Musicians in Part-Time Employment

Article excerpt


RECENTLY, I witnessed a part-time musician being treated badly. Sad to say, it is not the first time in my career to see poor administrative behavior and policy on behalf of a church and its leader toward a hard-working musician.

I am struck by the injustice of what happened and angered at the apparent lack of recourse available to us musicians. Of course, the legal world shrugs its collective shoulders as if to say, "Not much you can do in this 'work-at-will' world where a job description serves as a quasi contract, and a pastor's verbal promises and unqualified assurances about your job and its longevity ultimately count for little or nothing."

I am writing here about issues without answers; I have only questions and dismay. I suspect the reader may know a little (or a lot) about similar misfortunes among those of us organists and choir directors who strive in our profession and run afoul of a hostile employer.

These are the facts I am certain of in this case: The job as promised and described began in the fall and was to last through the next twelve months at the least; even after a 90-day review in the fall, the pastor unequivocally reassured the musician that the job performance was fine and under no question except for some small tweaks. The musician complied with all job-related requests - planning music submitted in advance for approval, preparing all the elements of Christmas season, working with various choirs including children, arranging for holiday instrumentalists, auditioning vocal soloists, and showing up at every scheduled rehearsal and service, well prepared. Church members often gave unsolicited praise and thanks for the music program and its leadership.

Then, on a Sunday a month after Christmas, the pastor appeared in the choir room after services, unannounced, to dismiss the musician, simply saying, "I guess things didn't work out for you." He then demanded keys back and instructed all personal effects be removed immediately, and handed the musician a final check for work done to that day. There was no prior notice, no hint of administrative job action, no severance or consideration, no explanation.

When I heard of this from my young colleague with words of disbelief, "Can pastors actually do this? …