Thoughts on Volunteer Musicians

Here’s something I wrote yesterday for the Worship Reformed Network to describe how our Music Team functions without paying musicians for their services. It might seem a little incomplete without reading the other posts that I was responding to and many of you might be more intent on hearing Tom Jennings thoughts on why they always pay their musicians and singers. But it would be inappropriate to post his words on my blog.
We have a bunch of ministries that our church supports including tutoring, a free store, work days, single mom’s ministry, ministry to immigrants and refugees in our community, and so on. So the music budget is pretty meager. We have never paid any of our musicians because we have prioritized the budget toward staff (whose job is to administrate, disciple, and equip the volunteers) and toward the basic physical needs of the community (food, shelter, clothing). When I dropped out of seminary two years ago, I became the first full time music director our church ever had. We only have one service, so it is not as taxing on the musicians as other churches.
I really like reading Tom Jenning’s defense for paying their musicians, and as a product of the New City Fellowship Chattanooga music program, I’m on board with my dad’s thoughts as well. However, I feel like our team has a really good thing going on with just volunteers. Here’s a few things that I think have helped keep us afloat and have help us avoid some the pitfalls:
1. I don’t really ever recruit musicians. In other words, I never ask someone to play for free because as a trained musician, I hate being asked to play for free. When I get asked to do a wedding by people in our church, I quote them a fee that I almost always expect to get turned down, because I hate to go into a gig angry that I am being exploited. So, I throw out an open invitation to our congregation on a regular basis to anyone who wants to serve and then I see who calls me. That way, nobody ever ends up playing in church because I gave them a guilt trip; my hope is that the Holy Spirit will call those people whom he
wants to serve. Sometimes the Holy Spirit has different ideas about who should volunteer than me, but isn’t that often the case. I have also seen God consistently answer my prayers when I tell him that we need a specific musician, and then in time that musician emails me and tells me that they can’t stop thinking about joining the team.
2. Our church has a strong over-all vibe of volunteerism. Whether it’s
serving in our auto ministry, our free store, teaching Sunday School,
medical ministry or playing guitar people are asked to serve as a
response to call of the gospel of the kingdom. As a result, our
musicians don’t get the feeling of being exploited, because they can’t
look at someone else in church and say, “how come they get paid?” Like I
said before, the staff is paid, but the point is that everyone on the
staff has the job of providing leadership to a team of volunteers. I’m
not paid to lead the worship music; I’m paid to help a group of
volunteers to lead worship music.
3. Serving on the music team is an opportunity for personal
discipleship. I hope that musicians on our team are not just giving, but
they are also getting something in return. There are people on the team
that can’t stay away because they love how the rehearsals and the
participation on Sunday morning enrich their experience of worship. If a
musician comes to practice with the idea that they are going to
graciously bestow on the rest of us their glorious talents, then we’d
rather not have them.
4. I never discourage pros in our congregation from taking work or give
them a guilt trip for not serving. There’s several highly qualified
musicians in our church (including the pianist for the St Louis
Orchestra) who do not play for us on Sunday. Do I wish they would? Of
course! But they’ve got to make a living and use their gifts in the
sphere that they have been called to. Sometimes they have an open
weekend and they call me and ask to be able to participate. What a
I don’t think our situation is the universal way of doing things, and I
am definitely not trying to judge anybody. I miss being able to pay our
musicians like they do in Chattanooga, and the Lord knows that I have
prayed for more money for our music budget. I’m sure He’s got something
else in mind for now.
We deal with a lot of issues related to volunteerism (tardiness,
inexperience, lack of preparation, burnout, etc.) and we just have to
address those issues as they come up by preaching the gospel to
ourselves to respond in love (Romans 12:1). I’m sure that paid musicians
have their own issues that have to be dealt with in the same fashion.
Making live music together is a wonderful opportunity that is quickly
vanishing from the world, and I love to provide amateurs with that
opportunity. I miss the excitement of playing with musicians of a higher
skill level, but I love the volunteers that I have been entrusted to

  1. #1 by Heidi Vincent on December 6, 2007 - 1:02 pm

    Its gotta be a neat experience to see God provide musicians each week without the financial incentive. Thanks Holy Spirit. The other day I was wondering what kind of songs Mary sung to Jesus after he was born. Maybe she didnt sing? In any case, I imagined her singing while a Shepard was playing a drum. It was kinda fun to think about.

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