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Church Musicians: Should You Pay Them?

As a freelance drummer in Minneapolis, MN, I’ve had the opportunity to play at several churches in the area. I have gotten the privilege to share the stage with volunteer musicians at new church plants meeting in high schools and theaters, as well as at megachurches.

Playing at several churches has given me the chance to see how different worship pastors approach building worship teams, scheduling, and compensating musicians, and I thought I would at least share my perspective on the topic of whether and when you should pay church musicians.

There’s really no cut-and-dry “rules” regarding when and how much church musicians should be paid. I’ve played at small churches that have been incredibly generous with compensation for players, as well as volunteered at megachurches. However, while I entirely stand by the statement that “context is everything,” I have noticed a few patterns regarding church musician compensation that I hope can be helpful for anyone reading this.

Should You Pay Church Musicians?

The patterns I’ve noticed in worship pastors’ decision-making processes for evaluating whether they’ll pay musicians usually revolves around the answers to a few questions. In no specific order, here they are:

Are They Coming Specifically to Play?

The most common scenario in which worship pastors will pay musicians is if the musician is not a regular attender, but rather coming to the church specifically to play music. Aside from the case of a volunteer or member of the church just having a close friend come to hang out and play for a Sunday, if a musician is setting aside time on a Sunday to come specifically for the purpose of playing music, I’d argue it’s the general expectation that they are paid for their time.

Even if they are not expecting it, I’d say it’s a good standard to stick to. The most important part though is that you communicate the compensation details ahead of time. Please don’t request that a musician come out to play at your church and leave them in the dark on payment details.

If you genuinely can’t afford anything, that’s fine! But let them know in advance and ask them if they’re still interested. Keep in mind that if you’re low on budget, even offering to pay $20-$50 for covering travel/gas goes a long way.

Essentially, if the reason they are there is specifically to play music, honor that time commitment with some type of financial compensation – even if it’s small. And whether it’s in or out of your means to do so, make sure you communicate payment details to them ahead of time and ask if they are still interested in coming out to play based on that information.

Is Music a Part of Their Career?

Another thing to consider is what the income would mean to them. If the person playing is doing music for a career and are taking a Sunday to play at your church (when they otherwise could be playing elsewhere and getting paid for their time,) I highly encourage that you offer them at least some compensation.

As I stated at the beginning of this blog post, context is everything. There are tons of professional musicians making a living on music who are volunteering to help out at their home churches, and if that’s the case with your musician(s), that’s fine – trust your instincts.

However, I can say from experience that it is incredibly rare for someone with music as their primary source of income to take a break from their usual Sunday routine to come out and play at a church without any compensation.

In summary, specific circumstances aside, the rule of thumb is: If they’re a professional musician, pay them.

Are They Looking for Additional Income Right Now?

Of course, you can’t just start paying everyone who’s looking for additional income that’s a part of your worship team. However, churches often lose young, talented, and committed volunteer college students and recent grads who are offered compensation to play at another church.

If it’s not within your means to pay, don’t worry – it’s obviously not an “expectation.” Especially if they’ve been volunteering to play at your church anyways. However, paying someone who’s looking for more music income does a couple things:

1) It allows you to support people on your team
2) It will make them step up their preparation
3) It will make them more committed

At least, hopefully those last two things will happen… If you’re offering a team member compensation for their time, let them know your expectations! The chances are though, if they see you investing in them financially for playing when they were already volunteering, they will step up their game, show up more prepared, and be committed to the team.

Paying someone who was previously a volunteer shows that you’re putting immense trust in them and that you value their time – a person worthy of that compensation will step up to the plate and contribute even more to the team moving forward.

Are They Looking to Grow Musically?

This is heavily tied to the last point, and is (once again) more frequent in the case of college students and recent grads. If you have someone who’s trying to grow musically – either for the sake of a career in it or simply because they’re passionate – invest in that! I can’t stress enough how much I see people change their attitude of preparation and contribution when a worship pastor puts trust in them and shows it through compensation; even if it’s just a small amount.

What’s the Time Commitment?

The more time you’re asking of your team, the more compensating team members should be on your radar.

If your church is just meeting on Sunday morning for song run-through and then playing 2 services, that’s fine. But for all the churches out there who are doing a midweek rehearsal, Saturday night run through, Saturday service, Sunday morning run through, and two Sunday morning services… that’s a massive time commitment.

Your volunteers are taking time away from their families, friends, and other activities for the sake of being there. And of course, that kind of sacrifice is expected when people step into a place of leadership and want to volunteer for the sake of giving back to their church! People do that for church community events all the time. They’re not “entitled” to that income. Being a part of the team is a sacrifice. I get that.

However, when you have worship team members making those sacrifices every week, bi-weekly, or several times per month, I’d recommend you keep compensation on your mind. Especially for sound techs who show up earlier and leave later than everyone else, and music directors or consistent volunteers who are there nearly every week and taking on a great deal of responsibility, which leads to the next point…

Are They Taking On More Responsibility Than Others?

If someone is preparing tracks and/or MD’ing (Music Directing) on a Sunday, they have more responsibilities on their plate. Those are also often some of the most talented volunteers. You probably want to hang on to those people. Members who can carry and lead the musical details of a worship service free of your hands to focus on leading the congregation in worship.

If someone is putting in a considerable amount of work more than others, and is bringing more to the table from a musical leadership standpoint, I’d recommend you pay them. Those types of people are like “glue” to the team. They keep everyone organized and on-pace. Even if they’re not a music director; people who prepare immensely and have a great deal of responsibility change the atmosphere at a rehearsal and on Sunday morning.

As I’ve said over and over again, it doesn’t need to be a lot, but the extra income goes a long way in making a team member feel valued and excited to be a part of the team.

In Summary

In summary? Context is everything. None of the above are “rules,” and you need to trust your gut when it comes to whether or not a team member should be compensated. But also, churches who rarely pay worship team musicians often won’t have any point of reference for when it’s worth considering compensating a musician.

Keep the above questions in mind as you invite others to play at your church and are working towards growing your worship ministry!

Chris Fleming, Author

About the Author

Chris Fleming is a professional musician from Minneapolis, MN who has played with artists such as Big Daddy Weave and Jason Gray. He is actively involved with the CCM worship scene and has contributed as a drummer, music director, song writer, and producer for various worship artists and churches locally and nationally. Chris serves as the Creative Director at Motion Worship, helping to write various blog posts and tutorials on production, stage, Ableton, music, design, and tons of other topics.

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