Friday Arts Day with Esther Oakley
Esther is a singer, performer and public speaker. She has sung all around the world in hundreds of churches. She is a passionate communicator who loves to see people connect with God in their everyday lives. She has a unique prophetic gift and her songs give encouragement and hope. As a professional singer she has worked onstage, in the studio and television. She is a mother, wife, friend and church volunteer. And she eats far too much dark chocolate.
My precious friend, thank you for joining the community on Sunday Everyday. You are such a gift on so many levels. Let me start by thanking you for the years of faithfulness that you have given to the body of Christ and for the way that you have poured out your life and gift so selflessly to impact so many.
LW: Esther first of all tell us a bit about your family and your background. ……
EO: I’m the youngest of 5 girls, and yes it was a crazy house most of the time! My dad travelled for work so we were all born in different places around the world. Me and my sister Rebecca were born in California. The home of Disneyland! My dad was the pastor of a church so church life is all I’ve ever known.
We moved to Australia when I was 5 years old and before long we were back in church life. I’ve always loved to sing. I used to sit and watch my mother as she would lead the worship. I absolutely loved being around music and church.
A lot has changed over the years but I still love to sing and I still love the Sense of belonging that Church life can bring.
LW: You have been leading worship for over two decades. What changes have you seen over that time?
EO: When I first started things were very different. I was in a group with my mother and sisters travelling around ministering. It was unusual to see women up the front at all so we were quite a novelty! It wasn’t easy doing what we did as young woman. When me and my sisters went out on our own we faced a lot of challenges. For eg. I remember one time when the pastor introduced us as four single girls that might be looking for husbands! Not the best intro! I had conversations with complete strangers concerned that I should be spending time on more important things like finding a husband.
In a lot of ways my mother and older sisters had to really fight to be heard and respected. I certainly benefited from their efforts. I’m not saying that everything is perfect now but there are certainly more possibilities for woman. It was also a rare thing for non ‘pastors’ to lead worship years ago and now it is rare to hear them burst into song! Younger people are on the platform leading in all areas of church which never happened when I was growing up.
Yes the music is different now but I think each generation believes that their music and style is fresh and new! I often giggle to myself remembering how cool we thought we were because we jumped up and down and had special actions to our praise songs! So I guess in some ways nothing is new under the sun…
LW: Tell me about the type of practical, vocal and physical preparation that goes in to your week in the lead up to the weekend services or singing an item?
EO: Practically it’s all about maintenance. I really care for my body the best I can. We’ve all heard it before, drink water, get sleep, practice, practise, practise! It may be a cliche but it’s really true.
When my body is well and strong then my voice is at its best.
I am a naturally very happy person but can easily slip into a very depressed state! I have learnt over the years what I need to do in order to function well. So I exercise almost every day, it has a huge impact on my emotional life.
I don’t eat junk food really, my body doesn’t like it even though sometimes my hormones disagree! I drink water and try to limit alcohol especially before a big weekend. Also, I get up really early before a morning service. I get up at least 2 hours before I need to be there, drink water, some exercise even just for 2 minutes to get the body moving, slowly warm up my voice, eat, warm up some more than again in the car. It’s really important to warm up gently in the morning. Singing early is really tough on our voices. So be kind! I don’t use my full voice until the service begins and even then I ease into it.
Having said all that, there have been times when all that goes out the window and I just get up and sing! But after years of trial and error I’m finally figuring out what works for me.
I have two little kids, crazy, cute and lots of work. So preparation has changed for me. I used to spend a lot of time alone, reading, praying, and just thinking about what was ahead. I had the time to really focus on a particular song and get it just the way I wanted it. That isn’t really an option anymore. Now I’m running around trying to get dressed while my son is pulling on my legs and my daughter wants me to watch her latest dance extravaganza!
I usually lock myself in my bathroom or kitchen and learn my songs! Often with the sound of muffled shouting in the background! At first I would arrive at church or a gig a complete wreck. Some days I was exhausted because I barely slept as my son wasn’t a fan of rest for the first 3 years of his life. So I learnt to rely on what I already knew about myself and my voice. And I would focus on what God had already given me over the years. I drew from him on the spot and on the run! I would get in the car and just breathe. And his grace is extraordinary.
LW: You would have seen many different undercurrents over the years in regard to the dynamics between volunteers and staff. How have you navigated this and what advice do you give to volunteers and to staff?
EO: When my father was a pastor he was always a volunteer. He had a big family to support and we had a small church so he always worked. I learnt early on in my life that church is hard work. It takes everyone helping a lot. Some get paid some and others don’t but everyone is needed. I think that being on staff at a church would be difficult. I have never been paid as a staff member but have functioned as one.
Staff don’t get large salaries and a lot is expected from them. And they are often more volunteers then employees! And volunteers are trying to help out while still having massive lives outside the walls of Church to manage which isn’t easy.
- I think the most important thing is for everyone to treat each other like equals, to respect each other and love and care for one another. No matter what someone’s position, they are a human being with needs and struggles. That should always be the focus.
I’ve noticed how some volunteers treat staff especially pastoral staff differently as if they are special! And they are wonderful, but they are just people. We should be able to talk out issues, be honest about hurts and struggles, argue about theology, and just be sisters and brothers trying to figure out this crazy life together.
LW: You are a worship leader at CityLife Church. CityLife runs 4 multi-sites across Melbourne with 8 weekend services every weekend.
It is a tightly run ship, and I know that we have had many discussions about the famous 21 min that worship is allocated.
Talk to us a little about how you hold this tension.
EO: It is a real challenge to juggle time and flow In a worship set. Fortunately I have been pretty lucky at CityLife.
The team genuinely want the congregation to experience the presence of God and are very sensitive to not rushing through in a harsh way. But still it’s not easy to fit things in 23 minutes! I got really good at juggling. Just keep one eye on the clock, and do your best. Communication is the big thing. Letting the band know where we are going and not hiding that information from the crowd.
If people know what’s happening and feel comfortable with you as a leader it really doesn’t matter too much how long you have. I had to work really hard at learning to relax about the time so it didn’t affect the way I led. I often would shorten the last song or cut it Completely so that we could enjoy the moment more and not rush the people through what could be a very significant moment. It’s really important for me to let the music have space. It gives people time to process and it lets me hear the voice of a God clearer, especially if I feel rushed.
Every service is completely different, so I’m always learning how to improve and what not to do. It’s really just about growing into your own confidence and style. There can be a lot of pressure to finish on time, sing well, be sensitive, engage the crowd, etc etc…… But you have to just give it a go and do your best and not stress. I have made so many mistakes on the platform that I have lost count! I’ve had very gracious leaders over the years give me lots of grace and good advice (although advice directly after you walk off the stage is not a good idea. It’s much more beneficial to talk later!). But it only makes me better. And it gets rid of all that nasty pride! Fear of what people think just shuts us down when what we need to do is open up and sing from our hearts without fear of failing.
Services will never be perfect because we aren’t perfect. But we all can get better at what we do when given the opportunity to succeed or fail. And in my experience things usually go a lot better than we expect!
LW: If you were given the opportunity to plan and execute your own service, what would you love to see happen.
EO: I think lots of churches really do the celebration service extremely well. They create a place for people to come and connect and feel empowered and get inspired. So I think I would do something really different.
- A small gathering of friends and strangers with great mood lighting!
- And red wine and chocolate of course.
- There would be lots of laughter and perhaps some tears, and plenty of stories.
- The music would definitely have a mellow tone to it.
- We’d sing classic old gospel, hymns as well as beautiful modern songs.
- There would be prayer and communion…maybe even a great film.
- And it would be lovely…
I would want to create a place where people felt safe to express pain and struggles and were able to make their complaints known to God. And find some way to move forward.
We love to talk about detox in our culture. I daily need to detox my inner life. Get it out before it eats me alive! I love helping people do that in a way that brings real hope and freedom so that they can just live a normal content life.
LW: What do you sense that God is saying, doing, moving in your life personally? What are you being challenged with?
EO: He is simplifying my life.
- He is removing what matters little and helping me see what is important.
- People matter.
- Everyone matters to God and should matter to me too.
There has never been a time when we needed compassion in our world more than we do today.
God is always challenging me to see people and situations through his eyes, not my eyes of judgement and insecurity.
He loves me so completely that I am free to love others completely.
We are carriers of light and hope everyday. We don’t have to be perfect, just willing.
LW: Esther, thank you so much for sharing a small part of your life with us today.
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