After challenging the room full of technical artists to pay attention to the spiritual side of what we do, we caught up with Steve for a few additional thoughts.
We managed to snag Lincoln for a few moments after his keynotes to get his thoughts on being a shock absorber for the church and how important the heart is in technical service.
I don’t know why it always happens around Easter week. Perhaps it’s a 12-month duty cycle, or perhaps it’s spiritual warfare leading up to the week, but for the last 3 years we’ve had something significant break on Palm Sunday or the weekend before. This year, I thought we had escaped. Until Palm Sunday morning.
I was mixing and my lighting guy caught my attention and said, “Uh, Mike, the Hog keeps freezing.” I told him to re-start the computer. He replied that he had already done that twice. Uh oh. I moved over there to take a look. He reported that the console would work for about 5 minutes then freeze up. It became completely unresponsive and we couldn’t do anything. By now, it was about 8:30 and we had service in 30 minutes. Ugh.
Over the next few weeks, I’m going to write a series of posts that will detail some of our backup processes. Before I do that, I will tell you that we’re still in progress and our system is far from perfect. But we spend a lot of time on it and are moving toward a place where I feel like we can handle about anything. I will also tell you that our system was not working on Palm Sunday this year. That’s something else we learned. But before we get into all of that, I want to share something else I’ve learned over the years, and it’s probably more important than any of this.
The way in which you respond to a system failure is more important than getting the system back online. That is to say, if you start freaking out, yelling and running around like a madman, while you might get the system back online, you will have a lot more damage to clean up afterwards. If you stay calm, cool and focused on the big picture, not only will you likely recover from the disaster, you will have also gained a lot of respect from your team and leadership.
Now I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t always do this well. Sometimes I can be completely cool and collected, working through a problem with no real issue. Other times, I tend to grumble under my breath, complaining about this “crappy technology that never works…” I’ve been doing this long enough that I rarely go into full-on meltdown mode, but I can become a grumbler while I’m fixing something. It’s something I know about and am working on. Here are a few things that I think are key to recovering from a system failure.
Stay solutions focused
The moments after the lighting console craps out (again) are not when we should be complaining that they should not have cut the new one out of the budget (again), researching new options or blaming the previous guy for buying that one. What we need to do is fix the problem; in that case, get the lights back on.
We first thought we had a corrupt show file, so we tried opening a backup. That’s when we discovered our backup system hadn’t been working. We eventually found another backup show file, but the problem persisted. With time and options running out, we managed to program 3 quick looks (walk in/out, music, teaching) into the Paradigm controller before the console froze again. That got us through the weekend (albeit with the simplest lighting anyone’s ever seen there…), and we had time to really asses the situation.
Put the team first
That weekend, my lighting operator was a high school student who does great work, but has limited experience with the console. So rather than throw him into the middle of troubleshooting, I worked with him to try to come up with a solution. While the situation was a bit tense, I tried to make light of it and remind him that it was not the end of the world if we only had 3 lighting looks that weekend.
We joked that I would give him the cue when it was time to change from “music” to “teaching” so he wouldn’t miss it. Instead of getting upset, we just moved forward and tried to make it fun.
Find something that works and build from there
We discovered that we could get the console up for a few minutes before it froze up. That gave us enough time to program those three scenes into the Paradigm (ETC’s architectural control system), which got us through the weekend. As we had less than 30 minutes to figure it out before the service started, I didn’t have time to go into full-blown troubleshooting mode on the console. We just needed something to work.
A year or so ago, I had a power supply go bad in my stage rack, and somehow it took an input card with it. What was happening didn’t make any sense, I just lost 8 input channels. I spent a few minutes figuring out what happened, then simply re-patched those inputs to a card that seemed to be OK, and updated the patch on the console. We made it through the weekend, which then gave me time to figure out what was happening in the relative calm of a Sunday afternoon.
I think it’s important to not be surprised by calamitous events. If we’re not running systems that have grown to be complex and highly inter-connected, we’re running systems that are old and frail. It’s no surprise that things fail; all equipment, no matter how good or expensive has a finite lifespan. We simply need to prepare for it and remain calm when it all goes wrong. In upcoming posts, I’ll detail some of our process for surviving system failures.
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Creative people can be a hard lot to manage. And I say that as a creative person who has also had to manage other creatives. Part of the problem is that most of us tend to assume that other people are like us. So, if you’re a left-brained analytical person, you tend to assume that everyone else is similar. As such, walking into the tech booth and saying, “It’s too loud,” or, “Can we kill the haze,” or “I don’t like that background for the second song,” seems like a perfectly logical and non-offensive thing to do. And it would be; if your tech booth was populated by left-brained analytical people. But it’s not. So your words have far more meaning than you think they do.
I was reading an article in Fast Company a few weeks ago. They were doing a feature story on the head of J. Crew. Now, even though I’m normally pretty fashionable in my tech standard-issue black t-shirt and blue jeans, I normally don’t pay much mind to J. Crew. But the article caught my eye so I started reading. One quote from the young president, Jenna Lyons, really resonated with what we do in the technical arts. She says:
“When someone creates something and puts it in front of you, that thing came from inside them, and if you make them feel bad, it’s going to be hard to fix, because you’ve actually crushed them.”
This simple, run-on sentence really helps clarify why we feel so hurt by a simple, “It’s too loud” comment. I think it perfectly illustrates the disconnect between most church leaders and their technical staff. Leadership tends to think that the tech people are left-brained analytical people who just happen to understand technology better and know how to push the right buttons at the right time.
To be sure, some of us are like that. But the best technical artists I know are just that; artists. Mixing a worship set isn’t just bring up the faders to unity and turning the pastor’s mic off. There is as much artistry going on behind the mixer as there is on the stage (sometimes more; but that’s another post). The best lighting guys don’t just turn on lights—they carefully choose colors, angles and intensity to appropriately convey the mood of the song. The presentation tech picks backgrounds that go with the lights and the song. It’s all art; varying degrees, but still art.
So what the left-brained person thinks is a totally neutral, fact-based comment is actually much more. Walking into the booth and saying, “It’s too loud,” or “Can you turn the guitar down?” and leaving is not at all unlike throwing a hand grenade into the booth, then leaving. You thought it was a statement of fact, but it’s more like tearing up your 4-year old’s painting in front of her.
Now to be sure, we artists need to develop thicker skin. We are in a service business and ultimately we need to serve our leadership and their vision of the church and service. It’s important for us to recognize that our leaders aren’t intending to crush us with their comments. They are pointing out a problem that they see needs to be solved. And as problem-solvers, we should be good at this.
But somehow, we need to develop better methods of communication between the artists and thinkers. Church leaders need to understand that we’re not picking values at random—a lot of our hearts and soul goes into whatever we’re doing. At least it should. The danger comes when the artist gets so beaten down that they give up and fall back to, “Whatever you want” mode.
And while the left-brained types think it would be much better for everyone if they didn’t have to deal with those “out there artists,” the reality is, they don’t want that. Because a purely intellectual expression of the Gospel is an incompletely expression. The church needs artists, desperately. God himself is the ultimate artist, and when we as artists express what is in us, we are all better off for it.
Somehow, we need to figure out how to get along, and how to better communicate with each other. Only then will the church be all it can be.