I have had the privilege (and sometimes the burden) of having served and transitioned in and out of four different churches since the Lord called me to ministry. In each of these cases, I have inherited a pre-existing worship ministry, and was tasked with breathing new vision and direction into it. Each situation has had its own positives and negatives. In this article, I will highlight nine tips for a healthy transition. Hopefully they will be helpful to you! Keep in mind, this will apply specifically to transitions where you are taking on a pre-existing ministry, not ones where you are starting from scratch. I'm often sinfully envious of my friends who have had the opportunity to plant and start ministries from the ground up, but my experiences have always been a bit of a song and a dance at a steady pace to implement vision.
Here are a few key things that I have learned:
1. Work With What You Have
This may sound simple, but always use whatever processes, resources, and team members that are already in place when you first take leadership of the role. I usually give myself about a month before making any major changes. This helps me assess what truly needs to be changed vs what I am just eager in the flesh about. It also helps establish relationships and trust with the servants who have been carrying out the work of ministry before you arrived.
2. Small Changes Are Okay
Hopefully this doesn't sound contradictory to my previous point, but quick initial changes that are small are important to set the expectation for your team. While not making any crazy drastic changes builds trust, making smaller changes shows that you do have a vision and that change will happen, but not all at once. It will help people trust that you are a confident leader instead of a passive one. These changes need to be assessed to make sure they are necessary and also that they are not too big. For example: One of the things that I have experienced in most new situations is that often times people will have their lyrics formatted to show huge chunks of the song on the screen at once. This is a quick and easy change for me to implement a new standard that we will only show 2-4 lines on the screen at once. Sure, your ProPresenter person might complain that they have to click more now, but the explanation of aiming for better clarity in the content of the lyrics that we sing will help team members understand why the change was made. Like I said, make small changes that are necessary, but won't create distrust or make people feel like you're going somewhere they can't follow.
"While not making any drastic changes builds trust, making smaller changes shows that you do have a vision and that change will happen."
3. Use Songs the Church Knows Well
The absolute worst thing you can do is to come into a place and add a new song every week. People will feel left in the dust and unable to follow your leadership. Now, certain songs are out there that are completely unbiblical and are actually terrible to put on the lips of the flock. When that is the case, I would take them off the list right away — don't sacrifice your theological convictions for the sake of comfort. But if there are songs that you maybe just don’t "like" that the body has been singing lately, learn to make a bit of a compromise. Introduce songs that you want slowly as time progresses and take those ones that are not your favorites off the list. The key is gradual morphing. In the beginning, I try not to introduce more than one new song in a month. The church I just came on staff at has a pretty short song list and loves the song 'What a Beautiful Name.' They sing it all the time. I have a theological issue with the second verse that says: "you didn't want heaven without us." I believe it paints a picture of a God this insufficient without us or that desperately needs us to be happy. This of course is not the case with God, and I would hate to cause any theological confusion or ambiguity for the congregation. So, instead of killing the song, I changed the lyric in the second verse to: "Into Your presence you have called us... Jesus you brought heaven down." Same flow and rhythm scheme, better theology. But I didn't have to sacrifice a song that our people already know and love and respond to in a great way. These types of practices can be very helpful when trying to trudge through transitions in song selection.
"Don't sacrifice your theological convictions for the sake of comfort."
4. Get to Know Your Team
I can't stress this one enough. As I'm writing this, I have just come on staff at a new church this week. I'm about to start my workday and the first thing I'm going to do is to open up my calendar, open up my team list in Planning Center, and reach out to each one of them to schedule a coffee or lunch over the next two months. Plain and simple, people will not follow a leader they do not know. Now, in this case I've got about 40 volunteers that I need to connect with, so it will take some time (20 weeks precisely if I meet with two people per week), but don't let that be overwhelming. It will be worth it.
"Plain and simple, people will not follow a leader they do not know — make every effort to get to know your team."
Something that goes hand-in-hand with this:
5. Don't Add New Team Members
You're already trying to get to know everyone relationally, trust me, you don't want new people to add to that list yet. Now in my current case, my new church has had 10 people on a list to audition for the team and this list was already in place months before I came on board. They were just waiting for someone to come on staff to audition them. Long story short, I'll be having auditions in two weeks. So, there are certainly exceptions, but unless it’s a specific circumstance like that, I would wait to add people.
6. Have A Process for Adding New Team Members
This is huge. Once you reach a place where you'd like to begin adding new team members, have a process. Have auditions, an application form, an online request system, etc. There are many ways to do it, but if it is all done in an informal way, it's easy to show partiality and for people to fall through the cracks. I've done my process a few different ways, but a few key things that I always make sure are in there are:
7. Cast Big Vision Before Making Big Changes
When it's time for bigger changes, don't just make the changes but cast the vision well. This is extremely important. Once you have reached a place where you'd like to implement bigger, more drastic changes, don't just surprise people! Communication is key. Have a "vision night," or a "team night," where you can share the biblical premise and the heart behind the changes you're going to make. Notice: the changes will still happen. You're not asking for permission, rather you're helping people understand why these changes will make a difference and what purpose they serve to point people to Christ.
"When it's time to make big changes, don't just make the changes, but cast the vision well."
8. Develop A Healthy Relationship with Your Lead Pastor
Satan loves to put seeds of distrust between the worship leader and the lead pastor. They work together very closely to plan and execute Sunday mornings and to shepherd God's people. So, if this relationship is built on distrust of one another, it can easily become a huge frustration and a microcosm for division within the church as a whole. Paul warns us strictly about these types of divisions in the body. The best word here is fight. Fight for good communication. Clarity. Complete honesty. Pray for your pastor every day. Pray for that relationship every day. Ask for humility. And be open to critique with one another, understanding that honest critique is for the growth of the flock, not our egos.
9. Build Your Ministry on the Word of God
This is the single most important thing you can do. Nothing is more hollow and empty than a worship leader who has all these ideas, all these cool songs he wants to sing, and a desire for excellence if he is not rooted in the Word. I start every single rehearsal by opening up God's word and reading a passage together, then praying for one another. During a worship service, If I'm going to say anything at all to our congregation, it is not worth saying unless it's from the Bible. Let every idea, every practice, and every philosophy that you implement have deep roots in scripture. Otherwise it's just entertainment. Be bold in your convictions. Understand how to differentiate between preference and essentials. If a ministry is founded on Christ and on His word, these things become much more clear.
"Let every idea, every practice, and every philosophy that you implement have deep roots in scripture."
Contributor / Matt Wagner
Matt Wagner is the Worship Pastor at Woodside Bible Church in Royal Oak, MI and serves as a Worship Leader with ONElife Worship.
It seems to become a more and more frequent response. I don’t know if it’s a the result of the church reflecting culture more, a desire to not appear ‘judgey’, or just a general lack of biblical knowledge. It sadly seems though that any discussion of right vs wrong when it comes to our actions within a church service is supposed to stop when placed under the umbrella of ‘their heart is in the right place.’ Whether it’s in relation to singing songs with questionable theology, singing secular songs in church, preaching something of a self-help message rather than the gospel, the list can go on and on (and I'm sure you’ve had or heard of this discussion before).
I understand the desire to fall back on this; we want to think the best of people, we don’t like confrontation, it’s easier to just ‘have grace’ in these situations. But while we are called to grace, we are also called to truth — both/and, not either/or.
"While we are called to grace, we are also called to truth — both/and, not either/or."
‘But it’s not hurting anyone.’
‘But we like that song.’
‘But the sermon makes me feel good.’
‘But their heart is in the right place.’
But the problem is when we compromise truth for what is easy or fun or pleases others, people do get hurt. We may not always see it immediately, but if you are a worship pastor/leader in any regard, your calling is to shepherd the flock.
"When we compromise truth for what is easy, or fun, or pleases others, people get hurt."
There was another worship leader and shepherd who you could make this argument about too. Take a minute to read about him now:
"David consulted with the commanders of thousands and of hundreds, with every leader. And David said to all the assembly of Israel, “If it seems good to you and from the Lord our God, let us send abroad to our brothers who remain in all the lands of Israel, as well as to the priests and Levites in the cities that have pasturelands, that they may be gathered to us. Then let us bring again the ark of our God to us, for we did not seek it in the days of Saul.” All the assembly agreed to do so, for the thing was right in the eyes of all the people.
So David assembled all Israel from the Nile of Egypt to Lebo-hamath, to bring the ark of God from Kiriath-jearim. And David and all Israel went up to Baalah, that is, to Kiriath-jearim that belongs to Judah, to bring up from there the ark of God, which is called by the name of the Lord who sits enthroned above the cherubim. And they carried the ark of God on a new cart, from the house of Abinadab, and Uzzah and Ahio were driving the cart. And David and all Israel were celebrating before God with all their might, with song and lyres and harps and tambourines and cymbals and trumpets.
And when they came to the threshingfloor of Chidon, Uzzah put out his hand to take hold of the ark, for the oxen stumbled. And the anger of the Lord was kindled against Uzzah, and he struck him down because he put out his hand to the ark, and he died there before God. And David was angry because the Lord had broken out against Uzzah. And that place is called Perez-uzza to this day. And David was afraid of God that day, and he said, “How can I bring the ark of God home to me?” So David did not take the ark home into the city of David, but took it aside to the house of Obed-edom the Gittite. And the ark of God remained with the household of Obed-edom in his house three months. And the Lord blessed the household of Obed-edom and all that he had." (1 Chron. 13:1-14)
When David set out to bring the Ark of the Covenant back, you could easily make the statement that his heart was in the right place- he desired for God’s presence to return to Jerusalem, so the Israelites could worship their God when/where they were supposed to. He had the support of commanders of thousands and hundreds, of every leader, and all the people went with him and "it was right in there eyes."
But Uzzah was still struck dead by the Lord. Why?
Exodus 37:4-5 "And he made poles of acacia wood and overlaid them with gold and put the poles into the rings on the sides of the ark to carry the ark." (emphasis mine)
The Ark was central to Israel’s worship, and God had given them instructions on how to transport the Ark; carry it. David instead chose to move it on a new cart. One of the oxen stumbled and Uzzah (who I imagine, had his heart in the right place too) reached out to stop the Ark from falling into the dirt and was struck dead.
David, because of his zeal for the Lord and desire to see the ark return to Jerusalem, thought he could do things a better way, and someone lost their life over it. David’s heart was in the right place, but was his head in the right place?
"It’s not enough for our hearts alone to be in the right place because the heart is deceitful above all things."
And the means to transport the Ark wasn’t a mystery. There was no hidden password or secret handshake to gain this information, it was plainly explained in Exodus, part of the Pentateuch (first five books of the Bible), which David would have grown up hearing read in the synagogue and meditated on. Either he missed that extremely important detail, or he thought he could do it better another way. What’s worse, in all his council with the commanders of thousands and hundreds, in presenting the idea to all of Israel, did not 1 person speak up with the truth of how God had told them to carry the ark? We don’t know for sure one way or the other, but the important detail is that because David used his heart over his head a man lost his life.
‘But wait, this was in the Old Testament, so how can you say this applies to us today?’
Because Jesus reinforced this in John 4 when he met the Samaritan woman at the well. While the New Testament doesn’t give many details or prescriptions for Christian worship it is very clear on this point;
"God is spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and in truth." (John 4:24)
It’s not enough for our hearts alone to be in the right place because "the heart is deceitful above all things (Jer. 17:9a)." Our heads need to be in the right place. But in the same way it’s not enough for us to simply have the right knowledge if it doesn’t move us to worship. If David had said ‘the Ark must be moved with the proper carrying poles’ and then didn’t bring the Ark back to Jerusalem he still would have been in error. For our worship to be acceptable before God it must be how He prescribes it.
"It's not enough for us to simply have the right knowledge if it doesn't move us to worship."
Spirit AND truth.
Head AND heart.
Both/and, not either/or.
In some ways David was fortunate because he was able to witness the repercussions of his error immediately when Uzzah was struck dead. This led him to be able to fix his mistake in 1 Chronicles 15 by doing it the right way.
Worship leaders and pastors, we won’t always get that same chance. If we choose to sing songs with poor/wrong theology it will impact the lives of our people in ways we can’t imagine. If we choose to try and ‘wow’ the crowd with warm, fuzzy, feel-good messages rather than clearly present the gospel, there may be souls in the seats of our service who spend eternity separated from God. At that time, it won’t matter if our heart was in the right place. I’m sure those words would not have comforted Uzzah’s family or friends had someone tried to reassure them that way.
"For our worship to be acceptable before God it must be how He prescribes it."
So as a brother in Christ, who loves the church, loves Jesus, and loves you, I plead with you today— yes, make sure your heart is in the right place, but make sure that that place is falling in line with your head. And above all else, make sure your head is filled with the knowledge of the word of God; His truth, His wisdom, His commands. Meditate on them, memorize them, delight in them with your mind, and then your heart will be in the right place.
"Bless the Lord oh my soul, and forget not all his benefits…" (Psalm 103:2)
Contributor / Brad Spead
Brad Spead is the Pastor of Worship Arts at Bridge Bible Church in Norton Shores, MI.