Should church pianists be paid?

Someone sent me an email last week that asked my opinion on pianists who look for churches that will pay them to play the piano.  The question is a common one but I don’t think it is too difficult.  I am fascinated not by the question itself but rather why the question is asked in the first place.

The reason I find this intriguing is because of an obvious double standard as to how church musicians are viewed.  For some reason, in our church culture, musicians that are paid by a church for making music are viewed with suspicion while other people that are paid by the church are not.

Some of you are not going to like what I am going to say and you are going to have counter arguments.  But before you present them, let me ask you to ask yourself this question: Would I say the same thing if I was talking about a paid church secretary?

Let’s break this down into two parts:
1) Should a church pay its pianists?
2) Is it OK for church pianists to search for paid church pianist jobs just as they might search for a job as an accountant?

The first question is easy. If a church pays other people in the church that have a similar level of responsibility and time requirements, why not pay the pianist?

For example, I have seen situations where a pianist practices hours during a week while the song leader spends only a few minutes before church flipping through a hymnal to pick out songs.  Sometimes, the pianist schedules music, rehearses groups, etc and the song leader does very little.  In such cases, it is completely illogical to pay the song leader and not the pianist.

Verses such as Luke 10:7 that are usually used to justify paying pastors apply just as much to pianists.  There is no justification for questioning the motive of a paid church pianist unless you want to question the motivation of everyone else that receives compensation from the church.

That is not to say a church is wrong if it doesn’t pay pianists and other musicians. And of course, there are other factors to consider.  For example, a pianist may not want to be paid.  That would be me. I used to go to a church that wanted to pay me, but I would not let them.  I have no interest in being an employee of my church, and frankly, the reasons why are fairly selfish.  But in my case, it especially makes no sense.  I am gone a lot and when I am there, my time investment outside of church/choir practice is zero since I sight read all the music and improvise offertories.

If you are a pianist and you accept money from your church, you should expect to increase your level of responsibility. You owe it to them to clear dates that you will be gone and you cannot let standard excuses like sick children keep you away from obligations.  In short, you are an employee and should extend all the courtesy to your church that you would extend to any other employer.

And here is a bit of advice.  Just because you may be worthy of pay does not mean that you should take it.  In general, I would not advise it.  Don’t accept pay unless you need it and/or you are investing time into the church music that might otherwise be invested in earning a livelihood.  Believe me when I say you will be happier if you can view your church music as a ministry rather than a job.  Besides that, most churches cannot afford to pay pianists, and that is especially true during this recession.

That brings us to the second part of the question.  There are paid church pianist positions available that pianists apply for.  Is there a problem with that?

Again, the answer is no.  Don’t pastors apply for church openings that way? Don’t music ministers and youth leaders?  Even a modest attempt at fairness precludes me from judging a pianist who 1) decides to earn a living playing the piano for a church and 2) searches for churches that have paid positions available.

Obviously, there are limitations.  A pianist should not go to a church that teaches bad theology or heresy.  On the essentials of the faith, there can be no compromise.  On less important aspects, there can be.  After all, I have yet to find a church that I agree with 100% and I am not even looking for a church that has an open full time pianist position.

To me this is all just common sense which is what makes me wonder why the question even exists.  But perhaps I am missing something. If so, enlighten me.  Just remember: before you make your argument, ask yourself whether you would say it about ANY church paid position.

After all, church musicians are just one cog in the wheel.  They are neither more special nor less special than anyone else that works in the church.