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.