This is a short talk that I gave for a class that I’m auditing this semester at Duke Divinity School, Introduction to Worship, taught by Dr. Lester Ruth.  


I’ve had the privilege of working as a paid church musician and a volunteer for various churches in my lifetime.  It’s very common for music majors or local musicians to be hired by a variety of churches to play for their services, particularly if they are pianists.  If you think about it, it’s the perfect job for a working or student musician.  Good pay for one to two hours a week for playing music that is mostly sightreadable. It’s a great gig!  

At some point I found it odd that music composed around 50% of a worship service, but the music was led by a musician that knew very little about the theology behind the worship or about church music.  It felt strange at times to be “up front” but not considered part of the leadership team or even part of the worshiping community at all.  These are some things that I’ve learned along the way and I hope can be of some use to current and future pastors.

What I wish every pastor knew about their church musicians.

1.  Our stories.

Story:  For my first church job I played piano for a small Southern Baptist church.  My senior year I played for a larger (400 ppl) PCA church.  My interview consisted of asking if I was a Christian and a simple sight-reading test.  Then I was hired.  I fell in love with hymns and more “traditional” music, but did not ever feel like I was part of the community (even though the people were lovely!).  Did this community want to know anything about me at all?  Did they think I was capable of contributing anything more than my musical abilities?  Also, the congregations were primarily white.  I’m not white.  Did this have any impact on the community?

Things to think about:

  • Learning the church musician’s background in music and church music can reveal many of the musician’s gifts.  These churches didn’t know that I sang or played the guitar.  I could have contributed more.  If your musician is a trained one, they have a vast knowledge of many different kinds of sacred music from conservatory days.  They could be very valuable in giving input about musical selections.
  • Learning the musician’s life story can help the musician feel like part of a community and not just hired help.
  • Learning the musician’s story can help you interact with him/her.  There are many times that churches hire musicians out of necessity, and the musician may have a different background – he/she may not even be a Christian (this is completely possible, believe me).  How does this impact your interactions with the musician?

2.  We don’t know what you know.

Story:  After college I volunteered as a worship leader at a Korean PCUSA church (the English service).  All of us were young 2nd generation Asian Americans who grew up singing contemporary songs like Vineyard, Passion, and Hillsong.  We formed a rockin’ band and basically played whatever we liked.  There were some more liturgical elements such as confessional prayer and communion but they were not very well understood, so we just “stuck” them in the service.

Things to think about:

  • Explaining the theological meaning behind every element of the service helps the musician to “connect the dots.”  Don’t assume that we already do this.  Many times the hired church musician does not have a full understanding of your worshiping tradition.
  • Explaining theological concepts in worship can inspire the musician in putting more effort into selecting songs for other purposes other than personal preference.
  • As the musician continues, he/she can be encouraged to go deeper into their understanding of worship.  Encouragement and affirmation of gifts can go a long way.  Musicians are not used to being counted as part of a church leadership team.
  • Having regular meetings to process and learn fosters growth and understanding.

3.  Our role as content providers.

Story:  I got hired to lead worship at the Duke Center for Reconciliation Summer Institute two years ago.  In an extremely diverse conference congregation we learned that as worship leaders we were not just providing accompaniment to the holy spirit’s movement in the conference, we became facilitators of reconciliation itself.  We were providing the content through our musical selections and the challenge of singing a variety of music.

Things to think about:

  • What percentage of your church service is consisted of music?  If it’s around 50% (as I’m guessing in most churches) the music serves as content.  How does this impact your consideration of your musician as part of the leadership team?
  • Working together with the musician in terms of music can add emphasis to sermons and contribute to your church’s culture.

4.  Our need for discipleship and pastoral training.

Story:  In every church job that I’ve had, I have gotten positive and negative feedback.  The negative feedback could be very brutal at times, and I found it hard not to take it personally.  I didn’t realize that although sometimes the criticisms had directly to do with the music, for the most part it really wasn’t about the music at all.

Things to think about:

  • How can pastors help the musicians in responding to these criticisms with grace and compassion?
  • How can pastors provide support in times of discouragement?
  • How can the pastor encourage the musician to seek support and resources in other worship leaders in the area?
  • Help us to maximize opportunities for teaching moments and to see the bigger picture.

Some more tips:

  • Be clear about expectations.  Do you want your musician to help develop community in doing music ministry?  The quality of music may take more of a backseat.  Do you want musical excellence?  You’ll have a tougher time finding excellent musicians and it may not foster discipleship or community.
  • Be clear about the budget.  Does your church musician know how much he/she has to spend on buying music?  Does your musician know where to find good choral music, about CCLI licensing, etc.?  If not, you will have to help them set up a budget.
  • As always, communicating the content and direction of your sermon will help the musician in planning.  This works in a perfect world, but there are many pastors that like to do the “Saturday Night Special” or “Sunday Sunrise Polishing.”
  • Consider paying more for your church musicians.  This only encourages learning, discipleship, ministry, and excellence in music because they can spend more time on this.  Remember, if they are helping to provide around 50% of the content of a Sunday service, arrange and practice music, conduct choir and band rehearsals, it may be considered worth the investment.
  • Point the musicians to resources on music.  Do you know where to find music that spans genres?  Classical music?  Taize music?  The newest song by Passion or Earnest Pugh?  Do you know where to find sheet music?  Do you know of any good worship workbooks to recommend?

Thanks to the Div Students who participated in the talk and asked lots of really great questions!  Thanks to Dr. Ruth for inviting me to speak.  🙂