Should Church Musicians Get Paid?

Should church musicians get paid, or should they be expected to provide their talents for free to the body of Christ? I have no hard, fast answer. I’m simply putting the question on the table because it deserves more consideration than it is often given.

In the past, no church ever offered to pay me for my services as a musician, and I never expected nor asked to be paid. I was happy to do what I did gratis in service to God. However, the church I now attend does pay me–not a large amount, but a meaningful amount, enough that it adds up and helps me pay the bills. More, it provides a tangible expression of appreciation and respect. As the old adage says, it’s the thought that counts. My musical abilities haven’t come to me freely, quickly, or easily, and it’s nice to have that fact recognized and valued

My involvement with this church started over a year ago with an invitation to sit in with their contemporary worship team. I received fifty bucks for doing so and was invited to sit in again whenever and as often as I chose. The openness of that arrangement has been ideal for where I’m at in life. I’ve found myself playing with the team more often than not, and in the process, I’ve been drawn to other aspects of the church as well, relationships being foremost.

When I first became a Christian more than thirty years ago, the presiding attitude toward musicians in the churches I attended was that we were to play strictly “the Lord’s music.” If it didn’t have an overtly Christian message, then it wasn’t appropriate material for a Christian musician. Not anytime, anywhere. That worldly stuff just didn’t fly.

From a practical standpoint, this theologically flawed taboo on anything other than Christian music and any venues other than church and Christian events was disastrous. The only halfway decent money I made back then as a budding jazz saxophonist was from “secular” gigs. But, wanting to please the Lord–and at the time, I naively mistook the conventions of religious culture for the will of God–I dropped out of the local music scene at the precise time when I should have been forging connections, learning my craft on the bandstand, and making at least some semblance of money.

The sacrifice was one I made willingly, but its financial and vocational implications weren’t understood by those who expected it of me. Churches wanted my musical skills, but none of them thought to compensate me for them; yet they’d have looked at me askance had I used my talent to make a buck or two playing in the clubs. The result was a catch-22 both monetarily and developmentally. And my situation was far from unusual. In that religious culture, it was the norm for musicians.

I’ve told you this story not to whine about the past, but to shed a little light on the realities of being a musician in the church. In doing so, it’s practical to point out that not all church musicians are the same. They have different perspectives toward their craft and invest their time into it accordingly. For most, music is simply a hobby; for a few, however, it is an avocation and even a vocation. For many, music is one small facet of a multifaceted life; but for a handful, it’s a lifestyle and a livelihood. Most church musicians develop enough skill to do a good job meeting the needs of their praise team; but a small percentage practice daily for hours, year after year, to develop abilities that can transform how a praise team sounds.

My purpose in drawing these contrasts is not to create some snobbish and divisive musical caste system. In the words of the apostle Paul, “What do you have that you did not receive? And if you did receive it, why do you boast as though you did not?” (1 Corinthians 4:7). There is no gift any of us is given that doesn’t come from God, and humility is the only appropriate response.

However, it’s still up to every musician to cultivate his or her gift, and some do so to a greater degree than others. That’s how it is in a life that requires prioritization and trade-offs. Those who invest themselves more deeply into the pursuit of musical excellence often pay dues that others know nothing of. As a hobby, music is fun; as a vocation, it is costly in terms of time, finances, and relationships. To pursue music seriously is deeply satisfying, but it can also be disappointing, frustrating, and sometimes heartbreaking, demanding much of one’s life and returning little in the way of making a living.

All this to say that musicians are worthy of their wages. Does that mean churches ought to pay their musicians? That’s for every church to determine for itself based on the realities of its size and budget. If you can’t afford it, then you can’t afford it. But if you can, trust me, it will be much appreciated and well-deserved.

Worship is not a commercial venture. It’s an act of the heart, and I’ve never met anyone in worship ministry who has approached it with any other attitude. No one is in it for the money, any more than pastors take up pastoring because it’s such a lucrative profession. It’s a matter of calling, not cash.

But it still takes cash to make house payments, buy food, and keep the car running and the utilities operable. That’s why Paul wrote,

If we have sown spiritual seed among you, is it too much if we reap a material harvest from you? If others have this right of support from you, shouldn’t we have it all the more?…Don’t you know that those who work in the temple get their food from the temple, and those who serve at the altar share in what is offered on the altar? In the same way, the Lord has commanded that those who preach the gospel should receive their living from the gospel. (1 Corinthians 9:11–14)

While Paul himself chose to forego the privilege he describes above, he makes it plain that those who invest their lives into preaching the gospel have the same needs as anyone else and deserve to have them met. You could argue that Paul was referring exclusively to pastors and preachers. But of course, the early churches didn’t have music ministries, or children’s ministries, or teen ministries, or any of the other ministries and programming that we take for granted today. So I think there’s room to apply the principle to a church’s musicians, at least as much as is practical.

It’s certainly not unscriptural to honor a musician’s investment of time and dedication by helping him or her pay the electric bill. That kind of tangible care and appreciation can make a real difference, not only in the pocketbook but also in the heart.

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  1. This IS a very interesting question…I used to feel uncomfortable getting paid the stipend for singing in churches, but I’ve come to recognize it as a true appreciation for what I’m bringing to the church and I feel blessed that the churches recognize that. I’m still the same performer – and sing from my heart and soul, but it makes it that much nicer that I’m part of their service and they’re part of mine.

  2. I’m glad you get compensated, Francesca. I think it’s an issue that both musicians and churches need to deal with. I don’t think there’s a one-size-fits-all answer. I recognize that volunteer staff are the lifeblood of churches with limited operating budgets. However, I do believe it’s important for musicians who choose to contribute their talents gratis to their church to do so from a sense of personal conviction and leading by the Lord, not out of guilt, obligation, or pressure from religious culture.

    I also believe that churches need to consider the needs of their musicians. If a church is raising money for a building program while one of its volunteer musicians struggles to pay the bills, would it not be appropriate to dignify that musician’s contribution with financial compensation? It doesn’t have to be a lot in order to add up and make a difference in ways that go beyond money alone.

    I remember a time, now many years ago, when I got a phone call from a church asking me to play for their pastor’s birthday celebration. When I inquired whether they planned to pay me–a bold question for me to ask at a time when I was just learning to ask it–there was a pause. Then the person said, “We were thinking that we’d feed you.” I didn’t know the pastor, the church, or the caller. I requested $75.00, and that was the last I heard from them. That’s how it was back then, at least in the circles I was in.

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