasons this could be because larger churches have more money or more people to conduct and oversee training.

Sharing feedback

The survey asked whether and how people got feedback and how they would prefer to receive it. Slotsema says Catholics and Protestants got equal amounts of feedback, but Catholics described their feedback as more effective. Full-time staff members get more response and evaluation than part-time or lay worship leaders do.

"About 58 percent of respondents get no feedback on the worship they've helped to develop. People don't know how the worship they've planned actually affects worshipers. The feedback loop is not there.

"Even for those who get some feedback, 70 percent of that is a general comment like 'great service today.' Especially for Scripture readers, musical performers, drama presenters, or PowerPoint creators, there's no specific input on the content or effectiveness of their participation," Roels says.

"So how are people to get the confidence, motivation, or ideas for participating again or doing it better?"

"If you have a job, you expect to be evaluated. But in church we rarely offer that. Granted, it's a tricky issue to figure out who's responsible to tell the guitar player that he played too slowly. No one wants to offend," Roels adds.

Since fall 2000, Karel de Waal Malefyt has been the part-time, paid choir director at Boston Square Christian Reformed Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

He says he gets lots of feedback from choir members, especially on how they like a piece's text or music or how the choir sounded.

"Members of the congregation or staff often tell me when they like a particular piece. I get the most response when the congregation is included in the singing. Only choir members tell me if they don't like a song," de Waal Malefyt says. He says these responses help him decide how soon to repeat a song or similar anthem.

He looks for music from a wide variety of genres and cultures, looking for pieces that have musical and textual value and fit well in particular services.

"The most help I get comes from our pastor, Jay Blankespoor, or from the worship planning committee. It helps when I know well in advance the scripture and theme for the worship service. Then I can study the scripture text and find music with words that fit the service-and that the choir can learn," he says.

Offering recognition

Respondents also answered questions on whether or how they received recognition for helping to lead worship.

"A lot of people say they 'aren't looking for recognition.' But a goodly number-30 percent-don't even get a verbal thank you. Some people figure a pastor, elder, or director of worship will thank those involved in a particular service. But unless churches and committees decide who's responsible for thanking participants, often nothing happens," Roels says.

She admits that her research directed her towards simple improvements at her own church, where she heads the worship committee.

For four years, one woman in the congregation made floral displays and liturgical banners. "After she moved on to other things, we specifically sent her a thank you letter. We also recognized her service in the church bulletin and said who'd take over for her.

"It doesn't take long to email the church secretary, but that bulletin announcement matters to the person who has served five years on the worship committee or whatever," Roels says.

She and Slotsema say they had time to present "only a snippet" of their research at the recent Calvin Symposium on Worship in 2005.

They're still analyzing survey data for differences attributable to respondents' entry into the survey, such as whether they heard about it from Baylor University or St. Olaf College.

But even without completing their final slicing and dicing, Roels says one thing is clear.

"We realize the church should be a culture of gratitude. It's biblical to build up the saints. Think how much more progress we could make if our churches had appropriate and systematic ways to train, evaluate, and thank people. We're full of phraseology about 'equipping the saints' but we need to more thoroughly embed this concept in our practices," she says.

Learn More

Examine survey results or get ideas for conducting your own surveys on projector technology in worship, worship preferences in the Presbyterian Church (USA), church accessibility (also check this questionnaire), intergenerational worship, and congregational life in the U.S.

Clergy supply and demand concerns many groups: Baptist, Catholic, Lutheran, Mennonite, Methodist, Presbyterian, and Protestant. Though many people enter ministry as a second or third career, the percentage of young clergy has dropped. Churches that are small, rural, or ethnic have the most difficulty attracting pastors.

The Congregational Resource Guide includes links to help you understand how different traditions define the term "lay ministry."

Update: Roels' and Slotsema's summary of their research published in The Banner, January 2006. [Back to Top]

Organizations that train people to lead worship include:

For ideas on how to give feedback or recognition to people who help lead worship, check out these books:

Start a Discussion

  • How many people help plan or lead a typical worship service at your church? Who trains, responds to, and thanks these people?
  • In your congregation, are there more, fewer, or about the same number of lay people who lead worship? Compared to five years ago, do lay people or part-time staff now have worship roles that used to belong to a full-time pastor?
  • If you help plan or lead worship, what changes would you like to see in your opportunities for training, feedback, or recognition? What's the next step in making each change happen?
  • How does your church discover ways that church members might contribute to worship? How effectively do you put these discoveries into practice?

Share Your Wisdom

What is the best way you've found to equip congregational members to lead worship?

  • Did you find a good way to help your church develop a culture of gratitude?
  • Could you share your church's policies or budget guidelines for deciding which worship leaders-whether lay, part-time, or full-time-receive training? If you have also developed a way for people to show how they put their training into practice, please send us that method, too.
  • If you started putting more emphasis on lay leadership in worship, what happened? Which results or best practices would you recommend that other churches try?