Striking the Right Chord in Paying the Music Director

Music directors are third in line when it comes to getting paid in some of our congregations. Congregations that struggle to pay the minister and director of religious education at responsible levels often find they have little left for music.

At First UU (Unitarian Universalist) Church of Nashville, TN (371 members), the music director resigned four years ago to return to college with a warning that a pay increase would be necessary to hire a successor, says Lisa Pasto-Crosby, former music committee chair.

Armed with a careful log of the departed music director’s hours and activities and the UUA (Unitarian Universalist Association) Guidelines on Staff Compensation, the search committee asked the congregation for more money. The money wasn't available so the committee trimmed duties from the position. Volunteers had to take over some tasks, such as leading the children's choir for a year, but when the duties were eventually given back to the director, they were assigned at the higher hourly rate. The music director is now paid at a rate within UUA guidelines.

At a three hundred member congregation in the southern United States, the music director recalls a time a few years ago when the pay was about $50 per week. "The feeling among some people was that I enjoyed what I was doing, and therefore it was not work," the director says, "and that the choir just got up and sang. It took education to get people to realize there was a lot of preparation and rehearsal before we sang."

Six months ago that director became full time, at a salary of about $22,000, scheduled to increase next year if the canvass is successful. She credits four factors: one-on-one education, gradual improvement in music quality, a survey of pay rates at area congregations, and the use of UUA compensation guidelines.

At Jefferson Unitarian Church in Golden, CO (475 members), the director of music ministry's salary was raised from $7,000 to $24,000 over three years when the personnel committee, backed by the ministers, adopted the UUA guidelines for all professional staff at Golden. "If we had simply tried to increase the salary in isolation of other staff, I don't think it would have happened," says music director Keith Arnold.

Joyce Gilbert, president of the UU Musicians Network, recommends that a congregation's music program always have its own budget line. If music staffers choose to donate their services, she suggests they take a salary, then write a check back to the church, thus ensuring that the music program remains part of the budget. "Churches and fellowships are businesses with fiscal responsibilities," Gilbert, of Rochester, NY, notes. "Music is a business expense and should be recognized as such."

The music director should be "a little hardheaded," Gilbert says, and insist on necessities like piano tuning. A list of recurring expenses should be kept and budgeted for. Any music fund-raising should be for extras only. "Music ministry should be treated as the essential component of a congregation's worship experience that it is," Gilbert says, "and the music director's contributions be recognized fairly."


UUA district offices have compensation consultants to help congregations find ways to pay staff fairly. UUA fair compensation guidelines can be found on

The Unitarian Universalist Musicians' Network (UUMN) helps connect church musicians and music program volunteers from congregations of all sizes. Contact them at (800) 969-UUMN.

About the Author

  • Donald E. Skinner was the founding editor of the InterConnections newsletter for congregational leaders and a senior editor of UU World from 1998 until his retirement in 2014. He is a member of the Shawnee Mission Unitarian Universalist Church in Lenexa, Kansas.

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