The Case for Paying Musicians and Techs

As I'm on vacation this week (and I'm taking a real vacation, meaning I'm not just sitting at home instead of working), I've decided to re-post some popular posts from the past. And because I'm an over-achiever, I'm re-mixing them a little bit. So if you read this before, read it again. It's probably changed some!

This is one of those, “Thinking out loud” posts for me. It’s been a topic of conversation at our church for the past several months, particularly as budgets have been cut (again). Actually, I’ve been thinking about it on and off since I moved to Minneapolis in 2007; that’s when I first encountered paid musicians and techs in the church. Prior to that, all the musicians and techs I’ve worked with had been volunteers. Honestly, it’s one of those topics that has left me still working on a position. Before I dive into my still-forming conclusions, let’s consider both sides of the debate.

The Case for Paying Musicians (I’ll get to techs in a minute)

Those that support paying musicians in church are likely to point out that the church has a long history of supporting the arts and should continue. Paying the band—that is, artists who make their living playing or teaching music—is a continuation of that tradition. Supporters would also agree that the musical worship time of the service is important, and paying for professional musicians will deliver better results with less rehearsal time. It’s also important to note that a band that’s paid is under a little tighter control of the worship leader or music director. They tend to show up closer to the call time (or they don’t work as often), and it’s easier set and enforce expectations. As a general rule, the quality of musicianship tends to be higher with a paid band, and that even makes it a lot more fun for the FOH engineer (who may be paid or volunteer). I’m sure there are other reasons to pay musicians, and the ones I just mentioned are all good ones. Honestly, I don’t really disagree with any of them. 

On the other hand, where does it stop? Surely the FOH or monitor position requires just as much skill and training as does a band member, so should we pay those positions? Over the history of Coast Hills, that’s been the tradition. However, based on my budget for the year, that tradition is coming to an end. When I was in Minneapolis, I always found it odd that the musicians were paid but the FOH engineer was not. But what about the guy who helps out doing graphic design for the church? If he’s a freelancer, he’s an artist making his living doing design; if we want to support the arts, do we pay him as well? What about the teacher who leads a kid’s Sunday School class? Do we pay her also? Or the carpenter who helps out building sets for the Christmas production?

I’m not trying to be overly dramatic, but at some level, you can make the case for paying almost everyone who volunteers their time at a church. Might we get friendlier ushers if we paid them? Maybe, but at what point does paying people to “serve” turn church into an attraction to be visited rather than a body that serves?

Part of the equation that further muddies the water is the distinction between bringing in outside musicians and contractors and people from the body. In our case, we have both serving every weekend. Actually, we often have three classes of musicians; outside contractors who don’t call Coast Hills their home; professional musicians that are part of our body, and are paid; and volunteers who may be project managers or firemen but also play a mean instrument. This strange mix has never been a source of consternation (at least that I’ve seen), which is a testament to our team’s leadership. However, it is interesting. What is more interesting is seeing what happens when budgets get cut and people who used to be paid can’t be paid any longer. Some keep on playing, others sit out.

The Case for Volunteers

The other side of this coin is to use all volunteers—that’s been my experience for most of my church life. In fact, I’ve been a volunteer TD far longer than I’ve been a paid one. I made my living working in the professional production world and gave my time at church. The way I saw it, I’m not good with kids, I don’t like to greet people and I can’t sing. But I am a good tech, so that’s where I served. I’m sure I’ve given thousands of hours to the churches I’ve been a part of over the years, and loved (almost) every minute of it.

We talk a lot about putting ministry back in the hands of the people at Coast. When I use that phrase, I mean trying to find people who are gifted in various areas (in my case, tech) and empowering them to serve. For me, it’s not about saving the church money (though that is a nice side benefit) it’s about giving people the opportunity to serve. It’s like giving of our finances; when we give, we benefit more than the church does. It’s about obedience and becoming more like Jesus (who is our example for being a servant). There is no better way to grow in our walk with Christ than to serve, and a big part of me thinks that when we bring in paid people from the outside, we deprive those in our midst of growing in their walk with Christ.

Sometimes however, a church is really just looking to save money and cuts out all the paid musicians and tech people. That's one way to trim a budget, but if the expectations are not adjusted, few will be happy with the results. It takes a long time to get really good at what we do, and while it's easy to make the decision in the board room, it's a lot tougher in the field.

So where do I land on all this? I don’t know yet. I see the case for paying musicians, especially the ones in our midst. I love those guys and I know how hard it is to make a living as a musician; I want to support them. I also know that the positions we’re talking about (musicians & FOH engineers) take highly specialized skill sets. You can’t just cut a budget and say, “The band and FOH have to be volunteers from now on.” I figure it takes a solid year to train someone to mix FOH at the level we expect at our church (unless the volunteer is committed to doing it every week, then it goes faster). And truthfully, few are cut out for it.

I've been talking with quite a few TDs about this recently, and it seems that there are a few positions in the church that need to be paid. Quite a few churches are starting to look at the FOH engineer as a necessary paid position because of it's visibility, importance and the high degree of specialized training required. Whether a paid FOH engineer is a requirement at your church will depend on the level of production excellence required. While I'm busy training new audio volunteers, I'm a bit nervous that when we start getting them on the board during a live service, their performance won't be up to the level expected by leadership. And that puts us in an interesting position. 

At the same time, some of my greatest experiences in life happened when I was volunteering at church. I want to open as many doors for that to happen as possible. On the other hand (I told you this was a complex issue...), everyone—and I do mean everyone, Sr. Pastor & board included—have to be willing to accept the compromises that come with non-professional talent on stage and behind the board. It’s not going to be perfect. Notes will be missed, mics will be muted when they should be on. We all have to be willing to live with that.

What say you? Are musicians and techs paid at your church? If so (or not) how do you feel about that?

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