As the Tech Arts Director of a fairly good-sized church, I purchase a lot of gear. All kinds of gear really; sound, lighting, video, computers, presentation, software, even (perhaps especially) cables and connectors. Though we’re a big church, my budget is small, so every dollar has to count. For that reason, I’m pretty deliberate about the things I buy. I run every purchase through a grid to make sure it will do what I want, and give us maximum value for our dollars. 

I’m somewhat of a Maven (as described by Gladwell in The Tipping Point), so I’m often asked by other people what they should buy. I get calls and e-mails all the time asking, “What’s the best X,” or, “Which Y should I buy?” Most of the time, my answer is, “It depends.” And it really does. Rarely is there a single “best” choice in any given category. Often times, there are quite a few good choices. Which one to buy comes down to which is the best piece of gear that will accomplish your goal and remain affordable. 

Since we’re in a period of rapid technology change at Upper Room and CPC, I’m buying a lot of stuff. We’re looking at everything from new DIs to a entirely new IT infrastructure for Upper Room (XServe anyone?). But before I place the order, here are some questions I ask.

What Am I Trying To Accomplish?

It seems like a simple question, and it’s easy to over simplify. For example, we’re looking at setting up a new server for UR. But what kind of server? It’s easy to say, “Set up a server,” but unless we get really specific, we could easily buy more or less than what we need. So we’re asking questions like: Do we want our own mail server (or stay with Google)? Do we need file serving or just centralized backup? What about the ability to share calendars? How do we deal with our mixed OS environment? 

As you can see, the more granular we can get, the better picture we’ll have of what we need. The same questions come about with simple things like DIs. Do we need absolute signal purity, or just better than what we have? What instrument are we dealing with? The more answers you have the better decision you’ll make.

Is It Scaleable?

By scaleable I mean, “Can we grow with this?” I hate spending money twice. I don’t like buying interim solutions because it’s all we can afford now, then ditching it and buying something else later. So when I look at a server, or a backup system or a DI, I consider it’s lifespan. How long can we use this? When do we outgrow it? When we make a significant change in our ministry, is this still useful?

How Does This New Gear Fit Into Existing Gear, and Future Plans?

This concept is hitting home right now with our server, and with wireless gear. While I’m considering buying new IEMs, I’m also looking at going Aviom. Our band has been asking for it, and it might make sense to do that instead of spending a ton of cash on wireless gear. When making big decisions, it pays to look down the road a piece.

What Impact With This Have On Other Ministry Areas?

I may think that Leopard Server’s new calendaring features are super-cool, but what if it makes for a complete change of workflow for your lead pastor and his assistant? Are they OK with that? Do they even want that? Mixing the band would be so much easier in our room with a set of Roland V-Drums, but I’m not sure if I’d have the support of our worship leaders if I just went out and bought some. Switching to ProPresenter has been a huge benefit for my workflow, but it is problematic for the way CPC does their graphics, so I needed to figure out how to keep both systems in place for the time being. As one of my professors in college often said, “Think it through.”

What Is My Budget?

Sometimes we can afford top-of-the-line. Most times we can’t. So it’s important to figure out what the budget is, and what you can find in that range. We’re looking at picking up some new DIs as I said. While I’d love to just order six JDIs, if I do that, I have to give up other stuff we need. So we may be better off with one or two JDIs and some other ProDIs. Sound quality will still go up, and we won’t spend the entire budget. 

Those are some basic questions I run through each time. I’ve also found it often  pays to ask other people. Just in the last week, I’ve seen two people post a question on Twitter regarding Entourage or Apple Mail. When I’m up against a IT system question, I have a few people I can call for advice. I read a bunch of blogs and see what others are using, and now that I’m deciding about wireless, I’m emailing other tech directors for their opinion. It doesn’t mean I blindly follow advice, however, because what works for them may not be the right solution for us. Still, it’s good to know other’s experiences. They may have some insight on a piece of gear that I missed in my research. More info=better decision. 

It’s also a great idea, whenever possible, to try it out if you can. My local Sennheiser rep just dropped of a Pelican case full of G2 wireless gear last week. We’ll be playing with it more this week and weighing our results into the equation. On bigger purchases, you should be able to get demo (or at least rental gear) pretty easily. If not, check our your vendor’s return policy. Don’t get stuck with gear you’re not happy with.

I’m not sure this is an exhaustive decision grid, but it might give some of you some ideas on how to make more effective purchases. Happy shopping!