What’s in a Name?

Starting the Songs

When I had my first opportunity to lead worship in my twenties, I remember some older relatives asking, “Did you know that your great-grand-uncle was a song starter?” My reply, “No, what’s a song starter?” “He led the singing in the services — he started the songs.” (Duh.) Funny thing, if you google “song starter” today you’ll find that there are a number of online products and programs called “Song Starter” that range from songwriting aids to demo production. Language evolves.

But even evolved language isn’t always clear. For example, we no longer have an accurate name for the man or woman who is responsible for worship in the contemporary church gathering. The term “worship leader,” apart from describing the leading of worshipful group singing, doesn’t accurately describe the current responsibilities of those in that position. Yes, it identifies the one task that is common to all worship leaders, but it doesn’t indicate the usual scope of the position. It would be helpful to have more than a generic catch-all for those in-charge-of-worship people who sometimes work 60-hour weeks and knock themselves out planning and executing big seasonal events. But, maybe that’s just me.

Actually, there are good reasons for the confusion. First of all, a worship leader is often required to be a combination of musician, inspired creative, spiritual leader, and efficient administrator. Secondly, if we were to ask around, we would also find that there are about as many worship leader job descriptions as there are churches.

It’s Complicated

When I was growing up, we had a “minister of music” at our church. That title indicated that he (yes, he) had a seminary degree in Music Ministry. “Worship pastor” is another title we heard. It might imply…uh, no seminary degree? But that’s also a bit vague because all worship staff are “pastoral” at various points in our weekly roller coaster. We pray with congregants, parishioners, community members, tribe members, audience members…whatever you want to call them. (See, again, the evolution of words.) I’m experimenting with “worship manager,” but it’s not quite sticking. How about “creative arts pastor”? Hmmm, that’s not quite right because “arts” (please don’t take offense) implies fine arts and doesn’t really identify what happens on the pop-culture-inspired contemporary worship stage. (Apologies to the actual fine art and classical church music crowd.)

So, the issue here is that, these days, the term “worship leader” no more accurately describes the guy or girl on the platform than “song starter” describes an orchestra conductor. The one thing we all have in common is that we lead a group of people in the musical worship of God. It’s the other tasks we do that vary so much due to the size of the church, the church culture, the music program and the expectations.

It may surprise the typical churchgoer to learn that the worship leader manages multiple services, multiple music styles and languages, a variety of instrumentation, vocal groups, special music, team scheduling, team mentoring and management, coordination with leadership, special services, communion, baptisms, etc. There’s also the planning, the praying, the listening, the musing, the intuitive, the creative, the emails, the phone calls, the texting, the scheduling, the re-scheduling, the subs, the tech team, the meetings, the charts, the songs, the keys, the road maps, the band, the singers, the approvals, the rejections, the negotiations, the disagreements, the adult choir, the kids choir, the orchestra, the outreach team, the dance program, the drama team and sharing in all-staff responsibilities.

Let’s Aim for Clarity

Am I suggesting that we, as worship leaders, just need a little more appreciation? Not really. Sure, appreciation’s great, but it’s really all about clarity. We all make assumptions about many professional titles without knowing the exact duties of the position, but specificity and accuracy are always helpful to life in the church community. In the case of the worship leader field, clearly defining the job title would help those who aspire to those positions to know what’s actually required by establishing a professional standard. It would help Christian educators train aspiring worship leaders. It would help church leadership, as employers, to seek specifically qualified employees. And it would help the congregation to know how to support and pray for the worship staff.

In the meantime, while we’re waiting on the agonizingly slower-than-molasses evolution of language, hopefully we as the Church can better affirm, acknowledge and see our worship leaders (aka worship pastors, aka worship managers, aka creative arts directors, aka song starters) for who they really are and what they really do.

Those of us who are worship leaders are greatly privileged to serve the people in our church communities by facilitating an atmosphere of worship for our awesome God. And bottom line, regardless of our job title, God knows all we do. Call us what you like —we’re going to keep starting the songs!

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