Music-Ministry-Equal Pay: Pick Two?

It was a rather innocuous question: "Is there a salary guide available? We are hiring a new Director of Music, and we want to pay her a fair salary."

In my capacity here at Creator [ed. note: this article was written in 2000, and was updated for clarity in 2013 and, most recently, 2021], I’m asked questions all the time, but this one was something else. It was touching to hear this pastor searching for a way to take care of his staff in an equitable manner. While that is not unheard of, it has been my experience that it is not the norm. As Rev. Jan Armstrong, former Pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Arroyo Grande, California, put it to me a long time ago, "There are two kinds of leaders. Those that take care of their leadership team first, secure in the knowledge that by taking care of their team they themselves will be taken care of, and those that take care of themselves first, often at the expense of their leadership team."

My experience has been that the latter of these two pastoral models is generally present where there is staff dysfunction and high staff turnover. This is not to say that there is a definite correlation between the two (there’s a topic for a dissertation), but rather that it is a contributing factor. Similarly, it is not true that all of the former pastoral models result in a happy, healthy staff, but, as they say, "it doesn’t hurt."

No Union Scale

Putting the staff relations issues aside, the pastor’s question also touched me because there is almost no way to apply a "union scale" to the position of Choir Leader/Music Director/Minister of Music/Pastor of Worship because, it is fair to say, no two congregations or job descriptions are alike. Further, no two candidates are alike in their training and experience. Adding to the confusion, the cost of living varies widely depending upon where you live.

Then there is the so- called "gender gap" though which our society seems to justify paying women less than men. While a discussion of this issue is not possible here, music ministry does seem to be filled with people (men and women) whose salary seems to be determined, in part, because "he/she is not the primary breadwinner in the family." Finally, some churches (or even denominations) view the worship/music ministry as "volunteer" while some view it as "professional" which means that expectations from one type of church to another can be quite different.

The end result is that a Pastor of Worship Ministries in a 5,000 member Presbyterian church in the Silicon Valley region of California, will be paid on a different scale than a Choir Director in a 100 member Community Church in Montana. They both will have a different scale than an Episcopal Organist/Choirmaster in a 750 member church in Greenville, South Carolina, or a Minister of Music in a Baptist congregation in Houston.

Some Guidelines Exist

Is it truly possible to generate a salary guide for church musicians? The answer is a qualified yes. At the time this was originally written, there used to be publicly available schedules. Perhaps the most well-known is that of the American Guild of Organists. This schedule was originally formulated some time ago, and is regularly updated to reflect increases in the cost of living (COLA). As a "national" schedule, however, it makes compromises on salaries which may or may not reflect reality in any given geographic location. Several of the regional chapters of AGO (Boston, Fairfield-West Connecticut, New York Metropolitan, Seattle, and Twin Cities to name a few) also have a schedule, which perhaps reflect more closely the cost of living issues in those particular regions.

But now, you'll need to join the organization to see this guide, and it is online only.

For those who work in Roman Catholic churches, the National Association of Pastoral Musicians also had a salary guideline booklet at the time this was originally written.

A helpful set of "Entry Level Salary Recommendations for Church Musicians" was, at one time, produced by the Presbyterian Association of Musicians. The bulk of PAM’s membership tends to be in "traditional" churches, often in the Eastern portion of the country.

All of these guidelines attempt to define what constitutes appropriate tasks for the employee. All are in agreement that preparation time is as important to church musicians as it is to high school teachers. As PAM puts it, "Due consideration must be given to more than the visible hours per week in which the church musician is engaged."

But even if these guidelines are not readily available, there are some basic "givens" that surround the decisions about compensation for church musicians and worship leaders.

Pressure from within...

The position of church musician/worship leader, however that is defined, has changed remarkably over the last half of the twentieth century. Readers of this magazine are well aware of how our content has reflected the evolution of the pastoral musician’s role from "just music" to include " and ministry" and lately, "and worship."

More is being asked of the position, both by pastors and by congregations. Fifty years ago, the model was a "lone ranger" who had an academic background in music, who probably taught at the local high school, and who directed a choir of middle aged people in a mainline denomination. That person had relative autonomy, working as an "adjunct" staff member, and was basically answerable to the single pastor.

Over the next few decades, children’s and youth choirs were added to the ministry mix. Now the musician needed to understand the unchanged and changing voice, provide music education, and learn how to present a yearly "musical" and plan an annual tour. If they were lucky, the program (and the church) grew so that additional directors were added. Generally these were volunteers from the congregation, and most often, women. As a children’s choir accompanist and a handbell choir director came on the scene, the job description grew to include supervising "employees."

The next big change was the "folk" revival of the late 60’s, which eventually (bear with me...this is a rather cursory historical skim) led, through the "Jesus Movement" to Praise Music—however you choose to define it. In an almost amazing lockstep with this development came the growth of the church orchestra. Both of these trends meant that instrumentalists now were part of the mix—this was no longer a "choral" job. Hopefully, an instrumental leader was found, who could recruit, find repertoire, and understand how to get the most out of two trombones, three flutes, a fiddle, a trumpet, an accordion, and a couple of flaky bassoon players.

And we haven’t even touched on the worship band...

Many pastors (the church in question now has at least a youth pastor, and maybe even a children’s pastor, right?) during this period came out of seminary as "guitar musicians"—able to lead small group or campfire worship in "sing-a-long" repertoire. These pastors became the forefront of a movement from the congregation to be "more relevant"—"We don’t want no stinkin’ J.S. Whoever here"—and the driving force was the boomer generation and their comfort with the rock ‘n roll vocabulary. Now the (generally keyboard trained) church musician (who is either older, or younger) has to find a way to be conversant with a new style entirely, and to do it well in the face of technical improvements in recording technology.

Oh yes, the sound system and the digital board...

But, wait! We forgot about the fact that as the program has grown, and as parishioners have become more comfortable with our musician, and as the trend to "small group ministry" grew in the church as a whole, the need has arisen to be pastoral as well. This is no longer a "phone it in on Thursday" position. There are parent meetings. There are prayer breakfasts. There are meetings to plan cross departmental events. There are hospital visits. There are new member brunches. There are denominational conferences. There are staff retreats, and choir retreats, and choir cabinet retreats, and worship team retreats, and...

Oh, did I tell you about Taize?  And you do have a concert series, right?

But, as they say on the Ginzu commercials, there’s more...

"We need to have a contemporary service to complement our traditional one and our blended one. And I think it needs to be on Saturday night, because we don’t have the space on Sunday morning. We want to start in September. Since this is June, that will give you enough time to plan it, right?"

Pressure from without...

Let’s go back to that magical time 50 years ago. Back when the US was on the gold standard. Before the inflationary post-Vietnam years. When if you earned $20,000 per year, you could live like a king, or at least you thought so. Our "imaginary" choir director probably did fairly well, given the low cost of living and the teaching salary. The church salary was "gravy."

That was before our union workers became the highest paid on the planet. That was before automobiles cost $20,000. That was before a college education at a state university would set you back $125,000 (you have how many children?) That was before there seemed to be a " millionaire" on every block, and before the number of your stock options became almost as important as your salary. That was before the starting salary of a typical college graduate in a technical field topped $50,000, without benefits. That was before the unemployment rate dropped to the point where if you weren’t working it was because you didn’t want to. Perhaps most importantly, that was when Social Security was going to take care of everyone in their old age.

Churches, it is true, are "non-profit" entities, and as such, like government agencies, typically pay less than the market rate. The government jobs do have the benefit of almost ironclad security of employment. It is safe to say, however, that for the equivalent number of hours worked, it would be easier to earn a better salary in another line of work.

And then we get to benefits. Forget the stock options, but how about the basics? It is rare to find a "non-temporary" position in the marketplace that does not include medical benefits as part of the total compensation package. Most employers now include dental benefits as well. It is not uncommon for an employer to make provisions for "family leave"—for the bereavement, birth, and even adoption cycles of human life.

While two weeks vacation is a baseline, it is typical for an employee to get three, and not uncommon to get four weeks, eventually. In many cases, vacation time increases with length of tenure to as much as five or six weeks per year.

Over the last few years the issue of overtime has become a hot button to many employees. While our church musician may be considered an "exempt" employee and not subject to overtime rules, fairness should be an issue. I have heard tales of an administrative assistant at a church being able to take "comp time"—an equivalent amount of "off" time to make up for overtime worked—the musician, particularly the part time employee, has no such perk.

And now let’s talk 401k, shall we? The ability to have such a plan does exist for our church musician, and it is a benefit extended to many pastors and clerical employees. This type of retirement plan works wonderfully when there is an "employer match"—a common benefit in private industry. In essence, for every dollar an employee sets aside, pre-tax, the employer matches. Some companies match dollar for dollar up to a maximum. Some match a total percentage. However it is done, it allows the employee to accrue retirement benefits without having to pay taxes until they are withdrawn. This generally amounts to a significant tax savings, and an accumulating nest egg.

The general "rule of thumb" is that benefits will add somewhere between 20 per cent and one third to the base salary to arrive at the total compensation package. As the Twin Cities AGO Guidelines state:

"Any position specifying a time commitment over 25 hours weekly should include the following provisions:

• Major medical insurance

• Pension plan

• Disability compensation

• Life Insurance"

For those who are interested, consult your tax advisor about such things as cafeteria plans, housing allowances, and expense accounting for such things as mileage for travel to workshops, continuing education, and the like.

Remember that the marketplace is constantly changing. As Courtney Ronan points out in an article at : "As we...head into a new century, employers are realizing they’re going to have to sweeten the pot, so to speak, more than ever before...Family-friendly policies being instituted in workplaces nationwide are representative of a growing national shift in priorities—the recognition that life has to find a careful balance between work and home."

Perhaps one day the granting of sabbatical leave will be a typical perk in the church. What better example could the church set for its congregation in this area?

How to Interpret the Data

The national AGO guidelines used, according to James E. Thomashower, the AGO’s current Executive Director, as their original basis for development, the salaries of a "typical" high school teacher. As they point out, the salaries on their schedule reflect "smaller, rural areas of the country." The PAM guidelines put it another way: "Figures should be adjusted regionally and reevaluated annually in accordance with the cost-of living index."

Courtney Ronan points out:

"Many cost-of-living comparisons fail to take into consideration the effect that changes in income, housing quality and/or size of household will have upon the availability of disposable income...Runzheimer International, which specializes in this very subject, recommends that consumers take into account four primary factors when considering cost-of-living changes: housing, transportation, goods and services, and taxes."

New York City as a Baseline

So how do you set a baseline from which to compare your salary? It helps to have a point of reference. Fortunately, there is one such reference point in the work of the New York City chapter of the AGO (their "Minimum Annual Base Salary Guidelines" is found at the link below, as well as online at ). One advantage of these figures is that almost everyone can figure their local cost of living expenses in reference to New York City (use google). The NYCAGO information is helpful when you compare salaries for New York City Public School teachers ($31,910 to $87,713 plus benefits in 2000), and the New York Philharmonic (beginning at $91,260 plus benefits in 2000). In addition to the benefits listed by the Twin Cities AGO, NYCAGO states:

"Benefits that should be part of a compensation package include...Dental Insurance...Paid Sick Leave, Paid and Unpaid Maternity/Paternity Leave, Unemployment Benefits, and Paid Vacation. It is strongly recommended that employees receive continuing education funds as well as periodic sabbatical leave."

A significant feature of the NYCAGO Guidelines is the inclusion of four experience levels in each category to assist in further calculating appropriate compensation. The site also includes a wonderful worksheet (see link below) for calculating the time requirements of a particular position.


Is the Sky Falling?

The national AGO guidelines (or any other of these guidelines) may come as a shock to musicians and churches alike. In the particular case of a musician who has been at a church for a long time, the salary for that individual may not have "kept up." This brings up two points:

• The Guidelines are just guidelines

For whatever reasons, either the musician, the church, or both can choose to ignore or disregard these figures. If this is "musician-generated" then remember during the two weeks before Christmas when you are knee deep in Christmas Eve service planning, and writing an annual report for the congregational meeting, and there are two tech rehearsals for the Christmas program in the next two days, and your children’s lead’s voice has just changed, and your bell choir is ravaged with the flu...remember that you chose to work for your compensation. It does no good to complain after an agreement on compensation has been reached.

• If you don’t ask, you won’t receive

The Biblical parallel aside, worship ministry is the only activity that involves every member of the church. One Pastor for Worship Ministries says, somewhat lightheartedly, "every dollar specifically earmarked for the worship ministry will bring back $10 in the offering plates."

While this person is speaking of program budgets, the point is well taken. Non-worship activities at churches tend to be "self-supporting" (that concert series comes to mind) or "subsidized" by the general budget (there may be a Sunday School that generates enough money through children’s offerings to pay for the Children’s Ministry Pastor, but I don’t know of one).

If the worship ministry is truly important to a particular church, paying a "living wage" to the employees of that ministry seems to be only the proper thing to do. Some (many I would guess) churches may need to "work up" to the current Guidelines, but all should acknowledge the worth of the ministry itself, and how it has changed.

One aspect of the "new" qualifications is pinpointed by Douglas Lawrence, Minister of Worship and Music at Menlo Park Presbyterian Church: "The church musician of today can no longer be just ‘face in’—a choir director who only has to please the choir. Now the demand is for a ‘face out’ platform person who needs to please the entire congregation. The difference in expectations is enormous."

The Struggle of the Middle Sized Church

Lawrence goes on to say that in a mid-sized church, the struggle to accept the financial reality of hiring a "face out" person is real, and often heart-rending. If the church’s general budget can’t support the personnel to facilitate "bigger program," then mid-sized churches will be faced with a difficult choice over the next generation: take a "leap of faith" that investing in worship will bring general budget dollars, or remain status quo. Neither choice bodes well: choose to "stay" and the church will lose gifted people to bigger churches. Choose to "grow" and pick the wrong candidate, and the financial commitment may plunge the church into the poorhouse.

One final reminder, which comes from Bob Burroughs, Director of the Church Music Department of the Florida Baptist Convention: "This article might be an exercise in futility, because churches are going to do whatever they please with regard to compensation for their church musicians—with or without any guidelines—and most do not even seek guidelines. They have done this in the past, are doing it now and will continue to do it in the future. Those men/women who are making an excellent contribution and are committed to ministry as well as music will do well—God promised that. Those who are in it for "glory of music" and for "money" will always have a problem with whatever they are paid!"

There’s an old saying in the printing industry: quick, cheap, good—pick two. What have you or your church chosen?

Final Thoughts


There is an update to this article, published several years later. You can view that article by clicking here.

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