Set Bands: Good or Bad?

A couple weeks ago I posted this question I received from an old friend:

“Statement first, then question…. I recently stepped down from worship at our church… I couldn’t get along with the worship pastor at all – he had no vision for us to go or grow – he was stuck in the 80’s and 90’s – and he had nothing to teach the other worship leaders… after numerous meetings and suggestions on things to do LIKE PRACTICING FOR ONE, I gave up and decided for the best of everyone that I remove myself from the situation. Well – 3 days letter he decided that he isn’t the one to continue (after 6 years) leading the church into this new direction we’re headed… the pastor has been trying to get the guy to step down for 2 years too – so it’s good for everyone.

Now the Senior pastor has decided that in this transition time, he will oversee the worship ministry… which is fine although scary. BUT he wants to turn the worship into specific teams operating together instead of the random rotation we’ve been doing. So what he wants to do is stick all the worship leaders in one room (we had 4 including me and the worship pastor, but the Senior pastor has added 2 more, and the worship pastor has decided he’d like to continue at least leading) so that makes 5 worship leaders – not including me because I stepped down.

So the senior pastor wants to stick the 5 worship leaders in a room with himself, and hash out 5 seperate teams… so that way the Senior pastor only has to schedule worship leaders and not musicians….

Hopefully that’s clear as mud… so now the question – what are your thoughts on specific teams for worship – where you always play with the same people?

More info – the old worship pastor let anybody on the stage – so we have brutal drummers who shouldn’t even be allowed to hold chopsticks, and singers who constantly break even the plastic communion cups when singing… (that’s a little dramatic of course…) I told the Senior pastor what he needs to do is disband the entire worship ministry, bring in a new worship pastor, and then let that guy start from scratch where people have to do auditions and all that….”

– – – – –

Many of you posted your own comments, which were fantastic. We don’t all agree with each other, but the fact that you’re willing to share what you do and why is great!

So let me address a few issues in the question before diving into the “set bands” debate.

First, change is not always bad, whether it be personnel, music styles, color of the carpet – whatever. Just as long as it causes you (the singular and plural “you”) to grow as a church, in your relationships, and as a more mature Christian.

Now I can’t fault the Senior Pastor for wanting to get involved. He is, after all, the senior leader of the church, and has a responsibility to the church as a whole. The danger can be, however, is just what level of involvement and decisions he makes, especially if they come from a place of ignorance. Just because you’re building a house, doesn’t mean you know how to draw the blueprints, run the wiring and operate a bulldozer. You get experienced, knowledgeable people to do that.

So beware the leader that leads in places of ignorance. A good leader knows and recognizes their weakness, and surrounds themselves with excellent people who have the abilities that fill that gap.

I think of a good married couple, and how one individual’s strength is the other’s weakness, and visa versa.

That said, I believe your Senior Pastor should identify who is the best LEADER for your music program – and no, that’s not necessarily a Worship Leader. In some cases and churches it will be, and in others, not. I do believe, however, that they must be an excellent musician, respected by the other musicians in the program, and (most importantly) understand the mentality of a musician. Only then can they be a proper advocate for the musicians.

As a musician and leader, one of my biggest concerns is that I am an advocate for our players and singers. That I can stand in the gap for them, and relay to my leadership what is a realistic expectation, and at the same time also hold the musicians accountable, knowing what is realistic to expect from them.

We, as music staff, need to be smart enough to know when something is lacking and not up to snuff, and also celebrate with the musicians what is good.

We need to be sensitive to the dynamics of a group of musicians – personalities, egos, abilities, strengths, weaknesses, styles, ranges, experience, tones, attitudes, etc. Heck, even who laughs at who’s jokes.

A band’s success, and thus success of a music program, is a much, much bigger picture than just picking a few names out of a hat and calling it a day.

And so, with that in mind, the “set band” issue takes on a whole other picture, doesn’t it?

And so, the question:

Set Bands or Random Rotating Players?

Is one better than the other? What are the pros? What are the cons?

Is it even a realistic option, and if it is, is it one that you should implement?

What is best for your music program, as a whole?

What is best for your church?

What breeds excellence and what creates apathy?

What develops community and what creates isolation?

When does a commitment become an assumption?

When does musicality outweigh attitude?

When does healthy competition become divisive arrogance?

When does desire for ministry pervert into jealousy and a bruised ego?

When does a band become a rewarding community group?

When does that community group become an exclusive clique?


And, when it comes right down to it, is it even logistically possible?

These are some of the questions we’ve had to ask ourselves over the past half-decade as we’ve pondered this topic from time to time.

And – before I go any farther – let me assure you that we (North Point Community Church and its campuses), nor I am the final judge in this debate. What we do is not right or wrong – it’s only what we feel is best for us, our musicians and our church at this point in time.

Please take everything I (or anyone else) have to say with a very large grain of salt. There – end of disclaimer.

– – – – –

As both a musician and as service programmer, a set band can have some incredible advantages, as well as some catastrophic disadvantages. Ultimately, it’s your job to weigh the pros and cons as it relates to:

– your specific church

– your specific music program

– your specific style of worship

– the musicians available in specific city

I just pray that you weigh them in that order: what’s best for your church as a whole is not necessarily what’s most fun or most convenient.

– – – – –

First of all, let me say a few things about drawing names out of a hat and creating a set band only for the sole purpose of “ease of booking”:

That’s total CRAP. Absolute baloney. I don’t buy that for one minute, nor, as a musician, do I accept it as it relates to me, my skills and abilities, or my feelings.

That’s a total cop out by your leader / scheduler who cares more about their own time than what is best for the service or the musicians who are involved. (Have I ruffled your feathers yet?)

– – – –

A GOOD SET BAND:


PROS:

A good set band is one that flows and feeds off of each other, each one inspiring the others, each one respectful and in admiration of the others’ skills and abilities, each one respectful of each other’s time, all unified in their goal.

Each one TRUSTS the other. Each one WANTS to be with the other.

And that’s where I think a lot of church programs have a breakdown in their set band implementation.

So let me talk from experience: The “set” bands that I have been involved with and that have had the most success are ones that have been formed independantly, APART from here, apart from church.

Guys like Todd Fields, Kristian Stanfill and Steve Fee have put bands together OUTSIDE the church walls. Initially they were for playing at camps and outside gigs, and evolved into more stable “bands”, and even albums and record deals.

Those are bands that WANTED to be together, CHOSE to be together, and worked out any quarrels with each other on their own time. Some guys have come and gone from those bands, and that’s fine. They dealt with the drama…

Those are also the bands that usually come up with some cool new twists on our current worship tunes, and that’s a great benefit for us. It’s been cool to share those arrangements with the other musicians and campuses.

These are also the kinds of set bands that can raise the bar on their own playing, singing and overall musicianship, obviously benefitting your church in the long run.

CONS:

A con, however, can be when one of those guys gets outside that band (on a separate, independant booking) and experiences frustration playing with guys that don’t know the “special” arrangement. It’s kind of like driving a car with a stick shift – when you only drive one, it’s tough to adjust to the clutch of another.

(Yep, I know that last analogy left some of you youngins in the dark…)

Here’s what we’ve experienced a great deal: Many of our players, even the ones in these self-formed set bands, earn their living (or most of it) as professional musicians. Sometimes that means taking extra gigs traveling or recording with someone or somewhere else. Or sometime they’re simply not available. That’s when the set band breaks down, and putting in a “sub” ends up being awkward – a real “5th wheel” experience.

Another con of this “self-formed set band” for us can be a lack of flexibility for special songs. We often will swap guys around based on a special song that we’re doing as an opener or closer. This can depend on a song’s unique requirements, such as genre or style, instrumentation, range, etc. Ultimately it’s our responsibility to do what’s best for the song, and that can often be contrary to who is booked in so-and-so’s band.

We believe our job is to put the right people on stage. That phrase can have many interpretations, including who is the best lead singer, backup singer(s), and individual instrumentalists for a particular special song and/or worship set.

One thing we really strive for is for a special song – especially a recognizable one – to be performed equally as good, if not better than the original. That’s a bar we’ve raised for ourselves, and an expectation that has been put on us. I can’t tell you the number of songs we’ve not done simply because we knew we couldn’t do it right.

Now that’s just us and the mission and filter we have for programming services. It’s not right and it’s not wrong – it’s just our purposeful, conscious decision. Your church may have a totally different vision.

– – – – –

A BAD SET BAND:

“Hey, what about MY opinion?”

Well that’s easy. You take a bunch of musicians and create a set band on their behalf and tell them they don’t get to play with anyone else for the next however-many months, and you’ve got the makings of some anarchy….

I can’t tell you how BIG a difference there is between people GETTING together versus being PUT together.

“Why am I stuck with him?”

Now every once in a blue moon things might end up peachy. That’s super cool! But I know I’ve heard story after story of people being stuck with so-and-so in their band, and they don’t like it. Either they don’t appreciate their musicianship or are peeved at their lack of preparation or get hacked off at their tardiness. Maybe they fight over guitar lines or disagree with kick patterns. Maybe the educated singer gets frustrated with the young floozy that can’t hear harmony to save her life.

And they’re all upset with the Worship Leader or Music Director for not fixing their problem!

Man, you talk about a no win situation…

“We got picked to do the Christmas Services”

Some folks also commented on egos, attitudes and unhealthy competition amongst rivaling bands. “I’m in the ‘A’ band – nany nany poo poo”

Yeah, that sounds childish and immature – but remember: these are people we’re dealing with, so that sin nature creeps up easier than you might think…

“It’s our gig” and “Yeah, we’ve played that 100 times”

Here’s the one that I believe is the most dangerous. It’s a 3 headed monster I’ll call “The Triple A”:

Assumption, Arrogance and Apathy.

There can be a horrible byproduct of a set band when the commitment to the musicians gradually turns to assumption, and even arrogance, on their part.

This then breeds the worst possible animal, at least musically speaking: Apathy

Nothing brings your music program to a grinding halt more than that. And it’s deceiving, because it is a slow killer. Like a frog in a pot, you don’t know the harm until it’s too late.

Guys stop wood shedding at home. They hastily hurry through rehearsals. They regurgitate old songs without interest. Parts just become notes, no longer inspiration. Guys show up at rehearsals late (if at all!). Set lists are poorly thought through. Transitions suffer. And ultimately, mistakes are laughed off, instead of treated as a serious issue.

Poor musicianship becomes the accepted norm, and self-discipline disappears.

And leaders and Worship Leaders and band directors would rather turn a blind eye in order to not hurt someone’s feelings or avoid controversy than deal with these problems.

Apathy on behalf of the musicians, and, more importantly the leaders, is a cancer that has spread through church music like a wildfire. Impish Music Directors and ignorant Pastors putting anything with a pulse on stage, instead of encouraging – no, demanding excellence.

Shame.

(Sorry – got a little worked up there for a minute…)

“I know, I know, but he’s our only drummer”

See the above paragraphs!!! Fire him! Get another drummer! Or use a drum machine! I don’t care how much he tithes or that he’s the son of a deacon. That’s not an excuse.

Again, let me once again repeat our mantra:

“We are not obliged to give people a place to play (or use whatever musical talents they think they might have). Instead, we ARE obliged to do what’s best for the church as a whole by putting on stage the right people at the right time.

We do not exist so that we may deal with peoples’ drama. Whiners and criers can go spend the service with the other babies in the nursery.

Let me just say that we are very fortunate to be entrusted and trusted, as a Music Department Staff, to schedule players, singers and Worship Leaders as we (sensitively) deem appropriate, without feeling any pressure from leadership to “call in a favor” or “so-and-so’s son plays the guitar and he wants to play”. That’s obviously leadership that has a secondary objective other than the health of the Music Program and the quality on stage, and ultimately what the congregation experiences.

– – – – –

OTHER POSSIBILITIES:

Now I have heard of situations that involve 2, 3 or 4 set bands that rotate week to week, and that change up members every few months or so. And I guess that can be cool – again, depending musicians’ schedules and on how services are programmed.

Some churches don’t do special tunes, or at least ones that might require specific singers/players. Instead, they’ve committed to a specific group of people for a specific amount of time. And, providing everyone’s cool with each other and what they bring to the table, this can be a really cool time of musical, personal and spiritual development.

– – – – –

SO WHAT DOES NORTH POINT DO?

First off, we talk. We’re always discussing people at great length. We discuss their strengths, their weaknesses, what we love about them, where we would like to see improvement – you name it.

It is discussed privately and candidly amongst our music staff. The filters are removed, sometimes the doors are closed, and there are no bad questions or improper opinions.

That’s one way we’ve learned to trust each other over the years. There’s no secret agendas or “meeting after the meeting” stuff. The people on our music staff are there because they are excellent at what they do, and we bounce ideas and opinions off of each other every single day.

Worship Leaders:

We have about a dozen Worship Leaders that we use across North Point Ministries (North Point’s East and West Auditoriums, Browns Bridge Church, Buckhead Church). Most of them lead at 2 of the campuses, some at just one, and a few at all three.

There’s no set schedule or rotation. There’s no balance between campuses or stages. There is, however, a different percentage of time we’ll have different leaders.

For example, Todd Fields, Eddie Kirkland and Mike Gleason are usually leading somewhere about twice a month. Steve Fee, with his current touring schedule, is now only available once every 6 or 8 weeks. Same goes with Michael Olson and Ryan Stuart. Danny Dukes is a steward with Delta Airlines who’s work schedule can conflict with rehearsals, so he is with us at one of the two northern campuses about once every 3 weeks, and Casey Darnell is somewhere amid the 4 stages about twice a month.

Chrystina Fincher is a great female Worship Leader, as well as a killer BGV, so she’s on in one capacity or another at least a couple times a month. Chrystina and Gleason on stage are a great combo, and so sometimes one might lead while the other is the BGV, and visa versa. Kristian Stanfill‘s tour schedule has picked up significantly, and so we only see him at one of the campuses about once a month or so. We’ve also recently added Seth Condrey to the mix, who will lead some of the Spanish services, as well as some english ones as well. James David Carter and Carlos Whittaker have found a home leading once a month at Buckhead Church, and Cori Moon is a welcomed addition to the Browns Bridge family.

So that’s a jigsaw puzzle that most churches don’t have to deal with. So, as you can see, we’ve had to think outside the box and invent a new shaped wheel.

You throw in summer camp season, and that’s a whole different (and very ugly) animal. During those few months we do the best we can, but occasionally we will need to substitute a leader for Wednesday rehearsal or use the vocal and acoustic guitar from a North Point Music multitrack.


Band Guys and Background Vocals (BGV’s):

The way we use band guys and singers is quite reflective of the way we use Worship Leaders. Of the 50 or so guys in our pool, some of them play a lot, some once or twice a month, and some every 6 – 8 weeks or so. This is based on what they bring to the table, as well as their own personal schedules.

That’s a juggling act. First off, when Steve, Todd or Kristian lead, we try as hard as possible to book their touring bands with them. That follows the “good set band” mentality, but we often need to augment those bands where they might lack in instrumentation if we’re doing a special, or swap out a competent substitute that they know and trust if one of their regular guys can’t make it for some reason.

Here’s a great example: When Kristian’s here, his bass player, Tim Gibson, attends and is committed to a different church where his father-in-law is the pastor. So although I invite him, he almost always declines – and that’s OK. At least I give him the opportunity to choose. We then fill that spot with Earl South, who’s had repeated success in that role with Kristian.

Apart from those guys’ set bands, I try to book combinations of guys that experience with each other, work well together, have some kind of social bond “off-stage”, and that have commented on how much they enjoy playing with the other.

Sometimes this is just a good pairing of lead and rhythm guitarists, and sometimes it’s a larger group that have done special events together. AND they compliment the Worship Leader (duh!!). Plus, our pool is not so big that it allows guys to play with each other a lot.

This, over time, has given us a family feel. It’s close to a set band mentality, but still allows us flexibility as it relates to our musical needs, player, singer and Worship Leaders’ schedules, and allows folks to share musical experiences with each other.

It also allows musicians to broaden their social and musical networks – something that many of them rely on to put food on their table.

Tough…

Yes. Without a doubt what we do is tougher and more time consuming than having set, “closed” bands on a predictable rotation.

Especially if you add to the fact that it’s also key to have guys where they’re not only needed, but where they can experience church as a family. Most of these folks have kids in classes and spouses who are also involved in some area of volunteer ministry. Obviously that’s not always possible – but we try.

Add to that the other local churches and North Point Ministries’ Strategic Partners within a hundred mile radius that are also calling and booking these folks, and it’s another element working against us.

The Bottom Line:

We have consciously chosen to do certain types of music and special songs using a specific calibre of Worship Leader and musicians. The result for the congregation and the church as a whole is one of anticipated (and almost always achieved) excellence.

And, at least right now, we wouldn’t have it any other way.

But by using those people, we deal with their schedules and demand away from the North Point family. It also allows us to use the RIGHT people, both on and off stage.

It also gives a certain level of commitment and stability to the musicians, without breeding assumptions or apathy.

And no one’s “stuck” with anyone for more that a week 🙂

– – – – –

So that’s just what we do. It’s not right. It’s not wrong. It’s just where we’ve found success and balance. Plus, Planning Center helps a TON!!!

– – – –

Family…

This is a discussion that comes up frequently around our families – both mine and Jennie’s – since so many of us are musicians and participate in our church music programs. It’s always fun to talk about.

Here’s what they do:

My Mom, Gayle – in a small church, she’s a BGV, random rotation

My Brother-In-Law, Michael Olson – professional, traveling artist and Worship Leader at a bunch or different churches, many in Nashville and Atlanta areas (including North Point and NP partners). Plays with bands at the church, so often different.

My Mother-In-Law, Beth – large church, sings on worship team, set band (which is also a Bible study group), set rotation (and loves it!)

My Sister-In-Law, Leah – attending new, small church with her Fiancee, Chris, sings with him on worship team, regular band with a few alternates

My Soon-To-Be-Brother-In-Law, Chris – regularly leads worship, small church, regular band with a few alternates

– – – – –

There you go, kids. Hope that helps!

Let me know what you think…

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6 thoughts on “Set Bands: Good or Bad?

  1. Reid,

    I can’t express how much I enjoy reading your insights and how you process through things. It has been super beneficial to virtually pick your brain with this stuff and to see what others think about various topics. This is , no doubt, one of the best posts I’ve read in a very long time. Keep up the awesome work.

    cd

    ps. My livewires are coming in soon. I put you as a reference on there, so maybe you’ll get some free stuff.

  2. Hey Reid,

    Just FYI. This post is 4049 words long. Good stuff but it had to scroll like for five days on my reader on my phone to get it all…..but i read it all and it’s great!

  3. Reid, I think you’re right on with your comments about doing what’s best for the church as a whole when choosing who plays. Too many churches get caught in the trap of finding a way for everyone who wants to play to play, even if they’re not good. I’ve always prioritized Sunday morning quality above possible bruised egos, but that’s a tough thing to do. I’ve even had the top guy in our organization sit me down and tell me he was “furious” that I didn’t use his wife and her “beautiful voice” more often. Yikes! Church politics!

    I’m grateful for magazines, books and blogs like yours that remind me to stay strong and do what’s right, even if it’s not always popular with everyone!

  4. Reid,
    Thx. for the post. I have been looking for answers in blogsville on the subject. Not alot out there dealing with nutz and boltz. Alot of pastoring and mentoring advise from those who have a concrete position in the ministry.
    I play electric guitar,keys and run tracks, functioning as director in a Vineyard set band for the last 8 years until 2 weeks ago, communication broke down and the band emploded. All is lost. Drummer quit and left the church, (divorce,preg.16 yr.old etc.) Bassist quit, left hoping for a chair at another church,the worship leader (acoustic) quit and, I was asked to take a 3 to 6 mos.break. The worship leader, 2 BGV’s and myself still attend and watch another band (1st service duo, keyboard-led, acoustic guitarist) struggle to take up the baton. The pastor has taken the role upon himself to rule and reign until further notice. He has expressed a desire to allow for young one’s to rise up to prepare to take the torch. Look’s like it’ll come by default now.
    We have had an excellent team of players in a set band for these 8 years covering alot of popular tunes. Others tried to acclimate, and moved on to other musical activities in the church due to commitment and inability to cover the tunes accurately.
    I am looking at others experiences with “pooling” to see if concerns that I have are valid. (ex. mixing seasoned players with newbies, apathy from not enough opportunities)
    We are a small congregation (200+) all volunteer musicians.
    Honestly, I need help. I’m reading pertinent material to correct personal issues on my sabbatical. (Rory Norland,John Eldridge) If my call remains to lead a band again, I want to have better wisdom and knowledge, gleaned from others experiences. I don’t want to re-invent the wheel.
    We are still left to our own resources in the church when breakdowns such as this occur. The answer seems to be, you need a break, Musician…go and heal thyself and come back when you have it fixed.
    Sorry, I know some of this is a little off subject, I am curious of responses.
    Peace!

  5. Thanks for the post/blog/essay ( 🙂 ) – a very good perspective.

    As is pointed out, clearly there are many factors to be considered in a complex issue. And it’s complicated more by the emotions attached to the entire experience of worshipping God, the desire to serve in the church, personal ego (about musical ability and the desire to be on the stage {maybe} ), objectivity (or the lack thereof) about one’s skill level, the chemistry fit, and the strong emotional component inherent in music and in making music, especially emotional music praising the Lord.

    Yes, talent and superior musician/vocalist combinations should win out ultimately. But life is more complicated that just one factor, and the final decision isn’t, and can’t, always be based on “who is best”. Attitude is always a factor.

    In a large church, a megachurch, I would imagine that it’s a bit easier to make decisions in the manner of the job market – i.e., a Master’s degree will always trump a BA or no degree. Some of that is because the institution of a large church is required to be run more like a business (even if the business is saving souls). Also, in a church with thousands of members there are too many people for everyone to know everyone else (or even a majority).

    In the event that there are hurt feelings in such an environment, it’s unlikely that the hurt feelings of a few will spread across a large piece of the congregation and cause church-wide discord. If one, or a few, families leave, unless they are very prominent donors or very active across well-known ministries, they won’t likely be missed by the church body.

    But in a smaller church, it’s a much more political issue. Small disagreements can turn into sizeable issues for the church body. If one family leaves, they are missed. There is more focus on the possibly bruised feelings of the VOLUNTEERS. In a volunteer band/choir/praise team for a small church, much of the time you have to take what you can get from amongst the congregation. And if there is a time when the truth about talent, or not enough talent, has to take precedent, then it takes serious effort at sensitivity when letting someone know they are not good enough to serve.

    In my experience, once the team reaches a certain level of competency/skill, if someone wants to join and they are ultimately not up the task, they usually will see the writing on the wall, or realize they’re being left behind or dragging others down. Rehearsals are a good test – if a player or singer can’t get the parts down, ultimately they would rather drop out than to be continually put on the spot by holding everyone else up.

    Personally, I’ve been on both ends of this issue – and in between. Our church, as well as the church we attended in between leaving and returning to our church, has a set band per service. Prior to this year, it was basically one band for the two Contemporary services, the choir/organist/pianist for the Traditional. (And a separate and different band for the Spanish service.) Occasionally, there will be an additional singer to the praise team, or a sub musician if someone is out of town for a few weeks. But even though there were musicians available who wanted to serve and participate, the Worship Leader/Music Director didn’t care for the rotation concept, or didn’t see the need to bring others into the band.

    There is now a new band for the Contemporary service, which mostly also doubles for a new emerging service for young adults. This band already has a vocalist rotation, based on availability mostly, but the singing population is growing.

    Until there is more congregational growth, or burnout, there won’t be an issue of rotation in our church. But I think rotation is a fine solution to the issue of too many musicians/singers who want to serve God and the church.

    The point is, most of the time, this is a service to God and the church, and church members should be welcomed into the music ministry if it’s at all possible – the same as any other church sponsored ministry.

    ~ Bob Clifford

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