The Heart of a Pastor
As a worship pastor, Justin Unger feels the call and the challenge to lead a congregation in worship. He shares how he went from talent show, to Christian boy band, to worship pastor, to today, ministering to pastors.
About the Guest
- Likewise Worship for developing healthy and humble worship pastors. https://www.likewiseworship.com/
- Find more from Justin Unger at http://www.justinunger.com/
- Check out all that's available on the FamilyLife Podcast Network. https://www.familylife.com/familylife-podcast-network/
- Learn more about becoming a Legacy Partner, a monthly supporter of FamilyLife. https://www.familylife.com/legacy
As a worship pastor, Justin Unger feels the call and the challenge to lead a congregation in worship. He shares the twists and turns of his own story that drew him to minister to pastors.
The Heart of a Pastor
Michelle: You may have heard the name, Justin Unger. You may know him as an artist, or a performer, or maybe even as a worship pastor. But according to Justin, he considers himself something else, like a sheepdog?
Justin: If you look at a flock of sheep coming down a hillside—say there are a thousand of them—if you get your binoculars out and look really close, you’ll see, on the outskirts of the entire flock, these white sheepdogs that actually almost blend in with them. Anytime one of the little sheep run out of the flock, those dogs will come out and nip on their heel to bring them back together. The purpose of the sheepdog is to keep the sheep unified, going in the direction that the shepherd appointed them to go.
That’s what I find the most gratifying part of being a pastor—is being able to work under the Chief Shepherd as a sheepdog to keep the body united and together.
Michelle: We’re going to talk about the role of a sheepdog—or worship pastor/your worship pastor—with Justin Unger, on this edition of FamilyLife This Week.
Welcome to FamilyLife This Week. I’m Michelle Hill. Did you know that there’s someone in your life who is under extreme pressure? Well, of course; you’re like, “Michelle! We’re living in such weird times. These last few months have just been almost unbearable. How are we going to live through this?” But there is one person, who probably has a little extra-heavy weight around their shoulders right now. It’s someone you know—someone you usually see every Sunday and might even receive a phone call from them every so often—someone who cares more for your soul than you know; it’s your pastor.
The stress that he is walking through right now is just incredible. He’s trying to shepherd a church through a pandemic that has people freaked out, fighting with each other, and struggling to stay alive, and in some cases, even dying. You know, October is Pastor Appreciation Month. Now, I know that’s still a few days away; but we wanted to set aside today to just talk about the role of a pastor, and especially the role of a worship pastor.
We’re going to hear from a worship pastor today, who trains worship pastors; but those weren’t always his goals. I’m going to let Justin tell you all about that. Here’s my conversation with Justin Unger.
Justin: When I was a junior in high school—I had just finished my junior year—I was entered into a contest in Estes Park, Colorado, which was for the Christian music industry/Gospel Music Association. I had been writing songs with my grandfather. I ended up winning the entire grand prize for the entire event, which kind of blew all of our minds and caught us all off-guard. That won me a record contract in Nashville.
Justin: So before I even went into my senior year, I had already been making plans to move to Nashville, Tennessee. I moved to Nashville; signed with Warner Brothers’ Christian division. After about five years of being on the road, I kind of burned out in the music industry—just didn’t feel like being on the road was the best thing for me, as a husband. My wife and I had just found out that we were going to have a baby; so I just didn’t feel like it was the right season for us to be on the road like that and to be raising a family.
Justin: That’s when I felt the call as a worship pastor. A church in northern Arizona reached out to me and said, “Hey, we heard that you’re not doing the Nashville-thing anymore,” and “We really love your music; we love your heart for the Word of God. Would you consider coming on our staff as a worship pastor?”
I had never led worship, really, in my life; I had only been performing as a musician, so that was quite a transition for me. I realized that I had a deep love for the local church. Once I got involved in pastoral ministry, I started, much more, enjoying getting people to sing with me than performing for them, if that makes sense.
Michelle: That makes total sense! What was that like—that first Sunday out on stage—leading a congregation? Was there a weight to it, or was it freeing?
Justin: It almost felt like a weight was lifted off, because I would say the pressure of performing musically got lifted off.
And then different kind of pressures, then, were put on; meaning, the pastoral pressures of caring for these people, and measuring what success is as a worship pastor, and knowing that my job is accomplished, as a worship leader, when everybody else is singing. That was—it was kind of a both/and—I mean, it was the freedom; but then there was this new burden of caring for people and getting them to sing together; yes.
Michelle: How did you make that transition to, all of a sudden, being on stage—you kind of have an audience—but you’re leading people? How did you make that transition?—because that has to be a difficult transition to make.
Justin: It’s very difficult. A lot of worship artists still struggle with it; that’s one of the reasons why our ministry exists—is we’re trying to get the rock star out of the worship pastor. We’re trying to make a change in our church culture these days that keeps us from being performance-driven in our worship leading and being more pastoral/shepherd-driven.
For me, personally, it started to come naturally once the Lord started building this passion and this fire in my life for His people and His kingdom. It took me a little while; because, as an artist, I was kind of building my own kingdom. I know this kind of sounds a little edgy, but I felt like I was building this career; and I was on the throne of this kingdom. As long as everyone in this kingdom was doing what I needed them to do, I would be happy.
But being in the church changed that, because it put God back on the throne; and it allowed me to measure success in building His kingdom and serving His people, and knowing that the best way for me to do that would be completely humbling myself and getting out of the limelight, so that God could be in that light.
Michelle: I’m just curious as to—you mention about shepherding people. We always think of those who shepherd people as the lead pastor. How does the worship pastor shepherd the congregation and the flock?
Justin: Yes, that’s probably the most beautiful part about being, first, made in the image of God; but then, being able to cultivate the gifting and the community that He’s called me to cultivate and work with. There’s this burden in my heart, as a worship pastor, to keep people together. One of the best observations I can explain of any pastor is to consider myself as a sheepdog.
I know that sounds, maybe, degrading a little bit, as it should. When I think about a pastor—if you look at a flock of sheep coming down a hillside—say there are a thousand of them—if you get your binoculars out and look really close, you’ll see, on the outskirts of the entire flock, these white sheepdogs that actually almost blend in with them. Anytime one of the little sheep run out of the flock, those dogs will come out and nip on their heel to bring them back together. The purpose of the sheepdog is to keep the sheep unified, going in the direction that the shepherd appointed them to go.
That’s what I find the most gratifying part of being a pastor—is being able to work under the Chief Shepherd, as a sheepdog, to keep the body united and together. That’s what the gift of music does too. I mean, as you know, music has a supernatural, unifying—there are hardly words that I can put to it—but it’s almost like glue. Singing and worshiping together glues us together as the body. It’s an honor to be one of the sheepdogs, who can kind of bring everyone together in that way.
Michelle: That is a beautiful picture; I mean, of the sheepdog, because you’re right! If you look at a big herd of sheep that’s going down the hill, like you just said, you have those dogs, who are just trying to keep them going this way.
Michelle: As a pastor, how seriously do you take your job, day in and day out?
Justin: Oh, it’s a very heavy burden; but I try to keep it in balance. One of the other reasons why our ministry, Likewise Worship, exists is to be preventative for worship pastors, who actually are taking their job too seriously. I burned out in the church, because I considered my position too important and more important than I should have.
I try to keep pastoral ministry in balance, knowing that the measure of success is honoring the Lord—whether it’s for a church of 20 people, or 2,000, or 20,000—
Justin: —feeding His sheep, tending His flock, taking care of His lambs—that is the goal, no matter how big or small. It’s a heavy burden; it’s a great responsibility, and it’s honestly an honor to be able to serve the Lord as a pastor and caring for people.
Michelle: Now, you just mentioned Likewise Worship as a ministry that you’re also involved with.
Michelle: Tell us a little bit about that.
Justin: Yes; that’s actually where I spend most of my time nowadays. It’s a ministry that pastors—pastors. We pour into the pastors who have been burning out because of the expectations that they find in the church. We also have become a preventative ministry for the next generation of worship leaders coming up, giving them preventative measures to take care of themselves: and to put their walk with the Lord first; their health, physically, and their families before their jobs and careers.
It's basically a discipleship-based ministry; and that’s where the name, “Likewise,” comes from/it’s: “Go and do likewise.” This is what we’ve seen from those, who have gone before us—especially in Scripture as we look at King David as a worship pastor/as we look at all these other men in Scripture—going and doing as they did, all for God’s glory. It’s a pretty simple ministry that’s based on discipleship, caring for the pastors that really need someone to come alongside them and guide them.
Michelle: Such encouragement from Justin Unger. You know, if you are a pastor or a worship pastor, and you want to know more information about Likewise and what Justin is doing with worship pastors, go to our website, FamilyLifeThisWeek.com; that’s FamilyLifeThisWeek.com.
We need to take a break; but when we come back, we’ll continue talking with Justin about how we can appreciate the pastors in our lives. Stay tuned.
[Radio Station Spot Break]
Michelle: Welcome back to FamilyLife This Week. I’m Michelle Hill. We are talking with Justin Unger today, and he is a worship pastor. I started probing to find out: “Just where is his heart with the local church?—in today’s kind of cultural skew and, really, preferences and what people decide what they want from their church.” Here’s Part Two of my conversation with Justin.
Michelle: Okay, I want to go back to when you left Nashville and started working in the local church. You mentioned that God gave you a unique passion for the local church. What was that, and what have you seen grow?
Justin: Yes; I think, when we line up with what God’s heart is for the church—a lot of people will go to church/they’ll bounce around to different churches; they’re trying to find their heart language. Part of my dream and my passion is to help God’s people line back up with what God’s heart language is—because when we become preference-driven and consumer-driven with church, and going to different various churches, or trying to find a place that feeds us—I think we’re missing the mark.
What we are passionate about is uniting the body under the banner of God’s heart language. What is God’s heart language? In the Book of John, we hear Jesus praying for us that we would be one—
Justin: —that we would be unified. That’s my greatest passion—is to see the body of Christ unified. Right now, we live in a culture—I think it’s probably worse than we’ve ever seen in America, where the church is divided—there has been, even with the pandemic and even with some of the social injustice stuff—a lot of this stuff has divided the body. When it comes to my personal passion—is that the body would be one.
That’s why I’m so passionate about worship; because there’s one thing, that we can all agree on, that unifies us; it’s when we sing together. We feel connected with one another in a way that most of us can’t even explain. My goal would be to get God’s people singing together, which means that I have to lay aside my preferences, even with songs and music.
Justin: A lot of folks have their traditions: “I want the hymns!” [Laughter] “Well, I want the modern stuff!” They’ll argue and argue, but the church gathering/the Sunday gathering isn’t supposed to be for us to get our own needs met; it’s: “what are the needs of others?” and “What is God’s heart language?” If that means I need to sacrifice my own style preference or song preference to be unified, I’m going to have to do that; because that’s what God’s heart language is—that we would be one—as Christ and the Father are one.
Michelle: Last March, a pandemic hit. Churches were asked, like everything else, to close the doors for a bit. Things changed for you, I’m sure, as a pastor and as a shepherd of the people in the congregation. What was that like?—to, all of a sudden, be removed from the people you’re ministering to.
Justin: Yes; well, from our ministry’s perspective, it was a little chaotic; because we are caring for over 200 pastors—here on the West Coast: Arizona/northern Arizona; Orange County, California; and now, San Diego. We kind of saw a lot of worship pastors go into panic mode; because you know, it was a good reality check for everybody. Because so many of us, especially musicians, find our identity in what they do.
It was a really good teaching moment for me to be able to remind all of our leaders that: “What you do isn’t who you are,” and reminding them that the Lord is fully aware of what’s going on and how we need to navigate through this. We gave them lots of tools to become more involved in caring for the people in their church in a different way. You don’t get to be together; you don’t get to make the eye contact that you usually do or hear all the voices singing together for this season. Teaching them and showing them new ways to interact with their congregations through—whether it’s Zoom calls, or personal phone calls, or sending them hand-written letters—
Justin: —you know, just the things that make someone feel cared for and loved. It’s been a really good pastoral moment for a lot of the worship pastors.
The one thing it’s been hard to watch, for some senior pastors, is that it’s created a lot of fear. They wonder all of the “What ifs…”: “What if we never go back to normal?” “What if people stop giving?” and “What do we do when this happens?”
Justin: You know, people fearful for their jobs. It’s been our job, at Likewise, to get people back to the main thing: “Why are we here? We are made in the image of God.” Remembering that we have an incredible/incredible opportunity to point people toward hope and faith in a very fearful world—
Justin: —and reminding them that God’s people are looking to us in ministry leadership.
Justin: “Hey! Where do we go? What do we do?” Sheep naturally are kind of directionless.
Justin: They’re quick to wander astray; so they need strong leadership to keep them on track, and together, and unified.
Justin: You know what I mean?
Michelle: I like what you just said about sheep being directionless. I’ve been reading through Exodus. You know—
Michelle: —just the reminder that the Israelites just kept looking from one side to the next, even though God was performing all these miracles.
Michelle: Do you ever feel like, as the sheep are wandering, do you ever feel like you have a thankless job?
Justin: Oh, all the time. You know, part of that—my ego will sometimes get in the way, where I want that affirmation; you know? And that’s—sometimes I would say—even the enemy, who is trying to make me feel like this is about me.
Justin: But the sooner I can get off of that and remember, “Hey, my identity isn’t in what people think of me; but my identity is: ‘Is what I’m doing pleasing to my Father?’” That’s what we work really hard to remind all of our leaders.
But yes, it is, in essence, a thankless job; because sheep, as you know—they’re just kind of needy. They just need someone to point them in the right direction. Once they get in that right direction, you know, they feel good for a moment; but then, like the Israelites, we are very forgetful people. As God’s sheep, we are; I mean, we see a miracle happen before our eyes; and then, a week later, we’re building an idol/we’re building a golden calf; you know?[Laughter] We all have our different ways that we do that, but we are just like the Israelites in that way.
As a worship leader, I love having the opportunity to help people remember—that’s what worship does so well—helping us remember, with hearts of thankfulness, what God has done, and what He’s going to do, and what His promises are.
Michelle: —to remember—
Michelle: —that is such a good word/such a good word: “to remember.”
Michelle: Justin, as we are heading into Pastor Appreciation Month this month of October, how can congregations come alongside of their pastors? How can we pray for you? How can we support you?
Justin: That’s awesome! Yes, I would say the best way to connect with the heart of the pastor is through just encouraging notes, especially on Mondays; okay? Most pastors will agree with me: there are these doldrums on Mondays after a high-adrenaline/high-momentum day on the weekend—you feel appreciated and loved on Sunday—but Monday comes, and it’s almost like the war begins. Mondays are great days just to send a text, or an email, or a hand-written note, or anything just to encourage those who are in leadership in the church.
And then having grace and patience in a season of unknowns. A lot of people expect pastors to have all the answers, and we don’t! [Laughter] I mean, a lot of the leaders that I’m talking to—people can fake it for a while/the whole “Fake it ‘til you make it” kind of thing with church leadership—
Justin: —but we’re navigating through uncharted territory right now—everybody!
There’s actually a Scripture, if there are any pastors listening, that’s kind of our mission passage for Likewise Worship: it’s Hebrews, Chapter 6, verse 10, where it says, “For God is not unjust so as to forget your work and the love which you have shown toward His name in having ministered and in still ministering to the saints. We desire that each one of you show the same diligence so as to realize the full assurance of hope until the end so that you will not become sluggish, but be imitators of those, who through faith and patience, inherit the promises.”
That’s kind of our “Do likewise” passage: “…be imitators of those who’ve been obedient, and those who’ve gone before us; but also, not to become lazy/don’t become sluggish in this time.”
For a lot of us in ministry, and even in—you know, I guess one thing I would love to say to everybody, who bears the name of Christ—especially husbands and fathers: you are a pastor!
Justin: You have a small group, at home, of people that you are called to pastor and care for.
That’s the thing I love about FamilyLife®, is the home is so important/it’s the highest importance; and it’s the most beautiful picture of the gospel that we can present to a broken and lost world. If we can pastor our wives, and we can pastor our kids—which means “shepherd”/it’s shepherding them, guiding them, and protecting them—I think that’s going to be the win/win; because when we have that shepherding heart, then it’s just going to ooze out onto everyone around us; and then, I believe, the gospel is going to be clearly seen in our lives.
I don’t know if that was a way-long answer to your question.
Michelle: No, it was perfect! It was perfect. [Laughter]
Justin, our time is over for today. I have so appreciated just seeing the passion that you have for what you do.
Justin: Oh, thanks.
Michelle: It’s obvious that God has put that in your life and in your heart, so thank you for leading the church and leading the charge.
Justin: Thank you! Thank you.
Michelle: What an encouraging conversation to have with Justin Unger. To get more information on what he is doing, and maybe even hear a few new songs, go to our website, FamilyLifeThisWeek.com; that’s FamilyLifeThisWeek.com. We have ways to connect with him.
Also, as we head into Pastor Appreciation Month, be thinking how you can encourage your pastor or pastors, as Justin said, especially on Monday during those Monday doldrums. You know, they work harder than you think; and they are under pressures that you may not see. Especially, during this month, pray for them; maybe write a card of encouragement and thank them. You know, maybe even brainstorm with your small group or others in your church and just talk through, “What can [we] do for our pastor and his family this month?”
Hey, have you ever been through a hard season in life?—you know, someone badly hurt you. I’m sure you can think of an instance/maybe even a few, and you had to forgive; it was not easy. Maybe it’s still there. Next week, we are going to hear from a man, whose wife was killed in the Charleston church shooting five years ago. God took him on a journey of forgiveness. You’ll want to tune in to our interview with Reverend Anthony Thompson next week on FamilyLife This Week.
Hey, thanks for listening! I want to thank the president of FamilyLife®, David Robbins, along with our station partners around the country. A big “Thank you!” to our engineer today, Keith Lynch. Thanks to our producer, Marques Holt. Justin Adams is our mastering engineer, and Megan Martin is our production coordinator.
Our program is a production of FamilyLife, and our mission is to effectively develop godly families who change the world one home at a time.
I'm Michelle Hill, inviting you to join us again next time for another edition of FamilyLife This Week.
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