Let's Deal With the Challenges You Face as a Female Worship Leader

Krissy Nordhoff (Michael Howard)

Song—it can set the atmosphere, teach theology and state beliefs. It can propel us toward the future, change hearts and change lives. Every Sunday, songs ring out in churches around the world, bringing both unity and division. What walks in the door as a soothing, flowing tune can be sharper than a two-edged sword. A song carries great power when it includes the Word of God, often communicating what cannot be shared through a spoken-word message because words speak to our heads, but songs speak to our hearts.

And therein lies the paradox. There is so much more behind a song than what appears at first glance. We don't hesitate to analyze the dynamics within the church as they relate to worship. There is so much focus on the delivery of the song. But what if it all begins at the birthplace of the song? There have been many debates on this subject. I don't claim to be a theologian, but as a worship writer, I see how my heart and spirit get woven into my songs. I'm not aiming for that, but in the creative process, it just happens. A bit of who we are is imprinted on what we create, just as our Father is imprinted on us. I've seen a piece of art from a favorite artist and known it was their work before I looked at the signature. In the same way, songwriters are somehow imprinted on their worship songs. So shouldn't we ask whose imprint is on the songs our congregations are hearing and singing?

The writers behind our songs are mostly unseen and unknown, and many of them (including me) are quite OK with that. But I would urge you to look into the hearts behind the songs. You and your congregation may really resonate with some of them. Use songs from those writers.

When you are the writer, this can be a heavy responsibility. Over the years, though, I've learned that when I spend time with Jesus in the mornings, He is much "louder" in my afternoon writing sessions. I now focus on listening, rather than creating, when I write. I know for certain that my call in songwriting is to speak truth that brings hope to the church. You can hear it in songs such as "Your Great Name," "Mercy Tree," "Back to Life," "Fighting for Us," "New Rivers" and "Canyons."

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Tearing Down Barriers

If you look at the writing roster for most Christian publishing companies, you will notice ours is a male-dominated industry. I believe some of that is because women begin to have children and feel they need to give up their dreams when they could be modeling a new way to chase those dreams.

But I also wonder how much room has been given to women to do this important work. And what does that do to the spiritual imprints on our songs? At this point, it means a very high percentage of male perspective and heart are woven through the worship songs used in our churches.

I believe the best songs are a combination of men's and women's perspectives because, together, they give us the clearest picture of who God is. And I believe the imbalance in this area has a greater impact than we realize.

It's those worship songs, heavy with a masculine imprint, that are then sung from a platform of mostly male worship leaders and pastors. There are less than 20 percent of female leaders overall in U.S. churches today. What is even more astounding, though, is that 75 percent of Christianity in the U.S. is made up of women (Pew Research Center). Without getting into theological debates on leadership, we have to ask, is there something wrong with this picture? Are women able to walk into a service on a Sunday morning and sing out the song in their hearts? Are we honoring them across the majority of our congregations?

Twenty-two years ago, I prayed that the Lord would give me a mentor, a mother in the faith who had walked through the music industry (with a family) and navigated it well. I prayed that prayer for over a decade, and at year 15, I reminded the Lord of it. His response? I heard clearly, "Be what you need."

So I began to mentor women and have continued in the last seven years. Maribeth Dodd, my sister who is also a fellow worship leader, joined me in 2016, and together we founded Brave Worship. Our mission? To call out the boldness in women with a heart for worship—whether leaders or writers. We hope to encourage, mentor and provide resources, as well as create a loving community for growth and connection. We long to see barriers torn down and unity rise up within the body of Christ and also in the music industry.

Since that time, we have received many, many late-night calls. We've heard about not being allowed to be ordained, being overlooked as a worship leader, finding ways to breastfeed during a co-write, dealing with a married producer hitting on a young girl, handling unhealthy team dynamics, struggling with inadequacy, feeling dissed when not invited—we've heard it all.

But one recent comment stopped me in my tracks: "Women are apologetic about having the gift of leadership."

Wow. Apologetic. I've seen it in leading. I've seen it in the writing room. I've heard male worship leaders complaining about the timidity of "most females" on their teams. Could it have anything at all to do with the imprinting? Even beyond song? Could women be confused about their place? Could it be that women feel as though they must be more masculine to fit into the world of worship and they are uncomfortable about it? Maybe women haven't been given space to explore what embracing their femininity in worship looks like.

Changing Church Culture

I've heard it said that 93 percent of communication is nonverbal, and I believe it. When it comes to learning the culture of a church, it can take years to figure out the congregation's true beliefs on women in leadership. Even if you think you know the beliefs of a denomination, they vary from church to church. And you can't tell by what is being said because, frankly, you sometimes get politically correct answers. But you can tell by actions, by imprints.

Recently, I attended a Christian music conference with some amazing, gifted speakers and worship leaders. But by the third day, a silence fell over the hearts of the women attending. Without any communication, they began to gather in the lobby. Why? The message was about significance, and every single speaker and worship leader was a white male. The women couldn't hear the message because of what they were seeing.

Somehow, there seems to be a lack of connection between the apparent desire to include female worship leaders and making it a reality. When the words are saying "included" and the actions are saying "excluded," women in worship feel tolerated. There is a big difference between tolerating female leadership and championing it. Women are discerning. They sense this dissonance.

I believe what is stopping men and women from working together in worship leadership is fear. It may be fear of what has happened in the past with moral failures or fear of what may happen in the future, perhaps even the fear of the loss of position, control, power or territory.

Most leaders simply ignore the problem in hopes it will go away. But this approach is no longer working because the voices of women are beginning to rise.

Not long ago, I was asked to be on a podcast with four male worship leaders. Near the end of the conversation, our host asked how these male worship leaders would handle certain scenarios. One was: "A girl shows up to audition for the worship team. She's very talented. Unfortunately, she's also very attractive. Would you allow her to be on your team?" The answer was no. Really?

I know many men have operated under the "Billy Graham rule"—never, ever be alone with a woman. I get the heart behind this rule, and in most situations, having someone else in the room is ideal. But is this truly a way to deal with the root problem? If women were to follow this rule, there would be even fewer worship leaders and professional songwriters.

I have had co-writes cancelled because I was female. But if I were to cancel writes because I was working with a male, I would almost never have a chance to write. On the other hand, I've also had a man pick me up from the airport because I was going to lead worship at his church the next morning. He talked about wishing he would have asked me out sooner in life and proceeded to walk my suitcase all the way into my hotel room. Whoa!

There has to be a healthy middle ground. I know there are reasonable boundaries for working together as male and female.

Honoring Female Leaders

So how can we change this unbalanced dynamic? What are the first steps? The answer is as close as the Bible.

I always thought 1 Corinthians 13 was the "wedding chapter." As I dug into it again recently, I realized that the chapter immediately preceding it is about competing for gifts in the body. I believe this would include leadership. I've shared with those I mentor that competition kills community. But what Paul says heading into chapter 13 is this: "Let me show you a more excellent way." Then he moves into the love chapter, which shows all of us in the church how to treat one another.

"Love suffers long and is kind; love envies not; love flaunts not itself and is not puffed up, does not behave itself improperly, seeks not its own, is not easily provoked, thinks no evil; rejoices not in iniquity, but rejoices in the truth; bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, and endures all things. Love never fails" (1 Cor. 13:4-8).

That's it! The more excellent way. The way to a healthier body and unity within it. If we could follow this, live by this, minister and lead from this place, the church and the world would look different.

Men, be courageous! Draw healthy boundaries. Don't just tolerate female leadership, champion it. Realize it will only benefit your church. Don't be intimidated by it. Let your congregations be safe places for everyone to learn and make mistakes.

Women, rise up! There is room for you. We need your songs and your leadership to show us the other side of the heart of God. Don't be afraid. Be willing to awkwardly explore and define what feminine worship looks like. Otherwise, the body of Christ is unhealthy.

Church, instead of following the culture, let's lead in showing the value of female leadership. Together, we can find the more excellent way.

"Let the peace of God, to which also you are called in one body, rule in your hearts. And be thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom, teaching and admonishing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with grace in your hearts to the Lord. And whatever you do in word or deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through Him" (Col. 3:15-17).

Krissy Nordhoff is a worship leader, professional songwriter and co-founder of Brave Worship. She won a GMA Dove Award for Worship Song of the Year for "Your Great Name," which she co-wrote with Michael Neale. Learn more at krissynordhoff.com and braveworship.com. Follow her on Twitter (@KrissyNordhoff) and Instagram (@braveworship and @krissy_nordhoff).

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