Rethinking Church Staff Singers

Bright afternoon sunshine and cool breezes surrounded Glynda as she approached her favorite coffee shop, Java Corner, in Evansville. Having moved to St. Louis a year and a half before because of her husband’s promotion, she was finally able to get away for a week to visit old friends in the city that was her home for much of her adult life.

Glynda was delighted to see Jenny again in the place where the friends had shared many conversations about children, husbands, priests, politics, and their favorite topic, the St. Barnabas Choir. The music of the Church was not the only cord that bound them together, but it was the strongest and most precious. Glynda began singing in parish choirs in the second grade. She took piano lessons and sang in school choirs and civic choral groups through college. She began college as a music major, hoping to teach high school chorus. Her passion for choral music was lifelong, always singing, always volunteering, from helping as an accompanist at the high school, to serving as a youth choir director at St. Barnabas, to working in the music library at the church.

Of all the directors Glynda had worked with, she loved Jenny like no other. At 52, Jenny was just a few years older than Glynda. Their children were roughly the same age, and both women knew the challenges of husbands who traveled frequently for work. Jenny, having considered seminary and the priesthood, took a very pastoral approach to her leadership of the music ministry at St. Barnabas. One day, after arranging the folders of the 40 choir members in their slots, Glynda observed Jenny standing in the choir room. Jenny moved from one folder to the next, placing her hands on each one and whispering a few words. When she saw that her friend was still in the room, Jenny explained, somewhat sheepishly, “It helps me prepare for rehearsal to take a few minutes and pray for each of our choir members. So much happens in their lives that they entrust to me. When I decided not to pursue the priesthood and instead become a choir director, I promised God that I would seek to be a pastoral musician, first and foremost.”

Glynda knew the truth of Jenny’s words. Though her family was active in church during her childhood, Glynda drifted away from active involvement when college work became burdensome. It wasn’t long before inactivity from leadership led to spotty attendance at worship. By the time Glynda married Brian she was so out of touch with the Church that the couple decided to be married in a park. Soon, financial struggles and the adjustment to married life brought her nearly to a point of despair. One rainy Sunday Glynda found herself driving to St. Barnabas, an Episcopal Church that she had passed each day on her way to work, but had never considered attending.

Glynda found a place near the center aisle. The congregation around her seemed friendly and welcoming. Several members reached out to her, suspecting she might be a visitor. She was impressed by the choir, and she noticed a remarkable expressiveness in their singing, especially in their leadership of the liturgy and hymns. When the organ began Now Thank We All Our God, the retiring procession, tears rolled down Glynda’s face as her voice began to soar with the congregation in one of her favorite hymns. A twinge of hope rose in her spirit as she began to feel connected once again to God’s love for her and His open arms of comfort and strength.

As the procession passed Glynda’s pew, Jenny noticed the emotional response to the hymn from the young woman. She also couldn’t help but notice the beauty and clarity of Glynda’s voice.

Jenny waited in the corner of the Narthex as worshipers found their way out of the nave. Finally, Glynda emerged and was heading toward the door to the parking lot. “Hi, I’m Jenny. I am the music director, and I noticed that you visited today. I want you to know how delighted we are that you came. I hope you will come again.” “I am sure I will,” Glynda responded, “and I must say the choir sounded very nice.” Jenny continued, “We are all volunteers, and I have to tell you that I have never worked with a more loving family of caring servants of the Church. I have been here at St. Barnabas now for 12 years, and I think I love this choir more every day. …I couldn’t help but notice that you have a lovely voice… would you consider visiting with us on Thursday night?”

Glynda demurred, “Life is pretty hectic these days… my husband travels… kids are busy…” Encouragingly, Jenny said, “Please know that you are always welcome… we keep extra folders at the ready every Thursday night. I’m going to set one aside for you, because I really hope you will come, if not this Thursday, sometime in the future.”

Glynda returned to worship the following Sunday. Two weeks later she found her way to the choir room on a Thursday night. A few weeks later, Glynda, wearing her choir vestment, was introduced as a new member of the congregation. Brian and their children were at her side. The children were scheduled for Holy Baptism. A year later Brian became a member of the Vestry Finance Committee.

Though months had passed, Jenny and Glynda fell into a warm conversation as if they had never parted. “How do you like St. Louis?” “Is it fun being there, with all the things a large city has to offer?” Have you taken your boys to a Cardinals game?” “Does Brian like his new job? Is he traveling as much?”

Finally, excitedly, Jenny asked, “Tell me about your church… didn’t you join Atonement? …I hear they have a fantastic choir there. In fact, I think I heard them sing an Evensong at the last AGO convention.”

“Well, yes, the choir is quite good, but I haven’t participated since the first few weeks we were in St. Louis,” Glynda said, with a touch of sadness in her voice. “I feel pretty awkward saying this and, frankly, I am a bit ashamed of myself for letting this happen, but Brian and I have fallen out of the church habit.”

Taken aback, Jenny said to her friend, “My goodness, Glynda, the church and church music have never known a more devoted servant than you! Why? How?” “What happened?!”

“When we first moved to St. Louis, I was delighted that Atonement was so close to our house. I had heard the choir was outstanding and I was very impressed -as I told you when we were in transition- by everything I heard on the Sundays I visited. I didn’t even mind when the director asked me to audition… I think it is a good idea for the director to know every voice.”

“The choir has 12 staff singers, mostly college students who are music majors. I had never personally experienced being a part of a church choir with paid singers -I guess we didn’t really need to do that at Barnabas- but I thought it a great idea. The young voices are lovely and, being in music school, they are at the height of their training, unlike middle-aged singers like me who are many years removed from voice lessons!”

“So, the “scholars” come at 6:30 for rehearsal. The rest of us come for our rehearsal that is scheduled for 7:15, but we ‘extra cast members’ -as the director calls us- usually wind up waiting for the scholars’ rehearsal to finish. Then, we all rehearse together for an hour or so. On Sundays, the scholars sing an Introit, chant the Psalm, and sing an a cappella work during communion. The choir, all together about 25-28 voices, leads the liturgy and hymns and sings an organ-accompanied anthem at the offertory. Do you know how I long to sing something a cappella? I asked the director if the full choir could sing an a cappella anthem one day. He quipped, ‘Oh, that is for the scholars… I can’t take the risk that the big choir would lose pitch on something as perilous and exposed as a cappella music!”

“Honestly, Jenny, I found myself feeling like a second-class citizen that crashed a rich neighbor’s party. I am not a professional singer, but frankly I probably could be. I have sung numerous solos in community choruses and at St. Barnabas. I have sung in symphony choruses and in project groups all over the Midwest …and I am deemed not qualified to sing an a cappella motet in my own church?”

Jenny stared thoughtfully into her coffee cup, trying to stem the sadness and anger swelling in her mind in defense of her friend. “Have you and Brian looked at other churches?”

“Yes,” Glynda responded. “I finally dropped out of the choir at Atonement. I honestly don’t know if the director even noticed that I was gone… I never received a call or any follow up from him, and we never heard a peep from the priest or anyone else when we stopped going to church.” “The other churches nearest to us use a lot of contemporary praise and renewal music. I tried to tolerate it, but I just couldn’t. I told my story to the high school choral teacher to see if she had any ideas. She had heard similar things about Atonement. She told me about Sacred Heart downtown that has a very fine choir, but that’s a 30 minute drive from the house. I want a church I can pour my heart into. It would be hard to do that fighting St. Louis traffic for an hour each round trip.”

“You know, Jenny, the staff singers are probably good kids, but they don’t involve themselves in the liturgy. Half of them are looking at their phones during the scripture readings. The director inasmuch said he uses the scholars for the communion anthem because he doesn’t have to worry about the kids taking time to go to the altar for communion. The whole thing feels like a performance, not a ministry.”

“So, what are you and Brain doing now,” Jenny asked, fearing what she was about to hear. Glynda replied, “I can’t remember the last time we went to church. I am not one to sit out in the pews, and I feel like there is no place for me to get involved in a congregation with good liturgy, good music, and a welcoming spirit. I want to grow as a disciple. God has entrusted me with talents and gifts. He has given me a passion to use them. I wish He would open the door to make that possible. I don’t care if I never sing a solo again in a church service, but it hurts too much to feel like persona non grata when I go to rehearsals and to worship. For now, I’m out.”

Glynda is not alone in her feelings of disenfranchisement from meaningful participation in the life of the Church. As the leader of numerous community, semi-professional and professional civic choral ensembles for over 40 years, I have had hundreds of conversations with choral singers about their musical relationship to the Church.

The conventional wisdom is that many Americans, particularly those under the age of 40, have lost interest in the work of the Church. Some claim that the Church is too liberal. Some claim that the Church is too conservative. Some claim that the Church is irrelevant, or not entertaining enough. Some claim that the rise of the Internet and other sources of 24/7 information have rendered the Church unnecessary as a place of social connection and meaningful involvement.

I believe this conventional wisdom to be completely wrong. As theologian and Episcopal priest, John Claypool, once said in my hearing, “The spiritual needs of Man and his thirst for God have not changed. The compelling narratives of scripture have not changed. The power of the heart to be transported in prayer and praise has not changed. The open arms of Jesus and His promise of eternal life have not changed. What has changed is the Church, and not for the better.”

The use of staff singers to support church choirs has become more and more a common practice in recent years, especially in congregations of mainline churches in large cities. It is a practice I have employed myself in congregations that I served as Music Director. When managed properly it can be a tool that enables ministry to deepen and grow, but there are very real risks that present when the employment of paid choir singers becomes a crutch for the director of the choir, or becomes an impediment to the ministry element of music ministry.

What are the advantages of paid staff singers? What are the disadvantages? How can a music ministry program be structured in ways that empower the advantages while avoiding the perils?

Advantages and Opportunities

A program of staff singers can serve to strengthen and diversify the repertoire of the parish choir. Knowing that there will be one, or two, or three strong voices in each choral section gives the director the assurance that more ambitious repertoire can be used.

The use of staff singers helps promote a consistency of leadership for the parish choir in the Sunday liturgies. Choral presentation in worship is not a performance, and beautiful singing should never happen for any reason other than the glory of God. That said, singing that is distracting because of poor quality, just as a poorly prepared homily or poorly trained acolytes, can become a very real impediment to worship and meditation.

The presence of a professional core of singers can help the parish choir recruit strong volunteers. There are many experienced choral singers that will be attracted to one program over another if they are assured that the choir will be singing excellent and diverse repertoire and that it will be sung well.

Many college students struggle to make ends meet. Music students often have the added expenses of building a library of books, scores and recordings. Receiving a stipend as a staff singer is often the only way young men and women can afford the gas money, and the time away from other employments, to be involved in the Church at all. Likewise, there are many older well-trained singers who rely on the staff singer stipend to make ends meet enough to participate in music ministry or to be able to attend services.

Serving in the leadership role of a choral scholar can be excellent hands-on training for young men and women who might consider either a full-time or part-time future vocation in music ministry.

Perils and Disadvantages

The employment of staff singers can become a crutch for music directors in the areas of volunteer recruitment and leadership. When the music director is assured that enough tenors will be present for rehearsal, there is less urgency to recruit, train and empower volunteer singers. Likewise, if a director is assured the “parts will be covered” by the scholars, no matter what else happens, or who appears or fails to appear for rehearsals and services, there is less pressure to properly prepare and train the volunteer singers.

When handled poorly, the presence of staff singers can contribute to a feeling on the part of the non-paid choir singers that their contribution is discounted, or in the words of Glynda, that they are second-class citizens, persona non grata. As was the case in our story, even the most dedicated church volunteer not finding a place of meaningful service is at risk of becoming inactive and drifting away from involvement entirely.

Though it is hard to begrudge the modest stipend received by most choral scholars, especially in a world where senior clergy salary packages for medium-sized congregations can run over six figures, the expense to a parish music ministry can be significant. The average stipend for a staff singer now is $40-$50 per call. At $45 per call for 40 weeks of Wednesday/Sunday, and adding in 10-15 feast days, extra rehearsals and outreach concerts, the annual cost per staff singer could be around $4000 to $5000 per year. That would put a quartet of singers in the range of $16k to $20k per fiscal year. Twelve staff singers at this rate would be $48k to $60k per year in expense to the congregation. Such funds would support an entire staff of children’s choir directors and accompanists. $20k to $60k per year could be the difference between an organist/choirmaster and separate organist and choir-master staff positions.

The presence of a paid core of singers may contribute to the unfortunate concept that choral music in the Church is a performance to the congregation. Soren Kierkegaard’s image of corporate worship as a drama where the congregation is the actor, the clergy and musicians are the prompters, and God is the audience is the model most of us in liturgical traditions follow. The first responsibility of the choir then, is the leadership, enabling and empowering of the song of the congregation in liturgy and hymns. The presentation of choral music is a distant secondary responsibility of the choir. When the choir sings alone, it must do so on behalf of the “great choir” -the congregation. When an ensemble of “rented leaders,” often with little connection to the life of the congregation beyond their hire, presents the anthem, it is a greater challenge for that mystical drama to unfold.

Specific Recommendations for the Use of Staff Singers

Understanding that every circumstance is different, with a heart of humility I offer these suggestions from my own experience and observations in the hope that the Church will grow in the integrity of her witness and in the urgent work of evangelism and discipleship.

1. I encourage music ministry leaders to honestly assess whether staff singers are truly necessary. Quite frankly, a congregation with 250 or more in attendance on a Sunday morning probably does not need to employ choral staff singers.

2. Consider whether the funds which would be used for staff singers could be better applied to the building of the choral program when used in a different way. For example, instead of spending $12,000 on staff singers, would it be a better investment to employ an associate choral leader with a specialty in training and quipping volunteer singers? If such a leader could attract 6-10 volunteer singers through his/her work, the investment would add many singers rather than a few. Also, there is a strong possibility the volunteers, and their families, attracted through the choral program, would be candidates for church membership, possibly assuming leadership roles in other areas.

3. I suggest avoiding descriptions of paid choir members that separate them from the choir’s community. Specifically, I avoid “soloists,” “scholars” or “section leaders.” “Choral assistants” is a term that perhaps communicates more a servant role for the staff singers.

4. I strongly suggest the job description of choral assistants be prioritized as enablers of ministry. In the most effective use of staff singers I have experienced, it was understood that section leaders would be the first to arrive to rehearsals and services, and they would be expected to remain until every member of their section had departed. Part of the job description was to contact any member of their section by phone or email in case of an unexpected absence. Section leaders were expected to report any ministry needs to the music director and/or clergy. In rehearsals the section leaders’ primary role was to welcome, support, teach as needed, and encourage the volunteer singers in their charge.

5. I suggest that paid choir members be considered last, not first, for special ensembles and solo opportunities. Specifically, I believe there should never be a choral selection sung in any worship service by the paid singers alone. I am not opposed to auditioned or select ensembles, and it is likely that paid singers would be an integral part of such ensembles, but the use of the “soloists” alone communicates a caste system in the choir that tears away from its unity and its sense of servant community.

6. Staff singers should be expected to fully participate in every part of the choir’s communal life of worship and service. The reader might be amazed at the number of staff singers around the country who are allowed to leave worship after the choral music is completed. I recommend that staff singers be expected to participate fully in the life of the choir… attending all portions of all rehearsals and participating in social events. I believe staff singers should be expected to fully participate in the liturgy, making the sign of the cross, standing for the gospel reading, and kneeling as appropriate. While no one should be compelled at any time to partake of the Eucharist, I do believe staff singers should go to the altar with the choir and receive a blessing. It goes without saying that reading materials, cell phones and tablets should never be allowed in the choir stalls.

7. My final suggestion might be the most controversial of all. If a staff singer is uncomfortable fully participating in a religious service, he/she should not be a part of the leadership staff of the Church.

I can’t tell you how many times I have seen staff singers sitting and reading novels during the Holy Gospel and the Eucharistic Prayer. While it is true that all of us are in different places along our spiritual journey on any given day, the opportunity to serve God in His holy house is a privilege and a trust. It is not a gig, and it should never be allowed, by music staff, by clergy, or by committee, to be reduced to one.

Jenny and Glynda’s visit at the Java Corner is, of course, a created event, but the words they spoke and the story that is told is very real. With every passing year I hear more and more such stories of voices filled with song knocking on the church door praying to gain admittance.

My purpose here has not been to speak against the practice of paid choral singers. I have been a paid choral singer in church at times and I have employed paid choral singers in a number of congregations I have served as music director. I would not be opposed to doing so again in the future.

I do believe, however, as I have sought to illustrate here, that the practice comes with very real perils. It seems in recent years that the downside of employing paid choir singers is becoming more common to the detriment of music ministry in the service of the Church’s mission of worship and witness.

With humility I ask my colleagues to prayerfully consider these thoughts, and I warmly welcome your response and comments.