Dianna Holden had been looking for an opportunity to step down as her church’s worship leader for a few years. After 27 years of serving, Holden felt like she was drawing from an empty well.
“I loved the whole thing,” said Holden, “even to my exhaustion.”
She was leading every Sunday, managing other musicians, and planning every service for her 200-person church in Kelso, Washington.
“I am a devoted person and a martyr to my demise. I just go for it and try to be faithful.”
Then, as the pandemic heightened the emotional and logistical demands of her (unpaid) position, she decided it was time. In January 2021, Holden wrote in a Facebook post that she was grateful to have someone to take over the music ministry for her. She was ready to step away. She didn’t have any reserves left.
“It wasn’t something I really hated in the end,” Holden said. “I was just tired.”
The emotional and spiritual toll of pastoral work is leading many to reevaluate their places in ministry. According to a Barna study released in November 2021, 38 percent of senior pastors have seriously considered leaving full-time ministry in the past year.
“Pastors are facing more intense scrutiny and pressure,” said Mike MacKenzie, a counselor who works with pastors as the director of Marble Retreat in Marble, Colorado, and author of Don’t Blow Up Your Ministry. “We have been just inundated with calls in the last couple of years from pastors who are [saying,] ‘I’m just done. I’m just so maxed out.’”
There are unique aspects of music ministry that leave leaders particularly vulnerable to burnout. Worship pastors are spiritual leaders, performers, managers, creative directors, and tech support. Being on stage has always made them the target of critical feedback, but after the past two years, they’re finding that criticism they might have easily shaken off in the past hits a little harder.
The year 2020 obviously brought upheaval and countless logistical challenges for worship teams as churches moved their services online, stopped meeting in person, or pivoted to smaller gatherings. But the stress of 2021, worship leaders say, was more relational; they had to manage illness on their teams and make decisions about asking singers and other musicians to wear masks, all while trying to meet the increased need for pastoral guidance and counsel in their churches.
“I’ve had to shepherd people even more,” said Jen Smale, worship pastor at 29:11 Church in Tempe, Arizona.
“People think that [when] you’re a worship leader, your job is to pick out some songs and schedule some people and be ready for a weekend. That’s part of the job, but if you’re truly a shepherd or worship pastor, there’s so much more involvement in taking care of the sheep.”
While the offstage, relational aspects of the job are getting more difficult, the onstage leadership remains as demanding as ever.
After the chaos of December, those in music ministry often feel like they limp into January. Last year, Christmas Eve fell on a Friday, which meant that most worship pastors were working extra hours to organize Advent services, Christmas Eve services, and Sunday morning services for two days after Christmas. It’s a hard time to call for more help from lay leaders and volunteers, who are also busy and want a break.
Matt Collins, worship leader at Christian Family Chapel in Jacksonville, Florida, felt like his mind was endlessly running throughout the month of December, thinking through rehearsal needs or adjustments to set lists or arrangements.
“You’re just constantly kind of ‘on,’” said Collins. “It’s fun, but by the time you’re done, you’re just ready to crash.”
But taking time to “crash” or even find a few days of rest is difficult. There’s always another Sunday coming, and if there isn’t another leader who can confidently take over, a worship pastor may not feel that he or she can step away for a break.
Although she was encouraged to take a break, Dianna Holden could rarely bring herself to do it, even after the Christmas season. “I had no one to fill in,” she said.
“My pastor was like, ‘Any time you need off, take it off, [even] if we have to sing acapella,” said Holden. “My thing was the guilt.”
Especially at larger churches with bands and highly produced services, the worship pastor is often held responsible for a part of the service that involves other musicians (who may have varying degrees of experience and ability), support staff and volunteers, and equipment that may or may not work perfectly on a given Sunday morning.
“The preaching pastor has near-complete control over the presentation of the sermon,” MacKenzie pointed out, “whereas the worship pastor tends to have half a dozen people participating with him or her.”
A 2017 Gallup poll found that 74 percent of American church attendees consider music in their decision to attend services (with 38 percent saying it’s a major factor and 36 percent saying it’s a minor factor). Most worship leaders are aware that music can play a key role in gaining and keeping attendees, even if that shouldn’t necessarily be the case.
This combination of internal and external pressure leaves worship leaders with a sense of responsibility to make sure that the service goes smoothly and leads people into authentic worship.
“You’re thinking, Is the congregation entering in?” said Holden. “On top of that, you want to worship God. You want that to be your main focus. And I have to be honest: The last few years, I found it harder to worship God.”
Like Holden, who stepped away a year ago, drained worship pastors may increasingly feel like they are performing rather than worshiping. Now, she savors worshiping in the back row of her church sanctuary with no one watching or listening. “It’s beyond words. I feel very refreshed.”
Smale, who also cohosts the podcast Worship Leader Probs, often hears from fellow worship leaders about feeling unappreciated and undervalued. The podcast has a recurring segment called “Prayer Concerns” that features funny and over-the-top complaints and suggestions submitted by listeners, such as “Can the stage be less dark?” and “It would be great if you played more hymns every week.”
“People are so much more vocal about what they don’t like,” said Smale.
Helping pastors move through a period of burnout requires congregational support and personal reflection, in MacKenzie’s view. The church needs to recognize the need for its leaders to take a break after a demanding season, and leaders need to be willing to take a step back to heal and rest.
He cautions senior and worship pastors against starting the first week of January with the “big, exciting next thing” or New Year series, accompanied by a new song or two and a dynamic kickoff.
“Scale back,” said MacKenzie, “whether it’s volunteers leading worship or redoing old songs.”
The church needs to give worship pastors permission to step aside, schedule a smaller team, wait to introduce new songs, or even do fewer songs. Worship pastors need to give themselves permission to do those things as well.
“They feel guilt or fear or concern that it won’t be good enough,” said MacKenzie, “and they need to wrestle with that in themselves and say, ‘It’s going to be fine. God’s will and worship will be accomplished.’”