Count the Cost

Photo courtesy of Tambako The Jaguar

Photo courtesy of Tambako The Jaguar

This is an article I’ve waited all year to write. And now that we’re right near the end of 2014, I figured I’d give it a shot. I’ve been part of many church renovations, both as a staff member, a volunteer and now as an integrator. I’ve coached many churches through renovations over the last 10 years as well. These renovations have ranged from simple AVL upgrades to full-scope projects. Among all those projects, I’ve seen a few patterns. Some have been quite successful, others have not. Perhaps the single common denominator to a successful renovation project is that the church properly counted the cost of the renovation before they began it. 

This is, in fact, a biblical principle. In Luke 14:28-30, we read:

For which of you, desiring to build a tower, does not first sit down and count the cost, whether he has enough to complete it? Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who see it begin to mock him, saying, ‘This man began to build and was not able to finish.’

Get Cost Advice from Experts Early

One of the biggest mistakes I see churches make is to try to determine the budget for a project on their own. One church I know budgeted $100,000 for a major renovation. Their thinking was, “Hey, it’s just moving a few walls and adding some doors. How much could it cost?” Then the cost estimates started coming in. By the time it was all done, it was $250,000+ project. They forgot to consider electrical (nearly $80,000), AVL ($60,000), HVAC ($25,000), carpet ($50,000), paint ($10,000) and more. They thought this would be a simple project, done in-house without the need for “expensive” GC’s or project managers. Yet, had they involved some experts early on, the dart board budget would have been revised early or the scope changed. More information, fewer surprises. 

Don’t Tell the Congregation You Can Do Something You Can’t

Another mistake I see churches (OK, mostly pastors) make is telling the congregation all the things that will be accomplished in the renovation before having a firm grasp on what it will cost and whether they can afford it. In one project I’m aware of, the AVL budget was running way over the church’s projections. As the scope was being cut to bring the budget down, the pastor actually said, “But wait…we have to do that part; I promised the congregation we would address it!” 

At this point, the pastor found himself in a predicament. He couldn’t afford what he wanted to do, but couldn’t cut it out the scope either. That meant other items had to be cut, and while that sounded like a good solution, it ended up going quite badly. Make sure you get the budget nailed down before you promise things you can’t deliver. And at least have a baseline that you will do (based on a minimum spend or give amount) with optional add-ons based on additional giving. 

Value Engineer Smartly

Almost all projects will get value engineered to some degree. This is normal, and not entirely bad. A good value engineering job helps focus the energy on the right things, and prioritizes the things that must be done well. I always encourage churches to do the things that are hard or expensive to do a second time. Conduit will never be cheaper to install than when the walls are all open or before the slab is poured. Don’t cut conduit so you can afford more blinky lights. Often, speakers systems and dimming systems are expensive, big ticket items with high ancillary costs. Do those as part of the big project while saving budget on smaller items like mic’s, lights and even consoles. It’s a lot easier to drop in a new lighting or audio console a year later than it is to hang a new PA or install a power and DMX distribution system for a new LED lighting rig. 

This is where a good integrator can really help you. They know what items and systems carry costs beyond simple equipment, and can help you phase installations well so you get maximum value. It really helps to do this ahead of time, however. 

Plan for Contingencies

Things will go wrong during the project. Some things will take longer than allotted. There will be unexpected surprises when you open up the walls. Subs won’t show up when scheduled, which will throw off the timeline. The structure you thought was there won’t be. This happens all the time. Smart builders will always add a contingency amount to the budget to account for the unknowns. As a church, you should also plan on a contingency. Not only for the problems that come up during the project, but also for the, “While you’re here…” items. You know, while you’re here putting in all new lights, can we address our video recording system, too? Or, while you’re here re-building the stage, can we re-build the baptismal at the same time? Sometimes these are easy adds, sometimes not. But be prepared. Things will come up.

No one wants to come down to the last few week of a project and find out it went way over budget. By doing some of the hard work up front, you can minimize that risk, and be much better stewards of Kingdom resources.


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Post-Christmas Recharge

Photo courtesy of Andrea Allen

Photo courtesy of Andrea Allen

It’s the day after Christmas,

And all through the house,

Not a tech guy was stirring,

They all collapsed on the couch.

You did it. You made it through Christmas. If you are a tech person, volunteer or staff, full-time or part, director or technician, chances are, you worked really hard over the last few weeks. The hours were long, the work was grueling and the demands high. Hopefully, the rewards were high as well. More people flock to church during Christmas and Easter than any other time of the year. That means you got to be part of sharing the Gospel with many, many people this season. Thank you for that! Often, you don’t get thanked for the role you play, and I want to take a minute to really say thank you. What you do matters to God and to His Kingdom. Thank you.

Now What?

I keenly remember the post-Christmas stupor I often found myself in. A few years ago, we had a really intense December, and in the week following, I barely got off the couch. I think it was about 3 days later that I even got out of my PJs or left the house. This is the first year in 10 that I’ve not felt that way, but that’s only because I took the year off and didn’t participate in any Christmas productions. But here’s some advice I can share with the memories of the previous 10 years still very vivid.

Give Yourself Permission To Take Time Off

That sounds odd; give yourself permission to take time off. But I know how you are. Even though you are tired, spent and exhausted, you know there is still work to be done. The stage needs to be cleaned, equipment put away, and next weekend is only a few days away. Here’s a secret; all that stuff will still be there in a week. It took me quite a few years to be OK with leaving everything up for a week after Christmas. But you know what? No one else really cares. And you need a break. 

So my advice to you is, work as little as possible for the next week or so. If you can avoid going in, do so. Stay home. Sit on the couch and watch movies. Play with your kids. Talk to your wife. Sleep. Go out to dinner. Just relax. Do anything but work. Put your auto responder on, and let people know you’ll get back to them in a week. Believe me, the world will go on without you. 

Also, don’t turn in a vacation time slip for this time. Just take it off. You earned it. And if your boss gives you a hard time, send them this article. 

Pastors, Give Your Tech Team a Week Off

This part goes out to the pastors, executive pastors or whoever is in charge here. I can promise you your tech staff worked longer and harder over the last month than anyone else on staff, including you. This is not “woe is us,” it’s just a fact. We work hard because we love what we do and want to do the best job we can. We work hard because sometimes the demands set by those above us are too high. We work hard because we are perfectionists who won’t stop until we’ve done all we can to make Christmas great. 

Now it’s time for you to return the favor. Give them a week off. You see, it’s not just the long hours that make December exhausting, it’s the weight of the work. It’s often very physical; we’ll be on our feet for 10, 12, 14 or more hours a day; for days and weeks on end. Then there is the adrenaline rush that comes from live production. It’s thrilling, but when it’s over, the rush ends and we tend to crash hard. I know from experience we can go from incredibly keyed up, energized and excited to falling asleep in a few minutes following the end of the last service. It’s amazing how fast the energy drains from you. 

The week after Christmas—or Easter for that matter—we need time to recover. Our bodies need rest. Our minds need to unwind. Our spirits need to be renewed. This rest time is essential for our survival.

This Really Is Important

One of the reason I have been able to do this for so long is that each of the churches I worked for let me unwind for a week following a big event. I always told my team to stay home the week after Christmas. We left the stage set pretty much the same so all we had to do was subtract unneeded gear. We intentionally didn’t go into the office; everything can wait a week. I usually didn’t even check my email. 

So to my fellow technical artists, I say this: Take the week off. Refresh. Recharge. Renew. You need this time. Give yourself permission to do that.

To pastors and church leaders: Give them the time. Unless you enjoy the process of hiring a new TD every year or two, give your team time to rest. Trust me, they have earned it.


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When Things Go Wrong

Photo courtesy of Celestine Chua

Photo courtesy of Celestine Chua

I like to read through the four Gospels. A pastor friend of mine challenged me to do that every so often, but not with the goal of simply reading through them. Instead, the specific purpose is to watch how Jesus acted. How did he treat people? How did he respond? In what ways did he live his life differently from mine? Those are good questions to ask anyway, and they are especially highlighted when we read through the Gospels. 

One verse that jumped out at me some time ago was in John 9. In verse 3, Jesus says, "You're asking the wrong question. You're looking for someone to blame. There is no such cause–effect here. Look instead for what God can do.” In context, he and his disciples had just happened on a man born blind. His disciples asked him who had sinned, this man or his parents. Jesus wisely told them they were asking the wrong question.

Things Go Wrong in the Tech Booth

We all know that people make mistakes. Cues will be missed, the wrong slide will be shown, lights will be up when they should be off. It’s going to happen. So the question is, how do we respond when things go wrong? Few things so define us as technical leaders.

I have known a few people that get so mad when things go wrong that they literally throw things across the booth. I’m not sure that’s the best response. Others don’t do anything, and the mistakes keep piling up. I’m not sure that’s the best response either. 

Be Loving, Be Direct, Find Solutions

I’ve not always done a good job at this, but one thing I’ve learned over the years is that when a mistake is made, the best response is to lovingly and directly confront the issue and find a solution. The first priority is care about the people we work with, be they staff or volunteers. If we want to build teams that will do great work with great joy, they have to know we care about them as people more than as doers of tasks. 

Second, we have to confront the situation directly. Don’t beat around the bush. Chances are, they already know they made a mistake. Unless it completely derailed the service, don’t make a huge deal about it. They know they messed up and probably feel bad already. Talk about what happened and work toward a solution. 

When confronting a problem, I would always ask if they knew about the mistake, and when they said they did, I asked how we could keep that from happening again. Sometimes, it was more training, sometimes, there was a systemic problem that needed to be addressed. Whatever it is, don’t look for someone to blame, look for a solution. 

God Works in Spite of Our Mistakes

Believe it or not, God can save people even if we hit a wrong light cue. People find forgiveness if the mix isn’t perfect. Our congregation can still worship if the slides aren’t just right. Remember God is still God and it’s still His church. I’m not saying we should tolerate consistently sloppy performance; but a mistake isn’t the end of the world. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking it is. 

It’s a fine line we walk here. We have to continually challenge our team to higher levels of excellence, yet offer grace when they fall. When I look at Jesus’ life, I see him being incredibly graceful in the face of major fails, but he also holds us to a high standard. If we want to be better TDs, this is something we need to get right.


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Re-Thinking Christmas

So this is going to sound like a complete contradiction, after my post from a few weeks back, but I’m OK with that. If my friend Dave has taught me anything it’s that it’s OK to change your mind when new information becomes available. After I posted Inconvenienced by Christmas, there has been quite a dialog in the comment section. And then Jon Acuff’s post, 11 Signs You’re Burning Out Your Staff re-appeared. I saw that when it first posted last year, and when it resurfaced, I started re-thinking my position on the big weekends in the church calendar.

His point #6 is what really spurred my thinking. It’s titled “The church steals the staff members’ family traditions.” He ends that section with this poignant statement:

“I swear Jesus didn’t say, ‘One day, I hope someday Easter is a moment church employees look forward to with exhaustion, burnout and regret.’”

Now, let’s substitute Christmas for Easter and think about what we’re going through this year. And I’m actually not meaning “we’re” as if I’m in the middle of it because for the first time in 10 years, I’m not going crazy getting ready for a huge Christmas production. I remember very vividly the long days, the frustration, the exhaustion, and the pain of being on my feet for 12+ hours a day, 7 days a week for a few weeks. I also remember the joy and the satisfaction of producing a great Christmas experience for our church family. And the fun I had working with a great team. 

But lately, I’ve been thinking; do we really need to do big, elaborate Christmas productions every year? Is the expense of time, talent and money really worth it? Do we really see results that square with the investment? 

Sometimes I feel like the big Christmas productions or Christmas Eve services are almost a bait and switch. We hope to have hundreds or thousands of visitors come through the door, and we hope they come back. And if they do come back, what does the weekend after Christmas look like? Is it the same caliber as Christmas or is it back to normal? And if it’s not the same, do visitors come back a third time? 

I honestly don’t know the answers to all those questions. They’re just rattling around in my head a lot lately. I’m watching my twitter feed and getting texts and emails from friends who are burning the midnight oil going crazy trying to get through Christmas. I’m hearing things like, “Once I get through Christmas, then we can grab lunch or talk,” and “Quick break, then back to the grind.” I know I’ve said those things myself. 

Of course we want to make our church welcoming for visitors and we want visitors and regulars alike to enjoy a great experience. But I don’t know—have we taken it too far? 

Of course, I’m talking to a group that has very little ability to change the status quo. Most of us technical artists do what is asked of us by the service planners. Then again, maybe we go way above and beyond the call of duty, to our own detriment. Maybe we need to dial it back a notch. 

I also know getting the chance to do a really big production can be a lot of fun. I get it. Remember, I did this for 10 years on staff and 15 as a volunteer. I’ve been there, and I really do understand. I also understand that I feel really lost this year at Christmas because I don’t even know what it means anymore. I’ve been telling people I am having a hard time even acknowledging Christmas because it’s not cold and snowing (at least in SoCal) and I’m not prepping for Christmas Eve. 

I’m all for excellence, winning the lost, doing great things, and all that good stuff. But I also wonder if we should at least have a discussion about why we’re doing all this and what the cost/benefit ratio is. Like I said, I don’t have the answers here. But I hope I can start a conversation. What do you think? Leave a comment and let us know.


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