On Being a Pastor and Leading Worship

Several weeks ago, I attended our monthly denominational pastors’ meeting, a meeting which routinely begins with some kind of worship. The host pastor began by telling us how happy he was to be able to offer this worship experience for the other pastors because as those who lead worship, he suggested, we never get to “really” worship. We’re too busy and distracted with leading the worship of the rest of the congregation to actually worship ourselves. Or so the mantra goes.

I write this coming off a Holy Week intense with worship. In our congregation, Holy Week is a big deal. It’s the pinnacle of the church year, at least as far as worship goes. We inaugurate the week with Palm Sunday/Passion Sunday worship that is rich in movement, ritual, and Word. We are one of the few Protestant congregations in the whole country, I suspect, that actually has services on Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday in Holy Week. Then, of course, there is the Great Three Days of Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and The Holy Saturday Easter Vigil. While this one service that happens over three days is my favorite of the year, it requires a lot of my energy, time, and focus. What’s more, I also know that I have to gear up for Easter Sunday, the day in which our attendance swells to almost three times our average Sunday attendance. In short, as a worship leader and planner, this week is as intense, taxing, and exhausting as it gets. Not only is there a lot of effort that goes into planning and preparing for this week, there are simply a lot of details that have to be attended to in the moment of leading worship.

Yet, I cannot say that as a worship planner and leader that I find it difficult to actually worship. It is not a part of my experience that leading worship stands as an obstacle to worshiping myself. I find that my own experience of meeting God in word and sacrament, in prayer and fellowship, in the context of these rich services is profoundly meaningful.

No doubt, there are other places I worship. Even other places I appreciate worshiping  For instance, there are conferences I go to where I enjoy opportunities to worship with colleagues. But those occasions are not the only times during the year when I can truly worship. Nor are they the worship experiences that I prefer.

There is an image from our Good Friday Liturgy of the Cross that is engraved in my memory. At the end of the service, while we sing The Reproaches, we invite worshipers to come forward for some personal act of reverence at the foot of a large, rough-hewn cross that has just been brought into the sanctuary. Most kneel at the cross for a moment of prayer, some touch it, some even kiss it. Last Friday, a family of five came forward: Mom, Dad, young son and daughter, and Mom’s mom, aka Grandma. Grandma knelt at the altar railing, folding her hands in a moment of prayer without touching the cross. Mom and daughter (1st grade plus or minus) knelt at the opposite side of the cross. Dad and son (3rd grade plus or minus) knelt at the foot of the cross. Junior didn’t seem to know exactly what to do, but when Dad put his hand on the cross, the young boy imitated his father almost exactly. It would have been a touching, Norman Rockwell-like image to even the most casual observer.

And as pastor of the congregation, I saw what the casual observer could never have known. Six weeks earlier, we held the memorial service for Grandma’s husband in that very sanctuary. On Maundy Thursday afternoon, just one day before this veneration of the cross, I had visited with Grandma in her home just to check in about how she was doing in the aftermath of her beloved husband’s death. And I knew that all of them, even the young son and daughter knelt at the foot of that cross with a much more palpable experience of death than many of the worshipers at that service. And I also knew that the community of faith had embraced them and held them, literally, and figuratively in prayer. So, for them to come to the cross in a moment of profound reverence was more than just following the crowd to the front of the church. It was meeting God. How could that not be a moment of worship for me also as a pastoral leader of the congregation?

See, while there are other places that I appreciate worshiping, there are none that I’d rather be a part of than my own church family, even though I am also a leader of this family. This community where I am a pastoral leader is also my church home. These are the people that I have lashed myself to the mast with so that we are sailing on the seas together when the seas are calm, when they are rough, and when they are downright dangerous. We are in this together. These are the people who recognize my gifts and also my deficiencies. These are the people who complain about the hymn that I chose, but also express their deep gratitude when I have touched them deeply through something I have proclaimed in a sermon. These are the people whose insecurities and defensiveness sometimes drive me crazy and these are the people who also know my sometimes very ugly humanness. This is my church home, and these are the people I want to sing with, pray with, hear the Word with, share the meal with, and grow in faith and service with.

What I prefer is to worship with my tribe, the people that I have to live with day in and day out. And just because I am standing up front and trying to concentrate on my sermon and what comes next and why the lector isn’t coming to the ambo and why there is commotion in the balcony with the choir and what I should do as I discover that a hymn number is printed incorrectly in the bulletin — just because these are the realities of worshiping with a community comprised of fallible human beings, it doesn’t mean that I can’t worship with them. In fact, this is worship at its best.

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