Worship leader burnout

[notice]Hugh Wetmore is a songwriter and student of worship trends. He invites you to join the worship conversation by commenting on his monthly column.[/notice]

A recent post from TGC Worship commented that ‘Worship Leader Burnout’ was even more common than ‘Pastoral Burnout’. It expressed this graphically:

“If preaching/teaching pastors are like butane lighters, who eventually run out of fuel in their reservoir, then worship leaders are like old fashioned stick matches—they burn out almost as soon as you light them. I’ve observed many reasons for worship leader burnout, but here are five:

1. Inability to properly deal with criticism.

All artists receive criticism. It’s part of the package. I sometimes feel, though, that the criticism is (sadly) more frequent, severe, and cutting in the church. Worship leaders have a huge target on their back. They ALL receive criticism. Regularly. Relentlessly. It doesn’t let up, no matter how good a job they’re doing. Criticism is a given for the call. And I’ve seen many worship leaders burn out quickly because it becomes too hot to handle.

2. The performance treadmill.

Many worship leaders feel the intense pressure to live up to the expectations of their people. Expectations to live the perfect godly life. Expectations to deliver the perfect musical sound. When a worship leader is anxiously and feverishly chasing after satisfying these expectations, they are running on a treadmill of performance that wears them out and gets them nowhere…no matter how fast they can run or how much endurance they have.

3. Worship messiah complex.

Burnout also occurs when worship leaders slip into the mentality that we must “save” the worship service and its worshipers. “It’s up to me,” we think. Or we feel the responsibility of making sure that a worship service is actually inspiring and uplifting to people. And when the worship service is not inspiring and uplifting people, we take full responsibility. I’ve seen many worship leaders burn out because of this type of pressure to “save” worship.

4. Comparison with other worship leaders.

We all play this game. Our sound isn’t as sexy as Mars Hill, or as swanky as Sojourn, or as quirky as Sufjan. Our instrumentation isn’t creative or original enough. We aren’t as eloquent when we speak. We aren’t blogging every week about profound worship topics. We aren’t making recordings. We started getting behind on our daily Bible-reading plan on January 4. We simply don’t measure up to the “output” of the worship leaders we observe, admire, and know.

5. Poor relationship with your supervisor and/or lead pastor.

I’ve witnessed countless worship leaders hang up their hat because of “irreconcilable differences” with their lead pastor. The lead pastor doesn’t offer enough encouragement and then fills that vacuum with “constructive criticism,” week in and week out. They want something, and we just can’t seem to deliver. Or don’t want to. There’s very little trust, and certainly no genuine friendship. It started out strong, but it had long since devolved into one, perpetual simmering pot of tension. The expiration date on this is stamped.

THE REMEDY is the Gospel, nothing more and nothing less. The Gospel declares that, when we hear criticism, whether it is true or not, we’re free to receive it because all the approval we need has been met in how God the Father sees us through the finished work of the Son. The Gospel prophesies that a Messiah has come and that He is responsible for whether worship goes well…and it has gone well, because He perfected it by His life’s worship. We are in Christ, the only One who measures up. The Gospel puts an end to our self-defeating comparisons with others, because we are in Christ, the only One who measures up. And the Gospel heals broken relationships, because in Christ we’re free to be wrong, free to be evaluated, free to apologise, and free to submit and trust. You see, in all five of these reasons for worship leader burnout is the common thread: We do NOT measure up. But into the abyss of our failure flies the swift-winged Holy Spirit who cries out with such a thunderous voice that the cavern of our sin shakes under its reverberant echoes, ‘There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.’ Brothers and sisters, this is the only flame that never burns out.”

I agree with this excellent analysis. And I would add further observations, and take the issue one level deeper, closer to the root of the problem:

The Church as a whole has built a human ‘image’ of what a ‘worship leader’ should be. That is a false ‘image’. It has been borrowed/stolen/hi-jacked from the Performing Arts world. It has been elevated to a higher level of expectation than required from the pop-stars of Nashville. By superimposing, on the already-unattainable artistic perfection-standard, the responsibility to lead Worship in such a way that “God shows up”! (This is what Jarrod Cooper expects of his own worship leading, in his book ‘Glory in the Church’, Authentic Lifestyle, 2003 – and he writes to inspire others to expect the same result.) If God is absent until the Worship Leader has manipulated Him to ‘show up’ in the service, then we set ourselves up for disappointment and failure.

There was a time (it seems another age!) when the Pastor led the service from beginning to end, introducing the hymns, giving the announcements, offering, leading prayer, giving a children’s talk, calling on the choir to sing, inviting testimonies, preaching the sermon, pronouncing the benediction. As a young Christian minister I experienced that age, and participated, first-hand. And I can’t remember any pastor resigning for burnout reasons. Why? There was no expectation-aura of perfect production. The service was NOT a ‘production’ at all. It was a worship service, and it was (usually) a blessing from beginning to end. When we sang, everyone sang with enthusiasm (and congregational 4-part harmony!!). They didn’t just ‘listen’, as often happens today. I can’t remember being disappointed by the service – though maybe sometimes the sermon wasn’t up to scratch.

The lucrative commercial empire of praise and worship hits with big name stars has placed on today’s worship Leaders an unbearable burden – as this ‘TGC Worship’ posting so well describes. Let’s face this underlying systemic challenge, and deal with it. Let’s recognise the secular ‘image’ we’ve bought into, and destroy this idol. Then we can apply the Gospel medicine so relevantly prescribed.

2 Comments

  1. Mr Hugh, i wish i had come across this article before December 2013. It is as though you’re talking about me here, it’s as if you have seen what i and my wife have been through in the past year. I too was a worship leader and in the leadership of the worship team. But because of the pressure and criticism, i could not cope at all, and no one came to our rescue, we were criticised from all sides, it was unbearable. So now i just go to church and sit as a congregant. Anyway, I recently got married, a year ago, i have enough time now to focus on my wife and marriage affairs than i had when i was in the worship team.

    Thank you so much for this artcle, it is much appreciated.

  2. Worship and worship leader is all man-made, one o te mantuyy 5
    Worship and worship-leader are just some of the man-made activities brought in to perform christianity. Nothing of it in the Bible. Worship is an attitude, not a item on the “programme.” “Bring in the band”, “lead the “worship”, all man made. All these man- made programs are wood, hay and straw.
    Imitating the world and their bands. It is sickening.
    Thanks!