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On June 26, two days after the ruling by the US Supreme Court on Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization that effectively overruled Roe v. Wade and Planned Parenthood v. Casey, a purposefully anonymous group member of the I’m a Choir Director Facebook page, posted the following:

Is anyone else having a really hard time justifying working at a church right now? I work at one part time as a choir director for some additional income and it was really hard to sit there today and hear them celebrating my rights being taken away with the most recent Supreme Court ruling. I don’t want this to turn into a political argument and I don’t want people to just tell me to leave, as I live in a state that does not pay teachers very well and I need this income.

I’m just wondering if anyone else is in my shoes and how you’re handling it.

Church musician basics

Employment as a full- or part-time church employee is a regular endeavor for many musicians. Most churches require only part-time musicians, so people who work in any other musical or non-musical career may have a part-time church gig. 

The regular, stable income of working for a church can be hard to pass up, regardless of personal ideology.

The level of commitment, both doctrinal and time, that a musician has to exhibit varies by denomination, church, or position. Some churches occasionally hire a musician to perform at a funeral, wedding, or special religious event. Others hire section leaders, professional choristers, cantors, choir directors, praise band members, or organists to perform every service and rehearsal during the regular church year. Larger churches hire musicians as Organist, Organist/Choir Master, Choir Directors, Chancel Choir Director, which generally increases involvement in the spiritual planning of a service or the larger life of the church. Still another professional level is the Minister of Music or Director of Music, who oversees spiritual pastoring of the church through music.

For some religious ideologies, the church musician must believe/agree/consent with the tenets of the church that they work for, or the larger denomination of which the church is a part. They are employees, paid to provide a pastoral element of the service and live according to the church’s worldview. These churches can expect a church musician (or other employees) to sign a “Staff Expectations and Covenant” or Contract that spells out the rules that musicians must abide by.

Breaking this contract can involve a variety of disciplines, including dismissal.

The extent to which a church polices its employees’ beliefs can vary. Some clergy do not ask about it as long as an employee appears to fit into the role. As a June 2 tweet by Jonathan Merritt suggests (“Also, Happy Pride to all the Southern Baptist choir directors and their “roommates”), sexuality is often an open secret with a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy.

The original Facebook post is a common anecdotal response highlighting the tensions that church musicians can have with the church they work for. However, it is rare to see a post on a prominent Facebook group questioning church choir directing. Many anecdotes about these tensions between beliefs exist, such as this one that was a response to the original post:

I was basically forced to resign from a church job about 27 years ago because I was living with my boyfriend (now husband) before we were married and some busybody gossip found out about it and tattled on me to the minister (who it turned out was actually having an affair at the time). They gave me a choice of either getting married right away, having my future husband move out, or they would have to let me go. So I quit. Because the absolutely laughable salary of $3,200/year they were paying me was not worth people spying on and trying to control my private life. I have not been back to church since then except for weddings and funerals.

Other anecdotes, both less intense and more extreme, exist.

Responses to the posting

“I’m a Choir Director” is a private, 27,000-member Facebook group designated as a professional learning network for choir directors. After the OP’s (original poster) initial post, group members shared their responses and advice, resulting in 96 comments. The rules of this Facebook group prohibit overtly political discussions. However, the moderators deemed this post an important topic that many church musicians are involved with. One of the moderators did disclose to me that they deleted four comments by two individuals for obvious violation of the “overtly political discussion” rules. The deleted comments did not offer advice to the OP, but rather were political opinions on the SCOTUS ruling.

The respondents to OP’s initial post had a variety of viewpoints and potential solutions. Many discussed how they had resigned from their church music position that very day due to their church’s celebration of the ruling. Their church called it a “victory for the unborn,” as one poster dryly put it.

Many resigned from their church music position that very day due to their church’s celebration of the ruling.

Many respondents advocated finding a church that will serve OP’s needs and share her values, with the more progressive denominations possibly being better for the OP than the more conservative ones. Many offered stories of finding “the right” church to be a musician at. However, this idea of a “right church” can be dependent on geographic location, salary offered, the views of other employees (especially the clergy), and a myriad of other idiosyncratic details.

One respondent replied, “Look elsewhere. ALL churches aren’t bad.” However, that completely depends on a person’s point of view. All churches may be viewed as bad to someone who has suffered significant trauma at the hands of religious leaders (see #exvangelical movement).

Some respondents advocated completely changing professional directions and teaching music privately, accompanying for local musical theater shows, or some other music-related job that doesn’t require compromising their values. They cited the OP’s problem as the exact reason they chose not to work within an organized religious framework. Changing directions professionally is possible, but again, depends heavily on geographic location, compensation, and time. Other music-related positions may not be worth it. As the OP stated in response, “I am not in a situation where I can put my integrity above a paycheck, but I’m glad you are.”

Only a few respondents advocated staying at that church. One suggested working to effect positive progressive change at the church, which, while a nice thought, making any significant change to a congregational culture singlehandedly is a lot to expect. Another suggested talking to the pastor about her concerns, and cited the positive relationship she had with her pastor as a reason it might work. Finally, one respondent suggested “zoning out” during the sermon or anything that wasn’t music-related.

One respondent had this interesting take: “I have dealt with this conflict by donating my church income to groups working for those marginalized people.” With this solution, the church musician receives money from the religious groups doing the marginalizing and gives it to those whom the religious groups marginalize. However, this solution does not compensate the musician for their time and talents. Also, the church in question is not made aware that anyone disagrees with their stance, so nothing within the religious ideology has the potential to change. The original poster mentioned that she donates a portion of her salary to the state abortion fund, which has helped her conscience on the matter.

Where it goes from here

It will be interesting to see demographic information over the next few years if the SCOTUS ruling of Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization causes even more of a shift away from religion, as Sarah Elbeshbishi suggests in USA Today. This anecdotal evidence from social media suggests at least a move towards more liberal denominations, and some entire breaks from religious traditions, due to the ruling. And new data showing that Gen Z is the first generation with more nonreligious women than men may suggest that the alienation of women from religion is already well under way.

The quote from the OP, “I am not in a situation where I can put my integrity above a paycheck,” applies to musicians for whom the entire paycheck can be a significant part of their income and others for whom an extra $75 will help with food. It can be hard for anyone to pass up extra money.

There was no perfect solution to the problem posited by the OP, but some solutions were better than others. At some point after the initial post, the OP edited their post with her decision:

I am beginning the process of searching for a new church. Thank you for all your suggestions of more progressive denominations. Until then, I’m just going to keep my head down.

Christopher Clark

Dr. Christopher Clark is director of choirs and lecturer in music education at Case Western Reserve University.