What You Should Look For In A Worship Leader


The quandary that churches without a worship leader often find themselves in is that they don’t always know what to look for. They might know what leadership qualities to look for given that the search committee will likely consist of leaders, but typically this group of leaders doesn’t have a musician or singer who is knowledgeable about music on their team. As a result, they won’t know what to look for in those areas.

But just to make sure we’re on the same page, the leadership qualities that you want to look for are:
1.    Someone who clearly loves God and people
2.    Someone who is gifted and called to be a leader and therefore has leadership, administrative and organizational skills.
3.    Someone who has a sense of humor can really help, especially to lighten things when difficult decisions and situations arise.
4.    A great communicator.
5.    Has a strong theological foundation for worship
6.    A good teacher
Before I discuss the musical styles, let me say something about this last point, because it is often missed. Do you want the quality of your church’s music department to improve? A worship leader who cannot teach may be able to tell the worship team that they are at level A and need to go to level B, but does not have the ability to equip the team as to how to get there. This would have been akin to Moses coming in to tell the Children of Israel that they needed to go to the promised land, but to not know the first thing about which direction to even point them in.
The inability of a worship leader to teach can bring frustration as a result. The best such a worship leader may be able to do is to work within the limits of the current team and not try and grow them musically. Unless your worship team is a group of top-notch singers and musicians, this is not an option. And if you’re a non-musician leader, it is difficult to even make his judgment. It’s true that anyone can know what they like, but a well-trained, knowledgeable worship leader can hear a worship team and immediately hear their strengths and weaknesses, being able to formulate a plan to raise the bar of musical excellence in the spirit of giving God our best.
Now, what are the musical gifts to look for in a worship leader?
1.    Can sing and/or play either guitar or piano
2.    Music reading
3.    Can play by ear
4.    Knows music theory
5.    Can sing/play in the style(s) that best suit your church’s vision

Many of the above points may be optional for your church. You be the judge as I expound on each.

1.    Can sing and/or play either guitar or piano/keys/organ
Worship leaders that can only do one or the other are very dependent upon lay people to lead worship. This can work under rare circumstances, but I wouldn’t recommend it. I’ve found that most churches that have a worship leader without one of these critical skills, usually regret their choice later on as problems arise.
The most obvious problem is what the worship leader might do when the key layperson doesn’t show up. Furthermore, such a layperson can come to feel that they are being taken advantage of if the worship leader is getting paid. This can cause unnecessary divisions and strife.
I have seen worship leaders who are successful that play other instruments besides guitar and piano. They still suffer from the layperson dependence, but if they are knowledgeable about music, and don’t lean on one particular musician, but instead rely on the band as a whole showing up, the potential for acrimony is greatly reduced. But rightly or wrongly, there seems to be a cultural expectation that a worship leader, especially a more contemporary one, should be able to play guitar or piano.
If I had to choose between a worship candidate that could only do one or the other, I’d opt for the worship leader that plays an instrument but can’t sing. This type of worship leader is more likely to understand the inner workings of music at a level where they can best equip the team. It’s also usually easier to find plenty of lay people who sing at your average church so as to mitigate the absentee layperson problem.
But a worship leader who can only do one or the other, is more likely to be strong at developing the side they are good at on the worship team, but neglect the other. The vocalist worship leader is often going to be great at working with the singers and choir, but will miss critical details to develop the band. The instrumentalist is likely to be great at developing the band but poor at developing the vocalists. This can cause factions on the worship team as one subgroup will feel neglected and the other favored.
If your worship leader can sing, it is important that they have the ability to sing harmonies. This is even critical if they can’t play an instrument because all they will have left for communicating to the worship team is their voice. They will need a very good ear unless they can at least plunk out a few chords or notes on an instrument as a reference point. Fortunately, many vocalist only worship leaders seem to be able to do this.
2.    Music reading
Music reading is probably most important if your church is traditional or has some sort of blend, however it is definitely useful to all styles. This skill is particularly helpful when the worship leader needs to learn a new song, can’t play by ear or doesn’t have a recording, and only has a score or lead sheet available to them.
Music reading is probably more important for keyboard players than guitarists so much so that usually if your worship leader candidate can play a keyboard, they have most likely already learned to read music at some level.
Because of the nature of the guitar, most guitarists never need to learn how to read music. Since most contemporary worship music is in a chord chart form, this is perfectly fine for the contemporary worship leader. But where I’ve seen this become an issue is when this worship leader needs to do a hymn that they have never heard before. If this worship leader can read music, they can figure out the melody from a hymn book and go from there. Otherwise, they are left with finding a recording and creating or finding a supplemental chord chart.
3.    Can play by ear
Playing by ear is another skill that is not absolutely necessary but helpful in ways that the non-musician might not realize. A worship leader who can play by ear will not have to bury their head in a music stand to watch the music go by. They have the potential to look at the congregation as they lead which makes for a more effective worship experience.
I say that they have the potential for this, because the worship leader who plays by ear still has to know the lyrics of the song that they might be singing. If your church projects lyrics on the back of the wall, or a screen within the field of vision of the worship leader, no distracting music stand will be necessary for them in most cases.
Secondly, playing by ear helps a worship leader to improvise and be spontaneous. This may or not be a priority for your church depending upon your church’s vision of worship.
Finally, a worship leader who can play by ear can draft their own charts for the band simply by hearing the song. This is such an advantage when charts are otherwise not available.
4.    Knows music theory
This is not a necessity, but a worship leader that knows music theory is better equipped to communicate to the worship team. Music theory is a language shared by musicians, which describes music. Not all musicians know the language, but for those that do, the communication process is much more efficient, essentially allowing for practices to go smoother.
It is much easier for a worship leader to be able to tell the team that they need to suspend the V chord in the song when it appears at the end of the verse, than to have to tell the keyboard and guitarists to play a D suspended, tell the rest of the instruments to make sure that if they are playing harmonies that they don’t play the F#, and show the harmony vocalists what this note sounds like.
Granted, in almost all cases you’ll have people on the team that don’t know music theory, however a good worship leader long-term can equip the team with the necessary language music theory provides to make communication more efficient and therefore make practices run smoother. I believe it’s ultimately better to raise the bar as long as you equip everyone to reach it, rather than to always stoop to the lowest common denominator.
5.    Can sing/play in the style(s) that best suit your church’s vision
A lot of lay leaders, being non-musical type of people, might miss this. I’ve seen this symptom emerge in many churches that I have visited. You will have a worship leader whose vocal style is ideal for southern gospel or classical, leading contemporary worship. This often happens because that worship leader was at the church when it was more traditional. At some point, the church made the decision to contemporize the  worship. The non-musician laypeople may have the ear to hear that the something doesn’t sound right, but they might know what it is to even realize that it’s the worship leader’s style not fitting the new contemporary vision.
Ideally, you want a worship leader who is versatile in many styles but most everyone has limits. I’m a pretty versatile worship leader but even so, I’m not cut out to sing southern Gospel or classical. I can play these styles and lean on other vocalists, but if those styles are the heart of your church, I’m not the best candidate for such a church.
I want to briefly mention some things that are often missed when preparing a worship team for excellence. I have found that the difference between “good enough” and excellence is usually not found in identifying one showstopper defect. It is instead found in a worship team that is able to focus on a bunch of small details, each one of them when viewed in isolation can seem so small as to be inconsequential, but when viewed as a whole, make a huge difference. I often see many established worship leaders missing these details. As I have heard their teams, the things on this list usually are the culprits:
–  Vocalists (lead excluded) who sing all the time
–  Musicians who play all the time
–  Vocalists who constantly harmonize
–  Vocalists with too wide of a vibrato
–  Vocalists with too much vibrato
–  Vocalists/musicians out of tune
–  Lack of dynamics
–  Poor mix
–  Musicians who play over top of each other instead of leaving room for others
–  Guitarists and keyboardists who use sounds/tones/patches that don’t suit the music or its style
–  Poor vocal enunciation causing words to be difficult to understand or giving the music the wrong style
–  Musicians playing the wrong style for the music
–  The wrong instruments used for the style of music being presented.

Greg Jones is a musician, a philosopher, theologian, teacher, preacher, husband and worship leader.