ChurchTechWeekly Episode 290: Digital Minefield

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Now that we have an extensive collection of digital tools at our fingertips on our fancy digital consoles, does that make us better engineers? Maybe, maybe not. In today’s rant, Mike talks about his approach to training, plugins and how to mix.

Pardon the road noise; the d:fine picked up more ambient sound than I had hoped. Next episode will be a different mic.

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Advice From An Old Guy: Volunteers Are People

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Some of the most heartbreaking conversations I’ve had are with guys (and occasionally gals) who volunteered on tech teams for years. Then, the long-time TD left and a new guy came in and blew the place up. Everything started changing, people with years of experience were no longer respected, and it became clear that the “old people” weren’t needed any longer.

I wish I only had those conversations occasionally, but more and more, it seems like it’s happening all the time. I’ve seen it in my own church—albeit in a different department. One day, there were 20 volunteers on a team. Two months later, there were 2. Straight up—this is the arrogance of youth.

Don’t Change a Thing. Yet.
A long time ago, when I was considering vocational youth ministry (the world dodged a bullet when I changed to tech…), I took a week-long SonLife course in Chicago. Paid for it myself and took vacation from my job, by the way. I’ve been living these principles for a long time. Anyway, one of the things they said that always stuck with me is that when you come onto a new church, you shouldn’t change anything for at least six months.

Back in the early ‘90s, it was the same as it is today. Young guys would get hired to be a youth pastor and they’d go in and completely blow up the volunteer team. They came in with all kinds of enthusiasm and ideas, ready to “change everything” and remake the youth department in their image. The problem was (is), they just got there. They knew exactly jack and squat about the culture of the church. And it would blow up in their faces.

The same thing happens in tech departments today. Young guys with some technical knowledge but little leadership experience get brought in to lead a tech team. They start telling the faithful volunteer who has been mixing twice a month for 8 years all the things he’s doing wrong. He buys a new console and a Waves server and demands everyone use it the way he wants it. Problem is, he doesn’t provide any training because, “it’s not that hard.”

All the volunteers get exasperated and quit. In a few months, our young tech hero is mixing every weekend. And trying to figure out how to trigger lighting and lyric cues at the same time because he’s the only one in the booth.

Seriously. Don’t Change Anything.
I’ve joined the staffs of five churches in my career (one as a volunteer). I have, by no means, done everything perfectly. But one thing I was very conscientious about was not changing much of anything for a good three to six months. Now, if equipment was broken, I fixed it. If there was a huge, gaping problem that was causing a lot of pain and stress for leadership or volunteers, I nudged that into being corrected. But in my last two churches, I didn’t even sit at a technical position for three to four months until I got a solid read on where everyone was.

I used that time to get to know the team. I took them out to lunch and scheduled some evening meetings just to hang out. I asked them what they felt needed to be changed, and how I could better support them in their volunteer role. I tried to find out how healthy they were and if maybe they needed a break. Sometimes, I found some people just shouldn’t be in that role, and I worked hard to find another role for them to fill.

It didn’t always go perfectly, and I made some mistakes for sure. But my intention was to not overturn the proverbial apple cart until I knew whether it simply needed repair or if we needed to light it on fire and watch it burn.

People Aren’t Pieces of Gear
If you come into a tech team and think you can just swap people out like replacing an old projector lamp, you have the wrong mindset. Ministry is a people business. I know you’re a tech guy and you might not even like people that much. And honestly, if that’s the case, you should go work for a production company, not a church.

Your primary role as a technical director is to lead, shepherd and grow people, while helping them be part of the technical team of the church. The show is secondary. The gear always comes after the people. Everything you do all week should be to support and encourage your team. Everything else comes after.

View all the posts in this series.

Advice From An Old Guy: Make Friends

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Back when I was a self-absorbed 20-year old, I used to say, “Make friends with everyone—you never know when you’re going to need them.” At the time, it was meant to be sarcastic. Now that I’m a little older and hopefully a little wiser, I realize the saying has some validity to it.

30 years ago, I wanted to “make friends” with people so they could help me. Now, I realize that making friends with a variety of people has many more benefits, not the least of which is that I may be able to help someone else someday. Turns out helping others makes you feel pretty good, too.

Buy Insurance Before the Accident
Calling State Farm to purchase collision insurance doesn’t help you much when you’re sitting on the side of the road in a crumpled up car. It’s pretty key to get that insurance purchased first. The same goes with professional relationships.

I once called the owner of a company to see if he could possibly bail me out of a jam. When he took my call, he was on the top of a mountain camping with his family. Not only did he take my call, but then called the shop and told them to help me with whatever I needed.

He took my call because I had spent a few years getting to know him as a person. I helped promote his brand, and I believe we have a real friendship. We’re not BFFs, but if he was in town and his car broke down, I’d go pick him up.

When our church wanted to do a multi-camera shoot for our Christmas production, I reached out to a local church in town to see if I could borrow their fly pack. Not only did they lend me the fly pack, they also gave me three cameras to use. All I had to do was pick it up and drop it off.
That happened because I had spent a few years getting to know the TD, hanging out at events, going to lunch and building a relationship. Occasionally he called me for advice on a piece of gear. We helped each other because of relationships.

A friend of mine was part of a church plant in SoCall once. They were putting together their tech on a real shoestring budget and ran out of money before they bought a projector. He mentioned it at lunch one day and asked me to pray about it. I told him his prayers were already answered; I had two extras sitting in my audio closet that had been replaced, but we kept them around just in case since they still worked fine. He swung by a few days later and they were set for a few months.

It’s All About Relationships
If you ever listened to Church Tech Weekly back in the day, you know it was a running joke to see how fast we got to relationships in each episode. We could be talking about audio compression and ten minutes in, we’d be talking about relationships.

It always saddens me when I get into a conversation with a church tech guy and about the time I suggest he reach out other church techs in his area, he tells me he doesn’t know any other church tech guys nearby. I remember sitting in my boss’s office years ago and mentioning, “How is it that I’ve been here in SoCal for 2 years and I already know more people in more churches than everyone else on staff?”

How is it that church leaders don’t talk to each other? We’re all on the same team—it’s not a competition. Back when I owned a video production company, I knew and talked with other small production companies in town all the time. We borrowed gear and shared experience. I am friends with most of the guys at all the large integrators in the country. And we are in competition with each other!

But the key to it all is building relationships before you need them. When a sprinkler pipe bursts in your auditorium and you have no one to call for help, it’s going to be a rough weekend. On the other hand, if it happens to a church down the road and you can’t help because you don’t know each other, that’s a loss for you.

The Church is stronger when we’re all working together. So go make some friends.

View all the posts in this series.