If you have spent any amount of time working on a church worship team, you have inevitably encountered the discussion of paying musicians to play. This is a conversation I have had more and more lately. I should preface this blog by explaining I have been leading worship at my local church for over 10 years. We run around 250 people each week. Our team has consisted of gigging musicians, born-and-raised at this church musicians, and relatively young musicians actively growing in their skills. So when is it appropriate to pay musicians in church?
There is not a criteria checklist to go down in order to determine this answer. So let’s begin by asking you some questions.
- Is your church in a financial position that it is able to pay the musicians?
- Are the musicians truly professional in their roles? (i.e. Are they on time, have they adequately practiced the songs on their own time and learned the tunes, is their skill worthy of compensation?)
- Are their alternative options within the church body capable of filling the need?
- Do you value them?
Because I am pulled a few different directions on this topic, let me first speak in favor of paying the team members followed up with the arguments opposed.
I think it safe to say we can agree that Sunday morning services are the most important service for local churches in America. As such, the efforts and skill of the Sunday morning team should be quality. No doubt there are many “musicians” who think they are great. All they have ever heard their whole life is mom or dad tell them how great they are. Let’s face it, most musicians are not as great as they think they are. Plus, unnecessarily arrogant musicians are kind of annoying – especially when they have a bad attitude as well.
As a worship leader who is also responsible for many other areas at the church, I have a plethora of things on my mind every week. I shouldn’t have to worry about whether the electric guitar player is going to show up or if the drummer has gone over the songs. We should be able to get together for a practice and already have a good baseline to go from. When it comes time for a sound check, there shouldn’t not be a need to constantly ask other musicians to stop playing while we are getting levels or dealing with other issues. I shouldn’t have to identify a poorly tuned instrument early in practice because that musician didn’t see the need to tune before we started. And the question, “will musician X be able to play with the click?” should not ever run through my mind. Nevertheless, these are the types of things that one encounters with unpaid musicians.
If you are capable of landing those professional musicians, there is also the ability to increase expectation since compensation is included. Furthermore, if their respective craft is how they earn a living, it is only fair to treat them as such.
Perhaps you aren’t aware, but a common problem within the church world is that people get grinded up in the mechanical wheels of the “church machine.” The betterment of the church tends to supersede all else including the health of ones family, relationships, and sadly, their own spiritual wellbeing. I have seen this time and time again and it almost always leads to burnout or a callused view of church and Christianity. This primarily happens when one’s profession is able to be exploited by a church. You wouldn’t see a pastor expect a lawyer to give free legal services or an architect expected to design a new church building for free simply because they are a Christian who attends that church. But get a bass player, sound engineer or camera operator in your church and it is just a natural thing to ask them to use their craft for free in the name of “serving God.”
But does all of this argument mean we should pay musicians? Ultimately, the whole discussion comes down to a heart issue in my opinion. When I say “heart issue,” I’m referring to that of both the musician and the church.
Many of the paid church musicians that I know take the gigs simply as just that, a gig. I have rarely seen a true buy-in to the vision of the pastor or the other aspects of that church body. I never hear these individuals discuss attending a small group, Sunday school or even services that they aren’t on the schedule to play at. This is an issue for me. I want a high level of professionalism on the stage. And of course I want our Sunday service to be at its best. But where do I draw the line? Is there no value placed on those who serve on stage interacting and being in community with those who do not? The job of the worship team is to lead the congregation in worship and point them to the Lord. Something is lost when one who leads has no relationship with those he or she leads.
Is it possible that bringing outside musicians in robs existing decent musicians that already worship at the church from having an opportunity to use their gifts to serve the body and glorify God? I can envision the professional responding to this question by saying “The other musician is just not any good.” Likewise, that other musician, as previously mentioned, thinks they are great. I can actually recall times when team members have made comments along the lines,
“We don’t even need to practice because we are that good when we get together.” These can be referred to as “Big fish in a little sea.”
Not paying musicians has put me in a bind on more than one occasion where I had to go without various instruments. How about when you don’t have a sound engineer? This is possibly one of the most important roles during a Sunday morning service.
You can have the best musicians in the world but if the sound is bad, it won’t matter.
Our small church simply does not have the budget to pay musicians. So what do I do? How do I overcome this obstacle?
First and possibly most important, I try my very hardest to always appreciate those who volunteer. Whenever I am able to do this tangibly, I do my best. And when I am not, I make it crystal clear how much I wish I could. I look for opportunities to take members out to eat, do appreciation cookouts at my place, put gas in the tank, or find more specific ways to say thank you. I never blow up or act less professional towards them than I would expect them to act towards me. And I tout their praise to others as best I am able.
This is part of that “Heart issue” comment. I want the musicians to give their best and care about the vision and community of the church. But it is important that I treat them with the respect and appreciation they deserve.
The truth is, team members should take their role serious as if they were being paid top dollar regardless of their compensation. And I should treat team members with appreciation and respect as if they were top musicians offering their services for free. The underlying principle behind this thought process isn’t due to the Golden Rule either. It is because we were given our talents by God and if we are going to use them to worship and glorify Him, as we should, then He deserves our very best rather than our leftovers without thought of how we are compensated.
Going back to those initial questions, if you are a church capable of paying musicians and you have quality professional musicians who don’t just treat the church like a gig, then I think you should treat them just like you would the lawyer or architect. Don’t make exploitation a practice in the church. Conversely, if you are unable to pay musicians, there is still an obligation to appreciate those who serve.
For the musicians out there, never treat worship as a gig. Be genuine in who you are and recognize where your talent comes from. Use it to glorify God. Though you might do the same songs in service, don’t be lazy. Learn those songs. Practice those songs. Improve your craft and never stop looking for ways to serve the Lord. Your compensation is not in money even if there are times when money is involved.
How about you? What has your experience been? How do you feel about these things?