Women in worship

It’s traditionally been a male-dominated role, but there are a growing number of women who have a heart for worship and feel called to minister in this way. Claire Musters spoke to some of them

BETH CROFT (right) is the worship director of Soul Survivor. She began leading worship at 18 and previously worked with the Worship Central team in London. She is married to Andy and is addicted to eBay!

I really benefited from getting to know the musicians in the band. It was a nerve-wracking thing to be leading guys older than me, especially when they were far better musicians than me too. At first, it felt quite unnatural to disagree with them or to override their decisions if I felt they weren’t right. In fact, I used to really dread rehearsals because I didn’t feel like I had any authority! But the more I grew in my leading, the more I just had to get over it and get on with it. I started to have more confidence in my decisions, and more security when I made the wrong decisions! One thing that really helped was travelling a little bit and being on the road with male musicians. Travelling together gives an opportunity to build healthy friendships with guys. And it’s so much easier to lead a band that is made up of your friends. There’s far less room for miscommunication/taking things personally. I would love to see far more bands with female musicians in them – I do think so often it’s a confidence thing.

It’s very important to vary the music. I know that for me, my initial default when choosing songs would be the quiet, slow songs of intimacy. Those are the songs I would play in my bedroom and I enjoy leading them the most. Leading songs of intimacy well can be a real strength but, just like with our food, variety and a balanced diet is good! So it was a real discipline for me to make sure I also included more up-tempo songs of celebration too.

Worship is an offering to God. Whether we feel we have much or little to offer to him, what he really wants is us. Our whole selves – warts and all – offered and devoted to him. As soon as we begin surrendering all that we are to him, everything else that we do, say, stand up for, reach out to becomes an offering too.

SARA HARGREAVES moved from Sweden to study theology, music and worship at London School of Theology. She has since worked as a youth worker, had two children and written How would Jesus lead worship? with husband Sam. Sara and Sam co-lead engageworship.org, resources and training for creative, innovative and world-changing worship.

As a female worship leader, I have struggled with the feeling that I have to prove myself. Most role models are male and so I have sometimes got the impression that people believe you are not so ‘anointed’ if you aren’t a young man with a guitar! But what about a girl with a piano? The temptation is to think, “I’ll prove that I’ve been called to lead worship too; I’ll prove that I’m as good as any young-man-with-guitar” every time I step on a stage. This is not a Christ-like attitude (although I must say here that girls can rock too!).

I think male/female labels can be unhelpful. When characteristics that have traditionally been seen as female, such as care and empathy, are employed by worship leaders, the worship journey can be so much more powerful and glorifying to God. However, I know male worship leaders who lead with much care and love for their congregation and have seen plenty of women who override the emotions in the room without blinking, so I am not sure this is a male/female divide, but perhaps more a pastoral/non-pastoral issue.

It’s important for us to follow our own calling. Don’t try to be someone you’re not. If you want to lead with the flugelhorn or the ukulele, do it! God loves your voice.

LEX BUCKLEY is originally from Melbourne, Australia. She previously worked for Soul Survivor Ministries as one of their worship pastors. Lex has sung on albums such as Matt Redman’s Facedown, has her own EP, Through the Valley, is the author of Rise up and Sing: Equipping The Female Worship Leader and launched a website for female worship leaders. Lex and her husband Paul are currently in New Zealand heading up the worship community at Mount Mosaic Church. She is the proud mum of Bella and Finn.

It is OK to be a woman and a worship leader! We have a great biblical example of a female worship leader in Miriam, who led the people of Israel in worship after God had saved them from the hands of the Egyptians. In Exodus 15: 20-21 it says that “Miriam the prophetess, Aaron’s sister, took a tambourine in her hand, and all the women followed her, with tambourines and dancing. Miriam sang to them: ‘Sing to the Lord, for he is highly exalted. The horse and its rider he has hurled into the sea.’” The word ‘sing’ in Hebrew used here is shiru, which is a masculine, plural command. This means that Miriam is addressing men and women in verse 21. The natural reading of the Hebrew is that Miriam leads a group of women who become her backing vocalists (so to speak) as she leads the whole community in worship. Some might question whether she actually led them in worship because it says that she sang to them. But throughout the psalms we see the psalmists write songs like this, encouraging others to worship God (Psalm 30:4, Psalm 33:1–3). The psalmists write songs to God, about God and encouraging the Israelites to worship God, just as many worship songs do today. Miriam’s response to what God had done was to worship him and then encourage the people of Israel to worship God with her. She was a passionate worshipper whom God used to lead his people in worship.

When I started leading worship, I was at Soul Survivor Watford Church and I was the first girl to get trained up from within the church. At the time, Tim Hughes was the worship pastor and he encouraged me and gave me opportunities to lead. However, it was quite a lonely journey in some ways. Tim, and Mike Pilavachi (the senior pastor), had a really close relationship and because I am a girl it wouldn’t have been appropriate for me to be hanging out one-on-one all the time with either of them, so I definitely didn’t get the same input I would have gotten if I was a guy. This often resulted in a lack of confidence. I think many women called to leadership struggle with this; that’s why I am so passionate about encouraging and equipping female worship leaders!

It’s important to keep looking to God rather than people. It can be really hard to get up there and lead at times. I have been in environments where women are valued and our differences are celebrated, and others where I knew men in the congregation didn’t think I should be leading them in worship, or were frustrated because I sang in a key that was not in their comfortable vocal range. That’s why finding our identity in who God says we are is so crucial. When you are in any position of leadership, there will be moments where you will receive criticism and you have to keep looking to God for your affirmation, finding your confidence in him, so that you aren’t shaken when you get criticised.

I love what women bring to worship! I think that when we lead, we reflect different aspects of God’s heart and character. The songs we write, the songs we choose to lead and the arrangements we choose are often different to the guys. What we bring is different, but equally as valuable as what the guys bring when they lead. I think it is a balancing act though, because if we only lead the more intimate songs that women are usually more drawn to, we won’t be giving the congregation opportunities to celebrate. We need to know, and be able to lead, a variety of songs with different themes so that we can take people on whatever journey in worship God wants to take us on.

One-on-one time with Jesus is crucial. I learned this from the pastor of my previous church who taught: “There is no short cut to intimacy with Jesus. There is no substitute for spending time with him.” As obvious as that is, it’s stayed with me ever since. It can be easy to find yourself in church services/prayer meetings/church events a lot and because you are spending so much time with your church community and hearing sermons – which are wonderful things – it can be easy to feel as though you have spent a lot of time with Jesus. However, as valuable as it is to spend time with our church community, worshipping together and encouraging one another, it’s so important to take time out and be alone with God.

To those women who feel called to lead, I want to say: go for it! Be yourself and be prepared. It’s important to learn the songs, practise your instrument (or practise the songs with someone who can play an instrument) and prepare any way you can, so that when you get an opportunity to lead you are ready.

CATHY BURTON is married to Paul and they have three children, Issy (6) Amos (3) and Solomon (1). She is a piano teacher, leads worship at Immanuel, Chichester and is studying for a BA in Kingdom Theology with Westminster Theological College. Cathy also leads worship and does gigs around the UK, and works in the Electronic Dance Music scene, where her music has been released worldwide.

We all have something unique to offer. When I first started, I didn’t really consider the gender situation. As a young married 19/20-year-old, I was pretty free to get on with writing songs, chasing gigs and leading worship in my church. I didn’t feel held back by being a girl. I was more held back by my lack of confidence in myself! I think that I have learnt that we all bring things to the table as individuals, regardless of gender. As a married mum of three, leading, for instance, in a women’s conference I’d probably be more able to relate to the congregation than perhaps a young male worship leader would. Likewise, they would probably have more of a handle on leading worship at Soul Survivor! That said though, I think we’d both have something to bring that could enhance those situations. I’d like to think that it can be a mix of all things and that we all play to our strengths, and not stereotypes.

I’m inspired by the woman in the Bible who broke the perfume jar and washed Jesus’ feet. This story explores perhaps where our hearts should be. My life should reflect an abandonment to God, an extravagance of my love for him, and an unawareness of others’ opinions. This is a lifestyle thing, that overflows into sung worship. It’s my prayer that I learn this lifestyle, but of course I miss the mark every day!

The only place where I struggle with gender is within the role of mother and worship leader/singer. If I am to go away for a week/few days/tour to lead at a conference, I think it’s a lot harder for me to sort out childcare than it would be for a man doing the same job. I have observed that there tends to be an assumption that their wives will pick up the slack and take care of the kids if they work in those situations. As I’m not the main bread winner in our house, that doesn’t work the other way around. I don’t have a ‘house-husband’, I have to pay for childcare while my husband works and I’m away. It’s the eternal role of the juggling working mother that many can identify with. Therefore, I think it’s harder for women (who are mums) to take up front roles in ministry, perhaps due to a traditional mindset of family roles. I might be completely wrong there in terms of the masses, but that is my experience over the last six years of being a mum. I remember one (male) songwriter saying to me, “You wait till you have kids, it will blow your songwriting to another dimension”. When the time for me came, and I had my first baby, I didn’t write a song for a year. I rest my case!

It’s really important for women to look after themselves. I’ve had an interesting couple of years, including a bout of postnatal depression, and I’m learning that you have to look after yourself before you can look after others. As women, especially mothers, many of us tend to think we have to serve others, to look after others first. Even the Bible says: seek first the kingdom, love the Lord your God and love your neighbour as yourself – so I’ve automatically put myself at the bottom of this pile. But I’m learning that I need to take care of myself more, and that way I am, in fact, loving God. He created me in his image. I need to have a little more self-respect, self-care and awareness. Out of this place, I can authentically reach out to others and God can use me. I’m in a much better place once I’ve allowed him to minister to me first. So ladies, don’t burn out! Renew yourselves, don’t just survive, be selective with your time and be fruitful.

My advice to women who feel called to lead worship is to be yourself, be still and get to know God more. There are no formulas with any worship leading. So the more we know who we are as women in God, the closer we are to his heart and there is no need to play the comparison game.

KATHRYN SCOTT has been leading worship for the last 15 years. Since writing Hungry back in 1999, she has written and recorded many songs used in churches all over the world, including At the foot of the cross (Ashes to beauty), I belong and We still believe. Kathryn and her husband Alan pastor the Causeway Coast Vineyard church in Coleraine, Northern Ireland, close to where they live with their two daughters, Sophie and Emily.

I still get super nervous every time I lead worship. But I know now that I can do it, and that the Lord will turn up and do what only he can do. That ‘knowing’ only comes from pushing through and persevering. Don’t give up! Sometimes as girls, we can allow our hearts to tell our heads things that aren’t true. That’s where our emotions can potentially derail us before we get started! I need to let you know, most of the male worship leaders I’ve worked with feel just the same. When we feel out of our depth, we are tempted to believe that no one around feels the same ... but that’s not true.

It’s important that we release ourselves to be who only we can be. I love that I get to be ‘me’. When we get comfy in our own skin, the things that we know we’re not amazing at doing don’t have to debilitate us anymore. We all have things that we’re not great at, but it really doesn’t matter! Let the musicians around us shine and cover those parts we can’t do. The strengths that we bring to the table are completely unique. Our strengths are the things that heaven dreamt up before we were conceived, that the Father knew the world needed to hear in our generation. They are the things that we can use as our tools for effective service, whether that’s our voice, the way we play our instrument or the sensitivity with which we lead. And as we rely completely on the Holy Spirit to sing through us, to hijack our voice and playing, all of heaven can break loose in the room. That’s why we can’t afford to let our feelings of inadequacy take us over.

I would advise would-be worship leaders to get to know Jesus again. Get familiar with his voice. Learn to listen to his heart. Find him in Scripture. Watch him move in the lives of those around you, and in your own life. He’ll take your breath away all over again! Don’t get too hung up on who you are and who you’re not – let Jesus fill your vision and captivate your attention. That is the context in which everything else will suddenly find its proper place.