Running on Empty? The care and feeding of worship leaders

Have you ever thought about the importance of ministering to the minister? Caring for the elder? Leading the music leader?

If you are a worship leader yourself, you are undoubtedly aware that church leadership carries with it a unique set of problems. Many worship leaders, for example, feel unable to join in worship with the rest of the congregation. "I get so nervous about what I'm doing that I don't get anything out of the services I'm involved in," one worship leader complained. "I'm always glad when my part is over before the sermon, so I can relax," said another. Other current and former leaders noted: "I miss being able to worship seated with my family when I participate in the service." "It's a thankless job—so much of the feedback you get is critical." Sadly some worship leaders drop out of serving for any or all of the above reasons.

Those of us who lead worship do so because we feel called by God to serve and use our gifts in this way. But when our vision becomes clouded with the concerns expressed above, participation sometimes becomes painful. We need to be ministered to before we can minister, to be cared for before we can care, to be led before we can lead.

Seeking Help

When worship leaders begin to encounter some of the problems and frustrations expressed above, it may be time for them to address those problems in one of the following ways:

  • Seek out some new resources—people or supplies—that will give you a boost and make your job easier and more satisfying.
  • Take another look at the problems you're having and try to see them in a new way. Perhaps you're missing something that might be helpful.
  • Change your level of involvement.

To use a running analogy, a marathon runner who is becoming fatigued can slow down for needed fluids and nutrition, change how he or she perceives the obstacles in the race, slow down the pace, or drop out of the race. Worship is not a race, nor is it a matter of endurance. But maintaining the active participation of talented people can be as challenging as training and running, coaching and playing, practicing and performing in any sport.

After thirty-some years as a church organist/pianist, I was encouraged recently when our pastor (with fewer years but more services under his belt than me) said that beginning a worship service still makes him nervous. Leading in worship is risk-taking because it leaves a person's work exposed for all to see, hear, and criticize. It makes the person very vulnerable. That this work is offered in service to the Lord makes little difference to some who serve "roast preacher" for Sunday dinner, or whose verbal contribution to the musicians or liturgists amounts to lumps of coal in Christmas stockings.

Even in more wholesome circumstances—where pastors, liturgists, musicians, and other worship leaders are encouraged, supported, prayed for, and thanked by those they lead—worship leaders need to find opportunities to grow, build, rebuild, and heal when the demands of service deplete their reserves. As a runner uses more energy because of the race and therefore needs more fluid and nutrition, so a worship leader who is constantly involved in leading worship has an increased need for spiritual nourishment. But because of the pace of the race or the time spent in service, both may have trouble getting what they need.

Finding Renewal and Growth

Where does a leader go to be led? Who ministers to the ministers? Responses fall into two general categories: resources that the individual needs to seek out or develop personally, and those that must be made available to him or her by others.

One pastor I know meets his need for worship and renewal by regularly attending a midweek service in a church of another denomination that is confession-ally compatible with his own. In the same way, listening to recorded or performed music is a source of strength for many musicians, and listening to other speakers or attending worship-focused conferences and seminars can stimulate growth in liturgists.

Some worship leaders complain that they don't have time for renewal, that they are too busy with worship, the church, their ministry, the choir. But such an attitude will only bring harm to them and ultimately to the churches they serve. None of us can allow ourselves to be so busy that we do not have time to be spiritually fed. We cannot continue day after day to feed others if we have not replenished our own depleted resources. Jesus, in his three brief years of ministry, took time to withdraw to quiet places. For hours and sometimes days he put aside teaching and healing so that he could spend time in prayer, renewing his spirit. All worship leaders need that.

Another thing worship leaders can do for themselves is cultivate at least one relationship that spiritually strengthens them. Mentorship is a relatively new concept in the professional, academic, and business worlds. Its applicability to the church can be seen in the relationship of Paul and Timothy and in the bond formed between Elizabeth and Mary.

A mentor need not be a superior in a hierarchical structure. He or she can be any respected, trusted person who is concerned about your spiritual well-being. The greater your involvement in worship, both in time and intensity the more you need the steadying, supporting, and guiding input of a Christian fellow sojourner. For several years, I have found myself on one side of such a relationship with a young coworker who appreciates music but does not perform as a musician, who understands the pressures on worship leaders, and who often affirms my participation, listens to my joys and frustrations, and remembers and cares about what I am doing.

Such a relationship entails an additional responsibility—the privilege of in turn being a mentor, either to the same individual or to others. Mentorship is not necessarily a friendship, nor does it require frequent or intense contact, but trust and respect are essential ingredients. Can a spouse fill that role? To a degree, perhaps. In many situations, however, the closeness and multidimensional character of the marital relationship makes it difficult for a spouse to offer tire insight and objectivity that effective mentorship can provide. Whether a mentor is a fellow Bible student, a prayer partner, a professional colleague, or a leader in another area, frequency of contact is less significant than knowing that support is available and being willing to use it when it is needed.

A Charge to Non-Leaders

Not all of us are worship leaders, but nearly all of us know someone who is. And leaders have a right to expect that others will do their part to encourage, care for, and uphold them in their role as leader. This means that church members must pray for their leaders, asking that God will grant them wisdom in making choices about worship, understanding of the needs of the worshipers, knowledge of the church's mission and the congregation's gifts, patience in working in team ministry, strength for the day-to-day demands of leading, and freedom from the multitude of temptations the devil is able to aim at worship leaders.

Worshipers also owe their leaders praise that is constructive, honest, generous, and regular. Nothing stimulates better work, according to behavioral psychology than positive reinforcement, Worship leaders need to be told their work is effective and appreciated, and they should in turn share this support with their fellow worship leaders.

Seeing Old Problems in a New Light

Changing one's perception of the problems associated with leading worship can be a challenging task. But a new look is essential if we expect to find new and creative solutions for some of the common problems addressed below;


Stress, which sometimes enhances performance, at other times reduces concentration and effectiveness. When stress interferes with a leader's ability either to participate in worship or to benefit from worship, it's time for the leader to look at what can be done to modify that stress, or at alternative ways of experiencing worship.

Prayer can be a stress-reducer for some who find relief in leaving their work in God's hands. For others, better preparation or planning may be needed to reduce the fear of making mistakes. For myself, I have come to realize that I often worship in planning and preparing for a service, since concentration on leading draws my attention away from the activity of worship during a service. I also value more those services that I don't participate in. I find I am able to absorb more on those Sundays because it is easier to see the whole picture from an observer-participant perspective.

Family Worship

Inability to experience worship as a family is a function of our structured "high church" approach to worship. I can recall a time when it was deemed necessary for the consistory to sit as a body during the worship service, effectively removing the presence of a father/husband from each family represented. Today it is usually the choir members and leaders and the pastor who express this concern, as well as musicians who travel from church to church on a regular basis.

Perhaps we who are affected by this concern need to work out a way for choir members to join their families when they finish singing. Perhaps we should not be regularly borrowing musicians from other churches, but using our own musicians, or having "special music" less often. Perhaps our pastors should sometimes be able to sit with their families while other liturgists lead parts of the service.

The covenant makes it obvious that worship in families is not something God takes lightly We should not take it lightly either.


Both worship leaders and those who are led have a duty to objectively and carefully evaluate what happens in worship. This must be done formally through such structures as worship committees, and may also involve individual assessment of what helps or hinders one's ability to worship. The Bible speaks frequently about what God desires in worship, but these guidelines are broad at best. Criticism based on Scripture needs to be carefully thought out, prayerfully considered, and only then appropriately directed.

That means that extensively discussing one's pet peeve about a worship leader with an acquaintance over a cup of coffee is destructive to leadership and to tire body of Christ. It also means that personal attacks and anonymous messages do not belong within the context of the church. However, worship leaders should invite and expect thoughtful, carefully considered criticism and should respond to it in like manner.

The Bottom Line

Who ministers to the minister, cares for the elder, leads the musician?

Each of us must share the responsibility for caring for our leaders and working together for change when it is needed. When any of the problems discussed on these pages becomes unmanageable, when measures taken to solve the problems or to support the leaders are ineffective or insufficient, worship leaders either quit leading worship or continue leading without enthusiasm. The loser in either case is the church.

Can we afford that loss?

Judith Baker is music facilitator for Ridgewood Christian Reformed Church, Jenison, Michigan.


Reformed Worship 29 © September 1993, Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. Used by permission.