Technically Speaking | Light-Bearers in the Dark: Building Tech Community in Isolation

By Kent Morris

FILO, meaning “First In, Last Out,” is a way of life for church techs around the world. Arriving before the facilities team and staying after the pastor, church tech directors live a life of extremes: long periods of working in solitude punctuated by chaotic moments of untold stress. Technology, for good or ill, is now a permanent part of the worship experience and a tech director (TD) is needed to make it work as intended. 

In the past, buildings served as the conveyor of events transpiring on stage through innovative construction techniques and structural design focused on acoustics and natural light. Modern buildings, in contrast, are designed to house as many people as possible in a given space at the lowest price, meaning auditory concerns, sightlines, acoustic considerations, and connectivity between the stage and audience are all compromised in the name of efficiency. This in turn requires supplemental audio, video, and lighting systems to provide the connection since the building can’t. In essence, the TD serves as the fulcrum between the platform and the congregation. 

The Full Scope of a Demanding Job

Overseeing a mixed team of paid and volunteer staff, the TD is tasked with corralling the various disciplines of audio, video, lighting, staging, and set design into a cohesive whole, operating through the talents of staff with skills ranging from neophyte to veteran and work ethics running from dedicated to lackadaisical. In many churches, the TD reports to the worship pastor, though all other ministries need attention as well, compounding the TD’s issue of time management. In better situations, the TD reports to the executive pastor who meets out the AVL resources as needed across music, preaching, kids’, youth, seniors’ and outreach ministries.

With a full plate of gear maintenance, equipment purchases, software updating, and volunteer scheduling, the average TD regularly works seventy hours a week. Add in family and home duties, and the life of a church TD can be overwhelming. Part of the issue is that, as a specialty enterprise, technology can appear to “just happen” to the untrained person. 

For instance, Most pastors do not realize their request for a two-minute video requires, at minimum, a four-hour commitment to produce. Meanwhile, the youth pastor, who wants to create a recap video of a recent outing, is unaware of the senior pastor’s existing request, and puts in a request to the TD for Sunday as well. As a result, four minutes of service-time video require the TD to spend eight hours editing and compiling two short videos—or spending three hours recruiting someone else and explaining what needs to be done. 

At the same time, the worship pastor decides to implement a set change, so now the TD is running to Home Depot to gather materials and figuring out how to realize the worship pastor’s vision, while finding volunteers to strike the current stage to prevent cable damage and then rewiring for the new design and programming the audio console and stage boxes to recognize the new layout. Once audio is functional, the TD climbs the ladder to the catwalk and begins the five-hour process of re-aiming and focusing the lighting grid. Once that is complete, the cameras need to be white-balanced to the new set, with several hours more spent programming the lighting console to sequence the new scenes. And that’s just Tuesday.

How to Avoid Burnout and Develop Respect

The result of this untenable schedule is burnout. The average tenure for a TD at a church is four years, followed by three more similar church position stints and then capped by a move into the secular world or on to other ministries where the time commitment and stress are more manageable. Unfortunately, the need for competent, committed TDs is continuing to rise, especially in light of the pandemic-induced livestream phenomenon, just as veteran TDs are leaving the field. Young, enthusiastic TDs, the future of church tech, often are given free reign before they have matured into the position, and, understandably make mistakes leadership cannot abide, and then they end up disillusioned by church culture. All this chaos begs the question, what can be done?

First, leadership must understand what technology can and cannot do. So often, pastors say, “Just set it so it’s right and leave it there,” but unless each service is a scene from Groundhog Day, things will always be different and need constant adjustment. The technology is only as good as the operator, meaning people have to be trained and must show up consistently in order to produce consistent product. 

Second, leadership of all stripes needs to understand what it requires to make things happen. When a two-hour movie is made, it represents hundreds of thousands of hours spent bringing it to life. In the same vein, a weekly worship service represents hundreds of hours of effort. When Elevation creates a worship service, there are a dozen highly skilled directors at the helm overseeing an army of volunteers through several rehearsals and numerous pre-production meetings before the service is presented. It can’t be done on the fly by two teens and a retired telephone installer.   

Third, it takes money to make the church fly. An old sermon joke notes that the church can crawl, walk, run, or fly, but it takes money to make it fly, to which the deacons respond, “Let it crawl.” Good technology isn’t cheap and cheap technology isn’t good. TDs can make do with sub-par equipment for some time, but they tend to stay longer when the gear is appropriate to the task.

Fourth, respect the position. Technical directors are capable, innovative, and intelligent professionals dedicated to delivering the message. They should be treated as peers and given the authority to say no when a request is too late, expensive, or unsafe.

Fifth, develop the relationship before demanding output. Technical people operate in a vacuum of personal interplay due to the nature of the job. Even the smallest effort to reach out and demonstrate appreciation and concern will go a great distance toward closing the gap between the creative team and the tech team. After all, they are people, too.

The role of the church tech director cannot be overstated, for a service can run without the pastor, worship team or servers, but it will stop immediately if there is no sound or lights. So, take a moment and give a virtual hug to your church’s TD. He or she is easy to find; they are always there.

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