Organist jobs die in worship wars

Of all the subjects that I write about for the Scripps Howard News Service, columns about trends in worship consistently generate some of the most intense responses from readers. Nevertheless, it's hard to say when a few anecdotes about changes in a few major churches constitute an actual news trend. If the Catholic Church revises the missal, that's news. Change the Book of Common Prayer and that's news. But how does one cover the diverse, sprawling world of megachurch Protestantism? How many high-def video screens and rock-show lighting systems does one need to create a national news story?

But recently served up a legitimate story about a major worship trend, a story linked to the "worship wars" debates that have been growing for several decades.

There are all kinds of issues to debate about this story -- which only shows that the subject is quite complex. But let's not miss the fact that the story needed to be written in the first place. Here's the top of the report:

No one has touched the organ at First United Methodist Church in Oakland, Neb., since last January. That's when 80-year-old Pat Anderson played her last note as the small-town church's volunteer organist, a post she held for 18 years.

"It was time for me to retire," she said. When she did, there was nobody to step in. Two young women have taken over the musical duties for the 190-member congregation, but they play a digital piano -- not the organ.

"There are some people who wish we had the organ still, but they face the reality that it just isn't going to happen," said the Rev. Richard Karohl.

First United's struggle is indicative of a nationwide plight: There aren't enough organists to fill all of the open church positions. Many of the stay-at-home moms who once volunteered as organists are working now, and fewer young people are studying the organ. Those who are training to be professionals aren't interested in playing for small churches where the music program is limited to Sunday services and the pay is minimal -- if there's pay at all.

Once you've read the story, note that this issue is framed as a problem within the nation's more liberal mainline Protestant churches. This is a story with roots. About two decades ago, there were stories about how many urban churches were losing their skilled organists and musicians because of the AIDS crisis.

Now, other factors are at play -- including money. Many small mainline churches are getting even smaller, for a number of reasons. The people in the pews are also aging, which means that the audience for traditional church music is declining with the membership decline. The World War II era faithful are passing from the scene.

There are skilled musicians out there. But who can afford them?

"There's a great supply [of organists] for the right kind of jobs," said James Thomashower, executive director of the 18,000-member American Guild of Organists. Compared to 30 years ago, there are fewer trained organists -- but they're chasing fewer attractive positions. It's a buyers' market for churches with ambitious music programs.

"There are many, many highly qualified organists who would like to have a fine job on a fine instrument that pays a good wage," Thomashower said.

That wage, according to the Guild, should be between $63,000 and $83,000 a year, including benefits, for a full-time organist with a bachelor's degree in organ performance or sacred music.

This, in an era in which many mainline churches are struggling to even pay a decent salary-and-benefits package for a pastor. Is it easier and cheaper to use a piano, a volunteer "praise and worship" band or some other compromise? But pop/folk service music in aging mainline churches? That's a recipe for, yes, worship wars.

So this story represents a good start in covering a major story. What's next? For starters, CNN needs to fill the gaping hole caused by the lack of information about finances and membership issues in mainline churches. In other words, where did the jobs go?

Meanwhile, note that this report does not address what is happening in the new American mainline, which is the world of independent evangelical and Pentecostal churches. That's where the numbers are, today. And, trust me, there are worship wars stories in those flocks, as well. Go for it.

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