ACK IN APRIL, I promised to write about the subject of paying singers at Church. At that time, I carefully avoided revealing my thoughts on the matter. Nevertheless, I received an avalanche of emails, with a few attacking me personally. Some were angry I had condemned paid singers, while others criticized me supporting paid singers. In fact, I made neither statement.
A great theologian has written:
There’s nothing wrong with paying singers at Mass. It is simply a recognition of the fact that a professional singer (or section leader) has a special role to play in the total event of a MISSA CANTATA, which deserves a special acknowledgement according to the Gospel: Dignus est operarius mercede sua (I Tim 5: 18).
I agree, but there’s more to the story…
EACH CHOIRMASTER MUST decide for himself the best course of action. During my career, I’ve worked with paid singers and volunteers. Everyone knows the challenges that can arise with volunteers, but did you know paid singers can also bring problems? In my experience, when singers are paid, it can (sometimes) be difficult to ascertain if they’re attending Mass for the right reasons. Moreover, feelings of jealousy can grow in the other singers’ hearts. 1
Some will think me a fool, but I prefer not to rely on paid section leaders. My preference is to find parishioners who already attend Mass for the right reasons, training them. If I had paid section leaders, the non-paid singers might feel “extra,” whereas the paid singers are all that’s necessary. Our current arrangement causes me sleepless nights filled with worry—it’s true—but in my humble opinion the singers appreciate being needed. 2
If I were to employ paid singers again—and I reserve the right to change my mind!—I would do so through an established program. I would avoid making statements like one I’ll never forget, directed at a section leader whose attendance was poor: “Remember, if you don’t show up on Holy Thursday, you won’t get your $40.00.” It would be understood that section leaders receive a stipend provided in a subtle, equitable, and dignified manner. 3
When the lights break in the church, we pay an electrician. Priests, of course, are always paid (salary, health insurance, living expenses, cost of transportation, and so on). Organists, too, are generally paid, which I think is appropriate. Yet, in all my years serving as an Altar Boy—acolyte, thurifer, torchbearer, and master of ceremonies—I only remember getting paid once: for a funeral. I suppose much depends on local custom.
NOTES FROM THIS ARTICLE:
1 With regard to paying the choirmaster, I have no issue with this, but I also worked for years as a volunteer choirmaster & organist. Justice would seem to demand compensation in this case, since preparing for Sunday can easily require 40+ hours of hard work each week.
2 I recall sharing my views while serving on a discussion panel in front of an audience. One of my colleagues muttered something like, “It’s a pity you don’t hold your choir to the highest standards.” However, one can still have high standards while following the program I’ve outlined, where volunteer singers are found in one’s parish. Furthermore, if there’s excess money, it could be spent on other things that would improve the sacred music, such as hiring a music teacher for children in the parish. In short, I disagree with that panelist’s statement.
3 I once worked at a large parish where the administration constantly forgot to pay me. Twice or thrice each month I was forced to beg the secretary for my paycheck; it was truly humiliating. But these same folks somehow consistently remembered to pay the electric bill.