The Fixer

I still get the chills when I think about it. Having just come off a 7-year run as a 50-week a year volunteer sound guy, I was ready to take a break. My family and I had moved to a new town, and were looking for a new church. We visited one and really liked it. We went back the next week. And the next. Pretty soon, we had been there all summer and the fall "ministry season" was starting up. I stopped by the worship leader's table and said I had some sound experience, but was on sabbatical. He was excited to have another sound guy on the line, and told me to call him when I was ready to get back into the game. 

A few months later I was. It was about this time that the chills started. The sound booth was a mess. There were cords all over the place, many of them not working. Mics were thrown into a tub. The gain structure of the system was a disaster. It wasn't EQ'd properly. It was everything that gives a sound guy the willies. I spent 4 years there, slowing building trust with the leadership and being allowed to fix quite a bit of that poor little system. Eventually we turned it into something quite useable. 

I bring all this up for this reason: As a volunteer, it was incredibly frustrating to come in week after week and work on a system that wasn't put together properly, with equipment that was broken or not suitable for the job. The church wasn't "small" by most standards (roughly 1,000 attendance each week), but there was no staff member really in charge of the technical stuff. When I eventually left the church, one of the driving forces for my departure was that no one really seemed to care that much that the technical team was being asked to do the incredible with both hands tied behind our back. I knew my efforts were appreciated, but there was never much of a sense that action was being taken to improve the situation.

Like many of my life experiences, I have tried to learn from that one. I find it's useful to recall what it was like to be a volunteer in church as I try to lead my team of volunteers. Which brings me to today's post: The Fixer. Now, I understand this post is going to mean different things to different people; and I realize there are some of you serving in churches that are really strapped financially. I know some of you are volunteer leaders and are just as frustrated as I was back then. I hope this encourages you nonetheless.

One of the guiding principles of my ministry to my technical volunteers is to build a system (be that sound, lighting, presentation or video) that is reliable and up to the task. I personally find it completely unfair to ask a volunteer to give his or her valuable time in service on equipment that is sub-par or ill-suited for the job. When things are broken, things go wrong; and when things go wrong, the volunteer usually gets the blame. This is totally unfair. 

Imagine being the lighting operator and week after week you program your cues and work really hard to get things looking right. Then when the service starts, the lights start flashing on and off, colors aren't changing like they're supposed to, or the entire board just stops responding. Or as a presentation operator trying to lead worship with lyric slides on a computer that keeps crashing. Or a sound engineer trying to mix with wireless mics dropping out, or monitors cutting on and off, or feedback howling through the system every time you open a mic. How excited are you going to be about coming back next week to face the barrage of criticism you will inevitably endure?

That's why I believe it's important, vitally so, that those of us in technical leadership work as hard as we can to equip our volunteers to succeed. I get asked all the time, "How do I get people to volunteer for the tech teams?" I like to answer with a question, "How are your technical systems?" Often times, the question is met with a blank stare; as if it's hard to imagine what one has to do with the other. But think about it--technical volunteers, the good ones anyway, are at some level, equipment geeks. That's why they're there. However, if the equipment is broken down junk, you're going to have a tough time getting tech geeks to show up. And those that do will quickly become disillusioned and quit. 

Now, I know some of you have shoestring budgets. You may not be able to afford that M7-CL, or brand new wireless mics or a 24" iMac running ProPresenter. But you need to have mic cords that work. And you can make sure that the presentation computer isn't full of viruses and crashing all the time. You can clean up the tech booth and make it an inviting place to be. And if you can't afford to fix stuff, at least start to develop a plan to do so. Bring the volunteers in on the process. Let them know you care enough to start working on making things better. Become the squeaky wheel that the leadership of the church eventually recognizes and properly funds. Show them the value of the investment--that is, reliable volunteers who are engaged, good at what they do and make a valuable contribution to the weekly services. 

I have been amazed to watch the level of engagement grow in our tech volunteers over the last 10 months. When I cleaned the booth up the first time, there was a noticeable difference. When I re-engineered the whole video, lights and presentation system (at a total cost of about $500, I might add), they were amazed the first weekend they came in. They're now coming in early and working harder. When we have a problem on a weekend, I track it down and fix it during the week so that it's not an issue again. Instead of criticism, they now receive praise on a regular basis. Which is not to say we don't have room to grow, that's what training is for, but everything runs smoother now. 

Here's the success story to share with church leaders: I now have 16 volunteers who are excited about putting in 8 hours on a Sunday in service to our community. A big part of that is because they no longer have to fight the equipment they're working on. It just works. They come in, do they're thing, enjoy it and head home feeling satisfied that they were a part of something wonderful. That's why we fix the gear. How cool is that?