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Paying the Piper

An informal survey on the when, why, and how of paying church musicians.

Somewhere in the fourth or fifth grade a child may discover there is nojustice in the universe. Michelle works harder at her math than Judy does, but Michelle getsCs while Judy gets As. Kevin's family gets to go to Disney World every year; Dan's family only goes to the tractor pull at the local county fair. It doesn't seem fair.

If these youngsters heard about the world of church-musician pay scales, they would be even more convinced of cosmic injustice. Some church organists are paid $3.25 for playing at a service; others receive $75.00 for the same contribution. One choir director is "awarded" a token $40.00 honorarium per year; a colleague receives an annual salary of over $3,000. To many church musicians, it doesn't seem fair.

In an attempt to uncover some of the facts about the salaries and honorariums church musicians receive, RW decided to conduct an informal survey among our readers. We sent questionnaires to three hundred churches, asking them how much they paid their organists and choir directors, what percentage of the annual budget was allotted for the music program, and other related questions. One hundred sixty-nine churches responded to our survey, an excellent return according to the professional questionnaire folk. We thank those churches and individuals who took time to answer our questions.

Payment Patterns

As we suspected, payments to musicians vary widely from church to church. Some congregations pay a token honorarium, others a fee per service, others a formal salary. Many churches pay the main organist more than the assistant organists, the senior choir director more than the children's choir director, the morning-service musicians more than the evening-service musicians. Some congregations pay separately for the director's rehearsal time; others lump rehearsal and service time together. Given such a variety of responses, we were not able to arrive at statistically precise figures. But we did discover some interesting patterns.

Percent of Budget. The item "Budget for music program (including salaries and materials) is approximately ____% of annual budget" was fairly straightforward and yielded the following answers: 28 churches did not respond; 10 reported 0%; 31 reported less than 1% (with 2 churches dutifully recording 0.001% and 6 reporting 0.5%). Those who reported 1 % or more covered the range indicated by table 1.

Twelve churches said specifically that they have no disbursements for either the purchase of music or the payment of musicians. Twenty-six others do not pay their musicians but do have a budget for music.

Some congregations report this situation with a sense of regret: "No remuneration! Pity!" Others would like to pay their musicians but are unable to do so. Most musicians seem tolerant of this situation: "I have taken organ lessons for fifteen years, and neither I nor any of the other musicians have ever been paid. We would like to see changes, but in the meantime I must offer my gifts willingly to the Lord."

Several churches chided RW for even suggesting possible changes: "We are thankful for many gifted musicians in our congregation who consider it a joy to serve by providing musical praise. They would be offended if they were offered pay. We would hope that Reformed Worship would not try to kill that attitude nor commercialize the worship service by making everything 'payment for service rendered.' "

A relatively large number of churches (especially smaller ones) pay musicians a token sum of appreciation, ranging from $25.00 to $300.00. A variation on the token payment is payment for music lessons.

Nearly all churches do budget a certain amount for the purchase of music. The average amount allotted is about $200—$300 for choir music and $100 or less for organ music.

Per Service or Per Annum. The most common form of remuneration is a per-service payment. Congregations usually pay organists and pianists a fiat fee for playing at the service. Choir directors, however, often receive separate fees for rehearsal and for service time (or "performance time," as some call it).

Organists' pay ranges greatly,…from $3.00 to $60.00 per service. (Some churches have a penchant for splitting their dollars: $5.25, $16.35, etc.) Table 2 reflects a tally of those reporting payment by service (rounded to the nearest dollar).

The range for choir directors (rehearsal and service time combined) is traced in Table 3.

A different manner of computation is the annual salary. Among our respondents only six churches employed a full-time director/minister. A number of other churches have part-time, salaried directors, and we prorated their salaries. The range in full-time equivalent is pictured in Table 4.

So What?

So far our questionnaire.

Interesting as much of this information may be, a reader might well ask "So what?" or "Now what?" In our next issue (RW 10) we'd like to continue our discussion on paying church musicians by publishing a number of your thoughts and reactions. Please send us your responses by October 1.

Then, in RW 11, we will offer additional perspectives and guidelines for paying church musicians.


Should musicians be paid for their roles in the church or should they offer their talents freely as a gift to God? If a church does decide to pay its musicians, should remuneration take the form of a salary or an honorarium? What guidelines should churches follow in determining the amount of the salary or honorarium?