Tuesday, November 30, 2010
Good Luck Finding an Organist
This subject is personal to me. I served as organist in my home parish (14 rank Estey tracker), in college, substituted in several parishes, played every Sunday at one service on vicarage, and still fire up the pipe organ from time to time (mostly for my own enjoyment). In addition, I have been instrumental in obtaining a new organ (pipe or pipe electronic) in every parish I have served -- from vicarage through this present congregation. So when I read a report on the tough times faced by congregations in search of an organist, I read every word.
The ABC News story begins in Oakland, Nebraska, not far from my home town. The organ at the First United Methodist Church in this largely Swedish community has not been played since their 80 year old organist "retired" almost one year ago. The story moves to Redeemer Lutheran Church, St. Clair Shores, Michigan, and a seminary classmate reports that this 400 member church is scheduling substitutes because they cannot find a permanent replacement for their last organist.
In our own case, we went through a similar journey. We had two organists when I arrived but both of them left (following their military spouses) leaving us without an organist for quite some time. We eventually found a temporary part-time organist for one service and depended upon pianists for the rest of the services. We advertised and advertised without success. After purchasing a used grand piano from a piano performance student at the local college, we got our first "permanent" organist -- though he had never played the organ before but was a gifted and quick learner. When college was coming to an end, we advertised up the hilt for our part-time position and had a few applicants. Nearly all were really looking for a full-time position which we were not capable of (at the time). The applicant whom we hired turned out to be the perfect match and his interest and enthusiasm have multiplied our music program and helped us acquire two pipe organs (one, 65 ranks for the sanctuary, and another 12 ranks for the chapel). But I still fear for the long term future.
The cause of this organist crisis is not primarily due to the growing number of churches using a praise band, as some would like to say. We have a large number of organists but only 1% of all the positions are full-time and the pay is abysmal. Both part-time and full-time organists face a big job description and responsibility in the worship service for what ends up being minimum wage or less. Too many congregations are trying to be cheap in an area where you get what you pay for and you go begging when that pay is sub-standard. I, for one, believe that the most important budget line in the congregation's spending plan is the section that covers worship -- staff, benefits, music, maintenance, and supplies. Worship is the heart from which all other aspects of the congregation's life and work flow. If that heart is well cared for and strong, the rest of the congregation's life and work will probably be strong. If that is weak, the whole rest of who the congregation is and what that congregation does will surely suffer.
This is not about organists. This is about putting our money where our mouth is. We say worship is the most important activity, the central focus of our Christian lives as individuals and our life together as the people of God. Why is it that we are so unwilling to pay a living wage to those who are key leaders in the worship services -- specifically the organist, parish musician, choir director, or cantor? I actually heard of one demented Pastor who, in his search to make the parish financially viable, decided to make the organist position an hourly position -- with the clock commencing at the time the organist began playing and ending with the final note of Sunday morning (or other service) was sounded. It would be like paying this Pastor for the time in pulpit but refusing to consider sermon prep part of his official duties. What is wrong with us sometimes?
It is certainly true that there are less pianists out there as a potential pool of organists. It is certainly true that some congregations are giving up organ for "keyboard" and the praise band. It is certainly true that many congregations are financially hard pressed on all fronts. I am not denying this. But if our priorities are centered upon the worship service, some of these factors might fade away in our struggle to find someone to lead God's people in praise from the organ bench. Why not offer to pay for organ lessons for a piano student (youth, teenager, or adult)? Why not check the salary and expectations and make sure you are not asking for the impossible when employing an organist? Why not consider job sharing and adjusting the service times to allow those congregations with one Sunday service to share and therefore provide adequate compensation for some organist who would need only one part-time job to make it a go?
Lastly, and then I will get off my soapbox, the organ is uniquely qualified to lead congregational song. We do not have well trained singers in the pew and so they need certain and solid melody to encourage their singing. The piano, being an acoustic instrument, does not hold the sound and emphasize melody in the same way an organ does. Praise bands are great if you want people to listen to music but they are generally ill equipped to lead hymns (and most of the time they simply serve as back up to the lead solo singers -- generally female -- who sing center stage where the focus is on them and less on the song). The organ can be a solo instrument and some organists act as if it is all about them and their sound, but they are few in comparison to the total number of organists. Think about the role of music within the Lutheran Divine Service tradition, the high place of hymns and sung liturgy, and the theological underpinnings of music within the liturgy -- we can either gripe about it or do something about it to make sure that the people hear the sound that calls them to sing the praise of Him who called us from darkness into His marvelous light... Try going a few weeks without any music at all and you may begin to realize what you are missing. . .