On a Sunday morning, you finish a song, cue the intro to the next tune, and your female leader steps forward ready to lead. She sings that first note and the room erupts in female voices! There is a noticeable shift in the room as women take the lead on a Sunday morning. Women have a voice like theirs leading them in melodies that are easy to follow with songs in their range, and they are being led with a meekness they are well acquainted with.
I have the honor of leading and developing female leaders to lead worship in our church—not to just come to a service and sing a song but to show up prepared to truly command the room and lead people in declaring truths about God.
Female leadership from the stage is a topic that comes up in almost all of my professional conversations—who should lead? How should she lead? How do we encourage her to lead? Over the past several years that I have served with Austin Stone Worship, we have seen this take various forms, and I am hopeful that you can glean something from a few ways we have seen God encourage and shape our female leaders. Taking the time to invest in women for leadership in our churches has a significant impact on the women who attend and serve Sunday to Sunday. The women in your bands are leading over half of the people in the room every week, and the women in your services are getting to see what it looks like to honor God with their gifts in addition to having countenance, harmonies, melodies, and authority in Christ modeled for them.
My hope in writing this article is that whether you have women in your church who are currently leading worship or you are asking God to raise up female leaders for your team, you would find this a helpful place to gain insight.
Start at Front of House
Audio on a Sunday morning is a very important component of our services. We have skilled engineers who understand the value of pushing vocals and instrumentation just loud enough that a man or woman would feel comfortable singing out to God and not feel exposed while simultaneously being able to hear the voices around them as we collectively offer up praise to God. Likewise, it has become a high value for our services that a female vocalist’s voice not just be an “accessory” to the male vocal, but rather an “out-in-front” vocal so other women in the room can catch on to melody and harmony and easily join in on any song no matter the key. If a lady steps forward to lead out on a specific song, her voice goes up and the male vocal, while still very present, is set just a touch below hers in order that his harmonies would be easy to follow for the men in the room. It’s crucial for the engagement of the room that a male leader has sharpened his harmonies for the songs he won’t be singing lead on. For most of us, the days of everyone in our congregations knowing hymns by heart, four-part harmonies included, are gone! We want to make worship through song inviting and accessible to anyone who walks into one of our services.
Set the Expectation for Leadership
There seems to be an unspoken idea that women don’t need to come prepared to truly lead during a worship service. However, we often say we are looking for more than just good singers—we want our leaders to be zealous worshipers and thoughtful counselors whether onstage or off. We have tried to set and reset the expectation that our ladies are leading even if they are not singing the lead vocal on a song. Whether you are leading on melody or singing harmonies, you are leading! This means we encourage our female leaders to lead with the same countenance and fervency throughout the entire worship set even if they are not the lead vocal. Why is this important? Because as leaders on a stage, we set the temperature and tone for the people in the room, and our prayer is that the men and women attending our church would see every song as an opportunity to passionately celebrate the truth and beauty of who God is. When we lead with disengaged body language and reserved singing, we communicate that something about a song isn’t very important, and that’s just not true.
It’s important to encourage and invite your female leadership into shepherding the room when they step up to lead a song, whether through prayer or verbal exhortation during the song. Begin to invite her to be sensitive to feeling out a room and listening to the Spirit during a service—He knows what your people need to hear and how they need to be led and encouraged.
The thing I hear most from women leading worship is that they are just plain unaware of how they can grow. They aren’t hearing frequent feedback or encouragement regarding their leadership, but they want to know! I have yet to come across a woman in leadership who is content with haphazard leadership—they all take this calling and opportunity seriously. Likewise, we need to be developers who affirm their calling and gifting by offering frequent feedback. If you have taken our online program, Foundations, or if you have read our Field Guide, you know that our culture has a high value for feedback. We want our leaders to see the ways they are gifted and the ways they can stretch those giftings to glorify God. So where do we begin with feedback? Identify the ways your female leaders are strong—maybe it’s in harmonies, maybe it’s in countenance, or maybe you have seen their gifting to shepherd and counsel. Celebrate these gifts with your vocalists!
We all know we have things to grow in, so honor the time and commitment of your female leaders by pointing out areas of potential. You may have a vocalist who has an incredible stage presence and posture but lacks skill in easily hearing and singing harmonies. Make them aware of this opportunity for growth, and encourage them to listen to artists and albums that model it well, or better yet, take the time to work on harmonies for your songs in rehearsals.
Try not to present a problem without a solution. If you see immense potential in one of your female leaders, you do them no favors by allowing that area to go undeveloped. Bring up what you see and make a plan to get better!
Use Rehearsals As a Training Ground
If you lead with many different female vocalists or if you have been leading with one who gets little to no practice time with your bands, consider inviting them to your rehearsals and structure the time to make room for their development.
Maybe your goal and aim for your vocalists is the ability to give a call to worship or read Scripture over the congregation. Think through the pieces of your liturgy that your female leaders could be owning, and use rehearsal as a time to practice that. As you run through transitions, ask her to read a few verses to get a feel for proclamation with instrumentation behind her. Perhaps one of your female leaders has expressed hesitation in praying during service, so ask her to pray during rehearsal to become more comfortable in that element.
We have encouraged our worship pastors to even use rehearsals to run songs in various keys with their female vocalists singing lead, even if they don’t anticipate having her lead that song for a few weeks. Many women lead without an instrument and can’t get the feel of a tune without the help of some accompaniment, so rehearsal is often the best time to get her acquainted with song structure, key, and melody. This is also a chance for your bands to become familiar with changing the key of some of your frequently-led songs.
We all know how nerve-racking it can be to be asked to do something on the spot without practice, and it takes repetition for you and me to become comfortable leading a worship set outside of just singing. Likewise, give your female leaders space to try new things and receive feedback!
If you are a pastor in need of female leadership, I encourage you to pray! Ask God to reveal to you women who are gifted and called to lead your body and when He does, honor Him by offering encouragement and clear paths of development. Lastly, I want to encourage you that if you have women leading with you that you have yet to develop, it’s not too late to challenge and encourage your team. As I have served with Austin Stone Worship, I have seen God answer our prayers time and time again to provide female leadership for our team, and I believe that investing in their growth is honoring God in that provision. As believers, we should strive for excellence in all things, especially when the task before us is feeding God’s sheep. Sunday morning is not just some holy experience. It’s fuel for the believer and encouragement for the faint of heart that God is near and active and cares for us. Let us not be guilty of neglecting to pursue excellence in the leadership of this incredible calling.