Jenn Johnson: On Worship and Work-Life Balance

Taking ‘the big debate’ head-on: by God's grace, you can really have it all
Jenn Johnson: On Worship and Work-Life Balance

Jenn Johnson, senior worship pastor at Bethel Church in Redding, California, has been leading worship with her husband, Brian, for 15 years. In addition to raising three children together, they currently lead worship for a congregation of more than 3,000 weekly, oversee a worship team of more than 100 members, and collectively direct Bethel Music. Their most recent album, Tides, is filled with songs celebrating God's presence, and the Bethel team will release a women's album next May. Here's what Jenn had to say about work-life balance, healthy communication in marriage, and the true meaning of happiness.

What have you learned about communication and work-life balance while working with your husband?

Being in full-time ministry with my husband is amazing, but also challenging. Our biggest struggle has been to separate home life from our marriage and our work. We have to think strategically and put up boundaries in our lives. For example, tonight we're going on a date, and we have rules: We will not talk about the kids, and we will not talk about work. Sometimes we will just sit there and stare at each other. Also, when Brian comes home from work every day, he turns off his phone so it doesn't create problems. I would love to say we've done it perfectly, but we haven't. Every day is a new opportunity to do it better.

My husband is amazing—he's such a good man. He loves God, and he loves people. He's so funny, he's such a good dad, and he keeps things very lighthearted. I can be mad about something, and he has this way of pulling me out of a funk. We've been married more than 13 years, and I'm still madly in love with him. He's such a good leader, and he sings all the time—there's constantly music in our house. Someone is always singing.

How do you do it all—mother three kids and do full-time ministry?

My kids are amazing, but balancing it all—being a good mom, working, and traveling—has been a major challenge for me as a woman. I love being a mom, but it's difficult. It's hard work no matter what age your kids are. Years ago, I'd just had my first daughter, was raising her, doing ministry, and recording a CD. I felt like my head was going to explode, and I wanted to pull my hair out. I was heading to church to lead worship at a conference. I was scrambling to get everything ready to go while my baby slept, and I looked like a mess. When I ran by the piano in the back room to grab something, I heard the Lord speak to me: just sit down and worship. I was running late to sound check, so frustrated, and I said, Lord, you know what I have to get done, I'm a mess, and I'm going to go worship you in like an hour—what in the world! So I kept doing what I was doing, trying to get ready, and when I walked back past the piano a second time, the Lord said, just sit down. I was so frustrated because I did not have time to sit down and worship like I'd done so many other times for hours and hours before I'd had babies. But I plopped down at the piano with a total attitude, played some minor chords, and starting singing, "What can I do for you, what can I bring to you, what kind of song would you like me to sing?" And the Lord spoke to me. He said, I didn't want anything, I just wanted to be with you.

I sobbed my eyes out. I learned that day, very clearly, that time with him is not to get something, and it's not task-driven—it's because this is a relationship, and time together is so important. You don't have to feel like you have to pray for seven hours every day, no mom can do that—but recognizing and responding to his presence is important.

How do you respond to God's presence in worship?

There's a physical expression of praise and worship that honestly comes naturally to me, and I feel how we respond to his presence is like how we respond to a gift. If you've given a kid a gift at Christmas, you know it's not by accident that God's "presence" is the same word spelled just a little different than "presents." Imagine giving your kid a gift at Christmas: There's a big difference between having them stand there with their hands beautifully placed in front of them with hardly any emotion at all, just saying, "Thank you mom, I love you," vs. "This is totally awesome!" The Lord taught me at a young age that worship is about expressing yourself. If you look up the seven biblical words for "praise," they are all action words: To bow, to kneel, to raise hands, to dance, to twirl, halal . . . all these different words are expressions. It does not say stand and sing with hands folded neatly in front of you. This doesn't mean we need to do aerobics for worship—worship needs to be authentic—but there's something powerful about movement, and there's something powerful and biblical about dance.

You're a worship pastor at Bethel Church—do you have any words of encouragement for women in ministry?

I love seeing people become who God's created them to be. I love fearlessness and confidence in the Lord, especially when women take that on and discover who they are in God. I feel like the tides are turning with what being a woman in ministry looks like. I know there have been forerunners like Beth Moore and Joyce Meyer, and I feel like it's only going to increase because women are so valuable. They're as much a part of the body of Christ as men are. We need women. The fact women are wired to be emotionally moved by things is part of Jesus. It's part of the Trinity. It's not a masculine movement or masculine religion because Jesus was a man—God created both man and woman, and they're both needed and valued in the Kingdom. There's nothing in the world more powerful to me than a mom and a wife and a woman who is doing life with passion and conviction and her whole heart. The world needs that. I could not be a bigger fan of women in ministry, of women becoming all they're designed to be.

What are three things you'd like to encourage Christian women with today?

First, being connected to someone who's going to help you grow as a person is everything— someone who knows who you are, calls out your greatness, shows you your blind spots, and really loves you well. A friend of mine, Suzy Campbell, who's an amazing pastor's wife in Canada, said to me early on: "Jenn, people will tell you that you can't be a great mom and do ministry, but I'm telling you that you can, and Jesus will help you figure out what that looks like." That changed my life because I was in a time when I felt I had to choose: Do I stop what I've been doing and raise kids, or can I do both? Suzy encouraged me to let the Holy Spirit teach me how to do it, and to the best of my ability, that's what I've done, and what I continue to do.

Second, I feel at all times in your life, no matter how old you are, you should have people in your life that are your David and Jonathan—your best friends who are a strength to you, and you to them. I call them your "besties." Also think about who you are pouring into—who are you building and growing?

Last, I don't think there's one right answer to the big debate: working mom vs. mom being home with kids. I think it's what's right for you? What does God have for your life? Whatever that looks like, go for it head on—go for it and be happy. I don't know a time in my life when I haven't been operating in my sweet spot, because happiness is an inside job. There was a time I was working at McDonald's, and I was "happy." Contentment and happiness don't come in life because you get something or because you arrive— true happiness and contentment are only found in God. Anything physical will never fill the hole we need to be filled by Jesus.

Read more articles that highlight writing by Christian women at ChristianityToday.com/Women

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