Leading Worship Leaders

Leading Worship Leaders
By Nancy Beach

I love artists. I always have. I cannot imagine a world without the beauty, perspective, and sheer joy artists bring. I use the term artists for those who create videos, design the stage, dance, write, sing, paint, play an instrument, mix the sound, and contribute overall ideas. They’re all artists.

Those who provide leadership to arts ministries have two primary goals: to lead artists in creating meaningful moments in church and to lead artists to become more like Jesus. This two-fold goal is a huge challenge. After three decades in arts ministry, I know two things for sure: artists are not easy to lead; and artists desperately need leadership.

My husband serves as a volunteer leader in two ministry areas generally filled with left brained, thinker-type people. He often accomplishes kingdom work by going to meetings, making decisions, and then following through with a list of tasks. This always strikes me as rather simple and uncomplicated compared with the group of people I get to lead. Artists have great strengths-and extremely complicated weaknesses. It’s part of how God created them. They feel things deeply and therefore can craft moments that tap into what others feel but can’t seem to express. Yet this very strength-feeling thinks deeply-can drive artists to self-doubt, perfectionism, and fear of failure.

Single-mindedly devoted to their craft, artists can slip into self-absorption and lose sight of the big picture. It’s rare to have a simple conversation with artists or a simple decision about approach and ministry. Artists often see the world in shades of gray rather than black and white, and they resist quick or simplistic conclusions.

I experienced this recently when we met with our pastor to discuss a drama script for Good Friday. The writer and drama directors fought for the artistic integrity of the piece. Pastors sought to protect the audience from ambiguity, while the artists defended subtlety. What a delicate dance! If those who lead artists attempt to be authoritative, handing down edicts and expecting the team to just do it, turmoil and trouble result.


When I think back over my journey as a leader of artists, I celebrate some parts and deeply regret others. My short list of regrets includes four key areas where I’d love the chance for a do-over.

1. Keep the vision clear. Even the most devoted volunteer artists can grow fuzzy about why we are doing this. We require consistent reinforcement of our vision and core values. Warren Bennis has written numerous books on leadership. My favorite is Organizing Genius, because it focuses on critical ingredients for leading creative teams-what Bennis calls “Great Groups.” After extensive study of successful organizations, Bennis concluded, “The talented people who make up Great Groups are not easily led. Often the leader’s role is simply to keep them pointed in the right direction.” It is essential for leaders of artists to err on the side of over communicating the purpose for serving and the church mission rather than assuming everyone just gets it and will always get it.

Keeping the vision clear becomes exceedingly difficult as volunteer teams grow. Newer team members require orientation to arts ministry expectations, strategy, and values. Veteran servants also need frequent reminders, because, as our pastor often says, “vision leaks.” With so many rehearsals and services, how do we make time to communicate our foundation? Our team has experimented with many strategies to keep vision clear; we gather arts ministry volunteers a few times each year. We highlight core values and inspire our teams by showing them examples of changed lives.

In a recent team meeting, I invited a drummer new to our music ministry to tell his story. Wes’s description of coming to Willow Creek-feeling blown away by the music, and seeing a drum set on stage just like his at home-was a great inspiration to our team. Wes told us he couldn’t get over the quality and style of music he was hearing at a church. Over time, Wes investigated Christianity and volunteered to serve. Eventually he gave his life to Christ. After hearing this, our volunteers jumped to their feet in applause. Wes vividly reminded us why we serve. We expect our team leaders to consistently reinforce both the church vision and our team values through individual conversations and prayer times in smaller rehearsal settings.

2. Lead “up” effectively. Artists in every church need a bridge to those who make the major decisions-including the pastor and leadership bodies with influence over the artists. Leading up involves advocating for what artists need to flourish and clearly communicating to artist and leaders. For example, very few church boards comprehend why the arts ministry needs certain equipment-and certainly won’t believe what some of this equipment costs.

Too often I became so absorbed in leading the artists that I neglected to provide the right leaders with vital information about the arts ministry. Artists also need a fuller picture of all the departments competing for limited church resources. Otherwise they develop tunnel vision and ignore other significant ministry areas.

Doug Veenstra has greatly enhanced my leadership horsepower. We co-led our arts ministry until Doug and his family relocated. As partners, Doug and I focused on what we do best. I concentrated on overall creative direction for services and events; Doug developed and led our people day to day. I wasn’t aware how poorly I led up until I watched Doug do it so masterfully. He carefully built relationships with a few members of our church board and the elders and also communicated frequently with key leaders in other departments. Doug painted a picture of our team’s challenges, limited resources, and need to keep the stress in check. Somehow he maintained a positive can-do attitude, making sure the other leaders knew our fervent desire to serve God with our gifts as fully as possible. During the budget process, Doug championed our ministry needs while keeping the over-all church vision and other priorities in mind. He was never abrasive or demanding. Doug truly listened to others and then communicated in a clear and compelling way. I’ll always be looking for someone like that.

3. Be realistic about creative output. I’d love a do-over for how I have led the pacing of our key artists’ creative out-put. To put it bluntly, I have not protected them enough from our excessive pace and potential burnout. Church artists are given both the blessing and the curse of frequent deadlines-every seven days! I have always had enough smarts to know artists are not machines, and there is a limit to how much they can produce with innovation, joy, and health. But discerning exactly where that limit is keeps me learning the hard way.

When I first accepted a leadership role in the arts ministry, we had only one drama writer-a very gifted guy named Judson Poling. Jud was expected to create a new, eight minute drama sketch every weekend, for about fifty Sundays a year. Even as a novice leader, I knew that was ridiculous. Others wondered why Jud’s scripts didn’t hit a home run every week. This was not about Jud being a slacker or not caring about our services his creativity had limits, and he simply was not given adequate breaks to get re-fueled. Once we adjusted Jud’s workload and developed a few other writers, he soared as a creative contributor and has continued to craft powerful drama scripts for nearly 25 years.

As an artist at Hallmark Cards, Gordon MacKenzie sought to preserve and protect his own creative spirit. Orbiting the Giant Hairball, one of my all-time favorite books, beautifully describes Gordon’s journey. Gordon illustrates the tension between management and artists when it comes to production pace. He asks the reader to imagine a serene pasture where a dairy cow is quietly eating grass, chewing her cud, and swishing her tail. Outside the fence stands “a rotund gentleman in a $700, powder-blue, pinstripe suit.” This gentleman is livid that the cow is not working hard. He doesn’t understand that whatever milk the cow produces when placed on the milking machine is directly related to the time the cow spends out in the field-“seemingly idle, but, in fact, performing the alchemy of transforming grass into milk.� Gordon skillfully compares the rotund gentleman to management leaders all over the country who have no patience for the “quite time essential to profound creativity.”

Too many church leaders don’t understand that the artists who create services need quiet fueling to do their best work. If we try to hook them up to a constant milking machine fifty weeks a year, we will suffocate their best ideas, possibly damage their souls, and most likely lose them for long-term ministry.

Every artist is unique, with a different capacity for creative output. The key to leading them effectively is to understand their rhythms and provide a pace that allows them to stop their relentless output and restore themselves. At Willow Creek, we’ve addressed this by recruiting more team members to free up artists for certain periods of time. I urge church leaders to be realistic about how much your treasured artists can produce before they start to die inside.

4. Confront character issues immediately. My fourth do-over as a leader of artists stems from a lifelong weakness-the desire to avoid conflict. I have sometimes waited too long to address character issues in our artists’ lives.

Melanie was a gifted and beloved vocalist on our team. From my involvement with her in a small group, I learned that her marriage was troubled and she was in counseling. I was concerned about the many hours she was at rehearsal, away from her husband and children, but I didn’t think it was anything more than a friendship when Melanie began spending time with one of our instrumentalists. (You know where this is going.) In the end, two marriages were lost.

The story might have played out much differently if I had paid closer attention to my instincts and had the courage to ask questions and speak truth. Sometimes I think that surely the individual is aware of his or her behavior, or that it’s not my place to hold the person accountable, or even that others must be dealing with the matter. The good news is after five years’ absence; Melanie was fully restored in her faith and her music ministry. One of our most significant memories as a church took place the night Melanie stood before us and told her story. She asked for forgiveness, the elders prayed for her, and then we heard Melanie’s beautiful voice once again sing a song of surrender to Jesus. I still remember the thunderous applause of our congregation, a signal of grace extended. What a glorious kingdom victory!

The evening became a teaching opportunity for all of us to confess our sins and escapist desires early on, before we make tragic choices we will regret. We also recommitted ourselves to live in accountable relationships, invite one another to boldly ask how we are really doing, and recognize that all of us will face temptation.

Leaders, don’t even look the other way when a fellow team member might need you most. Under the Holy Spirit’s guidance, discern when it is necessary to lovingly inquire about a pattern you have seen. This includes times when you observe hints of pride, jealousy, a critical spirit, bitterness, laziness, loose talk, or any other behaviors that do not reflect the character of Jesus Christ. Voices in your head will tell you that it’s none of your business and that, most likely, everything is really okay. It’s scary to engage in these difficult conversations-but our team members’ lives and churches’ spiritual vitality are at stake.

Leading with love

A few years ago, our core leadership team was given the gift of a weekend together in New York City. We refueled ourselves with Broadway shows, and reconnected with one another as we laughed and shared our lives on long city walks. On the final afternoon, I gave each person a stack of New York postcards. We took time to thoughtfully write a brief message of affirmation to the other team members, one per card. We sat in a small city park on cold gray benches among the pigeons, reading aloud what we had written for one another, and then giving the cards as a gift to take home. I still have my set. Bruce Smith, a key leader on our team, oversees our technical production and is the driving force behind countless creative endeavors. On my postcard, Bruce wrote, “I have always wanted to be led by a loving teacher. Thank you for leading me with love.” There are no words he could have written that would have meant more to me.
When all is said and done, artists simply long to be led with love. They want to know that someone attempts to understand how they are wired, what they need to soar, and how hard it can be for them to keep doing creative work. Those of us who lead artists should begin by asking ourselves if we truly love them. Whenever we begin to show signs of resenting artists or wishing they could just fly straight and get with the program, we must ask our heavenly Creator to refresh and renew our genuine love for these treasured people. He will enable us to see them as He sees them and to love them with growing depth and joy.

This article “Leading Worship Leaders” by Nancy Beach is excerpted from www.music.ag.org