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 the Director of Worship for ONElife Worship.