The Work of Music Leaders

The Work of Music Leaders

Anne M. Burnette-Hook



Wanted: First Church of Fantasy Island is looking for a full-time director of music/organist. A large suburban congregation with a small church feel, we are seeking a professional musician and minister to oversee an extensive graded choir program in choral and instrumental music, to accompany all church services (including the all-contemporary praise service on Saturday nights), to supervise and train volunteer musician leaders, to provide creative leadership for the worship planning teams for each service (including monthly special services throughout the year), to recruit new members into the music ministry, to administer an active after-school music and drama school, and to be the shepherd for all 1000+ members currently a part of this vital ministry. We desire someone proficient in all types of music, ranging from Gregorian chant to praise choruses, and someone who loves the Lord. Ph. D. in conducting and organ and M. Div. preferred, or equivalent. It would be nice if your spouse is also a professional musician who would accompany the choirs you direct without pay . . .


Sound impossible? Congregations today are seeking church musicians who can do a number of things, ranging from traditional choral conducing to the relatively recent  job of praise team leadership. As with many professional ministry positions, the job description is often daunting and nearly impossible to do well.


What is the real work of the music leader? Is it to be all things musical to all people in the congregation? Or is it to be a spiritual leader in the congregation — a person who focuses intentionally on the music life of the congregation as part of the larger ministry context?


This article will explore the specific jobs of the music leader of the church. It will name specific tasks that must be done by the music leader and those that should be delegated to gifted helpers. It will help church musicians understand more fully what their unique role in the congregation is and how to do it more effectively.


The Many Roles of the Music Leader

Musicians in the church must wear many hats to fulfill the task of music leadership. The job description may be limited to directing the choir, worship planning, and attending occasional worship committee meetings. However, the work of the church musician, whether part- or full-time, whether paid or volunteer, is usually much larger than the job description.


There are four major roles that the church musician should be prepared to undertake in order to be an effective leader of a congregation: the congregational song leader, worship planner and leader, music educator, and spiritual leader. Although other roles may also be identified, these make up the major work of the church musician.


A major task of the music leader is to lead the song of the most important singing ensemble of the church, the congregation.


The Music Leader as Congregational Song Leader

This role is an important and often overlooked task of the music leader. Although much of the work of a music leader is with other musicians in the church — choir members and accompanists — a major task of the music leader is to lead the song of the most important singing ensemble of the church, the congregation. Song leader, in this case, is much more than just a worship designation or task; it is the work of equipping and enhancing the song of the congregation.


Every musician would love to work in a congregation where the congregation sings as robustly (but perhaps not as slowly) as the gathered assembly at an annual conference worship singing “O For A Thousand Tongues to Sing.”  It is the job of the church musician to equip the congregation to do just that.


Much of what will enable the congregation to become a singing congregation is more appropriately tied with careful worship planning. Planning worship with a singing congregation in mind is one of the first steps to enhancing a congregation’s singing.


After careful planning, effective song leadership in worship will greatly enhance the congregation’s ability to sing with vitality and meaning. In many congregations, it is assumed that the choir plays this role; however, the congregation often leaves the singing to the choir rather than being led by the choir. It is more effective to have a worship song leader as well as a choir.

The music leader might introduce the hymn or song with a brief statement that helps connect the song to the rest of the service. Some worshipers do not pay close attention to the texts of the songs or the way in which they relate to the Scripture texts or sermon. A brief (not a mini-sermon) statement that relates the song to the service may help the congregation sing with more meaning and intent.  It also may help if the music leader indicates the worship form of the song as well. For example, if the song is a prayer, the leader might invite the congregation to pray the words as they sing.


Next, the music leader should sing the song strongly enough so the congregation can hear well enough to be led, but not so strongly that the congregation is overpowered. The leader should sing the melody, not the harmony or a descant part. The congregation needs reassurance that they are singing the right music. (The exception to the melody guideline is a Taizé song. After the assembly is familiar enough with the song, it is appropriatefor the leader to sing harmony if he or she wishes.) The leader should sing as he/she wants the congregation to sing. The music leader may use a a microphone if necessary, but only as a tool to be heard and not as a prop.


The leader should use his/her hands only to indicate when the congregation is to sing; not to direct them as if they were a choir. If they do not know the song, they will not be watching; if they know it well, they will not need the direction. If the music leader needs to change a tempo, he/she should use voice or the accompaniment to speed it up instead of moving his or her arms.

If a song is new to the congregation, the music leader should determine how to teach it to them in advance. Most congregations will not sing if they do not know a song.


The choir can help lead and support congregational singing as well. They need to understand that their role is more than providing music for the service; they are first and foremost leaders of the congregation. They need to sing the hymns and songs with correct singing technique and energy. They should also be active participants in worship at all times, not just when they are leading.

The choir should never take the singing from the congregation.


I was worshiping at an assembly where the choir in residence did a lot of performing outside of worship. During worship, we sang “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross” as a congregational hymn. On the last stanza, the organist suddenly modulated to a much higher key and the choir began singing a setting that was familiar to choirs and choir directors, but not to congregations. The rhythm was different, the key was higher than most could sing, and the transition was abrupt. The ending was very exciting musically, and I personally love using and singing that anthem; but the congregation dropped out. They did not know the music and could not sing the song. The choir took the congregation’s song from them. The task of facilitating the congregation’s song does not allow for such musical showcasing. The same criteria applies to the music leader: His or her task is to lead the congregation’s singing, not sing for the congregation. The music leader may sing some verses without the congregation when a solo voice is required, but the music leader should not sing in place of the congregation.


Finally, the music leader should look for opportunities outside of worship to sing with the assembly or any gathering within it. He or she should use these times to teach about the great hymns of faith as well as some of the new hymns and songs of faith. Sunday school classes, meetings of small groups, even administrative council meetings can be opportunities for hymn singing.


The role of the congregational music leader is a daunting task, but it is a great opportunity for creativity as well.


The music leader functions not only as a song leader, but also as a worship planner.

The Music Leader as Worship Leader


The music leader functions not only as a song leader, but also as a worship planner. Working cooperatively with other worship leaders such as the pastor, the music leader plans music in worship so that people experience God’s presence in powerful ways through singing and hearing the music in worship.


Several strategies will help increase the effectiveness of music in worship. Knowing the musical character of the assembly if crucial. As music leader, find out which hymns the congregation knows and loves; regularly choose those hymns for worship. Do a congregational favorite hymn survey or ask members to mark their favorites in a community hymnal kept in an accessible place.


Figure out creative ways to increase the singing in worship. If the congregation is not singing the Psalm responses because the responses are unfamiliar, select appropriate familiar hymn phrases or refrains to use as responses. Use the first stanza or refrain from “How Great Thou Art,” (United Methodist Hymnal,77) as a musical response to a psalm in praise of the God of creation (Psalm 8, for example). This will touch many people for whom this is a favorite hymn. Instead of a spoken prayer for illumination or prayer before the sermon, sing a familiar hymn or praise chorus during a specific season, such as “Spirit of the Living God” (United Methodist Hymnal, 393) during Pentecost. Frame the Scripture or prayers of the people with an appropriate hymn or song, such as “Praise to the Lord, The Almighty,” (United Methodist Hymnal, 139). Invite the congregation to sing a closing song of dismissal, such as “Shalom to You,” (United Methodist Hymnal, 666).


Communion Sundays offer several opportunities for creative worship planning with music and the congregation in mind. Try teaching one of the musical settings of the Great Thanksgiving (United Methodist Hymnal17-25). Many congregations find the call and response form of Setting B (pages 19-20) or the echo of the familiar hymn “Holy, Holy, Holy” in Setting A (17-18) accessible and easily learned. Instead of choral or instrumental music during the serving of Communion, plan a list of familiar hymns or a series of new and old Communion hymns for the congregation to sing as they are served. List the numbers in the worship order and move smoothly from one to the next. Change these hymns rarely (especially if you serve Communion monthly), so the congregation can become familiar with both the songs and the order.


Introducing different types of congregational service music increases the opportunities for the congregation to sing as a community. (This practice will be most successful if you use a lot of hymns they know and love.) Moderation is key.  On a given Sunday, do not sing every prayer that the congregation is accustomed to speaking; instead, change only one or two of the prayers. Think carefully about songs you may want to use only one Sunday, such as a Psalm response, and those songs you may wish to use over a longer period, such as a specific season or every Communion Sunday in a year’s time. Give the congregation time to learn a response well enough to be able to sing it from the heart, but not so long that it becomes routine and mindless.


Finally, as you plan music for your choirs, intentionally select music that includes the congregation whenever possible. Festive hymn settings provide exciting choral experiences as well as allowing the congregation to participate in the music making. Several music companies, such as GIA Publications, Inc., publish a lot of choral literature with congregational responses. Again, you would not want to use this form every week, but often enough that the congregation feels comfortable participating.


Creative, innovative worship planning is irrelevant if it merely impresses people but does not lead them into God’s presence.


As you plan worship, your goal is to help people both experience and worship God. Creative, innovative worship planning is irrelevant if it merely impresses people but does not lead them into God’s presence. This is equally as true for the magnificent cathedral choir singing classical choral literature as for the energetic praise band encouraging everyone to “put their hands together for Jesus.”


The Music Leader as Music Educator

There was a day in our culture when learning how to read music and play an instrument was considered integral to the well-educated person. Today, school systems drained by declining tax revenues and rising costs are often forced to eliminate the arts from their curriculum. Because of this reality, the church musician’s role as music educator is vital. However, the end of music education is not to create musicians, as valuable as such an end would be. The task of the church is to make disciples of Jesus Christ; the task of the church musician and music educator is to teach musical skills and how those skills can be used to share the gospel, increase people’s experience with God, and their ability to share their faith through and with music.


The role of music educator in the church often begins in the choir room, where the director teaches the vocal and other musical skills necessary for effective music-making: strong vocal production and clear diction, so the message in the words can be heard and understood by the assembly; how to blend and sing as an ensemble so the congregation can focus on the message and not be distracted by a less-than-beautiful sound; how to read the notes on the page and interpret those notes so that people can experience the love and grace of God through the music that is presented.


While making music is possible without all or most of these skills, it is much more difficult. It is possible to teach an anthem by rote if choir members cannot read music, but it is more time consuming than relying on their ability to read the notes. In the long run, it is more effective to teach music skills than to always have to teach the music. This is especially true in children’s choirs, where we are training the church musicians of today as well as tomorrow. We are often tempted by the short-term ease and success of rote learning. If we are going to have musicians in the future church, it is up to the church musician to train them today.


The role of music educator is not limited to the choir. The congregation can be taught about the great hymns and music of faith. They can learn about various styles of music through hearing a variety of music in worship and through educational pieces in a worship order, newsletter, or gathering time for learning (Sunday school, Wednesday night fellowship dinners, etc.). Every congregation can learn to sing better, especially if they are taught by a congregational song leader and choir who sing correctly and enthusiastically. Good singing, like worship, can be “caught” as well as taught by the music leadership of the church.


The Music Leader as Spiritual Leader

While this task may require little or no musical training, it may be the most important role of the church musician. If the task of the church is to make disciples of Jesus Christ, then every aspect of the church must be engaged in that task, including, and perhaps especially, the music ministry.

Music is one of the most effective tools for conveying spiritual truths. John and Charles Wesley knew the power of music as they wrote hymns for the purpose of teaching doctrine to the people they were leading. Ask any given worshiper to quote from a sermon he or she heard last week, and you will probably get a blank stare. Ask that same person to recite a line from a favorite hymn, and he or she can sing for days. Music shapes the faith of those who sing and hear it.

The congregations we serve, and especially the choirs we lead, need us to be spiritual leaders. They need us to fulfill the other roles mentioned above; but if we are not spiritual leaders, then we might as well be leading a civic chorus or teaching music in the school system.


To be a spiritual leader as a musician does not require seminary training or advanced theological degrees. It does require that we be Christians on the journey, willing to lead and to walk with others on their journey.

If we are not actively engaged in a personal spiritual life, then we must ask our pastor or another trusted Christian friend how to begin. Set aside time daily for prayer and study. Join an accountability group to support your spiritual disciplines. Make your relationship with God through Christ a priority, not just an exercise to go through in order to be a more effective worship planner.


As you begin to grow in your faith, provide opportunities for spiritual growth in the groups you work with. Talk with them about why you chose a particular anthem or how it relates to the Scripture for Sunday. Invite them to share stories of what they think an anthem text means to them. Lead the choir in regular worship together as a community. Foster a nurturing, caring community in the group by following up when people are absent, praying for them regularly, encouraging them to pray for one another, leading them in acts of compassion and mercy outside the choir room.


Your role as spiritual leader is perhaps your most important role to the people with whom you work. [For a more extensive exploration of that role and its possibilities in a music ministry, see Grace Notes: Spirituality and the Choir (Discipleship Resources, 1998).]


What a Music Leader is Not

A church musician cannot be all things musical to all people in the congregation. As effective as you might be, there will always be people in the congregation with whom you will disagree and from whom you can learn. There are also gifted people who will need to do much of the work in the music program.


There are many tasks, both musical and nonmusical, involved in the music ministry of a congregation. Some of those things, the music leaders must and should do — such as pick out music for the choir, plan the rehearsals, pick out and learn the music for worship. There are others tasks the music leader can do well, such as direct a children’s choir. In some settings, the music leader may be the only one who can do that task. In that circumstance, the leader has to decide if job descriptions and time allow for those tasks to be done. However, the music leader might be better served by equipping other gifted indiiduals to do certain tasks.


There are other tasks that many people could do, such as making costumes for a musical or keeping the music library in order. Often these tasks require little or no musical training, only a willingness to learn and to serve. In these circumstances, it is often more appropriate to delegate that task to someone. It is good stewardship and leadership to offer the chance to serve to someone else.


This is not an excuse to avoid the servant tasks that Christ calls from all of us. It would be poor leadership to take a youth choir on a mission trip and refuse to help repair a front porch because God has called you to music ministry, leaving the work of serving others to those who are “gifted” to do so. Indeed, God gifts us and expects us to live in those gifts, but God also expects us to be obedient to the call to servant ministry as shown to us by Jesus Christ.


Finally, we are not called to be music leaders alone. We will assume many roles in our lives–child, spouse, parent, friend, worker, musician, disciple. At times, one role may take precedence over the others. We will not be balanced spiritual leaders of our congregations if we are music leaders to the exclusion of all the other roles in our lives. God has called us to be music leaders, yes; but, God has called us to much, much more than that.


Many Roles, one Spirit

There are many roles for the music leader. But there is one God who calls us into ministry, one God who gifts us for leadership, one Spirit who equips and inspires us to lead others into ministry. May you be blessed by God and a blessing to others as you live out the role of music leader.


The above article, “The Work of Music Leaders” was written by Anne M. Burnette-Hook. The article was excerpted from Worship Matters, vol. 2.  Used by permission.  December 2017.


The material is copyrighted and should not be reprinted under any other name or author. However, this material may be freely used for personal study or research purposes.


This article may not be written by an Apostolic author, but it contains many excellent principles and concepts that can be adapted to most churches. As the old saying goes, “Eat the meat. Throw away the bones.”