Paying the Piper — A Consideration of Church Musicians’ Salaries

Music Musing #110
by Dean McIntyre

Let's Begin with Some Widely Held Assumptions Among Church Musicians About Their Level of Compensation:

  1. Musicians are underpaid. Churches pay them less than they are worth.
  2. Musicians with comparable training, skill, and abilities working outside the church — in education, publishing, entertainment — are paid higher salaries.
  3. Low musician salaries are an issue of justice, fairness, and exploitation that the church refuses to recognize and correct.
  4. The general church should take responsibility for setting salaries for church musicians that would provide fair compensation throughout the connection.

Let's Go on to Some Statements of Fact About These Issues Within The United Methodist Church:

  1. The UMC does not set or recommend salaries or job descriptions for local church employees. This is now and has always been left entirely to the local congregation. These matters have never been addressed by the General Conference or The Book of Discipline.
  2. Within the local congregation, there is a process for setting salaries yearly that is mandated by The Book of Discipline. It is the responsibility of the church council to "recommend to the charge conference the salary and other remuneration of the pastor(s) and staff members after receiving recommendations from the committee on pastor-parish relations (staff-parish relations)" [Paragraph 252.4.d, Book of Discipline, 2004]. Thus, the process of determining musician salaries is a yearly process. It begins with a recommendation from the staff-parish relations committee, followed by establishment of the salary by the church council, and is completed with final approval by the charge conference.

Why Do Churches Pay Less Than the Musicians May Be Worth?
Some churches do pay an equitable or even a generous wage, of course, but the reasons why others do not are varied:

  1. The budget won't allow it. The church sets its budget based on a realistic picture of its anticipated ability to fund it from member offerings.
  2. Realistically, the church knows that it can find a musician to do the job for a certain amount and is reluctant to pay more than that, no matter how good the musician or how effective the ministry may be.
  3. There is no requirement for a church to pay a musician a certain amount of money, so it will pay as little as possible. This may be a simple attitude of miserliness on the part of the church, or it may be viewed as a matter of good stewardship of the people's offerings.
  4. Music is not seen as a particularly valuable or important part of the church's life.
  5. Historically and traditionally, many churches view music as a ministry that is accomplished by volunteers, those who will literally give of their time and talents as an offering to God and the church. Music is not seen as a calling or profession.
  6. For many musicians, church music is an avocation, hobby, or secondary interest. They have other primary jobs that pay a wage and benefits; hence, there is no need for the church to pay a primary salary.

Why does the general church not take control of these issues for musicians as it does pastors?

  1. Actually, the general church does not control these issues for clergy either. As noted above from The Book of Discipline, it is the local church that sets the pastor's salary. This is one of the required items that must be covered when the district superintendent presides at the church's annual charge conference. The musician's salary, while part of the church budget approved annually, is not included as a separate item on the district superintendent's agenda.
  2. The Book of Discipline (para. 624.3) requires each annual conference to establish a minimum salary for clergy that must be paid by congregations. There is no similar provision covering the employed lay staff of churches. In the Tennessee Conference in 2006, the minimum salary was set to range between $28,543 and $33,046, in addition to which churches pay other benefits, plus use of a parsonage or a housing allowance and utilities. Other annual conferences may have minimum salary ranges higher or lower than Tennessee's.
  3. Establishing salary requirements across the connection removes from consideration things such as local and regional costs of living; economic conditions; differences among musicians in abilities, training, education, experience; differences among church positions and job descriptions. Should a musician in New York City be paid the same salary as a musician in rural Idaho? How about in Mozambique or Russia?

What About Practices of Other Denominations, Organizations, and Sources?

  1. There are websites ( is one) that will provide local and regional information on salary ranges for different occupations. There are publications for sale that annually update their research on church positions and salaries. (See The 2016-2017 Compensation Handbook for Church Staff by James Cobble & Richard Hammar, published annually by Christian Ministry Resources, PO Box 1098, Matthews NC 28106; phone: 704-821-3845; website: And there are helpful website articles available. There are no official salary guidelines for musicians within The United Methodist Church, and there is no office or agency designated to track musician salaries or deal with this issue.
  2. The recommendations and guidelines developed by some of these sources come from the musicians themselves and are sometimes seen as suspect by churches. The AGO guidelines, for instance, are widely viewed as unrealistically high.
  3. These recommendations and guidelines, if ever implemented or mandated as policy, remove from the local church the authority to set its own salary levels, manage its own budget, and determine for itself matters related to staff employment.

How Do Musicians Seek Change in The United Methodist Church?

  1. Remember that guidelines and recommendations are just that: guidelines and recommendations. They may be studied, debated, and implemented; or they may be ignored. For hundreds of years, churches have decided for themselves what to pay their musicians, if anything. That likely will not change in The United Methodist Church today. Salary will remain a matter of supply and demand negotiated in the local church.
  2. Request and obtain a written job description. As duties and expectations change, as new responsibilities and demands are given, keep track of them and present them to the appropriate church body as salaries are considered and budgets set each year. Be direct in asking the church for an increase in salary or benefits in accordance with your work. Don't leave it up to the church to do on its own.
  3. Demonstrate to the church the value of your work:
    • Develop a program for all ages and musical styles.
    • Recruit and train leaders from within the congregation.
    • Don't be reluctant to take on tasks for yourself.
    • Be visible throughout the life of the congregation and the community.
    • Be a continual learner, improve your own skills, develop new skills, pursue continuing education, earn a music degree, pursue and obtain
    official UMC music certification through The General Board of Higher Education and Ministry.
  4. If you can demonstrate to the local church that your salary is less than that of a comparable musician and position in your community, do so. A meaningful comparison might be made between a full-time (or half-time) church musician and a public high school music teacher in the same community with similar credentials and experience.

A serious effort to bring these matters to discussion and consideration across the denomination would have to involve General Conference approving a study. Out of the study might come recommendations for change and implementation that General Conference could then consider, receive, act upon, revise, ignore, or reject.


Categories: Music Musings, Worship, Worship Planning