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Six Tips on Teaching Worship in Seminaries

Two seminaries seek the sweet spot among worship classes and chapel services. They aim to produce ministers ready to lead worshipers in full, conscious, active participation.

For generations, seminaries have prepared people for the ministry by teaching Hebrew, Greek, biblical and theology courses, and preaching and ministry studies. Most MDiv (master of divinity) graduates arrive in churches having spent little or no class time on worship.

Yet there’s a growing sense that the more seminarians connect classroom learning and chapel worship, the more they’ll be prepared as ministers to engage worshipers in ways that change hearts and lives.

Churches and seminaries are realizing that to truly form people to be more like Christ, worship has to do more than inform them. It’s the difference between a preacher telling people they are sinners or worshipers together confessing their sin and receiving God’s assurance of pardon. It’s the difference between hearing a choir or praise band sing about prayer and gathering around to lay hands on and pray with a worshiper in need.

Two seminaries—Pittsburgh Theological Seminary (PTS) in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and Wake Forest University School of Divinity in Winston-Salem, North Carolina—received 2013 Vital Worship grants from the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Here are six lessons they learned about teaching worship in seminaries.

Consider logistics

PTS experimented for two academic years with asking professors (no matter what subject they taught) to have their students plan and lead a week of chapel services. “Information learned in a classroom—whether an Old or New Testament class, church history, Christian ethics or theology—really takes root in the context of worship. We wanted students to think about how their coursework impacts their relationship with God and discover how this impacts their ability to lead others in worship of that same faithful Lord,” says Kendra Buckwalter Smith, worship coordinator.

The potential for classroom-chapel crossover sounded great, and actually was in some cases. However, PTS operates on a trimester schedule and offers four chapel services a week. Smith says this model made for frantic chapel planning, didn’t allow time to reflect on completed services and didn’t offer enough opportunities to students in large classes.

During its grant year, PTS invited students to join eight themed worship teams. Teams met regularly with a mentor to plan and lead monthly chapel services. Smith says this worked well because “participation was voluntary rather than graded, team size was manageable and teams had time to fruitfully engage the planning-leading-reflecting cycle by leading only one service per month.”

Choose small doses of learning over time

Angela Dienhart Hancock, who teaches homiletics and worship at PTS, asked her Introduction to Worship students to keep worship journals and reflect on at least 20 services over the 10-week term. This constant focus helped them think theologically and pastorally about worship.

Wake Div offered six one-credit worship courses during its grant year. Courses met for a single weekend or once a week during the fall or spring term. More than half the student body took one or more courses:

  • Building Relationships: Turning Pastors and Worship Music Leaders into Partners
  • Children in Worship
  • Cooking, Serving and Presiding at the Lord’s Meal
  • My Life Flows on in Endless Song
  • Speaking Up: Worship Leadership and Self-Presentation
  • Worship Matters

Keep learning together

Among mentors and students on PTS themed worship teams, Hancock noticed “a wide range of knowledge and ability” to lead worship gracefully, find musical and liturgical resources, understand the history and theology of particular worship practices and “design a service that ‘flows.’ At their best, our teams pooled their collective wisdom. There was a clear difference in their thoughtfulness and skill by the end of the year,” she says.

Offer more worship courses

Most seminaries require MDiv students to take one worship-related course, such as Church and Sacraments at PTS or Homiletics and Worship at Wake Div. At seminaries that also offer a worship- or music-related master’s degree, MDiv students can choose worship or music courses as electives.

When PTS decided to revitalize and reimagine worship’s place in their institutional life, they renovated and rededicated Hicks Memorial Chapel. The new design uses new liturgical furniture for a more flexible worship space. The seminary hired Angela Dienhart Hancock as the first faculty member to have worship as part of her or his title. She estimates that about a fifth of master’s students now take a worship elective. “Our efforts to improve those numbers involve a wider conversation about the curriculum, enrollment trends and spiritual formation,” she says.

At Wake Div, the one-credit courses were fairly easy for teachers to prepare and students to fit into their schedules. Now the seminary is exploring how to integrate these courses into a three-year curricular cycle.

In his first year, Ken Pettigrew took Children and Worship, My Life Flows on in Endless Song and Worship Matters, which used Thursday chapel services as the primary text. He also took Sacraments and Ordinances, which focused on personal and denominational understandings of baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Next he’ll take a course on preaching in times of anticipation or waiting, especially during Advent and Lent.

“The courses taught me the importance of intentionality in worship. We must make choices and be ready to deal with their theological consequences. Every action, word or song selection has a theological implication, and one must think through that when planning effective and moving worship for a diverse community. All seminary students should take courses on liturgical theology and worship planning,” Pettigrew says.

Notice classroom and chapel synergy

PTS students reported that worship team mentors talked about chapel services in their classrooms. They linked course content to chapel services planned by other teams. “In many ways, these mentors were our best ambassadors, leading more students into the sanctuary,” Hancock says.

The Wake Div community worship webpage states that chapel services “give worshippers unique opportunities to embody what they are learning in classrooms, even to infuse that learning with spiritual and theological insights peculiarly present when a community prays together.” Ken Pettigrew is part of the Community Worship Committee and says that taking so many worship courses helped him plan or assist with 30 to 40 chapel services last year.

Jill Crainshaw, who teaches worship and liturgical theology, taught Worship Matters along with Chris Copeland, the grant project director. Class members planned and led a chapel service, discussing the theology of each worship element. “Instead of using a single pulpit voice, they opted to ask three people to interpret the text for the day (the raising of Lazarus). This represented theologically, for them, the communal emphasis in the text. Jesus raised Lazarus, but the community was called out to unbind him. They discussed at length what binds people and what theologically we mean by unbinding, even discussing how that relates to the powerful and important bonds of community,” Crainshaw says.

She adds that the one-credit courses sparked “significant worship change,” evident in how students are more deeply present in worship and in “the character of the conversations emerging” at lunch after each chapel service. Students said in the grant assessment that “chapel and the lunches are changing what happens in the classroom.”

Connect with churches

Wake Div’s classes on congregational singing and pastor-worship leader partnerships were offered as weekend courses. The partnerships course took place at a local church instead of at the seminary. The weekend schedule made it easier for interested church members to attend or audit classes.

Seminarian Ken Pettigrew is an associate minister for youth and liturgical engagement at St. John Christian Methodist Episcopal Church in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. He has assessed worship services at his church using a worship assessment tool jointly developed by teachers and students in his Worship Matters class. “Presently, I'm working intently on organizing the worship planning process at St. John CME. Before we can try new things, even with theological significance explained, we must have a system in place to allow the church to execute them. I have made it a point of encouraging greater participation from the laity in worship leadership,” he says.



Don’t miss the companion story, “More Inclusion = Deeply Meaningful Worship.”

Learn more about the 2013 Vital Worship grants at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary and Wake Forest University School of Divinity. Check out chapel bulletins to see how worship courses influence the people who plan and lead chapel at Wake Div.

Read the syllabus for Angela Dienhart Hancock’s Introduction to Worship course at PTS. Gather a group to read and discuss Encounters with the Holy: a Conversational Model for Worship Planning by Barbara Day Miller.

Use these resources to spark conversations about teaching worship in seminaries:

Search the Association for Theological Schools website to find seminaries that offer a degree in worship. Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California, offers master’s degrees in worship, theology and the arts and worship and music ministry.


Feel free to print and distribute these stories at your curriculum or chapel team meeting. These questions will help people think about how to create stronger connections among classes, chapel worship and congregations.

  • How important is it for seminarians to take worship classes and use what they learn in seminary chapel services or in churches?
  • How can seminaries and congregations cooperate in the study and renewal of worship?
  • How might you apply the “small doses of learning over time” principle to teaching worship in your context?