When Olivia Poteet and Isabelle Torokwa decided to study music at Covenant College, they did not set out to become Wade Williams Scholars. Instead, the designation found them. Both Poteet, concentrating on church music, and Torokwa, focusing on vocal performance, submitted to the audition and interview process to join the chapel worship team. After they were selected to help lead chapel worship, Scott Finch, associate professor of music at Covenant, invited them to become the first and second Wade Williams Scholars.
“I met with Dr. Finch, and he explained to me what scholarship was, who Wade Williams was, the significance of his life, and how much he’s contributed to the church and with music, and it’s been a great experience,” Torokwa said.
Preparing Christian musicians to become worship leaders is an area where Christian colleges are increasingly showing interest. Cedarville University recently announced that Christian singer-songwriter Matt Papa would join the college’s music program as its artist in residence. Wheaton College and Colorado Christian University also added worship arts degrees or concentrations to their music programs.
Wade Williams Scholars not only gain experience leading worship in chapel, but they also develop a deeper understanding of the theology of worship leading and its connection to the PCA’s Reformed commitments.
“There are schools where they are doing a lot in worship arts, but they don’t have the same confessional stance that we do as an institution,” said Finch, who directs the Wade Williams Scholarship program. “We talk about the Wade Williams Scholarship as seeking to have students who are historically informed and yet culturally relevant. And so I love the flexibility, but also the sturdiness, of the scholarship.”
Wade Williams Scholars not only gain experience leading worship in chapel, but they also develop a deeper understanding of the theology of worship leading.
For more than 35 years, Williams served as director of music and worship leader at Perimeter Church outside Atlanta, ChristChurch Presbyterian in Atlanta’s Buckhead community, and North Shore Fellowship in Chattanooga. He passed away in 2014 after a two-year battle with brain cancer.
“I can still picture Wade standing in front of the orchestra and choir for our Christmas concert, playing a Fender Stratocaster,” Joe Novenson said at the time of Williams’s death. “He was stylistically flexible while being theologically deep — I’ve known no one else like him. He was able to do old things in new ways, and did new things with old truth. He always wed those two together.”
Novenson worked with Williams at North Shore Fellowship. Later, as senior pastor of Lookout Mountain Presbyterian Church, Novenson recruited Finch to serve as interim worship director. As the two worked together, they met weekly to plan the worship service and talk about their philosophies of worship. Though Finch had never met Williams, Novenson was struck by how closely Finch’s worship philosophy aligned with what Novenson recalled from Williams.
Later, Novenson approached Finch with the idea of starting a scholarship program at Covenant College in memory of Williams but carrying the theological and musical training of Covenant College.
“The musical faculty at Covenant College have this same vision that was the heart of Wade Williams; to see grace-enflamed, servant leaders humbly leading God’s people in the worshipful honor of their Savior,” Novenson wrote in introducing the scholarship program. “Covenant College is imparting a robust grasp of Biblical truth, a radiant faith in Jesus our King, and musical virtuosity that bends its knee before Him.”
Jennifer Williams, Wade’s widow, signed on to the project too. To prepare for her interviews with Novenson, Jennifer, and Chaplain Lowe, Poteet was able to read about Wade Williams’s life and work.
“I still remember just reading through those and just crying and realizing what an amazing man he was, and also just being so honored that these people looked at me and saw … somebody that could grow into somebody like that,” she said.
In 2019, Poteet became the first Wade Williams Scholar. One aspect of the program that has particularly encouraged her has been weekly lunches with Finch and Torokwa. She has also appreciated Finch’s class “Shepherding Souls Through Music.” Finch said that musicians cannot approach leading worship as a gig; it’s leading God’s people in his praise. So worship leaders need not just good musician skills, but good theology.
They also cannot approach music without understanding that each church is a unique context. “My students have to understand that there are all sorts of groups within God’s big tent, and they need to pay attention,” Finch said. “It’s not going to look exactly the same here in southern Georgia as it does in California.”
This shepherding tone will help buoy the scholars as they navigate a season when worship leaders and worship pastors are increasingly exhausted from the pandemic. The more students understand their unique contexts, the more they can focus on helping a particular body of believers worship, rather than trying to shoehorn a congregation into a one-size-fits-all model.
After graduating in spring 2022, Poteet hopes to serve as a worship leader in a church, whether that is a paid position or not. She is also exploring additional training in counseling. Torokwa is planning to pursue music education when she graduates in 2024.
Through becoming a Wade Williams Scholar, Torokwa learned that the church she had attended for nearly a decade, ChristChurch Presbyterian, was also a church where Williams once served. Though she has moved on to a new church now, she’s excited to take the skills she has developed this year through the scholarship program and apply them to assisting in worship over the summer.
“I’m very excited to … use what I’ve learned … with the team and with the band and engaging with people and kind of playing a bigger role,” she said.