If you’re a worship leader pounding out creative work and doing ministry each week and you’re beginning to wonder how long you can keep it up, consider the following questions:
- Think great worship leading is a just a matter of having the right gifts and maintaining your spiritual motivation?
- Can one stay “pumped” for worship the way one stays pumped for weight loss, exercise, or earning money?
- Is it possible to maintain deep spirituality and authentic worship as a musically creative leader in the corporate church?
- Why is it that the largest classes in worship conferences are often the “avoiding burnout” ones?
- And, finally, bringing this home to you… are you beginning to think you’re just “running on fumes” in danger of getting stranded on the roadside of local church ministry?
If you’ve felt your own inner motivations to lead worship (or even worship God at all) flagging lately, there are probably some pretty obvious reasons for it. The danger of not addressing them at the earliest possible stages is obvious, though we oddly prefer to wait until things are falling apart to take care of ourselves and our loved ones. Maybe it’s our pride. Okay, it’s most definitely our pride. We are Americans, for crying out loud. We don’t have problems and we don’t need help. We’ll get along just fine, thank you very much.
So, you don’t need help.
But let’s just say that you have this “friend” who’s in ministry and it’s obvious that his or her love for worship is waning. Her attitude toward others on the team and on the church staff is noticeably negative. Tasks that used to be on time are now late. The sheer joy of worshiping has slowly been turning to a burden and a job, at best, and the general morale of the team is slipping into a dark abyss of rote rehearsals and humdrum Sunday services. If we were to be open about it, the thrill is gone.
While we can get vaguely Scriptural about it and admonish her to “come back to her first love” or pray more or read the Bible more or tithe or fast or do something blatantly spiritual, more often than not the answers lie in unmet emotional needs in her life. All the spiritual disciplines need to be operative in her life and in ours, of course, but they rarely work well if we’re caught up in feelings of trapped anger, frustration, resentment, anxieties, undue stress, disappointments, and even outright depression.
Medical research on many websites now says that over 90% of all doctor visits are stress related, including The American Institute of Stress (and I personally wouldn’t want to work there). The connections between mental healthiness and worship should be as obvious to us as anything else, but we’ve rarely wanted to address it. We’ve wanted to “pray away the stress” or “wish away the worries,” but that’s no real strategy, is it?
Let me get confessional for a moment.
My greatest difficulties in ministry grew out of disappointments with myself and others and not real “burnout.” My hopes and expectations for my creativity weren’t always met with the enthusiasm I’d hoped for and quite often my efforts weren’t appreciated and sometimes even criticized, causing deep shame in me. The mixed messages from leadership and congregation became a cancerous growth in my soul that poisoned my ability to be objective about anything. I became overly sensitized to criticism, which seemed to be coming at me faster than I could dodge it.
What I could’ve labeled as “burnout” was a lot more about hurt feelings, misunderstandings, and buried anger than anything else. My own passive/aggressive nature caught up with me and the meltdown was one I couldn’t come back from relationally or ministerially. It wasn’t the worship leading part that got to me. It was everything else I had to juggle fused with my inability to process my emotions. It wasn’t “sin” or even lack of spiritual disciplines. It was outright emotional immaturity and the chronic buildup of unprocessed emotions. Is this an isolated event? Absolutely not. We’re not just Americans. We’re humans.
So…want to breathe new life into your ministry? Breathe new life into yourself. Take a sabbatical to get some good counseling. Take one half-day a week to just sit quietly and think about how much Jesus wants you to take care of yourself, not just so you can take care of others but because you deserve great soul care, too. Tell the people around you more truth about what’s going on inside your mind. If you feel taken for granted or unrecognized for your talents, let them know so you can talk it out. You may find that you’re just projecting your own unhealthy attitudes about yourself onto the people around you and they’re just giving back to you what you seem to be wanting from them.
As the church structures become more corporate in nature, soul care can be shoved out the window in lieu of job security, until it’s too late, of course. I know of one worship leader ushered immediately to the door upon revealing to his pastor that he was struggling with depression. The reason we hide our emotional struggles and any acting out that may occur is the extreme judgment we fear and the very real threat of having to step down. This only exacerbates the issues, of course, and the downward spiral continues. Until such a time when more openness to the emotional components of leadership are present in church leadership structures, it is our responsibility to care for ourselves in the best ways we can find.
From one highly skilled self-saboteur to the next, believe me, we’re often our own worst enemies. We can only blame everyone and everything around us for so long before we must come back to the realization that we’re the real problem. Along with healthy spirituality in creative leadership comes healthy soul care. Neglect yourself for long and prepare for the worst. When will we learn that it’s not “selfish” to make sure we have enough “me time” to be truly healthy, happy, inspired, and filled up enough to pour out to others?
Mother Teresa famously said, “If you want to change the world, go home and love your family.” Don’t forget that you’re part of the family you go home to. If you’re feeling the stresses and strains of weekly worship ministry in an increasingly depleting way, don’t let it go on. Stop now. Heed the warning signs and reach out for the help you need. New life in worship ministry must come from the wellspring of love in your own heart, not just for others, but for yourself. Love yourself enough to know you can’t love others well without proper self care.
In the end, sustaining worship leadership means sustaining it on the inside first. Lead yourself in worship each day and maintain emotional equilibrium with honesty and integrity. Getting pumped up about music isn’t even remotely close to being excited and engaged with Jesus. If you’re feeling distanced from Him, your First Love, because you’ve neglected yourself there’s not enough music in the world to maintain great leadership and everyone around you will know it.
John Chisum has been a husband to Donna for almost 38 years, a father to Aly for almost 26 years, and has invested himself in the church for over 42 years as a worship leader, songwriter, publisher, and encourager. He writes and teaches on songwriting and worship leading and is Managing Partner of Nashville Christian Songwriters. For more information on John’s ministry he can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.