Should the minister design the church?
Wouldn’t it be highly unusual for a priest or minister to be given carte blanche by their congregation to design a church? “Father knows what he’d like and we didn’t graduate from seminary so let’s let him make all the decisions and tell us how much it’ll cost.” Does this sound like what would happen in your church? And yet, when it comes to the organ, one of the most expensive items a church can purchase, the organist’s preferences are almost always deferred to by clergy and lay leadership. Obviously, most laity feel qualified to be involved in decisions about church construction or remodeling. Bricks and mortar are things with which most lay people are familiar. The organ, on the other hand, is a mystery. Many church leaders are grateful that their organist has ideas about updating the old organ or acquiring a new one. They’re also afraid (although they may not express it) that if their organist is offended about decisions relating to the organ they may lose their musician.
How does this work? The organist is joined on a committee by those in the congregation with musical background. Often there is a representative from the vestry, board, or parish council with involvement or knowledge of the budget. The organist may be frustrated with years of working around an instrument that works poorly or was itself badly designed. The clergy or congregation may not be aware of this, or very aware, depending on circumstances. Some organists don’t hold back about the instrument they play while others suffer silently, quietly hoping for a remedy. Sales reps of organ companies may be in the mix and are usually aware of which churches are candidates for an organ update or new instrument. In addition there are many different types of organs and, in the case of existing instruments, numerous options for rebuilding and/or replacement. There is also a “town and gown” tension between organists whose primary interest is playing the repertoire they were exposed to in college and those who see their organ playing as a ministry. Historic French or Italian or Spanish organs of the 17th-19th centuries and the music written for them are part of creation. But acquiring a copy may not be the best use of resources in a 21st century church.
What’s a best practice? Consider asking an independent organ advisor or consultant for assistance. This individual should not, repeat should NOT be receiving any compensation from organ builders. If they do, they’re sales reps not consultants. The independent organ consultant does not tell the church whose instrument to acquire. He or she should provide the church with all the information needed for the church to make an informed decision. Experienced advisors are acquainted with and have experience dealing with the church’s organist—who is often very unhappy that “someone from the outside” has been brought in to provide objective advice. Sadly, many churches continue to trust their organist and shun qualified help. Sometimes they’re blessed and the organist made a good decision. But far too many churches may be saddled with an instrument that was poorly conceived, cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, and is theirs to “enjoy” for generations to come.