Five Things Worship Leaders Can Learn from Music Therapists

Music therapy is “the clinical and evidence-based use of music interventions to accomplish individualized goals within a therapeutic relationship by a credentialed professional who has completed an approved music therapy program” (American Music Therapy Association, 2005). Music therapists work in a variety of clinical settings, and, like many professional musicians, some of us do additional music-related work, including church music. Since I became the director of music at my church, I’ve been surprised by how much my music therapy training informs my work as a worship planner. Here are some parallels I’ve found between music therapy and worship planning.

Assessment & Setting Goals/Objectives

The first step a music therapist takes when working with a client is to conduct an assessment to understand who the client is, not only musically but also emotionally, cognitively, socially, and culturally. The assessment process is also important for worship planners. As a music director, one of my first tasks was to inventory the music we had in our filing system. I suspect our music had never been cataloged or culled in the twenty-plus years our church has existed, so I was able to learn so much about our congregation’s history just by organizing its music. I’ve also taken time to listen to people recount how worship has changed over the years and how they have been affected by worship at our church. Assessing our congregation’s repertoire and worship history gave me the information I needed to discern some of the gaps that needed filling in our worship planning.

Ongoing Evaluation

Most music therapists will tell you that data collection and note-taking is the most tedious part of the job, but it is also a critical step in helping our clients make progress toward their goals. Over the years, I’ve found that it’s easy to go into autopilot and keep planning the same therapeutic interventions over and over with my clients. On the surface, the client may be enjoying the therapeutic experience, but if they are not making measurable progress toward goals, I need to change my approach. Similarly, as a worship planner, I need to periodically evaluate my practices and the corresponding responses from my congregation. Granted, much of the growth we all hope to see in our congregation is incremental and requires patience, but planning with clear outcomes in mind is still helpful for assessing the effectiveness of our practices.

It is important to note that measurable outcomes can be qualitative as well as quantitative. When choosing new songs to teach your congregation this year, for example, or deciding on what sermon series to preach, what qualities do you hope to see in the congregation at the end of the year or series? What spiritual fruit do you long to see the Spirit cultivate in them through your planning? How will you assess their responses? How will you interpret those responses as you plan future worship? It is far too easy to be stuck in autopilot or be otherwise out of touch with a congregation when we do not frequently assess and evaluate their responses to worship.

Rapport & Empathy

Music therapists are quick to emphasize that the therapeutic relationship is critical to our work with clients. The relationships we develop with our clients must be rooted in trust and empathy. This ethos is consistent with the rapport and empathy needed to plan and lead worship. When I lead worship, I make a point to look around at the faces of those in my congregation. I think about how the lyrics we’re singing may or may not be resonating with various people, such as the woman who just miscarried twins, or the husband who is slowly losing his wife to Alzheimer’s, or the energetic children just trying to keep up with the words on the screens. How can I plan worship so as to meet all these brothers and sisters in the midst of their varied and complex needs? This is a challenge—and also a privilege!—of planning worship. My hope is that through consistent and careful planning, they will trust that I care about their needs and spiritual formation.

A “Generalist” Approach

Music therapists must be competent pianists, guitarists, and vocalists. Many of us have a different primary instrument as well. We try to be comfortable playing as many instruments as possible so we can adjust to the needs of the client. Worship planning requires a similar type of generalization. Leading music is the main way I contribute to worship in my congregation, but it’s also important that I care about other liturgical elements, such as Scripture reading, preaching, prayer, and visual art in worship. When we pay attention to details outside our discipline, we can work with other worship planners to create unified, meaningful liturgies.

Process over Product

While the goal of music education is to develop musicianship, the goal of music therapy is to develop nonmusical skills through the prescriptive use of music. Music therapists are not looking for their clients to be accomplished musicians; instead, we’re looking for some sort of physical or personal growth. That means there’s often more value in the process than in the musical product. Worship is also process-oriented. That’s not to say we shouldn’t strive for technical excellence in worship. Readers and musicians should be well-rehearsed, the liturgy should be thoughtfully written, and so on. But mistakes and oversights happen, and when they do we can trust that God is still being glorified and his people are still being formed even when a service doesn’t go as smoothly as we had hoped. It gives us the perspective we need in order to stay focused on our calling and not be given to discouragement.

If you are a worship leader who sometimes feels alone or are looking for ways to grow in your calling, reach out to a local music therapist. You may have more in common than you think!

Tori Clark is a board-certified music therapist (MT-BC) and director of music at Knox Presbyterian Church in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

Reformed Worship 137 © September 2020, Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. Used by permission.