Advertise on ChoralNet 
ChoralNet logo
The mission of the ACDA is to inspire excellence in choral music through education, performance, composition, and advocacy.

Pay systems for church musicians

This could potentially be a hot-button issue...
For those of you who rely on paid musicians, I'd like to ask for your input on a situation I will soon be facing. 
To be as discrete as possible, I have recently taken over at a large church, just at the time that new budgets are coming out.  This church has just taken a severe blow to its income and has experienced recent layoffs, and I have been given a heads-up that I should expect some very uncomfortable cuts in my own budget, specifically in the area of accompanists and cantors.  Traditionally these have been paid positions, and the church very much wants them to continue to be so, but the practicality is that I am about to announce to them some unpleasant and unavoidable changes in the way they are paid.  There is a pretty solid culture of expectation here about how musicians get compensated, and I'm not expecting they will be sympathetic to the financial dilemma the church is in.
I'm sure I'm not the only director dealing with this.  I'd like to ask some specific questions from the rest of you:
 - How do you pay your musicians: monthly salary, hourly, or per worship service?
 - If not monthly, is there a difference in how musicians are compensated for services vs. rehearsals?
 - How are you helping/addressing your musicians if your budget for paid positions has been cut?
I'm not looking to learn how much you pay your musicians, but rather the system you use, and if you're having to reinvent your system during the econimic downturn.  I'd be particularly interested in your answer if you run a church music program in or around the Denver Metro area.
Many thanks for your input as I negotiate this potential minefied.
Daniel McGarvey
Replies (13): Threaded | Chronological
on June 30, 2009 4:04am
We pay per "service" or "unit", with that being defined as any time you show up in church.  A rehearsal being roughly equivalent to the length of a worship service, they are paid the same amount.  I did not pay my paid singers when we had a retreat.  I expected them to ask to be paid and they did not.  I guess a weasly approach!  Good luck. 
on June 30, 2009 8:52am
Daniel -
I sympathize with your situation, and thank God (and the US Army and the generosity of the (mostly) retired community that worships here at Fort Belvoir, VA) that mine is considerably different, and we're actually starting to add paid section leaders.
However, without going into the issue you were discussing, a thought occurred to me.  One of the basic problems in dealing with this sort of issue, is that it gets handled "behind closed doors," with the congregation not really having any part in the discussion until the decision is made and everyone has to deal with the gale of questions of "why didn't we know?" etc., etc.  While I'm sure the overall issue of economic viability is generally known by the worshiping community, the details tend to get slipped over (especially if this is a Catholic church - I'm one of the "club" so I've seen this happen before) as being too likely to generate too many questions (probably a lot of good and hard ones), so the pastor decides to avoid the issue entirely and just deal with it "in-house" and among staff (if that).
I would argue that's wrong - not just financially, but even ethically and morally.  This isn't just the pastor's or the staff's church - the community should have a strong voice in what's going on so that when hard decisions have to be made and cuts or changes made, then as unhappy as individuals will be, the community as a whole owns the decision.  This is more time-consuming, agreed; but it is ultimately probably less painful, and the community begins to understand their part in the decision process - their funding (or lack thereof) has led to this situation and they need to own it as well as the ones who are in a position to make it work.
Another thought is to make an appeal to the community for funding to help redress whatever lack the budget won't cover under the new circumstances.  That has several advantages:  since it's a special appeal for a charitable organization, it qualifies for tax deductions for individual contributors.  It may allow for some redistribution of funding from one budget line item to another - e.g., if the contributors don't want to pay for salaries, but are willing to pay for music purchases, look into the possibility of taking monies of an equal amount to the contribution out of the music purchase line item and moving it to musicians' salaries.  The downside of such an approach is you may get no response at all - but the value of that is that you know where the music program then stands in peoples' views - and you now have the perfect argument against "Well, it's not like it used to be!" with the counter "You know, you get what you pay for."  An alternative to the admittedly snarky reply is to say, "Well, would you like to head up a committee to seek additional funding for the music program?"  You may be bowled over by a "Yes!", and if the answer is "No!" then usually these folks realize they've shot their own comment down and you won't be bothered by them again.
Admittedly, you have to have a pastor (if this is a Catholic church) or a budget committee (if it's non-Catholic) which is willing to be creative and flexible in the ways monies are sought and managed - and, to be quite honest, those are qualities in sadly short supply - even shorter than the money.  I pray for your situation, and would honestly like to hear from you after you negotiate the minefield.  Of course, I may not have any prostheses around to help you......
Ron Duquette
Catholic Choir Director
Fort Belvoir, VA
on June 30, 2009 10:35am
Ok, so I have been on all sides - I have been the paid musician, I have been the director and I have been the paid musician that gets a pay cut.
As director, I paid per rehearsal and per service.  Rehearsals, being important but not as important as services, I paid less for the rehearsals and more for the services.  Unless there were some special circumstances, paid performers could not partake in the services unless they were at the practices.  When I took the position, I looked at my recently acquired salary and decided that I could suffer a pay cut from the church's salary in order to make sure that the musicians got paid the same amount and also to help the church stay out of the red.  After the Christmas show, the church recovered quite nicely and when I left their service, the rest of the year was ready to go, including the ability to continue to have a mini orchestra for the Easter service.
As a paid musician, I found this to be a very reliable system and very fair.  I did not mind getting paid less for rehearsal because I wanted the pay for the service, as did all others getting paid.
Being a person who got the pay cut, I can honestly tell you that the most important thing is up front and clear honesty.  I know that had I been presented with the truth and shown what was going on, then I would never have left that church.  One of the first things that will go through their minds is "Is it my ability?"  Especially if things are not clear - this creates an emotional and unstable environment which will end in them leaving.  Most people are being very understanding towards pay cuts in all situations and I think that most people just would love to have a job. 
on June 30, 2009 10:48am
I have worked for a dozen or so different churches in various parts of the country as a paid singer/instrumentalist.  I have never been offered a salary, but have been paid either per service or by the hour, whether for rehearsals, retreats or worship services.  Typically the pay scale has been straight across the board for rehearsals and performances, but I did work for one church that paid less for rehearsals.  Some jobs have been permanent positions and others, due to budget constraints, have been more sporadic: a couple times a month, holy days only, special occasions, etc.  I have had work cut back a couple of times due to budget cuts.  In these cases I have not been paid  less; rather I have sung fewer services while recruiting for volunteers has jumped into high gear and volunteer singers have stepped up to the cantoring plate.  University music students tend to be willing to work more hours for less pay than established professionals. 
Best wishes with your difficult situation!
on June 30, 2009 6:12pm
"Per call" is a less ambiguous expression than "per service", and usually rehearsals are considered equivalent to warmup+ worship service and paid the same (Yom Kippur of course is three services).    In Catholic churches even organists are paid per call and it is the number of such services and/or vacation that affords wiggle room when things get tight.   Good luck.   I think it must be easier when concessions are mutual; I once was asked to take a paycut without any change in my duties and I'm afraid I wasn't the least bit sympathetic to _their_ dilemma!
Richard Mix
on July 28, 2009 8:21am
If anyone is interested, a follow-up and happy (if not perfect) ending to this story...
Two weeks ago I had meetings with both our Pastor as well as representatives from the church's finance council.  After weeks of anticipation, I was given my approved budget for the year, which, for starters, wasn't nearly as thin as I was told to expect.  We did have to make some modest cuts, and I spoke to each of our musicians individually and they appreciated the fact that I was up front and honest about the final outcome; all were understanding and offered to continue their work and support.  There are still a few loose ends to tie up with a music department this big and complex, but the bottom line is that my music team here emerged more or less intact from all this, and after weeks of looking at numbers and making spreadsheets, I can finally get back to work doing some music!
A few folks who replied privately felt as though this shouldn't have been my responsibility.  I don't agree with that assertion; as the department head in a large church, it is absolutely my responsibility to study my own budget, justify my own expenses, and advocate on behalf of my musicians to ensure what they get reflects their work and dedication.  I would not (nor should I be expected to) trust that responsibility to anyone else.  For those of you who felt the need to rant about Catholics, well, your prejudices are your problem, not mine.  :)
Dan McGarvey
on September 20, 2009 7:32am
To be brief...  Whatever the Cantors have been paid, any cut will be a disappointment.  However, the reality of the situation is - money from the congregation is not enough to support the ministry as it stands now.  If you have to use volunteer cantors or possibly lose a good cantor due to the money cut, so be it.  It should not be expected that the quality of a ministry be the same when financial situations change.  And to expect it to remain the same is unreasonable.  AND, to expect the incoming director to keep it the same is ridiculous.  In my humble opinion.  All you can do is your best.
on January 15, 2011 11:28am
Though I realize I'm replying late to this thread, I thought I'd offer the resource we've recently adapted as our compensation guideline for musicians. 
The link takes you to the salary guidelines as recommended by the Association of Lutheran Church Musicians. It breaks down compensation by level of education and years of service.  We chose to adapt these recommendations for two reasons: 1) We didn't have a set structure for how to compensate musicians other than, "this is what we think is fair" and 2) I didn't feel comfortable paying the high school student the same rate as the PhD. 
I should add that my position is salaried and not based on this chart. We currently have two staffed musicians, myself and our organist. We utilize this chart when we bring in guest musicians from outside our church.
I hope that helps.
Aaron McCullough
Director of Worship and Group Ministries
St. Luke Lutheran Church
Columbus, OH 43230
on January 16, 2011 9:56am
Aaron -- Thanks for the chart.  The concept is useful.  It makes sense to reflect experience and education in pay.  By the way, what I'm familiar with in the D.C. and Philadelphia areas is compensation per call -- usually same for rehearsal and service.  Long or intense calls (e.g. Palm Sunday or recording sessions) sometimes merit more.   (I would probably simplify the chart by listing targets and a plus-minus range.  E.g. make the first column $17, 18.50, 20, and 23, +/- $2.00.  I think volunteers on a board, council, finance committee etc. would find that presentation easier to digest.)  
But then I would make it more complicated too...  Two additional considerations.  (1) cost of living varies a lot within the U.S.  Although that's an obvious fact, exact comparisons are a hot potato.  Still it should be reflected.  E.g. Washington, D.C. area is high cost of living -- now close to 40% more than U.S. average, whatever that is.  So the unadjusted ALCM rates would not attract very good musicians there, I suspect.  This InfoPlease site illustrates, for selected cities and with data from 2007.  
How to figure differences?  The Council for Community and Economic Research has a Cost of Living Index, but you have to pay for the data.  Could be smart for a national musical association or church body to subscribe and provide the data for specific locales to members on a case-by-case basis.  Here's a link:   You'd think the Federal Government would do the research and make it available.  Well, the research is done, but not published that I can find.  A work-around is the "locality pay" given to Federal employees.  (I'm one.)  This gets complicated, because there's a whole table of salary grades and steps and different ones are published for different areas.  Here's the Office of Personnel Management page to start if someone wants to research this:   My suggestion would be to look up a middle position on the base General Schedule, e.g. a GS-8, step 5.  (Sorry for all the bureaucratize!)  That $42,647 in 2011.  Then see what the same salary is in your area.  E.g. in Columbus, OH, it's $49,965.  That's about 17% higher by my reckoning.  I'm not suggesting you do this every time you hire a musician.  But good to check every couple years and factor in whether cost-of-living means your group should add an additional 5%, 10% or whatever to be competitive and fair.  
The other consideration.  (2)  Talent matters!  For some of my projects I have had (unidentified) section leaders.  They got 20% more per call because that was their going rate and because they helped greatly to form the core of their section's sound.  These were not just gifted performers, but rock solid reliable in terms of reliability and no drama.  That was money well spent.  Similarly, I paid more for an instrumentalist with a current military band job and lots of professional gigs.  On one hand, the person was already earning good money and benefits elsewhere.  But on the other -- more important to me -- he could "nail it" in one call, no additional rehearsal or fee required, and his schedule is full.  Similarly, a good English Horn or Theorbo player might command more than a mezzo section leader.  Maybe all this goes without saying among musicians.  But again, if trying to justify a budget to a finance committee or treasurer, it might help to have an approved footnote on a chart like ALCM's to the effect of "Further upward adjustments may be warranted depending on performer's talent level and availability in the local area, as well as regional cost of living."   
Just some thoughts from having watched musicians and churches up close for many years.  Cheers, chris
on January 16, 2011 5:08pm
Chris:  It's probably worth noting that the Union Scale is the MINIMUM that union musicians are supposed to work for.  In practice, of course, for most musicians on most gigs it's the MAXIMUM as well, because there are always other musicians who can be hired.
But that's where your mention of "talent," or of playing an unusual instrument, or of being absolutely reliable and professional come into play.  All Animals are NOT created equal, pace George Orwell, and those who are in the greatest demand can (and SHOULD!) be paid at higher rates.  ("Talent" is an amorphous quality, and one that the musicians union has never concerned itself with as long as you pay your dues.  Union contractors, however, DO consider it, since if they didn't they wouldn't be asked to contract the next time around!)
I don't mean to imply that union rates should determine church pay, but an organization doesn't have to be incorporated as a union (the AGO for example) in order to have its own recommendations for pay scales and working conditions.  If high school players can do what you need and work free or for lower fees, great!  If you need to do a complete Messiah or Brahms Requiem on one combined rehearsal, you'll need to pay the pros.
on February 13, 2011 2:11am
 I have over 50 years experience as a musician and session recording artist.  My wife , whom is also a professional vocalist with the same if not better credentials than myself , accompanies me when we perform at churches.  We do not charge for our services but are always given an offering that I think is far to much.   We have never been paid at our home church. 
 We attended a local church with an average attendance of around 450 for 18 years.  The music director was paid $50,000 per year and was the only one paid in the department.  We are now attending a smaller church wher the music director is paid $20,000 per year and once again is the only one paid.
  My wifes talent along with mine far surpasses the musicians that we currently perform with or have performed with.    We are also the only ones prepared for the services every Sunday.  I really dont understand this.   My instruments include - piano - steel guitar- guitar- and bass. My genre includes - southern gospel - hymnals - country - contemporary - jazz- and pop. I do sessions for a couple of bands and gospel groups locally and am paid top dollar for the service.  Its not that I want to get paid but rather I want to be asked if I would like to paid.
on February 14, 2011 4:03pm
I've been a paid singer (in graduate school), an organist, a full-time music director, a piano accompanist. etc.
All my life someone invariably asks me why I don't play in churches for free, since many people volunteer their talents as Sunday School teachers, Eucharistic ministers, ushers, lectors, etc.
My answer is that these people all have another way to earn a living. I don't. If churches will pay my mortage, utilities, insurance, food, car, and other necessary living expenses, then I will happily play for free, as long as I don't end up in the poor house.
Long ago doctors in churches used to offer free medical care to ministers and occasionally to the music minister. I don't know if this happens anymore, but those were generous doctors who understood reality.
I now employ 4 section leaders in my choir, and they all need the money. And we need them. We could not have a choir without them, and the volunteers realize that.
I pay "per service" and a service is a rehearsal, and the Sunday morning Mass (with 45-minute warmup) is also a service.
I don't vary the pay scale for experience. I have 2 singers over 40, one 25, and one 20. It took awhile, but the 20-year-old is learning what the job requires.
(I drew up a sheet of "section leader guidelines" which helped.)
Collections are a bit down at our church. I may have to come up with a creative plan next year, but I don't think I have it in me to pay less than I am paying.
I think prevailing rates in the community help determine the pay scale. There are always bigger, wealthy chuches that can pay more, but the can't hire
everyone and the other musicians need work too.
Susan Raccoli
  • You must log in or register to be able to reply to this message.