You don’t want to miss this interview filled with new ideas for working with your pastor, your team, and your entire creative ministry. Aaron West, at MediaShout, has an insightful conversation with Jenna Grace May and David May on worship leadership.
For years, Jenna has served as a worship leader on church staff as well as for various ministries. She also sings at her home church in Franklin, TN alongside influential worship leaders like Chris McClarney and Aaron Shust. Her husband David is her keyboard player and bandleader. They travel together all over the country to lead worship experiences at conferences, church services and events. David also produces worship music and oversees the Worship Band in Hand app.
What does it mean to lead worship?
[MediaShout] Let’s talk about leading a worship service . What exactly does it mean to lead worship? I’d love to hear your thoughts on what that definition is.
[Jenna] Well, I feel like when you are leading worship, you need to BE worshiping, number one, which I know sounds practical and silly, but it’s true. It’s not just getting through songs or going through the motions, but really turning your eyes toward Jesus and worshiping Him yourself. A lot of the time, the people in the congregation need that example to know where to go and how to do it themselves. I tell my team (the band) a lot, “you guys just worship this morning,” because that’s what people are going to be looking at.
[David] Yes, that’s something we’ve said a lot and heard it said, “you can’t lead people where you haven’t been.” So it’s not just on stage on Sunday. We can’t lead from an empty well—if we haven’t been there with God during the week.
[Jenna] We need to have time with Jesus on our own, whether it’s reading the Bible, praying, or listening to worship music in our own homes, in our cars, or on a hike like I do a lot, just hiking, praying and talking to God. If we don’t do that and fill up in those times away from the platform, we’re going to have nothing to pour out. I really believe that God brings everything to light. And those are the moments where, especially when things don’t go to plan, what’s inside of you will come out.
It’s super important that you’re spending that time with Jesus— and not just so you have something to pour out, but because you love Him and you’re drawn to Him! We’re going to talk about the heart a lot but that’s a huge thing and a huge passion of mine.. to inspire love for Jesus in my team so that they go out and spend time with Him in their own time.
[MediaShout] Awesome. And you know, understanding that heart and passion as you mentioned plays a lot into this and really spending time with Jesus before we even step ON the platform. What are some other things that are important for worship leading?
[David] As people that travel to different churches, we have a lot of guys join us, different band members. For anybody we choose to bring along, it’s important to us that it’s not just a gig to them and they take it seriously. We’re all “priests” so that mentality is a big part of leading people. We try to keep that consistent in anyone on the platform with us.
[Jenna] Yeah, just making sure our teammates are good guys. Younger people especially will instantly get on Instagram and check out our pages. It’s super important to me that when they click on my team’s pages, that they don’t see anything that will confuse them or mislead them in any way. When you’re posting on social media you have to be very mindful of what you post, and hopefully, you’re being a genuine representation of yourself.
But just remember when you’re on the platform, there’s going to be people looking up to you, no matter if your platform is small or large. It’s important to make sure that we’re living lives that when people look to us, they’ll see Jesus, whether it’s on our social media or anything else.
[David] And that’s a big part of team building. So with us, sometimes that’s traveling guys, but with some of you at your local church that may mean investing in your volunteers, the people you recruit. We’ll talk from the spiritual side all the way to the practical side about equipping our team members— investing in them as people on and off the stage. That’s what we do as worship leaders is facilitate that and pour into our community and those placed around us.
[MediaShout] And I think, Jenna, what you said can really be summed up with “what you are on the platform is what you should be off the platform as well.” As a worship leader, I think that’s true. You don’t want to put a mask on or try to fool people. Be genuine and real in what you’re doing.
Worship Leader Goals
[MediaShout] So of course, worship through music is a big part of what you guys do. So what do you think the ultimate goal of a worship leader should be?
[Jenna] I think we kind of touched on this and I know this is another Sunday school answer, but just to simply worship Jesus (laughs). There’s a wonderful worship leader that goes to our church. Her name is Christy Nockels. You’ve probably heard of her. She’s amazing and she has such a wealth of knowledge and insight. She always says her goal is to bless God and release the people. So I tell that to my team a lot because it really puts things in perspective of who we are and what we’re doing on the stage. We do need to release the people to Him so he can move in their hearts. Yes, there will be teachable moments and things like that when the people we’re leading need a little guidance. But for the most part, we just turn our eyes to the throne and invite everybody else to follow.
[MediaShout] Yes, as I can attest to that, being a musician and being on stage. There are times you just have to get out of the way. Speaking of some of those, what are some things a worship leader wants to avoid?
[Jenna] Being unprepared! There’s so much preparation going on between the two of us behind the scenes. David can talk more about all of that.
[David] Yeah, you don’t want to show up and be worrying about just your little part. You want to show up ready to focus on the big picture. So one of the things about leading is, if you want to be able to have a genuine encounter with God and let the Spirit move and follow Him, then you can’t be unprepared— not knowing songs, not having the stuff you need, your equipment’s not set up properly, or you haven’t put in the time during the week. That’s something you definitely want to avoid.. showing up without everything being “checked off.”
[Jenna] You want to avoid a lack of communication. I think communication is huge. Assuming things usually causes a lot of problems, whether it’s between you and your pastor, or whoever is coming up to do announcements; just anything like that. Always make sure you communicate things. I love going through the run-through of the service with my team or having it printed out so we can see it; just making sure that everybody knows what’s going on. You don’t want your team to be constantly wondering.
Honestly, you need to set them up for success. Be good stewards of your people. I love stewardship and everything about it. When we have these people like a worship team, we need to be good stewards of their time. They’ve got to put the time in to practice and be away from their families, you know— there’s so much that goes into that. So just remembering we’re working with people and their families and taking care of our team is huge for me.
[David] Yeah, so thinking of things to avoid, just avoid taking what you do and all that goes into it lightly.
[Jenna] And then on the flip side, don’t take yourself too seriously! Things go wrong, so the last thing you want to do is have the “angry face” that everybody can see. Most people just want to know you’re a real person anyway. Some of the funniest things I’ve seen on Instagram are Cory Asbury’s hilarious “worship fails” on Instagram (#worshipfail). It just lets everybody know, I’m not alone. This happens to everybody. It’s how you respond to it that makes all the difference. And sometimes it may even make somebody who’s not so sure about church want to come back again.
[David] Yeah, it’s important to just be genuine, have a good time, and not take yourself too seriously. We’ve got so many stories of things we’ve done, whether it’s starting a click track before anyone is ready and Jenna’s trying to throw her guitar on and we can’t stop; just all kinds of crazy stuff.
[Jenna] And just last week my in-ears, they are wired, got caught on my shoe. And I was trying to tell David something (this is at one of those 24/7 prayer gatherings and everybody’s just really contemplative) and it’s caught on my shoe and then pulls the mic stand which starts to fall. It didn’t fall all the way over but it was really obvious. I decided I would just let myself laugh because, well, the people were like two feet away from me. So it was kinda funny. It wasn’t a pure disaster, but it was really close.
[MediaShout] (Laughs) You know we all have those moments. As a matter of fact, I was at a church just recently and they were getting ready to kick off the first song. They’ve got a countdown video going and it hits 0, and you hear the worship leader say “1,2,3,4” and just crank into the first chord on their acoustic…except they played the complete wrong chord. And they’re like, “oh I’m so sorry, let’s just try that one again.”
And of course, that happens to all of us. We’ve all been in those situations and you’re right, you have to just let those go. You can’t get upset with yourself. You can’t think everything is falling apart when those things happen. You just have to keep going and put the focus back on what it should be on. So I love those kinds of stories we hear from each other and we can say yep, been there done that— I know exactly what you’re talking about!
Working with Pastors
[MediaShout] One of the things you guys talked about was working with people. Let’s talk a little bit about that and I’m going to go off on a little bit of a tangent here, but you kind of brought it up.. I want to talk a little about working with pastors. In general, as a worship leader, what are some things you guys would say are important when working with a pastor, whether you’re leading worship regularly with a pastor or if it’s an event you do as a one-off?
[Jenna] We have been traveling mostly for the last few years, so we haven’t had much of the consistency. But over the summer we got to help out with a church plant. So we do have a little bit to speak into both sides of it. I would say it’s important to really get to know the pastor, and I know that’s again, basic. But really get to know them. I think relationship is key. Connection is key. With all these things, there will be a lot more grace.
[David] Yeah, there are times where, if you don’t know somebody, you have no idea what their intentions are or how they work. So you can make assumptions like we were talking about. And if we work with a pastor that’s different than others we’ve worked with, they may have a certain way they like to plan setlists or something like that. And if we didn’t know them at all, we may think “oh, that’s kind of weird..” But when you get to know the person you see why they work like that. Then the pastor also gets to know YOU and your style as a leader. Whether it’s a pastor, team member, or whatever, having those nights where you go out to eat together or get together around the fire and just hangout.. outside of music and the church or staff meetings in the conference room will build those relationships.
[Jenna] And as you get to know each other, those assumptions can kind of fall away or you can not take things so personally. As creatives, it’s really easy to take things personally. One thing I’ve been reminding myself is we walk in on a Sunday morning and we’ve got these things to check off.. well, so does the lead pastor. As for traveling and going to different places, I love walking into the place and figuring out who the leader is. Usually, I already know, but I love meeting them, getting to know them, and saying “hey, we’re here to serve you guys.”
I think that’s the biggest thing is just being super easy to work with. Be super easy to work with! Don’t let worship leaders and musicians have a reputation of being hard to work with. Go in, be prepared to serve and bless this church or ministry you’re going into. Make sure to listen to them. I like to do a pre-service prayer and encourage them in that prayer time. Just remember that you come in with this pure heart because you don’t know anything that’s going on behind the scenes there. They may have some stuff going on that you don’t know about and you can just be that pure representation of the peace of God that can come in to their ministry.
[David] It’s mutual support, even if it’s little things that we can do to plugin and show the pastor that we’re supporting them and we’re present like if we are coming in and sitting during the message. Obviously, we might need to step off for a little bit and get back into our frame of mind after the set, but we’ll come back in and sit for the message and be present in the room (at least for one of the services if there are multiple ones). Then we can go with the pastor’s vision when it comes time for the response at the end.
And in turn, as a pastor, if that’s your role, support the worship team in the same way, not walking in right before your sermon’s supposed to start. So we kind of support each other. And the pastor can lead worship on the front row that way by example.
[MediaShout] That’s good. The words I take away from that are “relationship” (relationships are huge) and “all about service”; being selfless and really saying, how can we support you, how can we support what you’re doing? Especially as a pastor, how can we support what God is calling you and leading you to?
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Working with the Tech Team
[MediaShout] So let’s flip the coin a little bit and talk about people like me who aren’t really leading worship, but we’re supporting you guys on the tech side. We’re behind the scenes in the church production world. What are things that you’d want us as tech people to know to help and support you guys?
[Jenna] Well, I want you all to know that you hold everything in your hands (laughs)! A sound guy can make you or break you. Sometimes that relationship can be a challenge, especially walking into new places for us. They already have something going on with their worship team and it could be good or it could be bad. So we go in a lot of the time and start by thanking them for being there and all that they’re doing. Just be very verbal about that because you’ve got to have a good connection with him or her.
[David] Yeah, so that’s the foundation, just like we talked about before, being able to communicate with them, showing them that we appreciate them and we recognize that whether on the tech team, in the band, it doesn’t matter. We’re all one big team. Jenna and I love it when we all get together and pray. For instance, we don’t like an “us and them” mentality where there’s two different visions or, “oh they’re gonna do this but we’re gonna do that.”
We like to invest in those people just as much as we invest in our band members. It doesn’t matter at the end of the day how much you put into it as a worship team, how good your tone is, how perfectly you play, if the sound guy is not mixing it well, it can break the whole thing…or if the screen is doing something crazy.. Of course, sometimes it’s just one of those things where it’s technology, but other times it’s a matter of being as prepared as we can be.
[Jenna] Yeah and I love creative.. it’s all under the creative umbrella. It’s all under the arts. And I think when we look at it that way, mixing sound is an art. It is a gifting. It is a talent and ability to be able to turn those knobs and make it sound beautiful and not just that, but to mix everything in the sweet spot; just the right place. Sound can make a worship set feel powerful or weak. There’s just so much to that and also visual, like what you guys do with worship software at MediaShout for video projection, then there’s lighting and all of that. It’s such an art and a skill. I know Hillsong has a “creative department.” They don’t call it “worship.” They call it creative. And everybody’s in that. They have team night where everybody that’s on the creative team at all comes to team night.
That’s it— it’s relationships, it’s connection, it’s showing people they are appreciated and making people feel seen and heard and known. I just think it’s huge because you’re working with human beings and we all have the same needs. When you have that level of relationships and we all know we’re after the same goal, the same thing, which is glorifying the name of Jesus Christ, I think those personal issues kind of melt away. I love everything creative. So for me, technical production is just as creative as playing a guitar part. And it’s actually stuff that I can’t do. So I rely on these people to do it and make it beautiful and put their own touch on it.
[MediaShout] I think it’s a good thing, what you’re talking about there. The church presentation, audio, and lighting side of it is a very important part that a lot of the time gets overlooked for whatever reason. I love what you guys do when you go into a place and you really build those relationships and come in with that selfless attitude. That really helps everybody to get onboard with whatever is going on and helps everybody focus on the most important thing: not us, but Jesus.
The Practical Stuff
[MediaShout] So what are some practical steps or tips you’d want to give people who are leading worship?
[David] So a lot of this is about your craft. When we travel for Jenna, she’s the artist and primary worship leader and I may lead a few songs. But my main role is the band leader. So I take a lot of weight off of her shoulders, kind of acting as a liaison between the guys that are playing and her. I’d recommend focusing on things like technical knowledge or practicing with your instrument during the week. There are so many resources online that I wish I had when I first started learning to do this. Worship Artistry and Worship Band in Hand are two of them, for instance, to learn instrument parts.
Technical knowledge is important too. Learn not just about your actual instrument, but if you’re a keyboard player, for instance, take the time and learn online about different kinds of software, and ways to expand your sounds. Guitar players, learn about pedals and tone and all of that. Every instrument, every position has technical things. Even working with the tech crew, it helps being able to talk to the sound person who’s mixing (especially if they’re mixing your ears) and being able to communicate in their terms. If you’re leading worship and don’t already put in songs to your church worship presentation software, learn how. You can even work with the song lyric tech on the best look for your worship slides.
[Jenna] I listen to a lot of podcasts. There are tons of podcasts out there that can encourage, inspire you, and give you tons of insight. We also attend a lot of retreats and conferences. Just exposing yourself to the world that is bigger than just yours is important. You know, there’s a lot more out there besides our own towns or churches. I think that’s huge to connect yourself to the greater Church and what’s going on. In these settings, you can hear a lot of different speakers and worship teams that you’ve never heard. One that we love is called Rest Retreat with Worship Circle, led by Todd Fields. That has been one of the greatest retreats we’ve been a part of because it’s 100% about your heart.
There are also vocal warmups I do with The Unhindered Voice podcast that I want to talk about for a quick second. I play the guitar but my voice is my main instrument. If you’ve heard about anybody at all that’s had vocal surgery, there are a lot of people that have had to have that done— you have to take care of your voice. You’ve got to think about longevity. And that means warming up your voice before you sing. I know it sounds goofy.. my band guys hear me doing all kinds of weird stuff. But it makes a difference. I can feel more of a freedom and a release when I’m leading worship. I’m not worrying about hitting that high note but I’m just letting it out. I also want my voice to last a long time because I want to do this forever. And I don’t want my voice to go out. So take care of that.
Be a good steward.. We keep coming back to that. Be a good steward of your giftings, your voice, and your body. And the second part.. go back to Sunday school and read your Bible (laughs). So I mean, be filled with the Word. There may be moments in your worship set where there’s one verse, the perfect verse for the moment. And you want that in you so it flows out of you and you can communicate God’s Word in a way that you otherwise wouldn’t be able to.. if you didn’t spend time with His Word, putting it in your mind and your heart.
[David] And there’s a practical thing too. When the worship leader is having one of those moments, when they’re following the Holy Spirit and they’re going to be sharing something, it’s important for us as band members, or sound guys especially, or ones running lyrics with worship software, that we follow. We’re watching. We’re aware of what’s going on and we adjust what we’re doing to facilitate that. If you have questions about some of the technical aspects of that, you can contact us and we’d love to give some insight there. For example, having a microphone on stage that’s just for your band to communicate in the in-ear monitors, that’s huge. That’s just stuff we’ve learned.
[Jenna] We also have hand signals for if I want to go to the chorus, bridge, or whatever. Also knowing the Nashville Number System is huge.
[David] Yes, know the numbers so you can transpose any song and go into it. And it’s really so simple. A lot of the times we look at really big churches and worship teams and we think they must have all this stuff that’s not accessible to where we are or the size of church we are, but it really is! The same training resources, the same programs, of course, I’ll say MediaShout is the best church presentation software (laughs)…the same stuff is available to all of us. With the internet now, there are endless tools like the Worship Band in Hand app we have here at MediaShout and the Atmosphere Pads on it, for instance.
[Jenna] Yeah, we use the pad sounds. It’s nice to have just one more little layer. It makes such a difference when we’re leading with just a guitar or something. It’s all these little things, these practical things that go a long way. And add to those: preparing and making sure you’re ready. Then when you get there you can just fly, you know.. soar! It’s just using the gifts that God puts in your hand and giving them back to Him.
Follow Jenna & David’s worship ministry and read more articles here.
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