Organist jobs die in worship wars

Of all the subjects that I write about for the Scripps Howard News Service, columns about trends in worship consistently generate some of the most intense responses from readers.

Nevertheless, it’s hard to say when a few anecdotes about changes in a few major churches constitute an actual news trend. If the Catholic Church revises the missal, that’s news. Change the Book of Common Prayer and that’s news. But how does one cover the diverse, sprawling world of megachurch Protestantism? How many high-def video screens and rock-show lighting systems does one need to create a national news story?

But CNN.com recently served up a legitimate story about a major worship trend, a story linked to the “worship wars” debates that have been growing for several decades.

There are all kinds of issues to debate about this story — which only shows that the subject is quite complex. But let’s not miss the fact that the story needed to be written in the first place. Here’s the top of the report:

No one has touched the organ at First United Methodist Church in Oakland, Neb., since last January. That’s when 80-year-old Pat Anderson played her last note as the small-town church’s volunteer organist, a post she held for 18 years.

“It was time for me to retire,” she said. When she did, there was nobody to step in. Two young women have taken over the musical duties for the 190-member congregation, but they play a digital piano — not the organ.

“There are some people who wish we had the organ still, but they face the reality that it just isn’t going to happen,” said the Rev. Richard Karohl.

First United’s struggle is indicative of a nationwide plight: There aren’t enough organists to fill all of the open church positions. Many of the stay-at-home moms who once volunteered as organists are working now, and fewer young people are studying the organ. Those who are training to be professionals aren’t interested in playing for small churches where the music program is limited to Sunday services and the pay is minimal — if there’s pay at all.

Once you’ve read the story, note that this issue is framed as a problem within the nation’s more liberal mainline Protestant churches. This is a story with roots. About two decades ago, there were stories about how many urban churches were losing their skilled organists and musicians because of the AIDS crisis.

Now, other factors are at play — including money. Many small mainline churches are getting even smaller, for a number of reasons. The people in the pews are also aging, which means that the audience for traditional church music is declining with the membership decline. The World War II era faithful are passing from the scene.

There are skilled musicians out there. But who can afford them?

“There’s a great supply [of organists] for the right kind of jobs,” said James Thomashower, executive director of the 18,000-member American Guild of Organists. Compared to 30 years ago, there are fewer trained organists — but they’re chasing fewer attractive positions. It’s a buyers’ market for churches with ambitious music programs.

“There are many, many highly qualified organists who would like to have a fine job on a fine instrument that pays a good wage,” Thomashower said.

That wage, according to the Guild, should be between $63,000 and $83,000 a year, including benefits, for a full-time organist with a bachelor’s degree in organ performance or sacred music.

This, in an era in which many mainline churches are struggling to even pay a decent salary-and-benefits package for a pastor. Is it easier and cheaper to use a piano, a volunteer “praise and worship” band or some other compromise? But pop/folk service music in aging mainline churches? That’s a recipe for, yes, worship wars.

So this story represents a good start in covering a major story. What’s next? For starters, CNN needs to fill the gaping hole caused by the lack of information about finances and membership issues in mainline churches. In other words, where did the jobs go?

Meanwhile, note that this report does not address what is happening in the new American mainline, which is the world of independent evangelical and Pentecostal churches. That’s where the numbers are, today. And, trust me, there are worship wars stories in those flocks, as well. Go for it.

Photo: From GovernmentAuctions.org

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Frank-Judd-PhD/664693830 Frank Judd PhD

    Nice article, thanks for sharing. As a praise band leader I’d like to share that the churches I work for do not value the contemporary music worship much. The pay is barely minimum wage and the thing that really gets me is the desire of these two churches to spend over $65.000 each for an organ upgrade but can’t seem to spend any money at all for the contemporary instruments. Why we call this thing a war is strange to me. There are no casualties unless you count church attendance as the issue. Worship style is simply a matter of preference. It is not always an age or generational thing. But it seems that those who will support an organ purchase do so because those who don’t value the organ are not investing/giving to the church much in the first place. The traditional folks think the contemporaries don’t care about them and the contemporaries feel the traditionals aren’t listening to their need as well. The buy-in will come when church is relevant and meeting the perceived needs of those who do not now support the church.

  • kristyjo

    This is really an old story, I think. Revisiting it is good, though, It does show where the trend is going. I laughed when I saw the salary guidelines – Our pastor (Princeton educated) is getting half that amount for a 2/3 time position. I am the volunteer organist – when I get a chance to practice. Otherwise I’m playing the piano, because that’s just the way it goes. The reason I am volunteer is because of finances, since we’re a mainline church that is quickly growing old. I also have a good job as a music teacher, so volunteering to play is one way I can ‘give back’ using my talents. We do blended worship, which is, to me, a fine compromise, but one that isn’t covered much in the variety of articles on this issue that I’ve read over the years.

  • BobK

    tmatt,

    “Praise and worship” band. Why the quotes? Are you attributing this phrase to an unmentioned source? Does this usage convey any meaningful information to your readers? What would your reaction be if “sacred music” or “hymns” or “liturgy”showed up inside the (potentially) snarky quotes in a news story about an Eastern Orthodox “liturgical gathering”?

    Why feed the fire? Just asking.

  • Anonymous

    BobK:

    Valid question. I have simply, even while teaching in an evangelical seminary, seen these music groups given a wide variety of names. I have several books on the subject and this term is the most common used in books about trends in megachurch worship. I did not originate the term and it is not a word — such as “liturgy” — that has an established meaning. Thus, the quote marks. An Eastern Orthodox liturgical gathering is called the Divine Liturgy. No quotes in this century or many, many others previous.

  • Anonymous

    BobK:

    Valid question. I have simply, even while teaching in an evangelical seminary, seen these music groups given a wide variety of names. I have several books on the subject and this term is the most common used in books about trends in megachurch worship. I did not originate the term and it is not a word — such as “liturgy” — that has an established meaning. Thus, the quote marks. An Eastern Orthodox liturgical gathering is called the Divine Liturgy. No quotes in this century or many, many others previous.


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