John Chisum is no stranger to worship leading. He has served in worship pastor roles in multiple 2000+ member churches as well as traveled the world teaching and leading in worship.
John is also a songwriting legend. He has published more than 400 songs, some of which have been performed and recorded by greats like Ron Kenoly, Don Moen, and The Gaither Vocal Band. He has written music with Paul Baloche and managed a team of worship song writers at Integrity, including Lynn DeShazo, who wrote “Lord, You are More Precious Than Silver.”
Despite John’s accomplishments, he still has a heart to help the typical worship leader. This interview with Worship Deeper revealed John’s desire to build up the body of Christ through ministering to worship leaders, especially those approaching — and deep in the trenches of — worship leader burnout.
This interview yielded so much wisdom that the main points of the interview have been provided at the top in expandable sections. The “meat” of John’s advice is contained in the full text of the interview, accessible directly from the summary. Enjoy the amazing guidance offered by worship leader and mentor John Chisum.
3 Signs A Worship Leader Is Headed Toward Burnout
WD: What would you say to worship leaders who don’t even know they’re heading towards burnout. What are some signs that they might be heading in that direction?
John: Well, I would say several things. The first thing is start listening to yourself and if you start hearing yourself say things like, “My heart’s just not into this. I don’t think I can do this anymore.” Even if you’re not saying those things out loud to people but you’re saying those things to yourself, that’s what’s called cognitive dissonance, when your behaviors and your insides don’t really match.
When you are doing things that, or saying things that violate a stated belief or purpose or role and you hear that inner dialogue or actually say out loud to people, “I just don’t have a heart to do this. I can’t do this.” Even, “I hate this or this is toxic.” Those kinds of phrases, those tell you that there’s some dissonance going on inside and it’s time to take a deeper look.
Another issue is blame. When the lack of response, for instance, in a congregation is always someone else’s fault but yours and you’re the worship leader, you need to take a look at that.
It could be not only the lack of response in a congregation, but things like team conflict or lack of reaching harmony in rehearsals or dealing with a lot of turnover on your team and it’s always someone else’s fault, then you need to just take note and see if some of your own burnout isn’t causing a lack of preparation, for instance.
Rehearsals require an enormous amount of preparation if they’re going to be run well and if you are consistently not having good rehearsals, there’s a reason. And it could be that you’re burned out and you’re just… That’s part of that cognitive dissonance.
That’s an outward sign that you don’t want to prepare. You don’t want to be a leader. You’re tired. You’re disgruntled or feeling neglected. Your own needs, your own desire for affirmation or some kind of approval is not being met in that situation.
And ultimately, I think probably the greatest indicator of burnout is relational breakdown. And that can be a relational breakdown with your family because you are spending an enormous amount of time trying to accomplish something the heart is no longer in. It can be with your teams for some of the above reasons such as, a lot of turnover, you’re not treating your people with love and the kind of humility and service that you need to in your preparation and the way that you pastor and guide them.
It could be a relational breakdown with your pastor or other senior leadership. It could be a breakdown with your people, where your congregation is no longer willing to follow you because they’re very aware that you are not treating them, serving them, out of a heart of love.
Our hearts talk to us all the time, but we don’t always listen. And we ignore signs of burnout that are very obvious to other people around us who may be kind of willing to confront us or afraid to confront us or they’re talking about us behind our backs.
But for whatever reason, whether it’s that sense of we’re in authority or we’re in leadership and they don’t feel that they can come and talk directly to us.
Generally, the people around us are more aware of it sometimes than we are because we just don’t listen to our hearts. So I would say those three things primarily: Cognitive dissonance, blame, and some kind of relational breakdown.
Leaders Lack Community And Support Mechanisms
WD: Is it a good idea for worship leaders to ask how other people are perceiving them and see if they see any signs of burnout?
John: We have a woeful lack of authentic community and what I would call accountability…but support mechanisms are probably a better way to put it.
Accountability sounds like we’re off track and we’re doing something wrong. But I don’t want to get to the question too quickly here. We really put so much pressure on our leaders and we don’t support them well in whatever capacity they’re serving. And there’s so much taking, so much draining going on of the heart and soul and whatever leadership capacity that a particular leader has, that the communal support is often very lacking.
It’s also very lacking from upper management or senior leadership. Pastors are often unaware of the signs of burnout themselves and unaware of what it looks like in their volunteers.
I think that’s such a real danger. I just don’t think that we have enough support mechanisms in place to help leaders begin to recognize it.
Humans Don’t Receive Correction Naturally
John: The other thing is, human beings in general don’t receive correction very well. We have this built-in need to be right.
And so, if a mechanism isn’t in place for authenticity and confrontation when others around us begin to see us burning out, it’s just hard to address it because we will generally resist that kind of confrontation.
My point is, if you can build a system on the front end before there’s an issue, we could catch problems earlier.
If I were a senior pastor at this moment, which I’m not, but if I were, I think I would really work harder at building in support mechanisms and tell the volunteer or even the staff person that we will have quarterly check-ins on how you’re doing with communal support and self-care.
Those are the two primary things that cause us to burnout — when we lack our sense of community and we are doing a poor job at self-care.
4 Steps To Reversing Burnout
WD: Let’s say somebody thinks they are headed toward burnout and calls you up. What are some of the first steps that you take with the worship leader to get them back on track?
John: The first step is always self-recognition. People feel shameful somehow to say, “I’m burned out. I messed up.”
Ownership of the issue should come from the senior leaders. We were just talking about it because the community, needs to be willing to take responsibility, ownership, and then be part of a solution. Otherwise, it’s a very, very difficult thing for that burned out person to stay in leadership if they really lack support.
Number two, is to put in play that caring community around the leader. And I think that there’s just… We’re gonna hit this time and again that one of the big causes of burnout is not having the kind of space, care, and community around a leader.
And so, you have to go in and not only coach the burned out person upon whom the focus is resting at the moment, but you’ve got to coach everyone else around them. To be supportive, to recognize the ways that they actually feed into the problem, and help everyone basically come up to a higher level of caring and loving one another, in that particular situation.
Number three, you create a caring community around the leader, with specific timelines and parameters of communal care and the inter-related responsibilities built in. I think that step is a really important step, is to not make the burned out person feel further victimized, or if they feel victimized, which they occasionally do, but to not further, to exacerbate the problem, but to help everyone take their responsibilities, and just come together to look at this.
Number four, I walk alongside the leader with a detailed self-care program, and accountability checks that really work for the leader.
For his or her family, and the greater church family. Again, I think I said this a while ago.
“Accountability” Doesn’t Have To Mean You’ve Done Something Wrong
John: That word accountability always sounds like you’ve done something really bad, and we’ve gotta watchdog you or you’re gonna do it again.
I don’t mean it that way.
Accountability just means really checking in on a regular basis, and saying, “Are we reaching the kind of communal and self-care that this person needs to be restored?”
And this is intended to be a very positive, restorative kind of process. And then, number four. Once we feel that there is a level of restoration, to create a detailed blueprint for that ongoing care. And educate everyone around the faith community about what this process is about, and to try to avoid relapse.
You Can’t Strip Out Your Hardships When You Get On Stage
WD: I’ve been a worship leader for a long time. I’ve experienced ups and downs as a worship leader, just as life has ups and down. What’s your advice to someone in a natural low point in their life, or as a worship leader?
John: All of us, have natural ups and downs, the ribbons of life. Our leadership cannot be separated, or teased out, or compartmentalized from who we are as human beings.
And that’s what makes for authentic leadership to begin with, is when someone can really be who they are on a platform, can be the same person that they are in life on that platform.
We’ve all seen or many of us have seen pastors who were one person in the pulpit, and then a completely different person otherwise.
Whether it was that they were this fabulous orator, and then when they came off the platform they were just a monster, or horrible person, or you’d never go counsel with them.
The best leaders are the ones who are auspiciously themselves on and off the platform.
And so, we take who we are onto that platform every Sunday. In our minds, we take the argument that we have with our wives or our kids. We take the sins and the failures of who we are as men and women. We take those onto the platform. We take the successes. We take the things that we feel good about ourselves, right onto that platform.
If we feel confident as a singer, that generally shows. If we feel timid, that generally shows, painfully so. If we feel confident about our guitar playing, or keyboard playing, we shine in those areas, but we can’t hide effectively, not forever, who we really are.
I’ve heard teachers who teach about worship for years say, “When you get on that platform, you’re there for the people and you can’t show them if you’re having a bad day.”
I think there’s some truth to that, depending on the kind of church you’re in and the level of authenticity.
If you’re in a mega church with tens of thousands of people, well you can’t really get up there and tell everyone how awful you feel. You have to have some level of performance that goes into that situation.
But at least the worship leader has to recognize that they take the totality of who they are onto the platform each week and then try to deal with it that way.
Traits Of Successful Worship Leaders
WD: You’ve traveled a million miles — literally — leading worship, and teaching others to do so. You’ve met a lot of successful worship leaders.
What are some traits that less-experienced worship leaders should learn and implement in their own lives and ministries?
John: The best leaders in general are the ones who see the big picture.
So if it’s a senior pastor, or worship leader, he or she sees how every department, every ministry under their leadership should be working together synergistically and holistically.
So the best worship leaders see the whole picture. They’re not circulating in their own little orbit saying, “We are the worship department, we’re not part of anything else. And Sunday school you’re over there, or children’s ministry you’re over there, or youth you’re over there, evangelism or missions.” But the best worship leaders are the ones who understand that they’re one part, an important part, of a living organism.
And so I think that to be extremely specific, I think the finest worship leaders that I’ve ever encountered are men and women who take their pastoral leadership very seriously.
They understand that it’s about a whole lot more than just making good music every week and they see themselves more in an Ephesians 4:10 and 11 capacity where it talks about the five-fold ministry gifts of apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers. Many theologians have said that they thought that the pastor/teacher role was one, that it wasn’t really five ministry gifts but it’s really four, that the pastor/teacher role flows kind of like a one unit.
So I’ve tried to teach throughout the years and mentor people into seeing themselves more as pastor/teachers.
There’s not really a role or a gift of worship leading in the New Testament. That you can’t turn to a chapter and a verse anywhere and say, “See the apostle Paul said, ‘We have the gift of worship leading and that’s what I have.'”
That’s not there.
So the closest thing that we really have are pastor/teacher because worship leaders really are attempting to pastor their people into a sense of worship. They’re teaching the school of worship every time they get up, every time they lead a song.
Every time they talk to explain a song, they have an opportunity to feed, nurture, and guide, which is what pastors do.
They lead their people into a greater sense of God’s presence, a greater sense of truth, a greater sense of doctrine, a greater sense of engagement. And so I think that the greater leaders have a greater sense about what that means to be a pastor/teacher.
That’s the thirty-thousand-foot view. But I think some of the other traits that go into making for a great leadership is that successful leaders aren’t loners, they know the value of authentic community..
Successful leaders aren’t superstars or saviors. They know they’ve got strengths and weaknesses and they get help for the places where they’re weak and they share their strengths and humility. I think that’s very very important.
Successful leaders don’t keep secrets. They own their dark side, they get help, they don’t blab everything. You don’t go to church and say, “Well, I struggled with a lot this week, so y’all pray for me.” I mean, you have to use common sense when you talk about whatever issues that you deal with.
On the other hand, successful leaders understand the holistic nature of leadership as they would expect it earlier. Successful leaders know how to promote the gifts and talents of their people and give them opportunities to shine.
Replicating Yourself As A Worship Leader
John: When I look back on my years of ministry, the high points for me are the places where I see that I truly equipped other people to step into my role.
I haven’t always done that effectively and there are times that I didn’t do that very well, but in the recent years, I see that, thankfully, I was able to train and mentor well enough that when I left my last worship pastor role, they’d not even replaced me because I had enough trained leaders, volunteers, non-staff people who’ve stepped up and they’ve carried the situation for almost two years now.
To me is probably the greatest success, when we replicate ourselves. But that won’t happen if you are insecure about promoting others. When you feel that you’ve got to have the limelight and you can’t share that, then you’re not really going to be effectively equipping others.
And then I think again back to the the big picture. Successful leaders know that they’re second chair.
They’re not the senior pastor. That they are there as part of the team to accomplish a greater vision.
WD: I really like that about replicating yourself and mentoring others. Jesus set that example when he had 12 disciples. He could have stuck around till he was 80 years old and made sure everything was perfect. But he trained an imperfect group of 12 guys who ended up changing the world.
And I think that’s a good example as worship leaders not to think, “I’m the only one who can do this.” Maybe there’s five people out in the congregation who are called to be worship leaders but were just never given the chance. Finding those individuals and creating opportunities for them is really important.
John: Exactly. It’s sort of having forethought and vision and realizing that that’s the goal of a leader, is to replicate themselves.
What Does The Burnout Recovery Road Look Like?
WD: What does that road to recovery look like for someone who is coming out of a period of burnout?
John: Well I’ve seen a lot of people, not just worship leaders, go into burnout and then come out of it or not. There’s no one size fits all here.
I probably more than not have seen people just coping with burnout. They keep trudging along.
That’s probably the norm more than those who have actually flamed out in some way.
We see the very, very negative things that go on with leaders in general, affairs and addictions and families disintegrating in every level of leadership in the church, not just worship leaders.
So in leadership in general I’ve seen many people just try to cope with it and keep putting one foot in front of another. And that’s a real tragic place to be.
It was Thoreau who said that, “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” That often describes ministry.
It can be so draining that we wind up just trudging through and it’s really sad. One of my favorite verses is 2 Corinthians 1:4, Paul says, “God comforts us in all of our afflictions,” and then that’s the comfort that we give to others.
I’ve Been A Burned-Out Worship Leader
WD: What made you want to start a ministry of working with burned-out worship leaders and leaders in general?
John: I have a heart for coaching burned out leaders, because I’ve been one.
I know what it’s like to lack community support or even feel the antagonism that people can have, the outright meanness people can have when they don’t like something that you’ve done or something you’re doing.
They don’t like your music. They don’t like the volume. They don’t like the lights or they don’t like the way you’ve decorated the stage or they don’t like how long you sing a song.
They don’t like the modern songs, or they don’t like the hymns. They don’t like this or that, and you just wind up being the one with the target on your back but you lack any real way to deal with it, and so you wind up swallowing it all.
And it just becomes a big resentment burning in your soul, and that leads to frustration and burnout.
To be honest, my burnout wasn’t an affair or addiction or those things, but it was really my inability to resolve conflict in a healthy way. My emotional intelligence was just so low in that area that I just couldn’t handle the inevitable conflict, and everybody gets it no matter what size church, great or small, people are people.
Dealing With Sheep Bites
John: They say sheep bite, and it’s really true. You feel all great about what happened, and then the first thing that happens is someone comes up after church and tells you how awful it was.
I had one person tell me through tears that I had robbed her of her worship.
First of all, I’m thinking, “Wait a minute. Am I that powerful?”
I mean the truth is, she just chose to let something she didn’t like steal her sense of worship. It wasn’t me. It might have been something I did. But she was blaming me personally, and, boy, that hurts.
But I was really lacking the emotional intelligence with which to deal with those stinging accusations and rebuke and the pain of other people as they were pouring it out. I just wasn’t in the place myself I guess, for whatever reason that I couldn’t deal with that.
So that really led to my burnout, because I just kept swallowing it and swallowing it, and so I became bitter and angry and had to just to step down and deal with my own soul work. So I know what it’s like. So that’s why I have a heart for it.
I am recovering. I mean I believe that I could get up now and lead healthy worship after some time, a season of just sitting it out.
And I’ve seen people with varying levels of burnout and varying amounts of recovery or not from it.
WD: Maybe that’s why you went through that. Now you can help other people – even some reading this interview. Sometimes God takes us through these things for others’ sake.
John: I believe that. Absolutely.
Working With Worship Leading Legends
WD: A little bit more about you and your ministry. You have the credentials to help other worship leaders. You’ve written over 400 songs. Evander Holyfield has gone out into the boxing ring to one of your songs, “Not By Power.” Not a lot of people can say that.
John: Yeah. Really.
WD: You’ve worked with legends such as Don Moen, Sandi Patty, Ron Kenoly. Your resume goes on and on. What’s the greatest experience that you’ve had as a worship leader or in that world of creating Christ-centered music?
John: That’s a hard question, because I’ve had so many awesome opportunities that I could have not ever dreamed of. I stumbled into this whole thing just by the serendipitous grace of God.
We moved to Nashville many, many years ago to take a church job that fell through, and we only had $40 and no place to live.
Within the first year, my precious wife she said, “Can’t we just stay here, and be normal people and get normal jobs?”
Because I had been in the ministry for the first three years of our marriage. We’d only been married three years at that time, and I’d already worked in four churches, and then this happened. And my verse of Scripture for pastors was, “There’s none good, no not one.” Because I just felt like pastors were jerks and they weren’t ever going to treat us right.
And over the years some wonderful pastors have proven me totally wrong.
But anyway, we wound up moving there to take a job and it fell through, and within the first few months I had met Bill Gaither and some other people that were prominent and are still prominent in the music business.
And he listened to a couple of my songs and the first year I was there, I had 19 songs recorded.
So God opened up the whole realm of music and of music business, that I didn’t even know existed.
And I was hired at Bill Gaither’s publishing company and I wound up working my way up to Vice President of Publishing and I didn’t have a business degree. I didn’t even have an undergraduate. I had not finished my undergrad. I didn’t finish my undergrad till I was 48 years old.
I didn’t finish a Master’s until I was 50. So kind of a late bloomer and all that, so God had just opened the door.
While I think maybe looking back, just seeing the hand of God, it’s probably just the greatest thing. I couldn’t even appreciate it for what all it was, even then.
Traveling with Integrity Music in many parts of the world, and being able to work with such amazing writers like Paul Baloche, and Ed Kerr, of course Don Moen, Don Harris, Lynn DeShazo, who wrote “Lord, You are More Precious Than Silver,” Gary Sadler, Jaime Harvill, Nancy Gordon, just wonderful people.
I mean probably the thing that’s the height of my career was when I was managing 18 full time song-writers at Integrity, plus over 20 employees in the song development and copyright area, and creating over 200 pieces of product in my four years at Integrity.
That probably was the height of my professional career as far as beginning product and songs and you know helping birth thousands of songs for those projects. Then seeing those songs go out into the world and affect millions.
Few people get that kind of an opportunity, and I’m so thankful for that.
WD: I sang a lot of those songs when I was a 15-year-old worship leader in my youth group. “Lord, You Are More Precious Than Silver,” was a standard we probably did every week.
John: Absolutely. And each song has a story behind it, and a human behind it, and a worshiping heart behind it. And I think that’s the beauty of it. Wow, to think that we got to touch millions of lives worldwide. You know, that’s just an unparalleled kind of blessing to me.
WD: Thanks for being a part of that. Millions of people out there, worship leaders and congregations, have just used those songs to the point where they became like the hymns of a hundred years ago.
They’re so time proven and they’re still around today because of the quality and heart in them. So thank you.
John: Oh man, my privilege.
How Can We Learn More About John’s Ministry?
WD: If a worship leader or pastor out there is looking to get some help, how could they contact you or learn more about your ministry?
John: Well the first thing is just to go to johnchisum.org and there’s a form there. You just put your name and contact information and what you would like to discuss, and just, that’s the first thing.
They should go to the website and look under the coaching and consulting link and read about the kind of coaching that I’m offering and see if that fits. And then fill out the form and get in touch with me that way.
WD: Thanks John. This interview has been eye-opening. Talk about epic wisdom for the worship leading masses. We’re excited to see what God does through your ministry!
Featured image: Jesse Orrico/Unsplash