On Ordination and Worship Leadership

Q   One big change for us in the past few years is that our pastor just preaches in worship, while our worship team leads the rest of the service. We enjoy leading, but don’t have a lot of training. Shouldn’t the pastor take a more active role in the rest of the worship service?


A   This question is a sign of the times! For roughly 3,500 years or more (since before the time of King David), the vast majority of worship in the vast majority of congregations has been led by ordained priests or pastors. Historians may someday look back at our time as one of the most significant eras of change in worship, in part because of the growth of lay leadership.

This growth has certainly been very good for many congregations. But we should not deprive pastors of a regular role in leading worship. Leading worship is one of the main tasks for pastors as described in ordination liturgies and church order documents in many denominations. It is commendable both for what it means for worship and for the pastor.

For the sake of worship, it is good to have pastors model aspects of leadership, especially in churches like yours with lots of willing people who simply don’t yet have training. In most cases, some creative scheduling can make it quite possible both to involve a wide range of people in worship leadership, but also over time to involve the pastor in all aspects of leading worship.

For the sake of the pastor, worship leadership can strengthen (and also be strengthened by) his or her work in other areas of congregational life, including education, pastoral care, evangelism, and social justice. Having the person who leads the prayer of confession or pastoral prayer be the same person who regularly visits, counsels, and teaches members of the congregation deepens each ministry.

I would recommend giving serious consideration to the involvement of other officebearers as well. In the early church, all officebearers (pastors, elders, and deacons) had a liturgical function. To be an officebearer meant to be a worship leader. Conversely, to be a worship leader meant that you were deemed worthy of exercising spiritual leadership. (Try reading the requirements for being an officebearer in 1 Timothy 4 as requirements for being a worship leader.) My own strong suspicion is that both “leadership” and “worship” are strengthened in the church to the extent that they are intertwined and involve several spiritually qualified people. This is especially important in denominations facing a shortage of pastors.

Having said all this, it is desirable to use the members’ gifts in leading worship as well. It’s not an “either/or” situation—it’s “both/and.”

  What’s the big deal about having a pastor give the greeting and benediction with raised arms, or even lead the sacraments?

Does the pastor have a special power? Isn’t this actually a bit superstitious?


Q   I really, really miss having the benediction led by our pastor with raised arms. Having the praise team leader say “see you next week” doesn’t cut it for me. Help!


A   Here is a tough issue to address briefly!

For starters, the raising of the hands at the benediction is not a matter of “supernatural power.” A pastor doesn’t have power in and of himself or herself. Ordination is the recognition of a particular pastoral relationship, not the status of a person. Recognizing that we all share the office of believer, ordination means that the church and the ordained leader joyfully agree to live in a certain kind of relationship, to play certain roles in community life. The ordained person is challenged to proclaim the gospel as a representative of Christ, to exercise Christ’s authority in a Christ-like way, and to speak words of blessing in ways that help the congregation know that Christ’s promise is effective here and now. The congregation agrees to respond to this person with respect and attention, listening to the words this person speaks as having particular authority—an authority that is always grounded in Christ’s authority and held accountable by the church.

One of the requirements for being a pastor is to understand both theologically and functionally that the sacraments, preaching, the greeting and benediction, and even ordination don’t have power in and of themselves. And one task for ordained leadership is to work against (not unwittingly promote) “quasi-magical” approaches to worship, where we begin to think that a certain ritual action by itself generates divine presence or action, a temptation for worshipers in every century since the prophets of Baal, and a temptation for practitioners of both traditional and contemporary worship styles.

At the same time, ordained leadership is designed to help us appropriately experience the “vertical” nature of worship, that worship truly is an encounter between God and the gathered congregation. Reserving the greeting and benediction or certain gestures (such as the raising of arms) for the pastor is a provisional strategy chosen by a tradition, denomination, or congregation in order to heighten the significance of these words, to help people hear them as a here-and-now statement of God’s ever-present, ever-new promise. This gesture is a like a little liturgical drama in which we hear the spoken words as God’s own, present-time promise. The goal is to remind us that worship is more than a merely horizontal experience whereby we simply share our own wisdom or faith with each other.

If worship were basically horizontal, then goodbye would suffice. If it is also vertical, then a congregation should long for hearing God’s word of blessing pronounced with a kind of joyful solemnity. This practice can offer great spiritual comfort. Many people look forward to the benediction as the most meaningful part of worship—a simple, direct, dramatic, present declaration of God’s promise never to leave us. Why would anyone want to either make this cute or cut it out altogether?

In sum, the primary reason for reserving certain actions to ordained persons is to avoid the extremes of a superstitious or magical conception of worship on the one hand and a flippant or merely horizontal approach on the other.

Q   I am a worship leader who is not yet ordained. How should I lead the benediction?


A   Consider a simple reading of a scriptural blessing: “Hear God’s promises, as recorded in 1 Thessalonians 5: ‘May the God of peace himself sanctify you entirely; and may your spirit and soul and body be kept sound and blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. The one who calls you is faithful, and he will do this.’ Praise God for this sure promise.” Or consider a prayer for God’s blessing, such as a prayer based closely on Psalm 67: “Almighty God, be gracious to us and bless us and make your face to shine upon us, that your way may be known upon earth, your saving power among all nations.”

Q    Isn’t that way too fussy? You’re telling me that lay leaders can use basically the same words, but can’t raise their hands, and that they need to introduce the blessing by identifying the text from Scripture rather than speaking them as their own words. Am I hearing you right?


  No doubt some readers will be amused by this discussion. To some, the whole concept of ordination sounds either quaint or overly hierarchical, especially in our anti-authority age. Further, some traditions that maintain ordination have never operated with these distinctions about liturgical leadership and will simply find this discussion curious. Other traditions, conversely, will find it hard to imagine that any lay person would even want to question the practice of reserving certain actions for ministers.

For starters, while Scripture records examples of liturgical gestures like the raising of hands, it is nearly impossible to make a good case that Scripture definitively limits these gestures to ordained people. That is an argument that needs to be inferred from the precedent of Old Testament priests, which is not a particularly strong form of scriptural interpretation.

And, like all matters of church order and polity, it is possible to push all these questions to bizarre legalistic extremes. I think of one church where a lay leader reads the Lord’s Supper liturgy, but a pastor had to read the words of institution. Or another where a lay leader could extend his arms horizontally for a blessing but only the ordained pastor could extend her arms more vertically.

A matter of churchly tradition or polity should be more about enhancing pastoral wisdom than following legalistic practice. (Perhaps church order documents should be written up to sound more like Proverbs than Leviticus.) Often the kernel of pastoral wisdom is forgotten on this topic.

In sum, a congregation covenants to hear the pastor’s words, including the benediction, as representing Christ. A pastor humbly agrees to the monumental task of speaking as God’s spokesperson. Lots of spiritual accountability keeps this relationship healthy. The gestures are simply a natural outworking of that provisional relationship.


Any questions?

We hope you find Q&A stimulating. We also hope that you’ll join in the dialogue. Send your questions about worship to Reformed Worship Q&A by mail (2850 Kalamazoo Ave. SE Grand Rapids, MI 49560), fax (616-224-0803), or e-mail (info@reformedworship.org). You can also e-mail

John directly (jwitvlie@calvin.edu).

Rev. Dr. John D. Witvliet is director of the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship and professor of music and worship at Calvin University and Calvin Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan. He also teaches in the religion department at Calvin University.

Reformed Worship 69 © September 2003, Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. Used by permission.