A New Twist On Paying Musicians

A while back I wrote about Rock Star Worship Leaders – those megachurch music directors who don’t really do all that much to earn a full-time salary since they have a staff who lead the band, write charts and schedule volunteers.

Since then I’ve had lots of “that’s exactly what’s happening at my church” – type feedback. I was talking to the band leader at a megachurch (I guess they need to hire a band leader since the worship leader can’t… lead a band) and I mentioned chord charts. “Oh, we don’t use chord charts at all” he explained. “We just throw the MP3s up on Planning Center and let the band figure out the songs for themselves.” So this lucky, full-time worship leader doesn’t even have to make chord charts!

At least he does go to the effort of choosing his own music for the praise set. One praise team member at a megachurch recently told me his full-time worship leader literally does nothing but show up on Sunday mornings. Seriously, he does nothing but lead the music! On top of not doing anything, he doesn’t even pick the music (that’s the music director’s job!) I know this is unbelievable to you part time and volunteer worship leaders who are working several jobs to make ends meet, plus do everything at your church, but it is happening.

And as I said in the article, megachurches are starting to figure this out and are getting rid of the freeloaders. You can understand how it happened: many megachurch pastors are in the Baby-Boomer range and probably grew up in a church that had a full-time music director who led the choir, rehearsed an orchestra, went on trips with the youth choir, organized a hand-bell choir and directed a senior-adult choir (in addition to hospital visitation duty.)

So that’s just what you do as a pastor – you hire a full time worship leader – and that’s what they did. Except today’s megachurch worship leader has none of those responsibilities, and really doesn’t have all that much to do to fill a forty-hour-a-week job.

As megachurches start to restructure their hiring policies, here’s what’s going to happen: instead of paying a full time worship leader, they’ll pay part time or contract. Or, better yet, they’ll split up that full time salary and pay an entire worship band. Each band member, for part-time pay, would have his or her specific duties: the lead singer might pick the songs and create the lyrics files for the presentation software. The keyboard player will make the charts. The bass player will schedule volunteers. The drummer will create loops and tracks. The guitarist will lead rehearsals.

Doesn’t this sound a bit more equitable? Just like in the middle ages when the Church supported the arts, the modern Church will start supporting the artists (what a wonderful way to make an impact in this world where the music industry has completely tanked.) Instead paying big bucks to a rock star who does little or nothing while the musicians who are doing all the work are paid peanuts, everyone earns a decent salary for honest work. And as all artists know, the way to make a living with music these days is to do a little bit of everything to make ends meet.

In this paradigm, artists make enough from their church job to pay their most basic living expenses while supplementing their incomes by other gigs, recording projects and teaching. Maybe musicians will stop flocking to NY, LA and Nashville to find careers and decide to stay home and work at their local church (I’m seeing this happen at one megachurch – they’re hiring a horde of happy and extremely talented part-time musicians who now don’t feel the need to move to the big cities.)

I didn’t come up with this theory – I’ve heard similar discussions from people like Carlos Whittaker, and schools like the National Praise & Worship Institute are preparing student bands to be hired as a group by megachurches.

This all just applies to the fascinating but relatively small world of the megachurches who follow the whims of the culture (if Katy, Kanye and Kelly start recording all-orchestral albums then megachurches are gonna start looking for orchestral conductors.) The majority of worship leaders working in normal churches who don’t have huge hiring budgets needn’t worry. Even as smaller ministries become more contemporary, as long as the worship leader can juggle multiple tasks like graphics, technology, band leading, charting and scheduling, he or she will be assured a decent level of full-time job security.

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