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Worship Coordinators: Lead, learn, and let go

Today's worship coordinators do far more than sing into a microphone. They lead congregations to broader, deeper worship. A feature story exploring how today's worship leaders can lead, learn and let go.

Before the Good Friday service at Bridgeway Community Church in Haledon, New Jersey, a few members chose roles of Jesus, Pilate, and others named in the John 19 account of Jesus sentenced to be crucified.

After worshipers gathered, but before the Good Friday service officially began, worship coordinator Jacie Sytsma led the congregation through a little rehearsal. They read aloud the verses with lines spoken by the crowd gathered outside Pilate’s palace.

“The service was simple but meaningful. The congregation shouted, ‘Take him away! Crucify him!’ It was the first time they were put in that position as sinners, as unforgiven,” says Claudia Godoy Cortes, who met Jacie Sytsma while coordinating worship for Good Shepherd Christian Reformed Church in Prospect Park, New Jersey.

Since becoming worship coordinators, Sytsma and Godoy Cortes have mirrored the changing roles of worship coordinators in many places. They’ve expanded their view of what worship is, how to lead it, and how to learn from other worship coordinators.

What worship coordinators do

Worship coordinators often work part-time as paid or volunteer staff, so must balance church work with other roles. Claudia Godoy Cortes, who coordinated worship at Good Shepherd for two years before coming to Bridgeway, is also a high school Spanish teacher.

At East Whittier Friends Church in Whittier, California, worship coordinator Jeremy Cosand squeezes a lot—church staff meetings, planning, preparation, rehearsals, leading worship—into a dozen or so hours each week.

Cosand also plans bi-monthly praise and prayer services, coordinates seasonal services and events, and reports to the elders and congregation. Plus he’s a graduate student in philosophy and adjunct professor.

If you search online to find worship coordinator job openings or see how church websites describe this task, you’ll notice that many churches

  • Use the terms “worship” and “music” interchangeably
  • Want someone to lead a “contemporary” or “blended” service
  • Seek someone good at singing and playing one or more instruments
  • Hope for a worship coordinator who also has pastoral and administrative gifts or can design entire services, lead substance abuse events, oversee setup and takedown, run sound and AV systems…

How worship coordinators define worship

Although worship coordinators and congregations may begin with the idea that worship equals music, many are expanding their view of what counts as worship.

“The conviction is pretty widespread that worship equals only singing. When my husband and I moved cross country to plant Bridgeway, we knew so little at first, not even how to structure a service. We’d spend 45 minutes on Saturday night to pick songs,” Jacie Sytsma says.

The experience of planning on the fly pushed the Sytsmas to seek out worship seminars, books, and mentors. They realized that worship is a multidirectional relationship that goes beyond individuals singing praise to God.

Worship also means listening for what God says to us. Amy and Henry Schenkel came to this understanding gradually. They began Monroe Community Church in downtown Grand Rapids, Michigan, when they graduated from seminary.

Amy says, “Although we had book knowledge, we were pretty green. Jeremiah Briggs has been worship team leader since the week before we started regular worship services. At the time, he could sing and play guitar but he knew nothing about worship, about leading worship, or even about organized church.

“We realized we have to approach planning and executing our worship with the belief that God is real! That belief ignites a passion to choose songs with truthful and important lyrics, read God’s Word as the most important words we hear all week, and pray like God is really listening,” she says.

Princeton Christian Reformed Church in Kentwood, Michigan, already had a history when Kristy Ruthven hired on to direct the worship and youth programs. “In designing worship, we use music, art, and words to highlight—and respond to—the truth of who God is and how he works throughout history and now in our lives,” she says.

Ruthven says some worship services focus on God’s beauty and compassion, others on God’s power and justice. “But each time we gather, the gospel is central because we present the life and mission of Christ.” Some weeks this comes out most strongly in a song, such as Martha Butler’s “Alleluia, He Is Coming.” Other weeks it’s in the sermon or Scripture readings.

During four years as volunteer worship coordinator and ten years as a paid one, Jeremy Cosand has helped East Whittier Friends see a third direction in worship. There’s God speaking to us, us responding to God…and all of us experiencing ourselves as part of Christ’s body.

“We’ve learned that, in addition to celebrating the Lord, a large purpose of worship is what Paul calls edification and mutual submission—building others up by sharing with each other openly, accepting one another lovingly, respecting (and in some cases encouraging) one another’s differences,” he says.

Cosand says people experience worship as a corporate activity in congregational singing and prayer as well as in contemplation, while the whole group is silent together. This often leads to spontaneous participatory testimony and calls to action. He reminds worshipers that offering financial gifts is a major part of corporate worship.

Worship conversations for the long haul

“It’s a lot of work to train people to participate successfully in worship. Before skills training means anything, we need to articulate what we believe is going on,” Jacie Sytsma says.

After planning worship according to a new theme each week and learning to ask good questions, Jacie Sytsma began to see worship as “a holy conversation with God, one that goes beyond our Sunday experience to affect all our life. Worship has the potential to shape people’s lives. So how will our worship practices form us long-term?”

She and Claudia Godoy Cortes set up a schedule of monthly meetings so teams from Bridgeway and Good Shepherd could study worship together. They also hosted worship workshops open to area churches.

Learning about worship together helped people internalize a “worship as conversation” approach. Godoy Cortes relays an insight from a Good Shepherd teen, Anthony Mathias, who said, “God wants us to be actively involved in worship. It’s not enough to be a benchwarmer. When God calls us to worship him, that requires an intentional response on our part.”

Two Bridgeway women who’d grown up Catholic, one in Jamaica, the other in Kenya, told Sytsma, “Hey! We were in dialogue with God in the rote and structure of the Catholic mass. We just didn’t know it.”

Looking at worship as a conversation that shapes people for the long haul led Bridgeway to include confession and assurance every week. “We used to praise only but we realized we need to say ‘I’m sorry’ to God—and leave guilt and shame on the floor,” Sytsma says.

Being a Worship Coordinator Is about God, Not You

As they deepen and broaden their views of worship, worship coordinators often long for more people to help plan services.

“We’ve learned to make worship relevant, experiential, meaningful, and engaging. But we’ve tried—and failed many times—to get more people involved in worship planning,” says Amy Schenkel, co-pastor of Monroe Community Church in downtown Grand Rapids, Michigan. People in this small congregation don’t have time for yet another committee meeting.

At Princeton Christian Reformed Church in Kentwood, Michigan, worship coordinator Kristy Ruthven says, “I struggle with getting more people involved in planning worship. I’d like more ideas.”

Worship coordinators have a big job, even after defining and internalizing a broad and deep view of worship. They still need to find people to plan and lead services. And they have to find ways to fully enter worship in services they plan or lead. In this important yet sometimes lonely role, worship coordinators say it’s vital to learn from and with other churches.

Inviting more people to lead worship

The late tennis player and AIDS activist Arthur Ashe is known for a slogan that also applies to worship coordinators: “Start where you are. Use what you have. Do what you can.”

Jacie Sytsma, worship coordinator at Bridgeway Community Church in Haledon, New Jersey, advises starting from your strengths. “Mine is vocal, so it was easy to start a youth choir.” Over time she recruited teams focused on music, Scripture reading, congregational prayer, visual arts, and prayer and lay counseling after worship.

Ruthven sponsored a congregational services survey to tap latent talent for running projection technology, playing instruments, singing, acting, reading, teaching, planning, and encouraging.

Worshipers from fifth grade on up got a survey. Parents also volunteered younger children for certain tasks. “We asked people to check whatever sounded interesting, even if they’d never tried it. I was very surprised by people demonstrating an interest you never would have thought of,” she says.

Ruthven often asks people to do something easy, like the call to worship, or participate in a group, whether reading Scripture or accompanying holiday hymns.

Jeremy Cosand, worship coordinator at East Whittier Friends Church in Whittier, California, has learned to respect vulnerability in himself and others. “My preference is for completely egalitarian leadership, and that is hard to realize. I’ve had to embrace my role as a leader more than I would like.

“I’ve had to learn how to be comfortable with myself and courageous enough to share my own personal expressions of worship. And I’ve had to learn to respect what others are comfortable with,” he says.

He’s had to balance leading things he doesn’t feel skilled at with learning how to delegate such tasks. “We’ve grown in our willingness to recognize that worship can be led in many different ways, by different people—all in the same service—and that it is the Holy Spirit who guides worship,” Cosand adds.

Trusting God’s power

Cosand says his “absolute dream for worship leadership is just to be one with the congregation before God.” He finds that easiest during what in the Friends tradition is called “open worship, unprogrammed silence during which anyone in the congregation is allowed to share. I sense God at work because I’m no longer trying to do anything other than be in his presence as part of his people.”

Sytsma often reminds herself that worship coordinators may create avenues for people to use their spiritual gifts to help the whole church worship more deeply. “But we are not the source of the power and giftings. The Holy Spirit is.”

Likewise, Ruthven says, “As a worship planner, it’s important for me to always remember that I cannot change others or myself. Only God, by his Spirit, can do that.” She says the best way for her to worship in a service she’s helped plan and lead is to rest “content in the truth that God can take his truth and pierce my heart…and the hearts of everyone gathered.”

Learning with other churches

During two years as worship coordinator at Good Shepherd Christian Reformed Church in Prospect Park, New Jersey, Claudia Godoy Cortes worked to learn about churches her members had come from.

“My niche is connecting cultures. At Good Shepherd we have a blend of many cultures—Caribbean, Puerto Rican, Central American, some from Peru—and people from Catholic, evangelical, and Pentecostal backgrounds. We try to have different keys to meaning that help people connect with their roots and have dialogue with God,” she says.

Godoy Cortes found several ways to draw on members’ church traditions to create a unified approach to worship. She looked for songs that “are emblematic to a congregation and help us go deeper to the Lord. We kept the spontaneity and improvisation in prayers and songs, the rhythm and joy of Latin worship.

“But we integrated it all into a Reformed liturgy that makes sense for different people from different backgrounds. And we use the liturgical calendar and lectionary to have unity in the whole service,” she explains.

Meanwhile, Godoy Cortes is acutely aware that “if the church continues to worship only in Spanish, they’ll lose the second generation.” So she often included verses, songs, prayers, and explanations in English.

She says that studying worship with Bridgeway’s worship team, along with monthly breakfasts with worship leaders from area churches helped Good Shepherd people feel more connected.

These New Jersey worship coordinators share bilingual songs, lyrics, and mp3s. They trade ideas about visual arts, projection technology, and more.

“It’s much easier to combine resources when you have a relational dynamic going. This peer mentoring and spiritual cross-pollination expands our ideas about what worship is. It reminds us that what we’re doing is important,” Sytsma says.

Resources that Worship Coordinators Recommend or Long for

Worship coordinators often report having lofty goals but limited time and funds. Here are resources that help them do the most with what they have…as well as resources they hope others will invent, share, or alert them to.

Already available

Your congregation likely has people who will surprise you with their gifts and interests in leading worship. You just have to ask them, according to Kristy Ruthven, who directs worship and youth programs at Princeton Christian Reformed Church in Kentwood, Michigan.

She used a congregational services survey to find people interested in volunteering (or learning a new skill) for worship. “Particularly during Lent, we have several services involving a large number of people from all ages.

“For Easter and holiday services, we invite anyone who plays an instrument to join in playing the hymns. We invite through the bulletin and church announcements. People sign up. I make music available. We have one rehearsal for about 60 to 90 minutes before the service. We get up to 40 people playing, and they’re from all skill levels.

“On Easter, one six-year-old played along for just one song on her violin. Her dad said she’d worked hard for three weeks on that song,” Ruthven says.

She uses Psalter Hymnal instrumentations from Faith Alive so people who play B flat or E flat instruments can join in. Sometimes she asks others in the congregation to help transpose instrumental parts.

Books and magazines worship coordinators recommend include:

  • Sunday Morning Live! How and Why We Worship by Jane Vogel and Mary Sytsma helped people from Bridgeway and Good Shepherd study worship and build bonds together.
  • The Art of Worship by Greg Scheer has practical advice on choosing and leading music.
  • The Peacemaker by Ken Sande helps worship coordinators deal with an inevitable part of their jobs—conflict.
  • The Valley of Vision, compiled by Arthur Bennett, is a collection of Puritan prayers still relevant today.
  • The Worship Sourcebook has print resources for every element of a worship service and every season in the Christian year.
  • Worship Leader is a monthly print magazine and Song DISCovery, its bimonthly companion, includes music and lead sheets on a CD.

Worship coordinators suggest these online resources for images, sermon helps, tunes, and worship service plans:

  • Calvin Institute of Christian Worship offers enough online resources to keep you busy for more time than you probably have. It also makes grants and sponsors events.
  • Christian Reformed Church in North America has many worship resources, including several focused on disability ministry, justice, and languages such as Spanish or Korean.
  • CCLI licenses audio, movie, and video downloads and contemporary Christian music. Its SongSelectfeature lets you hear the music and order transpositions.
  • www.cyberhymnal.org provides public domain hymn texts, tunes, and histories.
  • www.flickr.com has millions of photos uploaded for non-commercial use…so you can add them to PowerPoints used in worship services without needing a license.
  • www.HymnCharts.com is an affordable place to download sheet music.

Visiting online forums and blogs lets worship coordinators share ideas and stories without leaving the office:

Meeting and worshiping with peers from around the world helps too.

  • At the annual Calvin Symposium on Worship, you can see new ideas—in dance, drama, visual arts, drumming, Lord’s Supper practice, technology—in action.
  • Sovereign Grace Ministries hosts regional and annual worship weekends and conferences.

But there’s no substitute for getting to know worship coordinators in churches near you, say those who’ve organized and attended regular meetings. They advise inviting worship coordinators from many denominations, not just your own.

“Great relationships in my church and other churches have helped me grow as a worship leader. These trusted friends listen and offer ideas, help, and prayer. This is probably the most helpful resource in my job. Conferences and books help, but these relationships help keep me going!” Ruthven says.

Still searching

Jeremy Cosand, worship coordinator at East Whittier Friends Church in Whittier, California, says, “I desperately need contact with other worship leaders in my area and denomination. I need either more musical and technical training or more people to delegate those tasks to. Also, I would love to participate in services led by others, but I usually don’t have (or don’t make) time to do so.

Amy Schenkel knows where she, co-pastor Henry Schenkel, and worship coordinator Jeremiah Briggs get their best ideas for worship at Monroe Community Church, in downtown Grand Rapids, Michigan. “They come when we are given the chance to collaborate and hear ideas from other worship teams and churches, especially emerging churches like ours.

“Church plants desperately need people who can worship, not just sing with a microphone. But most church plants don’t have time or leaders to send off so they can learn worship planning and theology,” she says.

Schenkel dreams of a simple website that would be “like a Wikipedia for worship.” It would go far beyond the current Wikipedia worship page. People could search by topic, scripture, or theme. Emerging churches could find or offer “their own ideas for making a passage real—maybe with an inexpensive hands-on activity, banner picture, or artwork.”

Learn More

Read and see results from “More Than Music: The Spoken Word in Worship,” sponsored by Good Shepherd Christian Reformed Church and Bridgeway Community Church, and led by Ron and Deb Rienstra and Julie Romeo.

Feel free to copy or adapt the congregational services survey that helped Kristy Ruthven recruit worship participants at Princeton Christian Reformed Church in Kentwood, Michigan. Administrative coordinator Yvonne Elliott put the results into Power Church Plus, a congregational database, and printed out reports for various committees. But you could input into Microsoft Excel or Open Office, freeware with a spreadsheet.

Read why John Witvliet describes worship coordinators as shepherds. Back in 1996, Robert Webber advised not getting hung up on worship style.

Need discussion ideas for your next worship committee meeting? You can discuss foundational worship principles, customize a worship element planning grid, identify gaps in your service plans, or choose a worship area to focus on for the next several meetings.

Ever run into conflicts while coordinating worship planning with other church staff or teams? Read this list of essentials for healthy partnerships.

If you are having trouble coming up with new and meaningful worship ideas, try visiting other churches. Or take a virtual visit, courtesy of The Rochester Pluralism Project or the book How the Other Half Worships by photographer Camilo Jose Vergara. What can you learn from traditions very different from your own?

Browse related stories about designing worship together, equipping worship leaders, the “in between” words, multistaff ministry, and worship masters programs. 

Start a Discussion

Talk about the role of worship coordinators.

  • What are the main tasks of the worship coordinator at your church? How well do these tasks align with how your church defines worship?
  • In what ways and how often do your worship coordinator and other worship leaders study worship together? How have you applied this learning? If you don’t study, why not?
  • In what ways could your worship coordinator and other worship leaders move the congregation to a broader, deeper view of worship? What first steps might you take?
  • Name one or two regular worship practices that form people’s habits and lives in your congregation. Which worship practices might you add so that worshipers grow into the people your sermons ask them to become? 

Share Your Wisdom

What is the best way you’ve found to expand the definition of worship from mainly music to include all that goes on in worship services?

  • Did you find a conference, workshop, book, multimedia series, or other resources that helped you engage more people in learning, planning, and leading worship?
  • Did you create a worship or education series to help people experience different worship traditions, perhaps drawing on congregational members as resources? Which new worship ideas has your congregation been most receptive to?
  • Have you developed a grid to help you identify places in a worship service or Sundays in the church year where you could easily plug in volunteers?
  • Which methods have worked best to recruit more people to help plan and design worship?

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