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Planning and Leading Worship as a Pastoral Task

We need a new perspective, a way of conceptualizing our roles as worship leaders that will sustain our day-to-day work in our congregations.

Plenary Address at the Symposium on Worship and the Arts, January 10, 1998

July 2015: Watch this recorded presentation by John Witvliet on "Music as Pastoral Care.


It is probably fair to say that most of us are here for practical ideas. We want to find resources, songs, texts, scripts, and images that we can use in our congregations—preferably by next week. It is the Symposium committee's deepest hope that you will find all of that in this year's conference. But perhaps we also are looking for something deeper, something more fundamental than techniques. Perhaps we also need a perspective, a way of conceptualizing our roles as worship leaders that will sustain our day-to-day work in our congregations. This is especially true at this time of year. Many of us are burned out after producing a full menu of Advent and Christmas services. Others of us are weary of working in congregations where "worship war" rhetoric takes the joy out of our job. Still others of us may work tirelessly in congregations that don't seem to appreciate our efforts at all, or in congregations where worshipers come to church with impossibly high expectations of us, and amazingly few expectations of themselves. At this point, we need not only techniques, but a battery charge. We need a vision that encourages, sustains, and inspires us.

I. Four common images of worship planners
II. A new image: the pastoral role of worship planners and leaders
III. Examples of pastoral leading and planning of worship
IV. Qualities of leaders with a pastor's heart

I. Four common images of worship planners

Over the past several years, a host of publications (Christian Century, Christianity Today, Leadership) have featured articles on the changing role of the pastor in Christian congregations. They have attempted to answer the question "What is the central image that pastors and their congregations have of the pastor's role?" Are pastors primarily resident theologians? Are they ecclesiastical CEOs? Are they spiritual therapists? Are they primarily supposed to be skilled orators? These are four images that have been used to describe the pastor's role. We could name others. What is certain is that how a church and its pastor answer the question of identity makes a world of difference. It changes everything about how a pastor prioritizes among competing goals, how a church thinks of its mission, how it searches for a new pastor, and how a seminary curriculum is planned.

Everyone here this morning—youth leaders, artists, musicians, actors, preachers, worship planners, worship committee members, members of church councils, interested laypersons—also operates with certain images of our roles as worship planners and leaders. These images subtly shape how we go about our work: what conferences we attend, what journals we subscribe to, what we do at committee meetings, how we prioritize our time.

During the past ten years, I have been privileged to speak with worship leaders from around the country in a number of denominations. When I have asked how various leaders think of their role, almost always, one of four basic images comes to the surface.

First, some of us think of ourselves primarily as craftspeople. All of us, in our chosen artistic media, are perfecters of a craft. Some write and deliver sermons, and thus attend to the form of the sermon, to finding persuasive narratives and apt metaphors to make the sermon come to life. Some of us sculpt communion ware or sew banners, and thus work on finding exactly the right materials, images, and colors. Some of us make music, and thus attend to the nuances of phrasing, to memorable melodies, and convincing harmonies. Some of us labor over writing a prayer or a script for a drama or a new hymn or song. Indeed, like the artist Perugino, the musician Palestrina, the preacher John Donne, the hymn poet Isaac Watts, and a host of other Christians throughout the centuries—we are craftspeople.

Second, some of us think of ourselves primarily as directors or coordinators. Many of us even have job titles like "Director of Music" or "Worship Coordinator." And this accurately describes a big part of our jobs. We spend most of our time recruiting people for a drama troupe or for a choir. We run rehearsals. We proofread printed orders of service. We make countless phone calls to find scripture readers and flute players and sound people. As one person said at a previous Symposium, "This worship stuff is a lot more complicated than it used to be." A lot of life is spent in meetings, on the phone, in rehearsal, purchasing materials. Our role as worship leaders guarantees a long to-do list.

Third, some of us think of ourselves primarily as performers. Whether we play the organ or participate in drama or preach a sermon, there is a performance aspect to our work. And no matter how much we or our congregations protest this label, we are still expected to put out, to play chords in tune, to tell interesting stories, or to produce elegant banners. Whether we work at Community Church of Joy or at Tall Steeple Presbyterian, people's assessment of our work still fits the performance model. The only comments we receive after church are ones like "impressive music" or "good job in that drama" or "powerful sermon." And whether we admit it or not, we do spend energy producing services to generate comments like that.

Fourth, some of us think of our role as what I will call—for lack of a better term—"spiritual engineers." Our primary goal is to inspire people. We want to create moments that are packed with spiritual power. Not long ago, I received a call from a pastor asking advice on finding a worship leader. I asked, "What are you looking for?" The answer? "Someone who can make God present in our midst." This is a rather loaded expectation. Language like this is increasingly present in want ads for worship leaders. Increasingly, churches are looking for people whose creativity, personal testimony, and charismatic personality can turn an ordinary moment into a holy moment.

These four images are common—craftspeople, coordinators, performers, "spiritual engineers." But none of them are sufficient for the task. Our craft is important. But the church does not exist for the sake of drama, or poetry, or music—whether that is Johann Sebastian Bach or Michael Card.

Our work in coordinating worship is necessary. But it is not enough. Martin Luther knew this. He once chided worship leaders by arguing: "We have stuck to founding, building, singing, ringing, to vestments, incense burning, and to all the additional preparations for divine worship up to the point that we consider this preparation the real, main divine worship and do not know how to speak of any other. And we are acting," said Luther, "as wisely as the man who wants to build a house and spends all his goods on the scaffolding and never, as long as he lives, gets far enough along to lay one stone of his house." (quoted, Oden 63).

Our performance is perhaps inevitable. It is as inevitable for us as for Chenaniah, the musician described in 1 Chronicles. He was appointed the temple musician "because he understood music." But it too is insufficient. This self-image does nothing to distinguish us from concert hall entertainers, whether that be the Chicago Symphony or Amy Grant. It is one thing when worshipers greet us with "neat piece" or "fancy playing" or "impressive sermon." It is something entirely different when they simply say "I am at a loss for words to say thanks. Today you helped me pray."

Whereas these three images are incomplete because they do not shoot high enough, the fourth is problematic because it overshoots. Our concern for attending to holy moments is important. Yet none of us, no matter how charismatic we might be, can—by our own creativity or ingenuity or effort—make a moment holy. Scripture records a long line of those who tried: the prophets of Baal at Carmel, the servant who wanted to support the ark as it moved, the magician Simon Magnus. At the dedication of the concert hall and chapel at Luther College, Westin Nobel chose the anthem on the Pauline text "God does not dwell in temples made of human hands." This is a powerful reminder that God's presence is always received as a gift. It cannot be engineered or produced. In sum, these four images are incomplete.

II. A new image: the pastoral role of worship planners and leaders

We need another richer image to give us our identity—not finally to displace these others, but to put them all in context, to correct their overstatements.

I suggest that we need to see planning and leading worship as a pastoral task. Though some of us have the word "pastor" in our job title, all of us have shepherd-like roles. We need to take the advice of the fourth century document "Constitutions of the Holy Apostles": "Be a builder up, a converter, apt to teach, forbearing of evil, of a gentle mind, meek, long-suffering, ready to exhort, ready to comfort, as one of God." Only then does this ancient church order go on to speak of skill: "When you call together an assembly of the Church, it is as if you were the commander of a great ship. Set up the enterprise to be accomplished with all possible skill, charging the deacons as mariners to prepare places for the congregation as for passengers, with all due care and decency" (Oden 62). The craft and coordinating and "performance" in our work finds its ultimate goal and purpose if we approach it with a pastoral heart.

As worship leaders, we have the important and terrifying task of placing words of prayer on people's lips. It happens every time we choose a song and write a prayer. We also have the holy task of being stewards of God's Word. Our choices of which scripture readings and themes will be featured in worship represent a degree of control over people's spiritual diets, how they feed on the bread of life, the Word of God. For holy tasks like these, the church needs more than craftspeople, coordinators, and performers, and none with the hubris to be "spiritual engineers." The church needs pastoral people to plan and lead worship.

Certainly, our role as "shepherds" does not displace aspects of the other roles. We still cultivate gifts as clear and articulate speakers, technically proficient musicians, ingenious artists. We are still coordinators as we call meetings, run rehearsals, proofread copy. While we aren't spiritual engineers, we do—with fear and trembling—take the part of priests, placing words of prayer on people's lips that may well resonate deep within their soul and draw them, by the Spirit's power, closer to God.

III. Examples of pastoral leading and planning of worship

Perhaps this role of shepherd and the pastoral heart necessary to plan and lead worship can best be understood by looking at concrete examples. The final year of my graduate school journey provided a helpful sabbatical from Sunday to Sunday church work. For one year, we moved out of state and had the opportunity to visit dozens of churches right across the spectrum of Christian denominations. During this year-long journey, we discovered countless examples of people who saw their work as worship leaders as a pastoral task.

*In one congregation, worship leaders taught the second and third grade church school class the musical refrain that was used a month later in a congregational prayer. In this way, these children became full participants in that congregational prayer.

*In another, worship leaders prepared a devotional guide for their members. They challenged their members to make Sunday worship the anchor of their personal and family worship. They advised, "On Monday through Wednesday relive the scripture texts, hymns, and prayers of the previous Sunday. On Thursday through Saturday, build up your anticipation for Sunday by studying, praying, and singing the songs you will sing." The result: a spirituality that was truly corporate—rooted in community.

*In one congregation, all those who visited the sick from January through March brought with them a simple but beautiful calligraphy print of a new hymn text, and then read that hymnpoem as part of their pastoral visit. Then in April, that text was introduced in worship. Rather than complaining about another new tune and text, dozens of members of the congregation found a profound connection between their worship and their prior time of crisis.

*In another, the organist played an organ voluntary that was both appropriate for the theme of the day, but also happened to be based on the hymn that had been sung one year earlier at the funeral of a young child in the congregation. Most worshipers on that Sunday had no idea of the connection, but for the family of that child, the organist became a pastoral-care giver.

*Another congregation developed a guild of visual artists and put their large and unused education space to work in the middle of the week by donating it as studio space for the artists. Not only did a group of artists find a church home, but the church was blessed with communion ware, banners, and bulletin covers that were simply breathtaking in their simple beauty.

*In one congregation, fifth-grade pianists participated in worship—but not by nervously playing their recital sonatina as an offertory, but rather by playing a simple melody of a familiar hymn to close the congregational prayer. The music was at once less complicated and more meaningful for everyone present.

*In another, the annual youth service was canceled. Instead, the congregation made a commitment to involve at least five members of the youth group every month as scripture readers, instrumentalists, and prayer leaders.

*In another, a profound pastoral moment occurred in the middle of the intercessory prayer—which included a simple, direct prayer of thanks and petition that we rarely hear, one for adopted children and for parents who adopt. The prayer reminded all worshipers that they are adopted in Christ. This was a profound act of pastoral care for many in the congregation, especially for those for whom adoption was the most significant source of their own sense of self.

*Another congregation made a commitment to singing one song from another continent in each worship service. They said: "We need this tangible act to remember and celebrate the worldwide body of Christ." They believed they needed this for their own spiritual health, or without it, they would be prone to think of their congregation as the whole church.

*In one congregation, children came forward not for an object lesson/children's sermon which has become one of the most ritualized moments in Protestant worship and known as "the congregational chuckle." Instead, the children came forward for a simple, hushed moment where the pastor blessed them, and the children in turn blessed the rest of the congregation.

*In one congregation (actually in several) the leadership voted to the change the job title for their musician from "director of music" to "pastoral musician."

*In another, the entire post-Christmas adult education program focused on Holy Week worship. The director of education commented, "Through our education program, we want to prepare people spiritually to experience the most profound worship possible during those important days."

*Another congregation added a signing ministry to open up worship to those without the gift of hearing.

These dozen examples, and many more I could cite, are wonderful examples of worship planners and leaders treating their tasks as pastoral tasks. And many of them are possible, on some scale, in churches with 75 members, as well as those with 750 or 7500.

IV. Qualities of leaders with a pastor's heart

These examples come from people who constantly ask pastoral questions: Does our art and music and prayers and drama and sermons minister to people? Do we give people words to sing and speak and pray not only when they are happy, but also when they endure life's hardships? Are we nurturing the gifts of members of the congregation—like stewards of a God-given treasure? These are questions from people who see planning and leading worship as a deeply pastoral task.

Part of my own growth has come from learning from mentors who have asked these questions and responded to the worshiping community pastorally. I have tried to think hard about their approach and to figure out what makes them tick. My reflections are incomplete. But at least three things are true about these kind of people.

First, they are people who cultivate the gift of a discerning mind. They are people with a deep and growing knowledge of scripture. They love the truth of the Christian gospel and are eager to probe its deepest questions. They are people who love to learn. They know that leading worship requires more than good intentions. They read books and journals, take courses, and attend conferences like this one to hone their pastoral sensibilities. They know that the quickest way to make worship relevant is to make it a profoundly true portrayal of the Christian gospel.

They are constantly asking whether the "psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs" of the church's worship are sung "so that the Word of God may dwell in us richly." They worry about the link between theology and worship: whether worship in their church depicts God as only indifferent and far removed; whether it gives the impression that prayer is simply an act of cognition or, conversely, an act of pure emotion; whether worship in their congregation makes it clear that the Bible is central to the life and faith of the church. They know that worship expresses the deepest theological convictions of the community, that it reveals as much about the belief of the community as do catechisms and confessions. In short, they know what Dutch theologian Gerardus van der Leeuw knew when he quipped that "one can't tap the finger of liturgy without immediately getting the whole hand of theology."

Because of this theological bent, they are always making self-conscious choices between good and bad, better and worse. They are willing to say "no" to a text or narrative or image or song that is inaccurate, simplistic, or sentimental. They have an instinctive way of telling the difference between evangelistic zeal and personal aggrandizement, between aesthetic critiques that are spiritually astute and those that are simply pretentious, between changes in worship that are wholesale capitulation to market forces and those that are a breath of spiritual fresh-air after years of stagnant, routine Christianity. Such is the nature of their discerning minds.

Second, they are people with a pastoral heart. They know the names, faces, and stories of people in the congregation. They can spot a visitor and welcome them to the assembly. They know whom to ask to serve as scripture reader or flute player or sound person—because they know both who has the necessary skills and also for whom that participation would be a meaningful act of service.

This is possible because they are people of prayer. They are able to shepherd others through their planning and leading worship because they constantly pray for them. One choir director I know prays for each member of her choir prior to rehearsal. Rehearsals are transformed from a joyless exercise in note-learning to a profound opportunity for pastoral care.

Perhaps because of this, these people know how to lead people in prayer. They choose texts and songs that lead people not to say "I enjoyed that music" or "that was a neat song," but instead "through that song I confessed my sin to God" or "through that song I was able to praise God more truly."

Third, they have a spirit of infectious joy. Romano Guardini, a 20th century German theologian, once observed: "Worship has one thing in common with the play of the child and the life of art—it has no purpose, but is full of profound meaning. It is not work, but play. From this is derived its sublime mingling of profound earnestness and divine joyfulness."

My favorite metaphor for this brand-new Institute of Worship is a "playground." This Institute is a great big excuse to sit at the feet of Paul and Augustine and Calvin, to learn from Christian communities in Africa and Korea, to talk to Christians who are Orthodox, Baptist, Episcopalian, and Pentecostal. It is an opportunity to study and learn from Bach cantatas and South Africa freedom songs, medieval mystery plays and children's musicals, the hymns of St. Ambrose and Carl Daw, well-honed Presbyterian sermons and African ring shouts, the folk art of the Mexican muralists, the sweeping arches of Gothic cathedrals, and the serigraphs of John August Swanson. In short, the recipe for this Institute is one part rigorous study, one part passionate worship (with all the joyful music making, art, drama, dance that go along with it), and one part genuine fellowship with other Christians.

We hope that today's conference will be like a playground with all sorts of joyful discoveries awaiting you. There are mentors to learn from, new ideas to explore, creative gifts to develop. The whole enterprise is simply so much fun. Getting more educated about worship is not a burden, but a joy—and one that is deeply spiritually nourishing.

At the end of the day, what the church needs most is not another hymnal, a new sound system, a revised prayer book, another set of published scripts. What the church needs most—indeed what your congregation needs most—are discerning, prayerful, joyous people who treat their work as worship planners and leaders as a holy, pastoral calling. May this conference and this Institute in some small way contribute to that end.