Why Don’t We Pay Our Church Musicians?

Source: Orthodox Christian Network


When, as an eighteen-year-old music student, I took my first paid choir directing job in an Orthodox church, I initially felt a little uneasy about accepting a paycheck. Not because I was overly modest—nobody who knew me then would have accused me of that—but because I thought that, since singing in church and directing the choir was something I loved so much and therefore would have happily done without pay, I didn’t want to needlessly burden the parish, which had just started up a year or two earlier. I told the priest I didn’t want to be paid. However, instead of thanking me and praising me for my magnanimity as I fully expected him to do (see what I mean about not being overly modest?), he gently chastised me and told me I had it all wrong. I’ll never forget his explanation.

He said that he wanted me to accept the stipend—which was ample, given my age and my financial situation as a student, at $250 a week—for two reasons. First, he said, when you pay someone to do a job, you’re buying their time, not their good will. He said he knew I had all the good will in the world to do the job, but he wanted to pay me to ensure that I would be able to make enough time to the job well. “If you’re not paid to do this job,” he continued, “you’ll have to be paid to do some other job, and that will mean that you may not have the time you need to give this job your best. I don’t want that. I don’t want it to be an afterthought.”

The second reason he gave impressed me with its farsightedness. He said that paying me ultimately didn’t have anything to do with me, but was about building up the parish. Not in spite of the fact, but precisely because the mission was so new, he said that they had to pay their choir director a meaningful stipend, because it was necessary to set the right precedent. “If people learn from the beginning that they have to pay for church music, it won’t be a problem down the road.” As he explained, he wanted me to accept a paycheck in order to make it easier for the parish to replace me when I decided to leave, which, he correctly assumed, was something I was likely to do before very long. He also added that he would increase my pay as soon as the budget allowed for it. He was as good as his word, and raised my pay to $300 a week within a year and a half. No doubt he would have raised it again had I stayed longer.

If we were talking about anything other than Orthodox church music in North America, there would be nothing remarkable about this priest’s approach. He would simply be thought a wise steward, a good administrator, a smart businessman. However, we are talking about Orthodox church music in North America, and anyone who has attempted to navigate these waters knows that very different winds usually prevail.

It’s no secret that the average Orthodox church musician in North America is woefully underpaid, if he or she is paid at all. There was a time, and not so long ago, that many established parishes offered a house and a modest full-time salary to their choir director. The obvious result was that these jobs could attract competent musicians who would stay put for years, perhaps for an entire career. However, in the wake of the financial and demographic decline of many of the old-guard parishes during the latter half of the 20th century, all but a handful of these full-time choir director positions have disappeared. A deep decline in church singing culture could only follow suit.

Today, many church choir directors and head chanters are little more than volunteers. Some are paid a token stipend, but it is extremely rare to find a church that pays its music director enough, say, to relocate, let alone make it a career option. Many church musicians, therefore, end up being temporary employees, who have other jobs, or whose spouses have other jobs, and who serve the parish essentially out of charity. “Good for them!” we say. However, in such a scenario, it ends up being the luck of the draw whether the parish gets a competent musician or not. Many don’t, and just have to make do. And even if a parish is fortunate enough to stumble across a skilled church musician who is willing to take the job, who has other means of financial support, and who has a high tolerance for the generally low level of competence and commitment that a lot of church choirs find themselves at today, there’s a good chance that this skilled church musician will leave the job before long, either because she relocates, or because she burns out, or because something changes in her real job and she can’t make it work, or for a host of other reasons. Then the parish has to start over again and pray for someone else to drop out of the sky, or failing that, to fill their music director position with anyone willing to do it, competent or not. Thus, the level of singing at that parish will ebb and flow depending on the skill of the director, but it will almost certainly decline in the long run due to the instability of the whole situation.

The obvious question here is, why are we behaving in such an irrational and self-defeating manner? Why aren’t we just paying church musicians what they’re worth? The easy answer is, “we can’t afford it.” But it’s not that simple. Doubtless, there are struggling parishes that are in such dire financial straits that they worry about keeping the lights on. Or there are mission parishes who are just getting off the ground and aren’t ready yet even to rent property. But in those cases, it’s likely not just the choir director who has to volunteer his time, but the priest too. I would like to believe that this level of financial hardship is not the norm, and given that Orthodoxy in America appears to be growing again, I suspect it’s not.

The Lord said, “where your treasure is, there your heart is also.” I think the real reason that most American Orthodox church musicians aren’t meaningfully paid is that good church music has ceased to be a value for us. Let’s look for a moment at the Protestant world. In spite of declining membership among mainline Protestant denominations, a church organist, according to the American Guild of Organists’ 2014 salary guide, can expect to earn anywhere from $30,000 to $100,000 per year, plus benefits, depending on education and experience. Many of these churches also pay a separate choir director a comparable salary, and often even pay choir “section leaders” a weekly stipend to sing. I had one of these section leader jobs myself, at $150 per service, before I found a viable Orthodox choir directing position. Granted, Protestant churches in America tend to have significantly more members, and significantly more money, than most Orthodox churches here, but I think it’s safe to assume that at least a few well-established and well-endowed Orthodox churches have annual budgets comparable to an average Protestant parish with a music staff. However, I would be shocked to learn that even one Orthodox church in North America pays its music director anything remotely close to $100,000 a year, plus benefits, let alone paying other musicians regularly as well. (If such a church exists, I hope someone will let me know, and I’ll put my resumé in the mail immediately.) I say again, good church music has ceased to be a value for American Orthodox.

We often account for the disparity between the Orthodox music world and the Protestant music world in America (if we think about it at all) by saying something like, “Western church music is all about professionalism, but Orthodox music is prayer, and therefore perfection is not important.” Or perhaps someone will tell a story about a monastery who hired a professional choir for its feast day, only to have it revealed afterwards that the saint they were honoring couldn’t even hear the service. There is a lot to unpack in this line of argument, both in terms of historical data and theological reasoning, and I’d like to deal with it in some depth, so more on that later. Let it suffice to say here that I think there is no inherent conflict between professional—that is, skilled, educated, and vocational—church music, and Orthodox spirituality. If there were inherent conflicts, church singers would never have been specially ordained (they used to be); academies of Orthodox church singing would never have existed (they have existed for a very long time); churches would rarely, if ever, have had singers on a regular payroll (they did so routinely, and still do today, in many places); and Orthodox liturgical repertoire, both ancient and modern, would be nothing but a footnote in the annals of sacred music (it’s anything but).

The fact is that, while we can couch our collective neglect of Orthodox liturgical music and musicians in spiritual terms—both those mentioned above, and many others besides—these arguments amount to little more than a smokescreen. What’s really at the heart of the matter, I fear, is a certain laxity regarding the Liturgy itself. The priest says at the end of every Liturgy, “sanctify those who love the beauty of Thy house.” What else is good church singing than the beautification of God’s house? And if actively loving the beauty of God’s house, as the prayer before the amvon says, is a path to sanctity, why would we hesitate to do it? We hesitate because we have allowed other things to occupy our attention and our treasure. To be blunt, we’ve allowed music in many of our churches to descend to a pathetically low level, both in terms of quality and dedicated commitment (see Richard Barrett’s excellent article on the subject, and we would do well to take it as a spiritual duty to offer some help. The proper course of action, as in every facet of the spiritual life, is to repent and recommit to what’s centrally important. As we begin the season of Great Lent, a time of year when music in the church becomes a more central component in the lives of Orthodox Christians than at any other time of the year—and a period where church musicians’ energies and time are taxed in the extreme—let’s take a hard look at the state of music in our churches. Is it worthy of a church that claims to be the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church? Does it show the world that we believe wholeheartedly in what we’re doing, and that we’ve dedicated everything in service to God’s Kingdom? Is it a worthy offering of our firstfruits to God, and a sacrifice of love for our neighbor? Obviously, money is not the only answer to the problem of declining musical culture in American Orthodoxy, but it is definitely part of the solution, and many other things go along with it. “Where your treasure is, there your heart is also.” It’s an oft-repeated law of life that “you get what you pay for”; so if you don’t pay for good church music, you’re probably not going to get it. Let’s start paying for church music.

—To Be Continued—

Benedict Sheehan


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