Is it time for a Church Musicians’ Union?

by vernsanders on June 4, 2010

As I read. today, in the latest issue (June, 2010) of the American Organist, an article entitled A Cautionary Tale…an extensive description of a search process for a new church musician at a high-profile church that, at the very least, was controversial…it reminded me of my presentation about The Choir in Modern Worship last week in Saskatoon.

It was one “throwaway” line in an hourlong presentation that garnered the biggest reaction. The line? “Maybe we should have a church musicians’ union.” And not just in the talk. People stayed after to tell me their “horror stories” about personnel issues.

Now I’ve written about this before, but I wonder…is it time for a union?

A friend of mine often says: “the only thing two musicians can agree upon is the incompetence of a third” (and he wasn’t talking about a musical interval). So perhaps it would be difficult for church musicians to agree to support fellow union members in a “job action” (that’s a strike…and I’m not talking about baseball). But let’s just have a Twilight Zone moment here…

(cue the theme)

Imagine, if you will, a place where all church musicians were treated fairly by their pastors and congregations…a place where time, effort, and training were rewarded according to merit, not whim…a place where “full time” meant any combination of 36 or more hours a week, including ministry, prep, and practice time…a place where “full time” meant compensation relatively equal to a pastor with the same set of age, training, and experiential demographics…a place where a musician with theological training was allowed to be a true “minister”…a place where a musician was not expected to “save” the church alone…a place where a musician overseeing a significant program automatically was given admin support…a place where a musician’s compensation included regular study leave, and periodic sabbaticals…a place where pastor and musician are true colleagues…a place where a pastoral change did not automatically mean that a musician was a suspect, or incompetent, or petulant, or “out of touch”…

You are about to be taken to a place called…The Twilight Zone…scratch that…it is a place even more bizarre than that…

Now I’m sure that at least one person reading this fills a position with all of the above attributes. For the first time in my church ministry career, I seem to be in such a place. But I am not naive. I know that the baseline for the overwhelming majority of church musicians is far less rewarding, much more stressful, and lots more insecure. I’ve been there. And it makes me wonder…(cue the theme)…

Would a church musicians’ union work? Would you become a member? Would you go on strike in support of a colleague? Please leave a comment and let me know what you think. (Horror stories, or success stories are welcome too!)

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