He had that blank look on his face as our lattes slowly cooled, the usual university coffee house banter providing a noisy backdrop to our conversation. “I don’t plan on getting ordained,” Randy said. “I have never seen myself as a pastor.” From there our discussion wound its way around and through the somewhat convoluted terminology of terms related to church leadership. I assured him that what I had in mind for him, as a future worship leader, was that of a pastoral musician, which may or may not have anything to do with receiving a credential. Yet it would have everything to do with his vocation. Many denominations have designated ways in which they use the term “pastor.” However, I am not concerned with titles for now; instead, I’d like us to consider the approach to musical leadership in worship. For this, I’d like to think about perspective, practice, and principles.

The term “pastoral musician” has had a long history in some sectors of the church, less so in others. It’s a term worth claiming because it gives us a reminder of who we are as musical leaders in worship. “A pastoral musician is a leader with developed skill and God-given responsibility for selecting and employing music in worship that will serve the actions of the liturgy, while reflecting on theological, contextual, and cultural considerations, all for the ultimate purpose of glorifying God.”[1] Worship leadership is far more than creating song sets and rehearsing the band. These may be duties we perform, but the role of musical leader encompasses so much more. From this definition we can see that musical leaders will have skill and they will have responsibilities; but beyond these, they will have a way of going about musical ministry that is broader, deeper, richer, and more comprehensive. While leading worship pastoral musicians will cast their spiritual gaze heavenward—watching for the movement of God’s Spirit; at the same time they will have an eye toward those under their care in worship, praying for them as worship is underway, guiding them toward doxology. Pastoral musicians watch and listen; they guide and exhort as they lovingly lead fellow-worshipers to the throne of God.

A pastoral musician has a calling to superintend an event in such a way that God’s people are shepherded toward a real encounter with God and each other. To be a pastoral musician is really about overseeing the flock of God in worship. For this, we look to Jesus as our example. In fact, he is called just that—the Overseer of our souls (I Pet 2:25). I love this stunning phrase that is translated as “bishop of your souls” in the KJV: “For [you] were as sheep going astray; but are now returned unto the Shepherd and Bishop of your souls.” The word “bishop” is the Greek word episcopos, meaning overseer. It is comforting to me to know that I have an Overseer of my soul—Jesus—who stands guard over me as a Shepherd, someone who will provide the watchful care I need as I live the life of worship. That’s the role of the pastoral musician—to oversee, to cast a watchful eye upon all of the actions and participants of worship while discerning the movement of the Holy Spirit in real time. A pastoral musician is a bishop of worshiping souls.

What does the pastoral musician look like in worship leadership? How is it different than simply leading the music of worship? In essence, how is the role of pastoral musician practiced?

As we have begun to see, it involves more than the music, though strong musicianship is presumed. In practice, pastoral musicians are persons who:

  • Have a solid understanding of biblical worship and its meaning.
  • Are able to theologically reflect upon worship in light of present culture.
  • Are captivated with pursuing God’s view of worship.
  • Have an awareness of the historical significance of two millennia of Christian worship.
  • Embrace the dialogical nature of worship as revelation/response.
  • Reject the predominance of anthropomorphic worship in favor of Christo-centric worship.
  • Understand that worship is to primarily be relevant to God (while connecting to the people).
  • Recognize that biblical worship is both vertical and horizontal in nature.
  • Understand biblical worship to be primarily corporate in nature.
  • Embrace, encourage, and love the persons in the community God has given them to oversee.
  • Reject passive worship done for the community and strive for participative worship done by the community.
  • Understand that worship always forms us, explicitly and implicitly.
  • View the core content of worship to be the story of God—what the triune God is doing from creation to re-creation.
  • Celebrate the Christian Year so as to proclaim the story of God in Christ.
  • See worship as a bigger entity than exclusively music.
  • Understand the inter-relationship between music and all of the other acts of worship in the whole service.
  • View music as a servant of the text.
  • Select and employ music not for its own sake, but to serve a greater purpose—the purpose of enabling conversation with the triune God.
  • Embrace a wide breadth of congregational song—drawing from psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs.
  • Prayerfully arrive at a canon of song appropriate to their community by applying standards of theological, musical, and lyrical integrity.
  • Understand that excellence is a journey, not an end.
  • Seek to help their God-given community discover its “worship voice” (their meaningful way of communicating with God that is expressive of their culture).
  • Strengthen and balance the worship style that is normative for their community.
  • Help worshipers view their worship as connected to the worship of sisters and brothers all over the world.
  • Help worshipers view their worship as eternal worship—worship that has been and will always be ongoing—on earth as it is in heaven.
  • Connect public worship and pursuing justice for others here and now.
  • Connect public worship with private worship.

This list of “best practices” (though incomplete) helps us flesh out the comprehensive nature of what it means to function as a pastoral musician. Notice that it involves not only doing, but also being. Becoming a pastoral musician is about who you are more than what you do.

To help capture the “big idea” of being a pastoral musician, a few guiding principles may start us in the right direction. First, remember that musical leadership is about ministry first and music second. While we enjoy making music, ministry is the end goal, not music. Worship leaders who find their identity in their performance of music will struggle with becoming true pastoral musicians.

Second, remember that the corporate worship event is bigger than any one of its components. There are many vital elements of biblical worship, only one of which is music. Embrace the breadth and depth of a service of worship and make room for all the parts that are necessary from God’s point of view.

Third, remember that with responsibility comes accountability. If worship is truly formational in nature, take seriously the way in which the worship you lead is (or is not) spiritually forming to your community. Go beyond shallowness, triteness, and entertainment. Instead, pursue only that which is worth placing on the lips and in the hearts of God’s people.

Fourth, remember that you are facilitating worship, not presenting worship. Take up your role as a “worship overseer” by not focusing upon your own needs in worship, but by looking to the interest of others as you prayerfully help the community engage with God in biblical and meaningful ways.

Just about the time our lattes were finished, Randy’s eyes sparkled. “I get it!” he exclaimed. “It’s not about the position you hold in music leadership; it’s about the person you are in music leadership.” That revelation was more than worth the price of a cup of coffee any day.

Rev. Dr. Constance M. Cherry is a regular contributor to Worship Leader and much-loved speaker and workshop leader at NWLC. An associate professor of worship and Christian ministries at Indiana Wesleyan University in Marion, Indiana, she is also a permanent part-time professor for the Robert E. Webber Institute for Worship Studies. Cherry is known for her definitive exploration of worship in The Worship Architect and her latest book Special Service Worship. She has served local churches as a minister of music/worship and as a United Methodist pastor.

1 Constance M. Cherry, The Worship Architect: A Blueprint for Designing Culturally Relevant and Biblically Faithful Services (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2010), 180.