Spiritual Direction and the Worship Leader (Pt. 1)
Leading worship for thirty years and serving as a Spiritual Director for the last five of those, has given me a unique perspective on soul care, formation, and the dynamics of worship leading. In this article, I will briefly attempt to describe the interrelatedness of these two roles, how they are alike, how they differ, and how the ancient art of spiritual direction can inform and deepen the ministry of worship leading.
Many Christian leaders have found great value and support in meeting with a Spiritual Director as part of their ongoing discipleship and spiritual formation. This is a growing trend in evangelical circles, and I’m grateful for the interest in this aspect of spiritual formation. Graduating from Talbot Seminary and serving as a Spiritual Director these last several years has been a deep joy. Describing the many ways that serving in this ministry (and personally receiving spiritual direction) enriches my life and faith would constitute an entire article by itself, so I’ll simply say here that it has profoundly impacted the way I shepherd, lead, and love others. It has also shaped the way I approach worship leading and my role as Pastor of Worship at Grace Community Church.
HOW THESE MINISTRIES ARE UNIQUE
Before diving into the interrelatedness and connection between spiritual direction and worship leading, it might be helpful to discuss how they are not the same. Worship leading usually describes the activity of guiding a small-to-large group through an experience of corporate singing, prayer, reading, and listening to God together. It’s a role that can quickly scale from a few individuals in a quiet room to thousands in an arena. Traditional, formal spiritual direction, on the other hand, is limited in scope from a one-to-one relationship up to a small group setting, with usually never more than about ten people. It is not effective in a large group because spiritual direction relies heavily on the participant (the “Directee”) having space to talk, share, and process out loud the activity of God in his or her life. There is more content coming from the participant rather than the leader in spiritual direction. Significant time and opportunity must be created for this to occur, and a Spiritual Director goes to great lengths in providing a spiritually and emotionally open space where the Directee is free to set the pace and take the conversational and topical lead. Worship leading, especially in large groups, is the opposite; the worship leader provides most of the content, pacing, and agenda. A Worship Leader is more “directive” in this case, intentionally planning a structure and program for individuals or a congregation to follow and participate in.
Spiritual Direction meetings usually occur once a month to give adequate time and space between appointments for a Directee to process God’s activity in their lives and to collect and ponder their unique experiences before they meet again with their Director. Quite different from this schedule, the people of God, in groups small and large, often gather for worship once a week on Sunday and sometimes on various days in between. The frequency of these meetings poses a unique set of challenges and opportunities for a Worship Leader that are not shared by the Spiritual Director. Formational practices that occur this frequently demand a thoughtful and directive approach as the Worship Leader must consider what truths, experiences, and messages are most important for the Christian to rehearse and habituate. These many gatherings over a length of time also pose a unique opportunity to lead through a variety of themes and seasons, with the goal of expanding a believer’s knowledge and experience of God’s ways and the whole of Biblical narrative and revelation.
SPIRITUAL DIRECTION AND WORSHIP LEADER DEVELOPMENT
With these basic differences in mind, let’s begin to turn attention now toward the various ways that spiritual direction and worship leading interrelate. The first aspect of this being how spiritual direction can play a specific role in the devotional life and professional development of a Worship Leader. As mentioned earlier, the value and benefit of spiritual direction has gained visibility in recent years. Church leaders and pastors, particularly, have been espousing its restorative, reflective, and soul-nurturing aspects. For Worship Leaders, specifically, there seem to be several poignant benefits.
First, spiritual direction helps Worship Leaders develop an ability to be in tune with the leading and activity of the Holy Spirit. It gives them space to ponder and reflect on God’s presence in their own lives, to learn to hear and trust the voice and stirrings of God, which in turn informs the way that they lead others. It strengthens their sensitivity to the leading of the Spirit in worship planning and the facilitation of worship gatherings.
Secondly, receiving spiritual direction helps a Worship Leader get better in touch with their own emotions and situation, with where God is taking them personally. The contours of this journey often lead to deeper, contemplative places of honesty, confession, and growth, exponentially broadening a Worship Leader’s understanding of developmental spirituality and the complexity of human anthropology. The concept that a leader cannot effectively guide people to where they have not gone themselves takes on critical meaning here. Spiritual direction enables a Worship Leader to more contemplatively write and choose worship elements and liturgies that reflect these realities of heart, soul, body, emotions, and habits. It gives them the long view of spiritual formation in the life of believers, taking into account process and conversational prayer, moving beyond merely the goal of emotional expression or musical excellence. This perspective gives the thoughtful Worship Leader new metrics for evaluating the success or effectiveness of their ministry, including the ongoing development of a congregation’s prayer life and overall growth in spiritual maturity.
HOW TO LEAD WORSHIP AS A SPIRITUAL DIRECTOR
Now that we’ve discussed some of the dynamics of these two ministries and how spiritual direction can specifically play a meaningful role in the life of a Worship Leader, it seems interesting and worthwhile to explore the ways these ministries are alike and the many ways they may further inform one another. How might a Worship Leader prepare, plan, and lead worship as a Spiritual Director? Is it possible to some extent? Could it be beneficial to consider? I believe the answer to these questions is a resounding “Yes!”
In the next article (before getting into practical ways a Worship Leader might lead worship as a Spiritual Director), I will explore several ways that a Worship Leader can prepare and approach the ministry of worship leading through the lens of spiritual direction. I’m hopeful these ideas and suggestions will inspire fresh thinking and creative application. Stay tuned for “5 Practical Ways to Prepare for Worship Leading as a Spiritual Director.”
Subscribe HERE to receive updates as this article will be released in several installments – and please leave a comment below. Your voice would be a welcome addition to the discussion. Are you a Worship Leader, Spiritual Director, pastor, church volunteer, or congregant with further reflections to share? What’s been your experience with these topics and where do you see the connections? I would love to hear from you!
Also, if you’re curious about spiritual direction and interested in finding a Spiritual Director yourself, may I recommend graftedlife.org. This is the organization I affiliate with, and helpful information plus their extensive Spiritual Director Listing can be found HERE
* Special thanks to my academic and professional colleagues for help in shaping this initial conversation and providing valuable feedback and input: Beth Balmer, Matthew Lewis, David Bunker, Monica Romig Green, Andrew Yee, and Mike Ahn.