Where Have All the Organists Gone?

At Old South, we are in search of a new organist/choir director. Our search is now several months old. In the first round, we had only a few applicants and only two that we thought were good candidates for Old South. One of two, though, lives very far away and it seemed an unreasonable cost to cover travel expenses for an in-person interview, especially for such a small church that could offer not much in terms of compensation. The other organist lives much closer and is a talented musician and a promising candidate, but ended up turning the job down because of the commute involved, which is especially difficult in the winter.

We are back to square one, although it feels like we are actually even further back than that. In our quest, we—a fairly well-connected little search committee—have spoken to, reached out to, emailed, phoned, etc, etc, every possible person who might be able to give us a lead on a potential candidate. And, now we are discovering that it’s almost impossible to find an organist in central Maine.  We are not alone.  We’ve actually learned that there are very few active organists in our area.

It probably shouldn’t be any surprise. The church, while it was lulled into complacency with an organist and choir director who served well for about a dozen years, missed out on what’s been happening “out there”: the steep decline in church organists. Not just in central Maine. Everywhere. Back in 1997, the Los Angeles Times published an article, “Churches Suffer Notable Shortage of Organists.” The article pointed to low pay and the lack of full-time jobs as the primary reasons why young people stay away from the profession, leaving a vacuum where older organists have retired.  The organist is a species in the midst of extinction.

What’s even more worrying is the dearth in the numbers of pianists as well. As we have discovered, when we thought to call around for a possible pianist who might be willing to learn the organ, pianists are just about as hard to find as organists.

What’s a good church, with a small but enthusiastic and talented choir, to do?

It’s another piece of the decline of the church.

At Old South, we are fortunate in this extended season of searching to enjoy the talents and gifts of a former organist and choir director who’s been willing to fill in for a while.  Though we know he won’t stay forever.  Now, we face some choices:

  1. We can bury our heads in the sand and keep up the search as if it’s only a little bad luck that has kept us from finding someone so far;
  2. We can commit ourselves to feeling sorry for ourselves, as if some wayward organist may find it in their heart to take pity on us; or,
  3. We can continue our search, while we also opening ourselves to the movement of the Holy Spirit, and a whole new way of thinking about music in our worshipping.  Maybe it’s time to do something different with our music.

I realize that #3 is not what we want, and if we were something like an “organ club” perhaps it would be time to declare our mission over and done. But, we are not an “organ club,” we are a church. And, the church has learned over the years—sometimes kicking and screaming—that changes are not only necessary, but they are the way that God works.

I hope it won’t come to “kicking and screaming,” but that we will discover, through God’s grace, a new openness and awareness that God does indeed work in mysterious ways and there might just be some new and wonderful way for us do music. After all, there’s nothing in the Bible that states that an organ is a requirement for singing, or for making a joyful noise.

About smaxreisert

I'm a United Church of Christ pastor serving the small, faithful Old South Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, in Hallowell, Maine. I was ordained in Massachusetts in 1995, moved to Maine in 1997 and have served the Hallowell church since 2005.
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