Ten Habits of Highly Effective Worship Leaders

Gloria Dei

We’ve all been there. It’s Sunday morning, worship starts in 5 minutes, and the song leader is frantically flipping through the book trying to find that invitation song he always leads. It’s no surprise when the worship isn’t very edifying and engaging, when preparation was an afterthought. (I used to be that guy, so I’m stepping on my own toes here).

We’ve probably also experienced the other extreme—a silky smooth assembly with seamless transitions, everything is thoughtfully done, and we’re left extremely encouraged. We may not even know exactly why, just that there were song lyrics, scriptures, and ideas that stuck with us well into the week. This doesn’t happen by accident!

I’ve tried to capture 10 ways that leaders plan this seamless, God glorifying worship that really changes and affects people. This is by no means a comprehensive list, or even a top ten list. You may think of ten more important attributes, and please don’t hesitate to share them with me!

A highly effective worship leader….

  1. Plans and leads worship with the goal of 100% participation from the congregation.
    • Doesn’t overwhelm the congregation with too much new music or bore them with the same 5 songs repeatedly  (this varies from group to group….some congregations enjoy learning lots of new music)
    • Plans song sets that play to the congregation’s ability and strengths. Congregations with weak part singing don’t do well with call and response songs, for instance.
    • When everybody sings, it sounds great. Even when there is a mix of good, average, and great voices, when everybody is engaged, worship sounds so much better, and this means more people are speaking and meditating on the Word. This is essential!
  2. Leads at a “thinking pace”, not too fast, hindering focus during worship, or so slow that singers have to breathe mid-phrase; Just the right pace.
    • Many leaders are often way too fast or way too slow, as if there is a total disconnect between leader and music.
    • This is likely because singing with feeling (expressive singing) is a learned skill, like riding a bike.
    • It seems that those with a band background tend to rush songs more, but this is not a scientific observation. Perhaps it is because much of that music is completely instrumental, rather than participatory singing by non-musicians. These are two completely different styles of music.
    • The mood of the song dictates the tempo, and the mood may even vary from verse to verse. Mood cannot really be notated, but effective worship leaders learn to sense the mood by studying the text.
    • This means that effective leaders don’t lead lyrics they don’t understand.
  3. Leads with lots of feeling, especially on songs that call for a lot of sensitivity and feeling.
    • This is very subjective and looks different with different people. As an example, a very animated person should be similarly animated and passionate in their worship leading, or it seems rather disingenuous. An introverted leader will lead in an introverted way, and this is okay too.
    • If you can help it, try not to lead with a poker face. Smile! Be natural and it will make a big difference.
  4. Exudes positive energy, causing others to pay attention and want to join in.
    • If you have a message you are passionate about bringing, you are far more likely to draw others in with your message than if you are very indifferent about it hat you have to say, and so it is true with messages in song.
    • Even when you’ve had a bad week, put on a smile anyway. When you put a smile on somebody else’s face, you will naturally be beaming anyway.
  5. Plans worship set days or even weeks in advance, except for emergencies.
    • Spends at least 4-6 hours planning worship, and coordinates with the speakers that day to reinforce or complement their message.
    • This gives more time for prayer, deeper song selection, and also comparing the song set to what has been recently sung already.
    • Leaders who thoughtfully plan will always grow stronger as a result, and will connect with hymns on a much deeper level, having meditated on lyrics for much more time than the congregation does during worship.
  6. Plans a balance of didactic (teaching) hymns and praise/response hymns.
    • Good leaders meditate on the Word and share them with the brethren.
    • Leaders that plan didactic song sets (themes) tend to be much more thoughtful, and therefore effective. Leaders that don’t thinking about the message often choose songs that have a good theme, but are, perhaps, delivered in a trite and ineffective way.
    • It’s almost like we were designed to do this… Colossians 3.16
  7. Uses an appropriate balance of verbal (vocal) and non-verbal direction, including conducting, posture, and visage (facial expression).
    • Unless the group is only 5-10 people (in which case, leading with your voice is usually sufficient), always conduct with clear, simple beat patterns. How much conducting depends on the articulation, the size of the group, and the size and shape of the room.
    • Smiles during joyful and upbeat songs
    • Doesn’t give out long lists of verbal instruction on the song.
    • In fact, most effective leaders give NO verbal instruction as it’s not necessary. Trying to remember long, complicated instructions during a song is a distraction, and is completely unnecessary. Tell them nonverbally as you go, add concise notes to slides if you must, or maybe don’t get too elaborate with interpretation.
  8. Uses mechanics and music theory as a means to an end (spirited worship), not the end itself (an idol).
    • ALWAYS use a pitch pipe or pitching device. No exceptions, except for emergency and impromptu singings (midnight baptisms, for instance)
    • The key indicated in the hymnal is selected not only by the composer, but possibly tweaked by the hymnal editorial committee so that parts are comfortable for all participants, whether they sing the melody (soprano), the inner voices (alto and tenor), or bass.
    • Some leaders ignore the indicated key, and, most of the time, remember a pitch that is 1, 2, even 3 steps flat. I don’t know why, but it is a natural tendency to remember a key that is much flatter than the actual key. Use a pitching device!
    • Remember that mechanics are tools—ingredients—to make worship an engaging experience, nothing more.
  9. Regularly asks himself, “What is best for my congregation?”, and plans and leads accordingly.
    • He coordinates with other leaders and they all agree on one arrangement of a given song, rather than each leading their favorite (confusing)
    • It might make or break whether or not the church sings a particular song that offends somebody or is too difficult.
    • Might mean I don’t do this “one cool thing”, even though it’s different or trendy.
    • Ask ourselves, “is this song or arrangement edifying, or will this just confuse or offend people?” It may be that people get offended, even when there’s nothing wrong with a song. Perhaps they misunderstand its meaning or don’t understand the concept of poetic license. Remember what Paul said in Romans 14. Don’t be a stumbling block. There are hundreds of other songs to choose from.
  10. Never stops learning.
    • He never “arrives” or graduates.
    • A teacher in song is no different from any other teacher, and the journey is lifelong.
    • He reads the Word more often than books about the Word.
    • He reads music and worship books with a view of growing as a sacred musician and as a strong spiritual leader
    • He joins Facebook groups like “Church of Christ Hymnody” and “Church of Christ Song Worship Leaders” to find a virtual support group of peers who can share feedback and best practices
    • He attends singing schools and worship workshops whenever possible, like the RJ Stevens Singing School (every leader should go to that at least once!)

Note that none of these 10 habits pertain to the quality of the leader’s voice. A really good voice is a wonderful quality of an effective leader, and if you have a great voice, use it for God! However, for those with average vocal ability, it’s important to know that they can still be highly effective, because it’s how that voice is used that particularly makes the leader effective.

Some of the best worship leaders don’t have a voice like Josh Groban. No matter your vocal ability, reverently guide singers to the Throne, facilitate thoughtful horizontal exhortation, exude positivity, and get them singing. Leave them wishing for one more song!



12 thoughts on “Ten Habits of Highly Effective Worship Leaders

    1. I’m a total n00b when it comes to WordPress. I’ve made plenty of blog sites for SEO, but have never tried to make one I actually cared about. Thanks for the kind words, brother! This blog is also intended to prime the pump for 3 book projects that are in the works. I have absolutely no timeline, but thought the blog would be a nice start.


    1. Thanks, brother! Praise God. I can’t really take credit for most of these ideas. I’m sure I picked up some or all of them from my mentors. I hope folks find this helpful.


  1. Wow. That puts every thing Ina nutshell. It will be used as a guide and shared with others. Did not know about Facebook groups. Will try to join. Thank you kelly.


    1. Excellent! Looking forward to seeing you on Facebook. I pray that this blog will stir up interest in excellence in what we offer the brethren and almighty God. They deserve no less! Blessings-


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