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Ask the Expert – How do I tell someone in the worship team that we won’t be using her any more?

By Marie Page | April 9, 2009
We were sent this really tricky question from Aaron in the US.

“I am a new worship leader and am in the transition stage of moving from canned music to live music. With that change, we are asking our extra singers to step down. We have one individual in particular who may be hurt by being told she can’t serve here. How do you tell someone they can’t serve in the music ministry without hurting their feelings?”

Worship team leaders face a variant of this question regularly. We’ve therefore decided to give you three alternative answers. The first from Marie, the second from Andy and the third from my husband Steve, who has many years of professional management experience with a variety of teams and organisations.

Marie - Thanks very much for the question. This is a very real issue for many churches. I think the short answer is “You can’t really expect to do this without hurting her feelings”. However, it should be possible to minimise the trauma for her.

Open friendly one to one communication is really key and I would use what I call the “rat sandwich” approach. Start by being positive and affirming, thanking her for all that she has done for the team (this is the bread), then comes the rat – gently explain the reasons for the change and why she and others will not be required any longer – then find something else positive to say. Perhaps there is another area that this will free her up to serve in or is there another role you could give her.

Now sometimes worship leaders face this situation because their musician or singer is simply not up to the job. I was leading a few weeks ago with a new backing vocalist who, we discovered, sung everything a little flat. There was not much we could do on the day other than have a quiet work with the sound man to keep her volumes nice and low – and to take her out of my foldback.

Its worth thinking in your context about how changing styles of worship have inevitably made people redundant or sidelined them. It wasn’t that long ago that many churches had full choirs and an organist, and it was not the culturally correct thing to do to have a lead singer and live band. That has changed now in many denomonations, and the old choir members and organist have often been returned to the pews. Perhaps you could allocate an occasional service where you revert to the old way of doing things and let the original team back? You and your new team could do with the occasional Sunday off I am sure.

Andy - I’ve seen this situation many times so I wanted to respond with a lot of detail as I believe a successful transition is more about how the people issues are managed than about the degree of musical change.

If the stlyistic move is quite drastic for your congregation then you may need to walk them through it as well as the worship team. They both need to buy into to it by allowing them to ask questions and process the change.

When people implement change they often see it as a black and white, all or nothing choice. Is there a third way? Do you have to move the whole style all at once? Teams overestimate what they can achieve within 2 months and underestimate what they can achieve in two years. So maybe work the transition period in gently over 9 months to a year. Go with the backing tracks and the existing team for some services and the team that can cope with the new style in others.

Is the reason why you want her to step down one of musicality or attitude issues? From the way you’ve asked the question I suspect its to do with musical skill or style. Typically singers are asked to step down if there are tuning or timing issues, perhaps their style is very choral and vibrato laden. But essentially it’s to do with lack of understanding, musical education and pure music skills. This can certainly be reflected in the age of the musician but please folks let’s not use age alone to determine our choices. Over the years I’ve seen many a good and competent worship team member put out to pasture really because they are over 45 and not considered young and cool enough to represent the audience the church is trying to “attract”. Please let’s all get over this! If they have the skills or creativity to bring something interesting let’s not be ageist.

However in reality sometimes much older singers do interpret music in a very choral style which to be frank can sound awkward in a contempory band. So if you have built a relationship enough to talk honestly with them, perhaps clearly go through the skills mix necessary to play her role without the sound being a hindrance to all. See Marie’s previous post on Conscious Competence - it could be that she is simply uncousciously incompetent and some training combined with further feedback might be helpful. If that meets with a blank response maybe record a service with her singing and try to pinpoint the areas that need improvement. Then listen together to a good recording of how it should work. Do they have the musical ear to tell the difference? Perhaps not! Either way, a pathway through could be to encourage her to take lessons and invest in her musical skills. This has to be done in a sense of security, so maybe keep her on the team and work together to review the situation in 6 months. But don’t ban her from the team until she comes up to standard. If she feels threatened its very unlike to motivate her to invest in her talents. If this is met with resistence or no imputus is taken on her part to do anything about it, then it will reveal either a casual attitude towards her role or a larger resistance to change or learning.

After that even if she doesn’t have the skills to function within the team then at least she will feel heard and hopefully managed with dignity.

For other worship/team leaders in this situation it may be worth asking these questions:
Whose desire is the change? Is it yours, the church’s or the pastors vision that you have been asked to implement?

Do you have the musical understanding yourself to know what needs fixing in the team to operate in that style? Many worship leaders I’ve worked with can say if they don’t like something but can’t actually clearly identify what they DO want. If this is the case then the worship leader themselves needs to invest in some musical training. Perhaps, theory, perhaps arrangement skills, perhaps just general musical education.

However you implement this do try to resist putting a ‘spiritual’ angle on your words to try to back up your position. Statements like “God has given me a vision/word and told me that we need to change the style of service/worship/music” may add weight to your argument but can miss the point.

God clearly does give us visions and inspiration to change what we do as musicians in order to help us express our worship to Him. However that change can take many forms and how we implement it is largely to do with our creativity, our people management and our people care skills. If the ‘cause’ is at the expense of the pastoral care of the church body then I think we need to rethink.

Style and format is to do with music and expression. Worship is to do with love for God. We worship when we love our neighbour as ourselves, treat others as we wish to be treated and bear with each other in love. In a practical sense this doesn’t mean we let anyone take any role in church they want but does mean we try our best to understand them, work with them and treat them with dignity and respect in the decision we make as we implement change.

Steve (professional manager) – Firstly I would say that the rat sandwich isn’t necessary if you already have good rapport with your team. Real relationship should have been developed in the early stages and you should have sown into their lives which gives you permission to be honest in a natural way. This is a major struggle in many modern churches where a hierarchy exists and the cultural norm is for the team to serve the leader rather than the leader serving the team. Reciprocity matters – even as a new leader you should be constantly doing helpful things for your team – and that goes beyond the standard occasional thank you.

Some ideas on handling this situation now:

1. I would strongly urge you to prepare in advance – this is honouring rather than manipulative and will help you get to the point with kind words.
2. Understand the context in which you are all working – be sensitive to the people aspects of church community, and the needs of all those you serve.
3. Listen. Hear what your team have to say and be open to adapting.
4. Choose your time and style appropriately – honour them with the time to talk it through properly and remember the non verbal cues as well. It might well be better to enjoy a meal with the team and talk it through then than as a quick meeting after church one Sunday.
5. Lastly, don’t manipulate – give them choices if at all possible. Ask them what they would do in your situation and be ready to change.

We hope that is helpful and would love to hear others’ advice – please post your thoughts in the comment box below. Lucy Kellaway, writing in the Financial Times says “Conflicting advice can be helpful in making people know their own mind: reading something you don’t agree with can be even more helpful than reading something you do”.

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