Thursday, July 05, 2007

Are you paying your organist enough?

In one of my former places of employment, in the sacristy there hung a sign which said:

Working for the Church doesn't pay very much, but the retirement benefits are out of this world.

Anyone can get a chuckle from this, but the truth is that we cannot skirt the important issue of making sure that lay employees can put food on their tables (and checks in the mail to their college creditors). Oftentimes the same pastors who like to talk endlessly about social justice are paying their employees a pittance and offering no benefits to boot.

I was rather impressed some time ago when a priest whom I know well approached me, seeking advice on whether or not he was paying his parish musicians enough. (As it turns out, he was.) It was the first time a Catholic clergyman had expressed genuine concern about this to me. In a follow-up to the conversation, I sent the good priest this salary guide from the American Guild of Organists. Careful now: most of you will want to sit down before you open that document.

To many, the salaries of church musicians seem too high. However, one must consider that the best of them have undergone extensive and very expensive training--a training which is often ongoing, even after the completion of terminal degrees. At the same time, in order for an organist to be available to attend to all the duties expected of him, he often cannot hold a second job. Moreover, the parish musician does a great deal of behind the scenes planning, reading, and practicing which takes up hours a week. And it is all unseen but to his closest collaborators. All of this must be taken into account when figuring the salary of your parish musicians.

In the old days, even many of the largest parish churches had only two lay employees on staff--three at most: the secretary, the janitor, and maybe a housekeeper. Now there are music directors, DRE's, pastoral associates, etc. As long as these positions exist, and as long as we expect those who occupy them to be competent (Dare we expect them to be excellent?), we need to be making sure that they are being paid a just wage. It's not that they should be getting the salaries which one would find in a wealthy corporation, but, at the same time, those in charge of parish finances need to realize that the Church should not offer itself a discount when it comes to employees any more than those employees get a discount from their living expenses for working in the house of God.

Summer time is contract time, when pastors and employees renew their commitment to each other. It's the time for the pastor to re-evaluate whether he's being fair to the employees, and it is the time for the employees to ponder the same question. I urge everyone to do their part in promoting the fairest system possible.

Oh, one more thing. If legitimate parish financial difficulties make it impossible to pay reasonable wages, then expectations need to be lowered.

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