The emails and phone messages I receive each week: “We need an organist!” “We need a pianist!” “We’re looking for an ‘accompanist’ for our services,” (whatever that is). “Do you have a student …?” One of my teachers added the following statement to his office answering machine greeting: “If you’re calling about the availability of a student for a church position, your call will be returned only if a student is available, due to the large volume of such calls.”
I remember as a child that no church in my hometown was without an organist or pianist. Then in about the early 1990s, things began changing. Those organists/pianists started getting older and retiring and/or getting replaced by the band. Then I began to hear rumblings along the lines of, “Alice played for us for 50 years out of the goodness of her heart. We can’t find anyone to replace her.” I’d say that in many parts of the country, they won’t find a replacement for dear old Alice for two primary reasons: 1) there isn’t anyone, and 2) no one does it for free anymore.
The so-called “organist shortage” occurs on different levels in different places for different reasons. It began to become a bit more epidemic when more churches came into need of organists to replace aging Alices all over the country. But it is a little puzzling that out of 319 million Americans, there aren’t enough keyboardists (not just organists) to play for church. There are indeed fewer organ students in college today, and there are increasingly fewer colleges offering organ study. But there is truth to the organist shortage in that far fewer children are taking piano lessons any more. There’s no one coming up the ranks, folks! The very people in the congregation who claim to have appreciated Alice’s work all these years have not been paying attention to what they’ve been doing to their children by not training them in the arts. Parents were not paying attention to the future of church music when they sent their kids to soccer rather than piano lessons, to the youth service rather than the traditional service, to math camp rather than youth choir, and when they modeled screens instead of hymnals. It’s their own fault, and I can’t fix it by sending students to fill the gaps.
Our “Alice” above certainly served a lot of years. But rare is a 50-year tenure of any church musician in a single church any more. Many long-serving church musicians either grew up there, or their primary breadwinner took them there, and there they stayed. But today, everyone is fair game for departure to greener pastures, better pay, and higher rungs on the ladder. If Alice had not had such a good heart, she might not have stayed so long. There was a different mindset in those days. As a child, I always heard, “I do it for the church. I do it for the Lord.” “She would never make this about money.” Our organists and pianists were faithful church goers, just like everyone else. Playing was their service to the church, like that of other folks in the congregation who provided childcare, volunteered with today’s endangered species called “children’s choirs,” baked cookies for Vacation Bible School, and set up tables for Wednesday night dinner and chairs for choir rehearsals. There was always someone in the church who was there “every time the doors were open.” It was their service, yea even their contribution, to the congregation.
While I now tend to stand on the side of “pay your organist or do without,” I do understand this struggle many churches are experiencing, insofar as I understand (not accept) the historical model. Many churches have never put “organist” and “pay” into the same sentence. But musicians work as hard as the pastor, and they spend as much time preparing music as the pastor does preparing sermons and ministering to the sick, the friendless, and the needy. Whether or not it’s their primary job, service playing is worthy of an appropriate retainer because it is a time-intensive job. It is also worth an appropriate retainer because not just anyone from the congregation can step in and take over – as many churches have discovered. (Curiously, no one bats an eye when someone un-ordained takes over the pulpit to share a word that the Lord has laid on their heart. Funny that it’s easier to replace the boss/pastor than to replace the organist.)
Recently, I subbed in a church with a large four-manual organ. Although it is some distance away, I have played there in the past because I love the organ and how the congregation loves (loved) to use it. But on this particular Sunday, I discovered that their services had evolved to the point that my only official duties that day were the prelude (short, please), postlude (no one listens), the opening hymn (play from this arrangement, while the minister of music conducts and sings into his microphone), and the anthem (along with piano). Otherwise, I merely “chorded it” during praise choruses with the band, one of whose members is an associate pastor, who wore his less-than-best jeans and un-tucked open-collar shirt for the occasion. That church has been seeking an organist, but I don’t think they really need one at this time. They just need someone who knows how to turn it on and which piston to hit to provide background fullness for the band. If they continue to search for “real” organists, then they will encounter a real “shortage” of organists, until they go back to a service that actually requires an organist.
Now, a certain shortage of organists does exist. I live in a small-ish college town, the hub of a ski resort area, located in a glorified retirement and seasonal residence community with mountain scenery. That’s three levels of expensive I just named off! At my last reckoning, it’s the second most expensive real estate market in North Carolina. I have begun to propose some new models to these churches. I advise them to embrace the fact that they are located in a resort area and that real estate would be a problem for anyone who moves to this area to play for that church (should they even find such a person). I advise them to advertise nationally, in hopes that they might find a recent retiree who is looking to relocate to a resort area such as this. I also caution them to stop defining the position as part-time, because it just isn’t. And it is skilled labor, not a form of congregational donation.
And so to answer the question, “Do you have a student who could …?” yeah, I have eight students this year (2015), the same four of whom are still spoken for with good church posts, and the other four of whom are either not quite ready for regular service, or I just don’t have the energy to inform the church that my students are being trained as professional organists, not as Sunday bench warmers.