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Understanding the Job

The Work of the Sacred Musician

"From the beginning, when God created the heavens and the earth, there was music. The morning stars sang together and all the angels shouted for joy. From the beginning, when the Hebrew children knew triumph and defeat, exile and return, there was song. In each generation, the prophets, priests and people sang in praise and lamentation, in desolation and in festival. The psalmist sings in every age: “O sing to the Lord a new song!”

Music for worship deserves talented, dedicated musicians. Their work is both visible (performance during the worship service)and invisible (the hours of preparation and practice). The largest portion of a choir director’s time is spent on planning, organizing, and leading a choir program. This includes music selection and learning or review prior to choir rehearsal, and conducting the rehearsals, often for several different choirs of differing ages and vocal abilities. Staff meetings, worship committee meetings, and other administrative meetings are also part of the director’s work.

An organist spends the most time in keyboard practice to maintain skills, building on his/her knowledge for skill growth and proficiency, learning new music, practicing music to be used in the future, adapting accompaniments for the organ, and selecting the registration on the instrument that will best represent the music, all of which are necessary parts of the practice schedule. Wise use of time is important to this highly skilled and disciplined endeavor. Preparation is absolutely essential.

The organist-director is filling two roles, and this position requires considerable skill and training. The double duties naturally require more time than either position alone.


Sacred institutions seeking musicians must consider all the elements of the roles they expect the musician to serve before they can complete the job description. A musician seeking a position must analyze his/her own personality and sense of religious vocation to determine the roles he/she desires to play in a sacred music program. Institutions and musicians may consider three categories of service for the sacred musician.

The functional musician possesses basic skills in playing hymns, congregational service music, voluntaries, accompanying, choir training, and the selection of appropriate choral music. A vocational musician has all the above plus leadership qualities in the area of recruitment, program coordination, administration, minister/musician (or staff) meetings, and worship-related committees of the institution and possesses a demonstrated knowledge of the theology and practice of worship. The pastoral musician has all of the above in addition to contributing creatively to the total church program through the generation of ideas, showing pastoral concern for all persons (and their family members) involved in the music program, and providing professional leadership in congregational music (such as, hymnody, psalmody, liturgy, and so forth) through the religious education program and the public worship of the institution.


A decision needs to be made regarding the roles the institution desires the musician to play. Along with the three classifications given above, it may be helpful to consider degree requirements, both from accredited institutions of higher learning and from the American Guild of Organists. The Guild offers examinations that lead to the following degrees of certification, in ascending order of proficiency:

  • SPC Service Playing
  • CAGO Colleague of the American Guild of Organists
  • ChM Choir Master
  • AAGO Associate of the American Guild of Organists
  • FAGO Fellow of the American Guild of Organists

The CAGO, AAGO, and FAGO certificates show comparable proficiencies for the Bachelor’s, Master’s, and Doctor’s degrees in music, respectively. Degree levels alone do not guarantee a level of proficiency or expertise in sacred music, but they are indicators. A testing of qualifications should be made by asking probative questions in the interview, seeking information from references about past job performance, and having the candidate submit to a audition, tests the musical skills which the institution desires its musicians to possess.

The musician should examine himself/herself to determine personal goals for work in sacred music, looking toward institutions who will provide the appropriate avenues for their attainment. The candidate should prepare himself/herself properly for these roles by acquiring the necessary degrees and/or certificates to qualify for a desired position. The candidate should also prepare a portfolio of career highlights and accomplishments for the review of the institution prior to the interview and audition process. This portfolio should demonstrate the variety of experience and performing/ministerial strengths the candidate will bring to a position in sacred music.


Musicians whose churches or synagogues place a high priority on their music program will spend more time on their music, and the end result will be a higher quality of music for worship. Some institutions “want and can afford the best in the field. Sacred music is an art form and a well-developed craft that requires knowledge and skill. Skill levels vary from musician to musician. The institution must recognize the worth of and the cost difference between a competent, well-trained musician and the less skilled or inexperienced one and therefore be willing to pay accordingly.” [3] Because most of this work is not visible to a congregation, institutions do not fully realize what is involved, not only in maintaining skills and in the selection of appropriate music, but also in the amount of time required. This understanding will be critical when negotiating a level of compensation that is commensurate with the musician’s qualifications and the time demands of the position.

Not all musicians work full-time in a sacred music position. An institution offering a full-time compensation to a musician may make full-time demands on the musician. If an institution does not offer full-time compensation, the institution must workout an arrangement with a musician that will satisfy the needs of both the institution and the musician. Discussion of the use of time below must be weighed against the consideration of the position as full- or part-time.

Institutions searching to fill a position in sacred music usually appoint committees to review the qualifications of candidates. This section is designed to help committee members understand the different tasks of a sacred musician.


Practicing is as basic a discipline is to a musician as exercising is to an athlete. Musicians need to provide fresh, exciting, and inspirational music weekly, or even more often when mid-week services are involved. A sacred musician is different from the concert artist and recitalist, who perform the same repertoire in many concerts.


The ultimate purpose of all of the “work of the musician” is that the centerpiece of the church or synagogue’s life-the worship service, the “visible” ministry of the musician-be for the congregation a spiritually uplifting, comforting, inspiring, beautiful, and profound experience. The music performed or selected by the sacred musician is, therefore, also distinct from that chosen by a performing artist. Sacred music is selected for a special purpose, the worship of God. To make this selection wisely, the sacred musician must conduct research on musical expressions that fit into certain services and study the Bible and service planning guides to determine the most appropriate selections for the liturgical act or season that the music will support.


To prepare for the liturgical events of an institution, communication between its lay and ordained leadership and the musician is critical. The clergypersons of the church or synagogue have a partnership with the musicians, and their encouragement and undergirding of the music ministry is important. Musicians expect to be included in discussions that concern the music program, including staff, worship planning, scheduling, and budget. Time demands in this category will depend upon the needs and size of the institution.

Choir Rehearsals

The heart of most music programs is the interaction between the musician and those most active in the music program. Preparing for each two hour rehearsal takes hours of planning, just as planning is required in writing a sermon or preparing a lesson for a class. Efficient use of rehearsal time will determine the scope and quality of the music program. Again, time demands in this category will depend upon the needs and size of the institution and the number of choirs for whom the musician is responsible.


The work of the sacred musician also involves administrative planning, both alone and with clergy and staff: choir training and recruiting; selection of music; correspondence; obtaining copyright permissions, when necessary; scheduling,; learning, reviewing music, and developing an artistic interpretation of music; searching for new music; arranging or composing music for particular needs; continuing education and membership in professional organizations; and performing in recitals and special concerts. Organists also may be required to participate in other events at the church or synagogue such as weddings, funerals, or additional services.

Congregational Education

Another important component of a sacred musician’s work is communication with the congregation, nurturing its understanding of the role of music in worship through providing information about compositions selected for services, training in new hymns or liturgies, and invitations to participate in the music program. Assisting in special assemblies, writing articles for a newsletter, preparing notes for bulletins, and speaking to classes, are just a few of the ways the musician contributes toward the musical education of a congregation.

Professional Support and Development

Regular contact with colleagues helps a musician remain in touch with developments in the fields of sacred music and musical performance. Continuing education is a critical part of ministry. Budget provisions for continuing education in the form of music lessons, tuition for courses, allowances for investment in the musician’s personal music library, fees for attending workshops and conventions, and dues for professional organizations are essential for an institution that expects its musician to remain abreast of developments in the field and to improve his/her skills. Most professional organizations offer regular meetings, seminars, retreats, workshops, and conventions. Many denominations have associations for musicians working in their institutions, and the musician should be offered membership in those organizations as part of the job benefits. Regular attendance at and participation in local chapter, regional, and national activities of the American Guild of Organists is also beneficial. Payment of AGO dues is a benefit offered by many institutions.


The sacred musician, as any other employee, is entitled to a work environment free of harassment and discrimination both in hiring practices and in employment relationships. Selection of a sacred music professional should not be based upon sex, age, race, disability or religious affiliation any more than the hiring of any employee by any other institution or business. In its Code of Ethics, the Guild prohibits discrimination by its members on the basis of “race, national origin, age, religious affiliation, gender, marital status, sexual orientation, disability or medical condition (including, but not limited to, acquired immune deficiency syndrome)” and urges employing institutions to follow this policy.

In April 2007, the Guild adopted following updated Code of Professional Standards, which forms the foundation of the work of the sacred musician:

Members of the American Guild of Organists are bound by the Code of Ethics and guided by the Code of Professional Standards. Members of the American Guild of Organists dedicate themselves to the highest standard of professionalism, integrity and competence. The following principles are guidelines for the conduct of members in fulfilling their obligations as professional musicians.


  1. Members develop and maintain skills in performance, improvisation, service playing, conducting, arranging, and composing commensurate with their duties.
  2. Members stay abreast of current developments in liturgy, hymnody, performance practice, and musicology through continuing education.
  3. Members become knowledgeable in the liturgy and worship traditions of the institutions they serve.
  4. Members acquire business, administrative and interpersonal skills to perform their duties.

Employment Matters:

  1. Members agree to employment only after reaching a clear understanding of the position, the employer’s expectations, and the lines of accountability.
  2. Members request written contracts that protect employee and employer.
  3. Members maintain courteous and respectful relationships with other staff members and members of their congregations, making an effort to resolve potential conflicts as soon as they become evident.
  4. Members address differences with employing institutions through appropriate channels, including, but not limited to, their contract, the institution’s personnel policies manual, and the Guild’s Procedures for Dealing with Complaints about Termination.
  5. Members do not use AGO affiliation or membership information publicly (except for biographical purposes) to endorse, for commercial advantage, the financial and business goals or the products and services of others or to further any political goals.

Respect for Colleagues:

  1. Members supervise other musicians in a professional and courteous manner.
  2. Members respect the intellectual property rights of composers, authors and publishers by complying with the Copyright Law and licensing requirements regarding reproduction, recording, distribution, broadcasting and performing rights.
  3. Members address differences with other members of the American Guild of Organists by following the procedures outlined in the Discipline.
  4. Members do not discriminate against others on the basis of race, national origin, age, religious affiliation, gender, marital status, sexual orientation, disability, or medical condition (including, but not limited to Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome).
  5. Members do not use AGO affiliation or membership information publicly (except for biographical purposes) to endorse, for commercial advantage, the financial and business goals or the products and services of others or to further any political goals.