Face-to-face relationships characterize life in a small congregation, where truly “there is no place to run and no place to hide” for pastors, church musicians, or congregants. Over the years, we have observed the lively and creative synergy that occurs when pastors and church musicians work together in light of a common vision. Sadly, we have also observed the negative impact of poor communication and the lack of a common vision among church musicians and pastors. Alienation between a pastor and church musician can lead to disharmony and polarization in the life of a small congregation.

The relationship between pastor and church musician can take on many forms. Perhaps you have also experienced fiasco moments—those moments that distract you and your congregation from participating in vital and life-transforming worship. We have found that when people experience too many of these fiasco moments, their relationship with their counterparts in worship leadership may turn sour, and before they know it, they may have moved from friend to foe.

There seems to be a direct correlation between the worship life of a community and the relationship between the pastor and the church musician. When this partnership suffers, congregational worship suffers. When the partnership is flourishing, the way is clear for us to foster dynamic worship. We believe that church musicians and pastors need to take an honest look at their respective theological perspectives, approaches to worship, and gifts in worship leadership by asking the following questions: How do we complement one another in worship leadership? What areas are strong, and what areas need a bit of tweaking in our individual and collegial worship leadership? How do we each understand the aim of worship and the role of music in worship? If we come from different theological or liturgical perspectives, in what areas can we find common ground?

Partnerships in worship planning and leadership, like all good relationships, are not accidental but are the result of prayerful intention and a commitment to work together in creating a healthy professional relationship. Over the years, we have discovered four steps to help us achieve creative partnerships in worship leadership.

Good Communication: Pastors and church musicians are all extremely busy carrying out their roles in ministry. It is easy for communication to take a back seat or for one person just to do it alone without consulting colleagues in worship leadership. Making time for regular worship planning sessions is the first step to creative partnership in worship leadership. If you are blessed to have a pastor and a church musician with flexible hours, it is fairly easy to plan meetings during the day when both are in the office. But church musicians in small congregations are either volunteers or part-time employees, and even the pastor might be part-time, so both members of the team will need to be more creative in setting aside times to meet. These sessions may involve more than just the pastor and church musician, although it is good to have set times to meet alone to share your visions and dreams as well your frustrations, hurts, and misunderstandings. Small can be beautiful, but it can also be challenging for pastor and church musician alike.

Understanding Strengths, Weaknesses, and Personality Types: Nurturing a positive relationship between the pastor and church musician involves understanding each other’s strengths, weaknesses, and personality types. Each of us has many gifts for leadership in the body of Christ. But each of us also depends on the gifts of others to fulfill our vocation and flourish in congregational leadership. Personality type is not a matter of strength or weakness but a description of our personal preferences, including how we gather data, make decisions, and approach the complexities of life. Awareness of one another’s unique personality type is essential to any healthy relationship. We recognize that it takes work to be a team player. A good partner complements the strengths of the other. A team player gives encouragement and fills in some of the gaps where the other is weak. Together they learn to be flexible. There is a general sense of give-and-take to the relationship. We look beyond our ego and our need for things to be “just so,” that God’s spirit might move creatively in our worship planning.

Respecting Each Other’s Roles in Ministry: The church musician needs to have an appreciation of the role of the pastor as the primary, though not the only, theologian and spiritual leader of the congregation. Accordingly, the church musician needs to take the pastor’s theological insights seriously and to weave them into his or her worship leadership by choosing anthems and hymns that complement the theme of the sermon. Church musicians need their counterparts to trust their ability to bring forth the best singing from the congregation. They need trust that their way of interpreting a specific hymn has been thought out with utmost care and that they’ve given much attention to registration, tempo, harmonization, rhythm, style, and so forth. All these decisions are based on helping the people understand the nuances of the text and enabling them to sing with integrity.

To understand each other’s roles more fully, it is important to know as much about your partner’s job as possible. Start out by reading each other’s job descriptions—if they exist in your congregation. Perhaps you could share professional articles with each other. It takes work to get outside our own professional worldviews and to embrace the professional context of the other. The dividends, however, are well worth the effort.

Creating a Spiritually Nourishing Environment: Generating an environment that nurtures each other’s spirituality is one of the most important things you can do, but it is often neglected amid the busyness of our ministerial tasks. Understanding the importance of spiritual practices for both pastor and church musician is essential for vital and effective ministry. How often do we look at the pastor as the only one who provides spiritual nurture or theological insight in the congregation? How often do we neglect the role of the church musician as the pastor’s partner in promoting theological reflection and spiritual formation in congregational life? Both the pastor and the church musician must be committed to personal and congregational spiritual formation. Holistic spirituality involves both individuals and communities. Spiritual practices help to deepen and replenish our lives so that we have something to give in our times of worship leadership. God cannot fully use our gifts when we are so busy that we have no time to hear God’s voice in our daily lives. In the partnership of pastor and church musician, attention to spiritual practices may need to be nurtured and encouraged by your colleague in ministry. If you feel you need to take more time for spiritual practices as a church musician, you may need to voice that to the pastor. As a pastor, you may need to encourage this aspect for the church musician and for your congregation as a whole.

Creative worship calls us to be bold in creating healthy relationships between the pastor and church musician that are loving, supportive, full of open communication, and grounded in spirituality. With God’s help, may we all be part of a dynamic team that can be influential in leading our congregations to vital and faithful worship.


Comment on this article on the Alban Roundtable blog   


Adapted from From a Mustard Seed: Enlivening Worship and Music in the Small Church by Bruce G. Epperly and Daryl Hollinger, copyright © 2010 by the Alban Institute. All rights reserved.  



AL406_SM From a Mustard Seed:
Enlivening Worship and Music in the Small Church
by Bruce G. Epperly and Daryl Hollinger  

Small congregations can have beautiful worship! In From a Mustard Seed, an experienced pastor-professor and an experienced church musician provide a model for faithful and excellent worship in congregations that average 75 or fewer people in weekly worship. While the limitations of small congregations are obvious to their members and leaders, the possibilities for creative music and worship are often greater than we can imagine.  

AL391_SM  Tending to the Holy: The Practice of the Presence of God in Ministry  by Bruce G. Epperly and Katherine Gould Epperly  

Tending to the Holy invites pastors to embody their deepest beliefs in the routine and surprising tasks of ministry. Inspired by Brother Lawrence’s classic text in spirituality, The Practice of the Presence of God, this book integrates the wisdom and practices of the Christian spiritual tradition with the commonplace practices of pastoral ministry.  

AL383_SM When God Speaks through Worship:
Stories Congregations Live By
by Craig A. Satterlee

When God Speaks through Worship: Stories Congregations Live By is a collection of stories of congregational worship in which God’s ongoing presence, speech, and activity are apparent. These stories of proclaiming the gospel, teaching the faith, praying, singing, baptizing, blessing, and sharing bread and wine in Jesus’s name share the purpose of these activities in worship yet still challenge the reader to explore the motives behind them.  

AL312_SMWhere 20 or 30 Are Gathered:
Leading Worship in the Small Church
by Peter Bush and Christine O’Reilly

Peter Bush and Christine O’Reilly draw on their passion and experience equipping lay people to plan and lead worship to address the needs of small churches in rural, suburban, and urban contexts. The authors discuss the characteristics of family-sized congregations, the variety of ways they are organized, the joys and challenges of worship and preaching in small congregations, and best worship practices.  

AL231_SMBeyond the Worship Wars:
Building Vital and Faithful Worship
  by Thomas G. Long  

After studying congregations that seemed to have avoided the tensions around worship that are so common today, Long identified nine common characteristics of vital and faithful worship. Through an illuminating analysis of these churches’ practices and experiences, Long calls other churches to genuine hospitality and enlivened worship founded in the yearning for an experience of the mystery and complexity of God.



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