Sunday, December 14, 2014

Hiring a New Church Organist

Hiring a decent organist can be a major challenge these days, especially if you are a small church. Our church was faced with this challenge this year. But I am happy to report that it is possible for a small Anglican parish (ASA about 65 between two services, and membership about 125) to find and hire a talented and enthusiastic candidate. I want to share the story to give hope to other small, cash strapped Anglican churches who need decent musicians.

When I was in my 20’s, before I was ordained, I worked for what was at the time the nations fifth-largest IT consulting firm. This company had “five principles of productivity management.” These were basic guidelines and rules that, if followed, generally lead to success in a project. One of the principles was “get the right people involved.” A project would not be a success if the wrong people were involved.

This principle applies to parish churches as well. The ministry will not be a success if the right people are not involved. Music ministry is one area where this is the case. And in an Anglican parish it is especially the case, because our tradition is known for great music and beautiful, solemn worship. Bad music drives people away from church. Every continuing Anglican parish that is large and successful has great music - at least in my jurisdiction. But what is a small, cash-strapped church to do about hiring a competent organist? How do we attract such candidates, and how do we pay for them?

It became apparent to me over this past year that it was time to part ways with our former organist of 20+ years. Although she was very faithful in her duties, and well known in the community for her Christian service and ministry (to the homeless), the church was at the point where we needed to move to the next musical level, so to speak. More important, I felt as though the level of her playing and overall approach and enthusiasm were actually hurting the parish, and probably had been for a number of years. This is where “getting the right people involved” comes in. If there is a great preacher, and a wonderful hospitality team at the church, but terrible music… or the preaching horrible, but music good, and etc., then the whole mission of the parish will be derailed. Everything - the whole team - has to be good.

So for those reasons I decided we needed to step out in faith and try to hire a new musician. But I knew that I couldn’t just “fire” the organist. Even though that is my prerogative as rector, only a fool would just fire a sweet old lady organist who’d been there for 20+ years. What I had to do was try to get her and my people on the same page… to get them to see things as I saw them. I believed passionately about what needed to be done, so I had to sell them on it.

The first step was to meet with the organist. So I scheduled a lunch meeting with her to discuss the matter. In advance of it I prayed and prayed that God would help the meeting to go well and that his will would be done in this important matter. These matters must always be brought before the Lord in prayer. I also sought some godly counsel from the previous rector and some other experienced and godly clergy. We met, and I shared my concerns with her in as gentle and non-accusatory a way as possible. Though I was determined at the outset what the course of action was going to be, and made that clear to her, I did not in any way want to be rude to her. This was about business. It was not personal. She took it very well, and as it turned out, agreed that it would probably be a good thing for her to move on given all that I wanted the church to do and become, and also because of her own work and family schedule. So in short, while she was not necessarily chomping at the bit to go she was definitely not turning it down. In the end, she agreed to retire from the post and be made “organist emeritus.” As I had not even begin to advertise, we established a timeline for her to step down. She would keep playing through the end of the year, thus giving her plenty of time to slowly pull back from the organist’s bench.

The next step was to consult with some talented, big city church organists to get some advice on how to find a candidate. Being in the metro Baltimore area I figured there would be plenty of organists around. But how would we attract one to our small parish? An organist from a large Roman Catholic parish who also played with several Episcopalian parishes met with me and said the key was two things: write a good job description to really sell the position, and advertise in the right places. He also said that we needed to try to add at least $50/month in pay to get someone. He assured me that there would be a number of organists who would love to play at a church like ours. Many of them are very devout believers who want to have a sincere ministry in music for the Lord. And they tend to like the high church Anglican liturgy, and not having to lead a contemporary praise band in addition to playing the organ. It helped, of course, that my predecessor had spent over 20K on a very nice electronic organ. While not all organists insist on playing pipe organs, a church must have a decent instrument. The organist who was guiding me told me that our organ was a very good, respectable organ, especially for a church our size.

So with all of that in mind I worked for about two weeks writing a detailed and enticing job description. When I was done I sent it to the organist with whom I’d met so he could vet it. He said it looked good and then said to advertise with the AGO, the American Choral Directors Association, and with the Peabody Conservatory. I also sent the job description out to some other organists whom I knew so they could keep their ears to the ground for any possible candidates. And then I prayed, prayed, prayed.

In the meantime, some very good-hearted and generous people at church stepped up and offered to cover the extra expense of the organist. How we were going to finance our new person was a major question. The key things was to talk about the need for a new organist to the right people - people who were sympathetic and in a position to help contribute. So often churches don’t get what they need simply because they do not ask, or they do not ask the right people!

We got our man fairly quickly. A retired music teacher and lifelong church organist who had played at several of the most prestigious churches in Baltimore in his long and storied career. And believe me it makes all the difference in the world having a highly experienced and enthusiastic musician sitting on the organist’s bench who knows how to play this magnificent instrument, and understands the role music plays in glorifying God in worship. My prayer now is that in the long run this would be a great thing for our parish and ministry and that God would use his playing and enthusiasm to help bring our church to the next level.

I hope that other churches out there - particularly small, continuing Anglican ones - are inspired by this story. There is an organist for your church. You need to just pray, pay, and advertise in all of the right places. There are any number of great organists out there who would love to play at your church. Find them and hire them!


  1. Some good information.

    Two questions: 1) what are the other 4 keys to project management

    2) do you have any advice for storefront parishes, when to build, etc.?

    1. Thank you! I hope it is helpful.

      The principles were:

      1) Define the job in detail
      2) Get the right people involved
      3) Estimate the time and costs
      4) Break the job down
      5) Set up change procedure
      6) Agree on acceptance criteria

      That can all be applied on some level to any number of projects... not just IT projects!

      While I don't have any direct experience with storefront parishes it seems to me that any storefront church should try to get out of that storefront as soon as it is financially possible.

      As for the building, this is a great discussion that merits another post. But briefly, I believe that there is a lot of psychology in "the church building" - especially for Anglican parishes. A church has to have a clean, functional, and professional church building to be taken seriously... or there at least has to signs that the church is heading in that direction. Part of this has to do with people's expectations here in the States, another part of it is the incarnational basis of our faith, and our Anglican tradition. In my experience people expect Anglican parishes to have beautiful buildings and great music and great liturgy. When one of those things is lacking it is like missing one of the legs on Hooker's "three-legged stool."

      My parish now is in an old school house. We've been in it for over 30 years. It is very quaint and pretty, but one doesn't have to be there to long to realize that it is "conversion" job... a school house that has (beat up) pews stuck in it. I have become convinced over the last year or two that one of the reasons people do not take us seriously as a church is because we don't look like a church.

      So basically I'd get out of the storefront as soon as possible. I come up with plan that involved buying a piece of land and then building on it - carefully thought, though (location, etc.). I'd be leery about buying a used church building (what are you getting? why is the other church leaving? etc.) In terms of building something I would design the building so it can be easily expanded. Our little church building was dropped smack dab in the middle of the property so we cannot expand very easily. If it was put in the corner of the property it would have been easier to expand. (Oh, and the property is under a land reversion clause... avoid that at ALL costs.)

      I want to write more on this topic in the future.

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