An interview with Angela Roberts, worship coordinator for Dawson Memorial Baptist Church in Birmingham
Before we get into the details of worship planning, tell us about your role. You’re the worship coordinator at Dawson, which is different than the music & worship pastor. What are your responsibilities?
I’m like the middle of the wheel, pulling together all the details from multiple staff members and teams, taking worship services from their planning phases all the way to the worship services on Sunday morning. My job is to be informed of all parts of the worship service and be sure that they are all working together to create a thoughtful, congregational, Christ-centered time of corporate worship. Simply, I see my role as helping people to serve at their best.
Describe your worship planning team. Is this one or two individuals or an assembled group of people? Does this group remain constant, or do you assemble different people for different types of services?
We have a team that gathers twice a month to plan for upcoming services. This is a gathered group of staff and lay leaders who intentionally bring a variety of preferences to the discussion. Our music & worship pastor, instrumental music associate, staff accompanist and worship coordinator are always included, and we aim to include four others who vary slightly, based on availability. These other people often include laity, discipleship team members and other guests. We generally plan two services at each session.
Do you have a certain framework you follow for weekly worship services? How flexible is this framework? What do you have to consider before making a change to the expected order, style or service elements?
We typically plan services that are divided into pre-message and post-message. Pre-message is about 20 minutes of content, and post-message is almost always one song in response to the message. Within this structure, we have the freedom to plan a variety of elements like individual/group prayers and/or scripture readings along with the music. Most of the music we lead is congregational with the addition of one anthem or special instrumental prelude in most services as well. Baptism happens toward the beginning of the service, and other special content like church-wide announcements usually happen at the end.
Describe a typical worship planning session. How do you grow that first idea into a complete service? What is the timeline for this process?
Several times a year, our senior pastor gives us his upcoming sermon plan. We are spoiled and are given his thorough, week-by-week plan, often 5-6 months out. We — the music & worship pastor, senior pastor, executive pastor, the leader of our communications team, and I — meet briefly to talk through the details. In that meeting, our pastor answers any questions we may have regarding supporting content and brainstorm additional resources that may be needed, including artwork for the series or season. After that groundwork is complete, our music & worship pastor and instrumental music associate add “big rocks” to this plan, considering anthems and other special music which fits the content well. I then add any special elements to consider for that day like communion, baptisms, special emphases, big events or holidays, special groups, announcements, etc. This information is kept on a shared document so that we can each revise as needed throughout the series.
About six weeks ahead of the actual service, our team gathers to plan the exact details. I send planning documents (which include the sermon details and any content from our shared document) ahead of the meeting so that the team has time to prepare. This meeting includes a discussion of the themes of the text plus sharing related scripture passages, quotes, responsive readings or prayers. We then brainstorm and choose songs whose text/themes fit the context of the day, doing our best to create a well-balanced service. We leave this meeting with two planned services.
Following this meeting, the music & worship pastor, instrumental music associate and I confirm the smaller details like arrangements, sequences, voice part assignments and tweak chosen readings and prayers. All of these details are added to Planning Center, and scheduling requests are sent to the appropriate personnel.
Describe your organization and sharing techniques. How do you keep track of your planning details after you decide on a plan? How are these details communicated to others in worship leadership roles?
The sermon series and “big rocks” details are kept on a shared Excel document. This provides a long-range view — about 6 months out — that is helpful for planning, as it shows the big picture. Once the service has been planned and exact elements of the service have been chosen, those details are entered into Planning Center Services. Everyone looks to Planning Center for details, and they receive automated emails which include their position-specific schedule, vocal book or instrumental sheet music, attire guidelines, service flow, etc. This includes all of the vocalists and instrumentalists as well as the production team, sound and light crew, broadcast team, etc. Once they have accepted the “request to serve,” each team member can access the specific details and resources they need to prepare well for their position. In addition to the long-range planning document and specific weekly Planning Center run sheets, we have a separate list of Dawson’s Common Songs. The anthem repertoire is kept within each group’s specific rehearsal folders in Planning Center.
You mentioned Common Songs. What are those?
To spread people out during the COVID season, our service structure changed from multi-styled services to three identical, musically eclectic services. We discovered that we had lots of songs already in common, but we also realized that some of our favorite hymns and songs were new to a portion of the congregation. So, we dove into the hymnal and other songbooks and pulled out the 100 songs we think everyone at Dawson should know. We divided them up into three lists — A, B, C — much like the lectionary. Each five- or six-month planning period pulls from two of these lists, so we’re never too far away from the songs on the unused list. This has made it possible for us to really teach songs well to our entire church. We also add three or so new songs to each list each planning period — pulling from the past and the now — and teach these songs thoroughly and intentionally. These are songs everyone can call their own.
Once the details have been confirmed and shared, how do you prepare for that service?
Associates prepare vocal and instrumental books for their teams. These books are printed and on their music stands for Wednesday rehearsal. I provide worship technology support, creating onscreen lyrics, lower thirds for broadcast and confidence monitors. The choir and orchestra rehearse separately on Wednesdays. This includes a devotional/announcements time and ample practice time for upcoming anthems, feature pieces and congregational music. The vocal team and rhythm section stay after these rehearsals to fine-tune song sequences, transitions, harmonies and other specifics of the song set. This “part two” lasts 30-60 minutes, depending on the music. We end this time with prayer and fellowship. Sundays start at 7:15 with a tech meeting. Before services begin, we run the entire service from beginning to end with microphones, lights, cameras, etc. This is a time to make any last-minute adjustments and to be sure everything runs according to plan.
What’s one of your favorite parts of your ministry at Dawson?
I love being a steward of the music of our congregation and seeing them embrace it and love it more and more. I have seen the importance of music expanding at my church for many years. We have a vibrant and active music and worship ministry, which sets the tone for worship services and special programs alike. Music is included as a part of almost every event I can think of — from deacon ordination to holiday festivals to Wednesday Bible studies and student ministry picnics. Whether this means congregational singing, a featured soloist, underscored readings or even just pre-recorded music as people gather before the main event, the inclusion of appropriate music is valued.
The role of music in public worship has grown, and I have watched it evolve throughout my lifetime and career at a Dawson. It is used to draw people in, provide a common thread, and clearly articulate emotion, text and ideas that might be otherwise hard to communicate. Like many other elements of worship, music is infinitely adaptable and, when carefully chosen, can serve equally well as a connection point for a preschool choir, a senior adult prayer group sharing a favorite hymn, or a once-reserved sophomore confidently playing bass for his youth worship team. Even if you don’t consider yourself a singer or musician, you are unquestionably invited into the music of worship. You don’t have to hold a seminary degree to be drawn deeper in by the memories it evokes or the atmosphere it creates during a service. Adding your voice to the larger body of believers is empowering, and creates a feeling of community—a shared desire to honor and adore our Creator, confess our sins, and share in our gratitude. Creating music puts God’s beauty on display, gloriously uniting His creation in song.
Angela Roberts is the worship coordinator at Dawson Memorial Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. When not organizing chaos, she enjoys teaching, coffee with friends, cooking, singing too loudly when no one is around, and can most often be found alongside her husband Andy and children Maddie and Ben. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org