How to Minimize Technical Chaos Before Every Service

by Curt Taipale

Scenario “A”

It’s 8:00 AM on Sunday morning. You drive into the church parking lot and there’s no one else around save for maybe Tom, the head usher. You wave hello to Tom as you race towards the stage, realizing that the band is also arriving and you haven’t even started setting up the stage. You’re also a little panicked because you got another one of those midnight emails, this time from your FOH mixer to say that his company sent him on a business trip yesterday and he left in such a hurry that he forgot to tell you he won’t be at church today. And on your way to church this morning your wife called to tell you that your video graphics volunteer, Sheryl, just called to let you know that her two year old is sick and she won’t be there this morning.

As you frantically set up the stage, you remember the good old days when you used to do this all on your own. Of course, things were a lot simpler then. You didn’t have a video projector to be concerned about. An overhead projector did it all. The theatrical lighting system was a set of wall switches. A theatrical blackout involved a pair of 2x4’s. And there were only twelve mic inputs on stage. Now there are fifty-six mic inputs on stage, the lighting system takes a college degree to drive, and the video graphics computer is stuffed with the latest PC software.

You start checking inputs on stage, and soon discover that you have no audio signal on channel seven, there’s a hum on channel fifteen, and the drummer’s floor monitor doesn’t work. You really didn’t need this today.

The phone in the FOH booth rings. It’s Sandy, your pastor’s executive secretary whose comments start with the immortal words “Oh, by the way…” You’re already collapsing into the chair, dreading her message. “Pastor Bob has invited a guest speaker this morning,” she continues “and he has his own computer presentation to show. I think he called it an Apple something or other. I told him we could handle it and just to let you know. His assistant is on his way out to the auditorium right now.”

You’ve having trouble hearing everything that Sandy said because the guitar player is on stage warming up with his newly learned rendition of Smoke on the Water on his 200W Marshall stack. Your SPL meter sitting on the FOH console is measuring 102 dB. Inspired, the drummer joins in and it climbs to 106 dB. If only you could talk him into a set of electronic drums. The constant battle is almost enough to lose your salvation over. Harumph.

As you hang up the phone, Chuck the music pastor runs over to the booth wondering how soon they can get started. You try to hide your grimace as you tell him with too much detail that you have no audio signal on channel seven, there’s a hum on fifteen, and the drummer’s headphones don’t work. Your music pastor doesn’t hide his frustration as he tells you to hurry up because the band has to practice a new song. As he leaves, he asks “Have you seen any music stands!?! I’m missing three music stands.” You shrug your shoulders and carry on.

The hum. Hmmm. Wonder if …. Ah, there it is – the synthesizer is turned off. Turn it on, and the hum disappears. Not a problem. Next, no signal on channel seven. Hmmm. Well, no cable plugged into the mic snake at channel seven. Wonder who took that cable. Run 370 feet to the mic closet. Wait, where are my spare mic cables!?! Who took my cables! This room was locked. How did they get in here?

Your mind sifts through the usual culprits. You know, the list of well-intentioned ministries that often feel so at ease borrowing stuff from the stage. You eventually realize that the Women’s Ministry had an off campus event yesterday and they took the portable system out with them. It would appear that they needed some extra stuff. And it would also appear that not everything got returned to its proper home.

You call the head of the Women’s Ministry to find out who “borrowed” the portable system for their meeting off campus. You get Judy’s phone number and call her, only to find out that they ran out of time to return the equipment yesterday and were planning to return it today after church lets out. They didn’t think anyone would need those things for church this morning.

You’re thinking to yourself “They ran out of time!?!” as you search for some gracious way to resolve your dilemma, not the least of which is how to explain to Chuck and to Pastor Bob why you have no sound for some of the instruments on stage.

Back to the stage to find out what’s up with the drummer’s floor monitor. You’re really running out of time now. The players are all there, standing around watching you frantically troubleshoot the monitor. The guitar player wants to know if you have any spare 9V batteries for his chorus pedal. The bass player forgot to bring a guitar cable and needs to borrow one today, wondering if the speaker cable he’s holding in his hand will work. You’re not entirely sure where he found the speaker cable, but you assure him that it will not work properly and you promise to find a cable for him to use. Your troubleshooting leads you eventually to the amp rack, where you find that the power amp that powers the floor monitors for auxiliary three and four is fried. You would love to know how that happened, but for now you have to locate a spare amp. The portable system! Wait, it’s not here. It’s in a trailer over at Judy’s house.

At this point, you slump down in a nearby chair, having exhausted every single one of your usual solutions to these last moment crises. Out of the corner of your eye, you see Chuck running up frantically wondering out loud “What on earth are you doing sitting around!?! The drummer’s monitor isn’t working, the keyboard player’s monitors aren’t working, there’s no signal on the piano vocal mic and the pastor’s guest speaker wants to check his presentation file. He says we need some software called Keynote to run it. We have that, right!?!” “Whatever, we need to start practicing now.” No time for a soundcheck.”

You look up, and the only response you can muster is “Uhhh, Chuck – I think I know where your music stands are.”

Now, if Scenario “A” sounds all too familiar, allow me to reassure you that there is a better way. It can get better. So what if you were able to change that experience around to something more like the following?

Scenario “B”

It’s 7:00 AM on Sunday morning. You drive into the church parking lot and there’s no one else around save for maybe Tom, the head usher.

You hit the “On” button on the remote AC sequencing system and it elegantly lights up the sound system. Your two assistants are already on stage ready to proceed with a mic check. Before they walked on stage, they installed new batteries in the wireless mic transmitters.

In short order they confirm all mic inputs and stage monitors to be working properly. That comes as no surprise because they actually set up the stage and checked everything last Thursday night, everything placed according to the stage layout map that you uploaded to the church tech support website on Wednesday.

The stage layout for this weekend was based on the result of a production meeting held last Tuesday morning with the music pastor, technical director, audio director, video graphics and lighting directors in attendance and in agreement. That also allowed the lighting crew to work on the stage set and focus the lights Thursday evening as the audio crew made their adjustments.

It also helps to know that Saturday’s full soundcheck and rehearsal, complete with a mock service run-through, has ensured that everyone on the team – every player, every tech, every pastor involved in the service – knows exactly what is expected of them, what the cues are and when they need to be on stage. They are past the sheer mechanics of the worship service and ready to flow with anything the Spirit leads them into during the service.

Smiling, your tech volunteers head off for the kitchen to grab a cup of coffee and doughnut because the players won’t be arriving for another hour. Resting in Him. To your surprise, in walks Sam. Turns out that your video graphics volunteer, Sheryl, called him last night to say that her three year old is sick and she probably won’t be in this morning. But no worries – Sam is here to take her place, he has already downloaded today’s PowerPoint files off the church’s tech support website and reviewed them, corrected a couple of typographical errors and he’s ready to go. Resting in Him. Just then, the phone in the FOH booth rings. It’s Sandy again, with a last minute change to the order of service. “Pastor Bob also wants y’all to move the piano to stage left because he has invited a guest soloist to sing a special song in the middle of his message. I think he has his own song lyric slides.”

Resting in the knowledge that you actually have the time and the equipment to pull off this last minute request without sacrificing technical excellence, you tell Sandy “No worries. We’ll take care of it right away.” Resting in Him.

You also know that you’re totally prepared for anything your pastor might throw at you because the video graphics computer is now a Mac Pro which means you’re able to jump between the Mac OS and Windows at a moment’s notice. Resting in Him.

There’s no time to get out a lift or scaffolding and light the new piano location, but there’s no need to either because the church allowed you to purchase and install some robotic lights last month. A quick call on the two-way radios to your volunteers has them back on stage moving the piano, mics and monitor to the new location, while your lighting director focuses the robotic lights via remote control from his console position in the production booth. Just a few minutes and it’s done. Resting in Him.

And for the first time in years, there is no equipment missing from the stage. No “borrowed” equipment to chase down before the service. Why? Because you implemented a hard and fast equipment check-out system, fully endorsed and supported by your pastoral staff, that requires the presence of one of your team members to release the gear and, most importantly, requires a signature and contact information from the person borrowing the equipment. Resting in Him.

Last moment requests aren’t as much of a problem anymore because you and your team are well prepared and equipped to handle them. You have the volunteers willing to support the setup schedule and attend soundchecks and rehearsals. And you’ve become good friends with Tom, your head usher, because you actually have time to sit down and share a cup of coffee with him on those early Sunday mornings.

Sound too good to be real? Hard to imagine that your church could ever get there? Don’t give up hope. It can happen. It may take some hard work, an abundance of grace and mercy, possibly a year or two to implement, and for your pastoral staff to back you with a reasonable budget. But it can happen if you want it bad enough.

Bringing it to Life

So let’s examine what you need in place to pull this all together. You may already have some of the pieces in place, and maybe all it will take is to refine those individual elements into a working system.

You’ve kind of done it to yourself, you know. You’ve treated your congregation to quality sound, lighting and video. The impact of those technical achievements on the audience has not been lost on the leaders of other ministry areas in your church. So when the Women’s Ministry, or the Men’s Ministry, or the Youth Group, or the Children’s Ministry, or the Single’s Ministry, or the Prison Ministry, or whatever group decides to host some event of their own – be it their weekly on-site meeting or a special event off campus – they’re going to want technical support for their meetings as well. And indeed they should have that quality. But quality for everyone is something that needs to be planned for and, what some may resist, paid for.

Anytime a group moves beyond about 40 or 50 people in attendance, the need for a sound system to support the spoken word with intelligibility, and to play music with warmth and clarity, becomes important. If the presenter has a need to display visual graphics of some sort to an audience that size, the need for a large screen and projector comes into play. The 17-inch screen on his laptop isn’t going to cut it. Controlled lighting can also help make the projected image easier to see while not putting the presenter in the shadows.

Of course that level of technical support may not be practical to provide for all groups in all settings, but don’t be surprised if you see requests for it. The key is to make some equipment and cabling available to those groups in a way that is fair to all.

Supply Their Needs & Control the Supply

Identifying and developing a system that works for you takes some careful planning. You will need to sort out what those technical support needs might be over a period of time. One place to start is to talk with leaders from the various ministries that would use these systems, in particular to debrief with them about the successes and any shortcomings that they have experienced with technical support systems in their meetings over the past couple of years.

      • How many people attend their typical events?
      • What does the programming involve?
          – Spoken word only?
          – Music groups? (Find out details!)
      • Did their presenters need video support?
      • Did they want to record those events?
          – Audio or Video?
      • Where do they typically hold these events?
          – On or Off Campus?
      • What are those rooms like acoustically?
          – Significant problems?
          – Intelligibility issues?
          – Excessive reverb time?
      • What technical equipment do those rooms have available for their use?
      • If those systems require a separate rental fee, how much do they cost?
      • If possible, gather photos of those rooms or go evaluate them firsthand.

I’m sure you can think of several more appropriate questions to include. Make sure that you come up with a realistic summary that truly reflects the technical support needs of each group.

Then for each individual group, put together a detailed equipment list that specifically addresses all of those needs. The list should address all of the practical needs first, and specifically what equipment currently in your inventory that you could assign to that system without diluting the strength of your in-house systems. For example, you don’t want to mark one of your floor monitors from the main sanctuary as being available for use in a portable system because you’ll find it gone from the stage on the very weekend you need it most.

Unless you have an unlimited budget, you’re not going to go buy each ministry group their own system. Rather, your goal is to come up with one package of equipment that serves the needs of all of those groups. Create a spreadsheet matrix that shows how you can use one system to satisfy the needs of all groups both small and large. Then it becomes a matter of scheduling.

The system should allow equal access on a first-come, first-served basis. In other words, if the Youth Group has an event off campus this Saturday, and they have filed the paperwork to reserve the system indicating that they will pick it up on Friday evening and return it late Saturday night, then the Women’s Ministry can’t expect to use the system for their event on Friday night.

If there are items needed for this portable system that are not currently in your inventory, then make a list of those items and schedule a time to bring it up with the church’s financial board so that they can be added to a capital equipment list for future purchase. It will help your case if you can show the committee a calendar of meetings over the next twelve to eighteen months to clarify how often a particular item would be used by these various ministries. Frankly, putting together such a list might surprise even you. You may want to indicate to your financial board that there are certain items that only one or two of those ministries have requested, that those items would not be used very frequently, and therefore it is your recommendation that funds be set aside to rent those items when needed rather than purchasing them. Those rental fees might need to come out of that particular ministry’s operating budget.

Speaking of financial concerns, there should also be some system in place to identify and reimburse the church for needed repairs. Normal wear and tear is one thing, but misusing or flat out abusing the system should not be accepted.

When you return a rental car to the airport, the person checking you in discretely surveys the vehicle for any notable damage. My suggestion is that a similar type of check-in approach should be in place in your church. For example, if a loudspeaker is damaged during a meeting because the amplifier was driven into clipping for an extended period of time, and the loudspeakers are returned with the high frequency drivers blown, then the ministry that checked it out last should pay for the repairs.

To properly evaluate the technical condition of the system, it should be returned to a member of the tech team, someone who knows the condition of the system and will note any problems upon its return. If the system is returned at Midnight on Saturday night, then maybe it’s best that the system be evaluated on Sunday after church, or later in the week.

The goal is simply to clarify that the equipment is operating properly, that there are no blown speakers, burned out projector lamps, and so on. That will ensure that the ministry that is expecting to use a properly working system for their major event next weekend won’t give you a surprise phone call from their event site two hours away from the church, and find you having to deal with a replacement issue quickly and at some distance.

Free At Last

If done properly and with the support and authority of your pastoral staff, then all of this planning and preparation will ultimately stop the flow of equipment mysteriously disappearing from your main stage and from other systems by well-intentioned people. In the majority of cases, those items are truly taken either out of sheer ignorance of the fact that taking them jeopardizes the technical excellence of the main service, or with the genuine intention of bringing them back in time so they are not missed.

My friend, John Paul, used to play flute in the band that played for the Single’s Ministry every Friday night. So every Friday afternoon I would see him come by the stage to borrow a couple of monitor speakers and cables and the like, put them on a cart and haul them over to the room where they held the meeting. He had his own equipment rack with a mixer, amp, microphone and effects devices, and simply needed to borrow a few things. He knew that I knew that he was taking them, and he knew it was okay with me because he was faithful and diligent to return them to the stage every time. He wasn’t comfortable with reconnecting them himself, so I usually had to do that part, but it was better that way because I knew that they were connected the way I wanted it done. Because of John Paul’s diligence and consistency, it was never a problem. But I can tell you story after story about equipment being borrowed from “my stage”, from other systems in the church, and stories from other churches where it was a problem because some individuals were either irresponsible or just unaware of the problems they were causing.

If you don’t have your own John Paul in every ministry that needs to use various pieces of equipment from your stage, someone who is thoughtful and diligent to consistently return them before they are needed again, then I submit to you that developing a formal, organized system that holds the borrowers accountable for returning the system on time and in the same condition they found it in is simply good stewardship of the tools that God has given your church to minister with.

Copyright Taipale Media Systems. All Rights Reserved.