In Over Our Heads?

Today's post is again inspired by an e-mail I got the other day (I get a lot of e-mails like this...). This time it was from a friend of mine who is a worship leader at a pretty good-sized church on the west coast. She was asking me at what point I would start hiring sound and lighting guys to run weekend services. Now first of all, I personally like having volunteers do this as much as possible. I know there are a lot of great churches out there with full-time, paid sound and lighting guys (and probably a few gals) and I have nothing at all against them (some days I even want to be them). But most of the time, from a philosophical standpoint, I really like building volunteer teams that can do sound, lights, presentation, video, etc. I'm not saying my way is right and any other way is wrong, it's just the way I like to roll.

Back to the story. As the e-mail conversation developed, she started listing off the gear they had in house; PM5D-RH, a big Strand lighting console, an FSR video switcher, some pretty high-end stuff. Then she wrote the line that stopped me cold. It went something like this: "our technical staff is all volunteer except for a 1/4 time tech assistant and the other worship leader, oversees audio...he's 1/2 time."

I said, "HUH?? You have a PM5D and no full-time tech guy. Well there's your problem!" It looks like someone drank the Koolaid. Don't get me wrong, the PM5D is a great desk. It's just not volunteer friendly--especially when there's no full-time tech guy to make sure it's set up and ready to rock every weekend. And after looking into the rest of the gear they have, I thought, "Wow, how did this happen?" 

Now, I don't know for sure, but if I had to guess, I would suspect that the church went to a consultant as they were building the new building and said, "We want our sound, lighting and video to be state-of-the-art. Make it so!" And the consultant said, "Cool! Sign here." My guess is that no one ever asked, "Who's going to be running this gear? How will they be trained? Who will maintain it?"

And because the church doesn't have a full-time tech guy, there was no one around to ask those questions. So once again, we have a church that spent a ton of money on gear that no one in-house can use effectively. I have to be honest--that really frustrates me. 

I'm all for churches using top quality equipment. And I'm all for having high production standards. However, at some point, you have to ask if you are putting in equipment that is hard for your volunteer staff to learn how to use. It comes down to philosophy of ministry. If you believe in using volunteers, you have to install equipment that's easy for a non-professional tech to use once a month. 

Personally, I would never spec a PM5D for a church that doesn't have a full-time sound guy (or at least a full-time tech guy who's really good with audio). Again, it's a great desk, but it's too hard for a volunteer who mixes on it once a month. A M7CL would have been a far better choice, would in all honesty, likely provide more than enough functionality and would have saved $45,000. The same goes for lighting consoles and video switchers. Folks, we have to think this through. 

If your church is considering upgrading equipment, it is imperative that you evaluate each new piece of gear based on the staff (volunteer or paid) you have to run it. I think we can stretch people and encourage them to learn new things, but we have to be realistic. Most of our volunteers are not über-geeks. They don't spend time reading FOH, Live Sound, Mix and EQ magazines every month. They don't dream about different ways to automate the service using snapshots, or controlling the desk from their iPod Touch.

We need to be sure to set them up to succeed in what they do, not fail. I view my job as a Tech Arts Director as one who empowers volunteers to be successful and use and develop the skills and talents God gave them. To do that, I evaluate every piece of gear, every procedure, and everything I do during the week to see if it helps empower my team.

Church leaders, it's up to you to not drink the consultant Koolaid. Now I understand there are a lot of great consultants out there who ask the right questions, and spec appropriate gear. But there a lot more who don't. Ask them if the gear will be easy to use by your non-professional tech volunteers. If they respond with, "Oh, yeah, I use it all the time, it's super-cool." Keep pressing. Ask them if a guy or gal who does this once a month can learn how to use it effectively. If they stutter, keep pressing. If you're still not sure, call me. I so hate to see churches spend money the wrong way.

In the media-driven society we live in, we need to have high standards for our production. We need to have quality gear. We need to be able to make is sound and look great. But it also needs to be easy to use by those who generously and often sacrificially give of their time each week. Don't put in a Digidesign Venue just because they advertise in Church Production each month. Don't buy a GrandMa just because it can control a bazillion moving lights while making your coffee.

Choose your gear wisely--you will probably save a lot of money, and you will get higher quality production because your volunteer staff will be more effective, more confident and better equipped to do a better job each weekend. Isn't that what we really want from our technology?