Creating a Healthy Volunteer Culture

Image courtesy of Morgan

Image courtesy of Morgan

Here at CTA, we talk a lot about creating a healthy staff culture. Just last week I wrote a post to TD’s encouraging them to do a good job of taking care of themselves. I really believe in that, mainly because sometimes, church staffs are not as healthy as they could be. As I was thinking about this concept, it occurred to me that we also have to be sure to build and maintain a healthy culture for our volunteer teams as well. 

I think this falls into two main categories. First is the larger church that has at least one paid tech person, who leads a team of volunteers. Second, is the church that is all volunteer-based. One isn’t necessarily better than the other, but they do have different needs. 

Leading Volunteers Well

If you are leading a team of volunteers as a paid staff member, you have a key responsibility. While it is important to get the job done, it’s more important to take care of your team. That means not putting them in a position where they are serving every weekend. I like a 3 week rotation, personally. I find that means people are serving often enough to get and stay good at their position, but still have plenty of time off. 

Sometimes, we come across those “super-volunteers” who just love to be there every weekend and at every event. I love those people. And I try to love them enough to send them home once in a while. Some people do have the capacity and time to be there a lot. And that’s great. But as I advocated last week, be sure they get at least one weekend off per quarter. Every two months would better still. 

I’ve talked to tech leaders who have had a high-capacity volunteer up and quit one day, seemingly out of the blue. But once we dig into it, it’s easy to see that there were plenty of warning signs that were ignored. Remember, your job as a TD isn’t just mixing. You have to pay attention to your team and make sure they’re healthy. And to do that, you have to get to know them. 

The All-Volunteer Team

If you are a volunteer leader of an all-volunteer team, you are in a doubly hard position. You need to stay healthy yourself, which means taking regular breaks, and you need to help your team. I really encourage pastors to help in this process, whether it’s the lead pastor or worship pastor.

In smaller churches, it’s tempting to think that once you have a tech position covered, you can relax and get back to the important things of ministry. The problem is, by not paying attention to the team, making sure they are healthy and getting the breaks they need, you will likely come in one Sunday and find your super-dedicated volunteer isn’t there. And he’s not coming back. That can be a real problem. 

We have to remember that a volunteer works a full-time job, may have a wife and family, and has friends and hobbies that they enjoy. If we ask them to commit every weekend of the year to serving, they will not last long. Or at least they will not be happy long. 

All this people stuff can be hard for technical leaders, I get that. I’m not the most relational person, and I am more naturally geared to staying in my own little world of mixing and system design. But ministry is about people. So even when it’s hard, we have to push ourselves to make sure our people are healthy. I think it would be great if the Church became known as the best place in the world to work and serve. We’re not there yet, but wouldn’t that be cool?

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Same Gear, Different Results

A few months back, my daughter asked me to mix for her worship leading final. Of course, I said yes immediately. Then I discovered the venue. It was not ideal. That’s being polite. It was a big, hard box with lots of parallel walls, a poorly implemented PA and a mix position outside the coverage are of the speakers. Oh, and FOH was only accessed by a tight spiral staircase. Cool. 

The mixer was a little A&H analog deal, the speakers were forgettable and someone decided to mount the projector in a rack right next to the mixing position so the hot air exhaust blew on the engineer the entire time. I fixed that by flipping the door on the rack around to direct the air away from me. But that’s not the point. 

I ended up mixing not only my daughter’s set, but three others as well. When the class was over, four or five people came up and thanked me for being there and every one of them said they had never heard that room sound so good. 

Now, I say that not to blow my own horn, but to make the point that the gear is not necessarily what makes something sound good or not. I have heard terrible mixes on great PA’s and great mixes on less than ideal ones. 

You Have to Get Better at Mixing

I talk to some guys, especially at small churches with small or no budgets and they continually tell me that they could do a better job if they just had better gear. Now, that may be true to some extent. But the reality is, you can get better at mixing no matter what you have to work on. Every time I mix a gig on some really crappy gear, people come up and tell me how much better it sounded than they expected. Again, not to tell you how great I am, but to say that I have spent the last 20 years learning how to wring the most performance out of whatever gear I’m given. 

Sure, I’d rather mix on an SD5 with an L’Acoustics PA, but if what I have to work with is some old JBL cabs and an MG32, I’m going to do my best to make it amazing. It’s what we do.

Complaining and Blaming Equipment Won’t Get You New Gear

If I were writing a book, this would be a chapter. It’s easy to constantly complain that you don’t have the right mixer, the right mic’s, the right speakers, the right lights, the right whatever. But no one likes a complainer. You know what church leaders do like? Someone who knocks it out of the park every week despite the crappy equipment their given. Learn to do that, and you will eventually get what you want.

New Equipment Won’t Magically Make You Better

You have to get better. I’ve walked into churches with fancy new digital boards and listened the result and cringed. When I look at how they have it set up, it’s often a mess. If you don’t understand the fundamentals of gain structure, EQ and basic mixing, it doesn’t really matter how many on-board compressors you have or how many plugins you can rack up. In fact, those usually do more harm than good in inexperienced hands. Learn to mix on crappy gear, then move up the food chain. 

Remember, these are all just tools. It’s up to us to learn how to use them to their fullest capacity. Learn to do that and it won’t matter what you find yourself mixing on.


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Take Care of Yourself

Photo courtesy of anoldent.

Photo courtesy of anoldent.

I have the privilege to know a lot of technical directors. A lot. One thing I’ve noticed about our tribe is that we tend to be really good at taking care of everyone around us, and not so good at taking care of ourselves. And that can be both a good thing and a bad thing. 

On the plus side, we tend to be great servants. Those around us trust us to get the job done no matter what. We typically go the extra two miles, even at great personal sacrifice. This is generally good. However, it can also lead to burnout. I know too many people who gave and gave and gave until there was no more left, then simply left the church, never to return (at least not yet). So we really do need to take care of ourselves if we want to do this for the long haul.

I’ve had this conversation a few times in the past few months, so it occurs to me that it might be beneficial to share some thoughts on taking care of yourself. 

Give yourself permission to take time off

I know you. You don’t think you can take time off. I get it. The baseline standard for the tech department is perfection, and if we’re not there every weekend, there is a concern that we won’t achieve our goal. Having done this for 25+ years, here’s what I have learned the hard way: You have to get over it. First of all, your team will step up and do a great job when you’re not there. Second of all, it’s not like nuclear explosions will happen if something goes wrong. Sure, a few people might be inconvenienced and someone might even be mad. But if you don’t take time off, you will burn out and when you leave, it will be ugly. Don’t to it.

Ask your boss to tell you to take time off.

I add this because I figure you’re not going to listen to the above advice and take time off on your own. I just told someone the other day that one of the most loving things anyone has ever done for me was kick me out of the office for a few days. I worked for a church some years back, and when I first started, my boss asked how he could lead me well. I told him I tend to be a workaholic and need help taking time off. He listened and would tell me to take some time off every few months if I wasn’t doing it on my own. That re-trained my thinking that it was ok to take time off. I am thankful for him to this day for that.

Have a mentor.

You really need to have someone who you meet with every so often who will remind you that you’re not crazy. What we do is hard, unique and different from any other ministry in church. You need to have someone in your life who will listen to you vent and say, “I get it. You’re not crazy, I’ve been there, too.” This doesn’t have to be a huge formal thing, you don’t need to study books or meet every Thursday at 7 am. But you do need someone that you can call every month or two and have lunch or coffee. I meet with several young guys regularly and have a few people that I meet with, and the only regret I have about this is that I didn’t start doing it when I was younger.

The technical arts is a weird, hard, stressful, exciting, fun and crazy business—even in the church. If you want to do it for the long haul, you have to take care of yourself. Now, go fill out that time off slip…

Today's post is brought to you by Elite Core Audio. Elite Core Audio features a premium USA built 16 channel personal monitor mixing system built for the rigors of the road. For Personal Mixing Systems, Snakes, and Cases, visit Elite Core Audio.

The List Will Never Be Done

Photo courtesy of Michael Mandiberg

Photo courtesy of Michael Mandiberg

Get a group of TD’s together and it won’t take long for the discussion to shift to how busy we all are. We all have a seemingly endless list of projects and tasks that we need to work on, and the pressure we feel (either from internal or external sources) to get them done—preferably right now. I too was one of those TDs. Years ago, I walked into a building that needed every single system updated, upgraded or replaced. In every room in the building. It was a long list. I know many of you are in similar situations. I started thinking that if I worked really hard just for the first few months, I could get it all done. But I came to realize that’s simply not possible.

The truth is, the list will never be complete. 

That realization can either be frustrating or liberating, depending on how you choose to deal with it.

I decided to go with liberating. Here’s what I mean. Once I accepted the fact that the list will never be done, much of the pressure to get it all done right now is removed. I learned to be content knowing there will always be an endless list of tasks to accomplish, and getting them done will be a matter of prioritizing time and allocating budget. It really is that simple.

When someone told me something needs to be done, I either responded with, “It’s on the list,” or “I’ll add it to the list.” Depending on who made the suggestion, it may get put near the top or near the bottom. 

I used to feel like I needed to be some kind of super-TD—you know, one of the guys who have all their systems completely dialed in, nothing on the repair bench, all processes totally sorted out. These guys spend all their time working with volunteers and perfecting their mixes with virtual soundcheck. What I learned is that those guys don’t really exist; at least I’ve never met any. And I know a lot of TDs.

I know TD’s of big churches who have tech arts staffs bigger than my church staff, and I know TD’s of small churches who are also the IT/Communications/Office Manager. They all face the same issues. When I visit them at their churches, they all say, “Yeah, we’ve got to work on this or that...” 

Some time ago, I spent half a day with a great TD who moved into a brand new building recently. As we walked the facility, I learned his list of things to be done is longer than mine. And that’s in a brand new building! Even there, things didn’t go quite as planned, they ran short of time and had to jury-rig a few things just to get it working for opening weekend. And now they have a list; just like the rest of us.

The thing that God taught me in all this is that my worth and significance as a person is not dependent on how successful I am at clearing my to-do list. God doesn’t think less of me because I still haven't gotten around to cleaning up that tangle of wires behind the audio rack. Or sorted out that issue with the Receptor. Or figured out the IEM interference issues. God is calling me to rest and rejoice in my appointed tasks; tasks I’ll get done eventually.

So if you’ve been feeling inadequate because your to-do list is seemingly endless, relax. You are part of a large group of TDs who also have a long list of projects to work on. Chances are, regardless of how hard you work at it, that list will still be there. Do your best, then go home at night knowing you’ve still got something to work on tomorrow. And the next day. Consider it job security.


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