Songwriting Worship Leaders
By: Dave Clark
A few years back, I was invited to sit on a steering committee at a leading religious institution to help develop a curriculum for a worship degree. One of the foundational philosophies driving it was the belief that, at some point, every church would have its own songwriter. As someone who has been blessed to teach at many songwriting clinics and seminars through the years, I approached the process with cautious optimism.
If indeed they were correct, I could see a lot of potential benefits. For example, it would move the measure of success for songwriters away from radio charts and units sold and take it to a place where the encouragement could come from watching God work up close and personal. Another benefit would be that music written specifically for one congregation could hopefully avoid the pitfalls of divisiveness that can sometimes sneak into our worship music experience. The structure of college internships would be impacted, as well, with young songwriters getting to try out songs in real-life situations and see if they worked.
In my mind, even though the pluses far outweighed the minuses, there were still some areas of concern. First of all, since a large majority of songwriters I have worked with (myself included) feel like all our songs are top tier and ready to fly, where would the accountability come from in regards to quality? I also wondered if this anticipated trend would lead toward an eventual demise of choir, as the number of songwriters who also know how to write out a choir arrangement is minimal.
As a music publisher, I also couldn't help but wonder about the logistical nightmare of what to do with the copyright ownership. After all…someone has to own it. If the church is paying the worship leader to write, does the copyright belong to the church or does the writer own it? Would each church have to set up and maintain some form of a publishing company?
Even though at the time there were not many churches streaming their services on the Internet, there was a strong belief that improving technology would make this idea more commonplace. Eventually the areas of concern became points of focus in the curriculum structure, and I took comfort in the fact that, at the very least, many more songwriters would have a chance to use the gift with which God has blessed them.
I have to admit that what seemed like some kind of far off "what if" scenario at the time, now more and more has become a viable reality. Although we mainly hear about this trend happening only in the mega-churches, the movement has certainly begun to gain some traction in some smaller denominations, as well. Since practicality will prevent many of you from returning to school to learn how the basics of music publishing, I felt it timely to offer a few suggestions for those of you who find yourself on this journey.
First of all, let me address the business side of things. It would be easy for me to hand out over-simplistic advice on how to fill out copyright forms and register with performing rights agencies, as if that was all you needed to know…but, to be honest, that is the least of it. In fact, if you have ever tried to explain to someone how something like CCLI works, you have some understanding of why, for the most part, churches should not be expected to be publishers.
So, what do I recommend? I remember 10 to 15 years ago, sitting in product development meetings at Christian publishing houses as we made decisions on behalf of the church, confident they would follow our lead. All of that has changed. As the church has gotten more sophisticated at being the church, the publishers and content providers now find themselves in the position of trying to gauge where the church is and determining how to best resource them.
Let me also go on record as saying I think that is a positive thing for everyone. In a perfect world, the publishers would once again see this new trend as an opportunity to come alongside the church and offer copyright administration to the local body in a way where the church maintains ownership yet does not find itself bogged down in the day-to-day intricacies of publishing. In this kind of scenario, when a song exists that has wide reach potential or a choral use, a trusted relationship is already in place between both parties to facilitate this.
Just this week, I heard of two different scenarios that employed different philosophies yet both seemed right for their specific situations. In one case, a large church who had held all the copyrights of their in-house songwriters decided the hassle was not worth the benefits and reverted all the copyright ownership to the writers to hold onto or shop around as they felt led.
In the other situation, a church that has so many songwriters and authors in the mix has a policy that all royalties on anything, including books written by the pastor, all go directly to the church. I would assume but do not know for sure that when the staff person leaves, copyright ownership would revert back to them for further uses. Because there is not a one-size-fits-all plan that will work for every situation, the best advice is much like anything else…do your homework thoroughly enough to make wise decisions on behalf of yourself and your church.
When it comes to my first concern about making sure the quality of your songwriting is held to a high standard, it ultimately comes down to how thick your skin is. For most songwriters, it is very hard to be objective. If we are truly writing from our heart and the song doesn't fit, it can feel like they are rejecting more than our song but us personally. If we don't write vulnerable, it's probably not going to work anyway. The danger is that most worship leaders are in the position to choose what material is used, no matter if it is good or bad.
One of the true tests is to try and hold your own writing to the same standard you hold the outside material you use. Most of my friends who lead worship are extremely articulate about what they like or don't like about a specific song or songwriter. They can tell you why a certain arranger works better for their choir than others.
It becomes a much trickier thing when we talk about our own songs. In fact, in many situations, we resort to telling the story behind it, as if that will make it a better song. I would challenge you to pick your moments and incorporate a song initially without anyone knowing you wrote it. And then, be honest enough to live with and learn from the results. If it works, you'll know; if it doesn't, hopefully the next song will be even better.
There is an old adage that says, "When the student is ready, the teacher appears." I believe that holds true for the songwriter/worship leader, as well. When your songs are ready, the congregation won't care who wrote it.
Dave Clark's songwriting credits cross musical boundaries, from contemporary Christian to southern gospel, and include songs recorded by Larnelle Harris, Sandi Patti, Steve Green, 4HIM, Point of Grace, CeCe Winans, and many others. He presently serves as Director of Creative Development, A&R, and Publishing for Lillenas Publishing Company, www.lillenas.com.