Showing Up: Worship Leader Gives Her Best, Relies on Jesus

Worship Leader Gives Her Best, Relies on Jesus

By Nancy Zugschwert
11/15/2021 6:00:00 PM

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Kristin (Wood) Woolley ’06 never expected to attend college in Arkansas. Living in Colorado, the daughter of two accountants ended up at John Brown University after the Cathedral Choir sang at her high school. 

“They sounded beautiful,” she recalled, and it was enough to inspire a visit. 

Between the lovely campus and the kindness of former music professors Terri and Jan Wubbena, Woolley landed in Siloam Springs to start college. 

“They were so kind and just made me feel wanted,” Woolley said. 

Her goal was to study voice, but her parents suggested music education might be more practical. 

A game-changing moment for her life came when Woolley had an opportunity to start leading worship in JBU’s chapel services. 

“I was so green,” she said. “There was a legacy of people at JBU who had led worship really well, and I’d watched them do a great job. But then they all graduated and left an empty spot.” 

Woolley and another student picked up the mantle and “just started figuring out what to do.” 

PIVOTAL PREPARATION 

One day in a chapel service, Woolley was unexpectedly asked to do a song. 

“Tracy Balzer [director of the Office of Christian Formation] looked at me and said, ‘You can do it,’” Woolley said. “I think that belief in me, as a musician, as a worshiper, as a child of God, really gave me this security, and I thought, ‘I can lead these people.’ I remember in that moment just stepping out into this water, having no idea what’s going to happen or what I’m doing … not prepared, not qualified.” 

The moment provided pivotal preparation. 

“I think that has carried me for the past 13 years of ministry,” Woolley reflected. “It’s okay that you’re not prepared or not qualified in moments because God goes before you, behind you and around you. And he leads the way if you’re willing to be open-handed to what he has for his church.” 

As much as Woolley loved leading worship, her career preparation qualified her to be a K–12 music teacher; and after graduation she got a job in Lincoln, Arkansas, where she taught elementary music. She quickly realized, however, that teaching was not for her, and Woolley hoped there was something else for her to pursue. She left teaching after a year and a half and felt like God was allowing her to let it go and trust him for whatever came next. 

Woolley returned to Colorado and humbly moved into her parents’ basement, ready to see where God would lead. The first place he led her was the church that would eventually become a cornerstone in her life and career.

SENSE OF HOME 

Jessica (Naramore) McDonald, a 2005 JBU alumna who also lived in Colorado, invited Woolley to Woodmen Valley Chapel in Colorado Springs. 

“I had grown up at a different church,” Woolley said, “but needed to figure out who I was as a believer, independent from my parents. Jessica invited me one weekend, and I walked in and just had this overwhelming sense of home.” 

At Woodmen, Woolley found freedom and the ability to be herself in the Lord’s presence. She started volunteering to help with the worship team and had an experience similar to her season at JBU. 

“They just slowly began trusting me with more and more,” Woolley recalled, “and gave me the chance to rise to my potential.” 

After a few years as a volunteer and part-time staff member, Woolley began full-time work in the worship department in 2010. She continued to feel the freedom to bring her whole, authentic self to worship at Woodmen, which played a role in the next stage of her life. 

SHOWING UP AS YOU ARE 

“One weekend, I was playing the accordion on stage — because I think one of the most important parts of worship is just enjoying who God has made you to be — and having some fun in front of the church, nothing fancy or perfect,” said Woolley. 

According to Kristin, Tyler Woolley, who was on the student ministry staff, knew Kristin loved God and was a capable musician. He saw her playing the accordion that morning and thought, “Oh, she’s weird, too.” It was that “weirdness” that drew him in and sparked a relationship. Tyler and Kristin married in 2013, had a daughter in 2014, a son in 2017 and in November 2020, they welcomed twins — a boy and a girl. 

After leading worship at JBU when she was so “green,” Woolley became a leader who knew what she was doing and how to prepare. She knows, however, that what happens during worship has everything to do with God and “very, very, very little to do with Kristin.” 

“I have this deep awareness of how to plan something where someone could connect with God, and in a moment, be able to get out of the way, allowing the Holy Spirit to work,” she said. 

Her days of leading worship “super prepared” seem far behind her, but her added roles of wife and mother have taught Woolley some of her greatest lessons as a worship leader. 

“At this point, I am just showing up,” She said, “I haven’t showered. I probably haven’t really practiced and am leaning on my experience. I’m not completely prepared. I’m tired and stretched so thin, but it doesn’t stop my ability to go before Jesus, saying, ‘This is all I am; this is all I’ve got.’” 

MINISTRY IS EVERYWHERE 

Although Woolley and her husband are both in church ministry positions, they believe their ministry is everywhere — at church, at home and in their neighborhood. 

“We are trying really hard to love whoever God puts in our path,” she said, “and that is worship, too.” 

Her longevity at her church has given Woolley a deep love for God’s people. “The beautiful thing of leading for 12 years is that I know people’s stories,” she said. “I watch them worship, and there’s a depth there. I see people dealing with chronic illness, marriage challenges or struggles with their kids raising their hands as if to say, ‘I trust you, Jesus, you are faithful.’ I watch them choose to follow Jesus, and that helps me choose to follow Jesus in the good and bad parts of my own journey.” 

Jen Edwards, Ph.D., JBU associate professor of worship arts and department head for music and theatre, sees great value in Woolley’s work. 

“Kristin is doing typical work,” Edwards said, “but she is extremely gifted, musically and a natural pastor — this makes her work ‘atypical.’ She’s been in ministry at the same place for a long time. In a culture that almost promotes transience and ‘short stops,’ this longevity is admirable. It’s also allowed her to build more and more confidence and competence in several areas of music and ministry. In my opinion, she’s hit her stride and is a great example of a woman thriving in a pastoral role.” 

Woolley looks back on her experiences at JBU as foundational for her life and ministry. “I became a great musician because of my professors at JBU,” she reflected. “Paul Smith [faculty emeriti and professor of music from 1987-2017] and the Wubbenas gave me such a gift in musicianship that has served me well. The gift of education has carried me a lot.”

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