How To Prepare For Leading Worship At Retreats And Conferences

by Kristen Gilles

in Worship Leading

Ad for the 2011 Hungry For Hope conference, where Kristen Gilles led worship

Promotional for the 2011 Hungry For Hope Conference, where I led worship

I’ve been privileged in the last few years to lead worship at several Sojourn Women’s retreats, conferences and other events. I’ve also led at various events outside of Sojourn, most recently at the 2011 Finding Balance Hungry for Hope conference in Colorado Springs, an annual conference for anyone who’s struggled with eating disorders, family members and friends of those who struggle, and counselors and clinicians who serve those struggling.

All the events I’ve participated in have required similar general preparation in addition to specific preparation based on the unique themes and needs of each event. I’ll flesh this out for you by detailing the preparation I’ve undergone for a retreat where I’m leading this week.

A few months ago a Louisville church’s women’s ministry leader invited me to lead worship for their upcoming fall women’s retreat. She’d learned of my experience leading worship at women’s events and other conferences upon contacting my worship pastor for a recommendation. Since then, and in similar fashion to my preparation for past events, I’ve been prayerfully, practically preparing for this event so that I’m able to serve in a way that blesses the women at the retreat and honors the Lord.

Gather Information and Count the Cost

The first thing I do whenever I’m asked to lead worship at a retreat or conference  is ask my own set of practical questions to help me determine:

  1. what the expectations are
  2. how much time and preparation will be required
  3. whether I can reasonably meet those expectations and time commitments.

When I was approached about this upcoming retreat, I asked first for all information pertaining to the time, location and length of the event. Since the event was only three months away, I had a good handle on what my family and work schedule would be at that time. After rearranging a few things, I found I was available to serve.

Glen Eyrie Castle & Retreat Center in Colorado, site of the 2011 Hungry For Hope Retreat where Kristen Gilles led worship

Glen Eyrie Castle & Retreat Center, where we held Hungry For Hope. Yep, a castle in Colorado

The next practical element to address was the monetary cost. It would require providing my own transportation to and from the retreat center (about 50 miles roundtrip) and possibly require me to take time off from work the day the event begins to ensure I arrive on time to setup, etc. I also considered the number of hours I would likely spend in preparation of the music.

I asked the retreat coordinator if she had a line in their planning budget for an honorarium to cover my expenses. She told me to let her know what I’d like to receive and they would work with it. This was tough for me because I’m not used to getting paid for leading worship at my own church events (although I have been blessed with my food/lodging/travel expenses being paid and with unexpected gifts) and I had no idea what I should request as an honorarium.

I called upon the wisdom and experience of my worship pastor Mike Cosper, who helped me determine what amount would be appropriate. He also encouraged me to let my event coordinator know that I was more than willing to work with their budget (and I was). I relayed this amount to my contact and gave her some insight into the calculations based on my costs, etc. She replied with a very agreeable offer and we settled on that amount.

Next, I wanted to know what the theme of the event was and who the main speaker would be so that I could better prepare a song list that would serve the speaker and the women by reinforcing the retreat theme. My goal was not to find songs that literally quote the theme (“Amazed”) but rather serve to encourage the women to ponder the amazing goodness of the Lord in the gospel. I also asked my contact if there were any songs they specifically wanted us to sing at the retreat.

After communicating by email for several weeks with the event coordinator, we scheduled a time closer to the event to meet and discuss remaining details regarding the retreat schedule:

  • how many worship sets would there be
  • when would they take place
  • how long each set should last
Kristen Gilles leading worship at Fall 2010 Sojourn Women's Conference, at Sojourn's East campus

I love singing with my Sojourn sisters. This is from our Fall 2010 Women's Conference

We also talked through the logistical A/V needs so the retreat center would know how to accommodate our gathering, and so I’d know what I’d need to provide, if anything.

They asked me to lead a few specific songs, then invited me to prayerfully choose a remaining mix of appropriate hymns and contemporary worship songs. They also asked me to prepare some liturgical prayers and Scripture readings.

Finally, we spent some time in prayer for the event and the participants and leaders. This meeting was very productive and stirred my heart with a clearer vision for the work before me as I entered the final stretch of preparation.

Pray and Remember the Gospel

As worship leaders, remember we’re serving our churches and event attendees. This is not about us and what we’d prefer to sing or play. This is about serving the Lord by serving the needs of those who’ve invited us to lead them in worship.

This is not our time to shine and steal the show, which is a common and strong temptation. These opportunities to serve are not about promoting our own music (unless we’ve been invited specifically to share original tunes and make our recorded music available for purchase, etc.) or voice. We need God’s Spirit to lead us on level ground as we’re preparing our hearts, minds and bodies to lead and serve others.

Ask for God’s wisdom and direction, while depending on His strength and grace. We must remind ourselves of the gospel and our position in Christ. We are sinners saved by the grace of God through the faith He’s inspired in us. We are righteous because Christ’s perfection has been given to us. And our praise is acceptable to God because of Christ’s perfect, obedient sacrificial worship in our stead. Because we are now in Christ, with our sinful nakedness covered by His righteousness, we have confidence when we approach Him in worship based on the merits of Christ’s blood.

This reality must be at the forefront, the center of our preparation and leadership efforts.

Final Practical Preparation

In addition to praying for the upcoming retreat, I’ve reviewed and practiced the songs I selected for our gathering (3-hole punched in my music binder for easy review). I’ve considered the theme of the event, the songs requested, the length of each set, my own limited ability in leading from the guitar (versus the piano where I’m more proficient), as well as my vocal range for selecting the right key for each song.

I’ve prayerfully compiled some Scriptures for us to read aloud together and composed some liturgical prayers in addition to practicing more and gathering electronic versions of the chord charts to send to the event coordinator so she can prepare the PowerPoint slides in advance of the event.

I’ve budgeted my voice over the past week leading up to this church retreat, which you’ll need to do whenever you lead at a retreat or conference. It’s also imperative that you guard your time and energy in the final stretch before the retreat. Worship leaders need to be well rested and energized for the service before them.

Once the retreat begins, I’ll arrive at our gathering space an hour before each session to sound-check and run through the songs for that session. I’ll also gather for prayer with the other leaders as we prepare for serving those in attendance. Throughout the retreat weekend, I’ll do my best to serve well—to sing and play skillfully by God’s grace. I trust that God’s Spirit will lead and encourage all of us as we join our hearts and song in worship for the glory of His beautiful name.

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