tech teams vs. the 2nd law of thermodynamics

As an engineering student, we were all required to take the class Thermodynamics. By itself, this is a tough subject matter, but the professor we all had was a cross between a  fire and brimstone style preacher, and a drill sergeant. While he made the course fairly entertaining, it was even more intense than just the subject matter by itself.

Entropy - A GraphSiting here over 20 years later (how can that be?!) I’m amazed that I still remember that class. Thanks to the drill sergeant/preacher man for making it a class to remember. I could almost guarantee that if I were to ask some of my old classmates, that they would remember this professor also.

You might be wondering what my thermodynamics class has to do with production in the local church. Besides the fact they they make up the fundamental laws that our entire existence is based on, there is a point.

I had the privilege of serving on a team at a local church recently. The team was made up of some pretty long term volunteers. When I asked one team member how long they’d been serving, he said “Only 8 years.” I think I laughed out loud! ONLY 8 years! Where’s your dedication?! (sarcasm)

As I got to know the other team members, they had all been serving for quite a while also. They knew how to do the task at hand and what was expected of them. They knew the rhythm of the services and how to do their collective assignment well. Being the new person, I’m know that I would not have succeeded without them.

One interesting note was that they have been without a consistent leader for quite a while. As good as these volunteers were, their lack of a leader showed. As someone from the outside looking in, I immediately thought of the 2nd law of Thermodynamics. (wouldn’t you?)

A closed system will tend from order to disorder.

(Now if you’re a purist student of physics, you know that this language hasn’t been used in a while, but for those of us non-physists, I think it still works…especially for the sake of this blog post.)

This idea is called entropy. It basically states that if left to itself, the energy contained in a system will reach a state of equilibrium. If it is moving it will eventually stop. If it is hot, it will eventually cool off. If something goes up, it will eventually come down. Without some new form of energy introduced from outside the system, things will eventually come to a stop.

This is why leadership is so important to a team. Without leadership, without energy being introduced, things will tend to disorder. Without leadership, each member of the team will do what they think is best, and only expend the amount of energy they think is necessary. Leadership acts as the outside force to keep the system moving. Like rocket fuel that keeps a rocket from succumbing to the effects of gravity, leadership provides the necessary force to allow a team to function at a high level.

This is one of the difficult parts of leadership. Without constant attention and continual injections of new energy, a team will slowly become less than diligent, to think something is “good enough”. Or worse it might slowly dissolve.

As tech people, it can sometimes be difficult to wear the leadership hat. But in reality, if you are responsible for a team of technical artists, it is your burden to carry. If you won’t take the time to invest your energy to build the team or build into the team or hold the team to a high standard, then no one will.

In order for a leader to have the energy required to move a team along, he/she needs to be getting that energy from somewhere. It doesn’t just happen by itself.

As a leader, how are you keeping yourself going?

As a leader, what outside forces are you letting push you forward?

Without having good answers to these questions, it becomes almost impossible to expect our teams to be thriving.

Going back to the team I served with recently, I’m excited to visit them after they have an established leader again. It will be fun to see how consistent energy turns them into a high functioning team again.

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what is it about january 1st?

What is it about the date January 1st? In some ways it feels like such an arbitrary moment in time, yet it is gets everybody looking back on the year that just happened and looking forward to the year ahead.

I’ve been sitting here reflecting on some of the years that have gone by…with relief that they are in the past. There were some tough years in there. Yet for other years, I wouldn’t mind repeating them because they were so good.

In reality, I bet that my good years weren’t really all that great and the bad years weren’t probably as bad as I remember. Either way, the things that happen each year and how I responded to them have made me into who I am becoming.

When I look back on 2014, I’ve had quite a few changes, the least of which is stepping away from what seemed like a perfectly amazing job. For someone who is a leader in the technical arts community, working at one of the premiere churches for production excellence, it only makes sense to hang onto that job as long as possible.

That was a wrestling match I had with God early in 2014. It took months of struggle to get myself to a place where I was hearing God say, “Are you willing to follow me, or not?”

In this area and a few other personal issues this year, my faith has gotten to a “where the rubber meets the road” kind of place. If I say I’m a Christ follower, am I actually willing to follow? Regardless of the circumstances or of the ridiculousness of the request, how does me being a Christ follower actually inform my decisions?

I think I will look back on 2014 and see it as a year of my Christian faith leaving the realms of theory and moving into practice. Instead of going through the motions each day, actually asking the question “What does God have for me today?” and then trying to do that.

One of the hardest years? Probably.

One of the most fulfilling years of seeing God show up in real ways in my life? Most definitely.

At my going away party at Willow (which was at the Texan, the place where production staff have their last meal), there was a giant table that seemed far too big for how many people I thought would be there. Instead they kept moving more tables and chairs over.

As I sat there, I was struck by the impact God has had through me on the lives of the people around that table.

At my going away party at Kensington all those years ago, the table was smaller, with less people…some of my favorite people, but less of them.

If I had not been willing to follow God 11 years ago to leave where I was and follow him, his ability to use me would have been lessened.

At both parties, I told those gathered that if you feel like God is calling you to something, you should do it. Figuring out if God is the one calling you isn’t easy, but if He is, are you willing to follow?

Looking ahead to 2015, I have lots of dreams and some pretty big plans. All of them are untested and with the outcome in some doubt. But if I try not to get too wrapped up in what my blog post will say one year from now, I believe that what happened in 2014 has set me up for an amazing 2015.

Some of my big plans for this next year involve our community of church technical artists and I can’t wait to start talking more about it. But for now, I’m trying to soak up all the amazing things God did in 2014.



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the ghost of productions past

I had the privilege to work with the stage team at Willow Creek this past week. As the weekend unfolded, it occurred to me that I’ve been serving with many of the same people for over 10 years. I never like to admit that I’m getting older, but there was also someone on the team that I’ve been working with for 20 years almost exactly. Yikes!

Taco Bell Drive Thru SignNow for those of you who are still young, you don’t know what its like to start saying a sentence like “Remember that time in 1994 when we…” It is difficult to come to grips with the passage of time.

On the other hand, to able to get to work with great people for long stretches of time is pretty incredible. As I think about the production teams I been able to serve with, it is truly amazing how long we’ve been able to work together.

You can imagine that much of the conversation from this weekend was about reliving some memory of a crazy event from the past. That one Christmas with the creepy puppet. Or that time we drove the 48” trailer through the Taco Bell Drive-Thu. Or when we fly a drone around the auditorium.

As we were laughing or cringing at something we’d done together, I realized that most of what we talked about was made more amazing because we had done them together. Thinking back on some of my most favorite moments as a church production person, it has been about who I was doing it with, not necessarily the thing itself.

Whether it was a great memory, or a not so pleasant one, they were all made more sweet because of the people I’ve been able to share them with.

There is no question to me that calling people to something bigger than themselves is super important in what we do. If we didn’t, there would be no reason for us to be together; we wouldn’t need all of us to accomplish something simple and easy. But once you get past this fact, it becomes about how we treat each other, and the investments we make in each other, and how we honor volunteers in the process of creating something huge together.

Building into relationships matters. Creating an environment where people can serve long term is, I think what God had in mind.

A place where people can invest in others and feel invested in; all while doing some amazing production together. Amazing production is cool, but doing it with people you love to be with makes the amazing productions worth doing for the long haul.

For those of you reading this who’ve shared some of these memories with me, I’m so grateful for the way God has been able to us our gifts and talents together in community for the sake of the local church. I’m looking forward to even more opportunities in the future.

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throw out the bad grapes

I’m a sucker for documentaries. I could watch one after another. It doesn’t even matter what the subject matter is. I love to learn about everything. As a result, I know a little bit about a ton of different things.

Sour grapes 1The other day, I watched film entitled A Year in Burgundy. It is the story of the wine made in the Burgundy region of France where the filmmakers look into all the different philosophies of wine and the best ways to create it. For some of the vineyard owners it was all about the science and very quantitative; to others it was an art form and something elusive. There was one thing that pretty much every vintner agreed on, and that was to eliminate the bad grapes.

There were scenes of people picking out bad grapes on a conveyor belt. There were speeches to the grape pickers about eliminating bad grapes before they go into the buckets.

The whole time I was watching these scenes, I kept thinking about all the work that went into those bad grapes. Even though they were bad, they still put as much work into growing them as they had the good grapes. All the bad grapes were bad for different reasons…rot, hail damage, bruised…but they were all bad.

The reason these grapes were thrown out was that they would affect the end product. For some of the vineyard owners…the scientists, would simply say bad grapes make bad wine. The artists among them would say you could taste the hail damage in the wine.

At this point, you’re probably wondering what this has to do with anything.

Well, by the end of this movie, I was really impressed with the discipline it took to get rid of the less than perfect grapes for the sake of the final product. If I were in their shoes and really knew how much work was involved, would I be able to do what was best for the end result? How many times have I sacrificed the best for the end result for the sake of a bad grape? A less than perfect stage set up or a slightly lazy lighting cue? To spend countless hours on a a video, then knowing it isn’t quite there, played it in the service anyway? To keep an chronically late volunteer on the team because, after all, they’re volunteering.

Regardless of the work I’ve put in or the team has put in, it might still be a bad grape.

There was a big service at Willow Creek that we had spent a ton of energy to make the set a certain way to achieve a certain result. It was a lot of work. However, in the end, it wasn’t right for the service, so we ended up scraping it. For some people on the team, this really bothered them. To others it was the exact right call.

I realize that many of my examples and many of the situations we find ourselves in are way more complicated than good grape/bad grape, but the question still remains: Is the thing I’ve spent so much time on going to make the end product better or worse?

Are we willing to sacrifice all of our efforts if necessary, for the sake of the end result?

Will we have enough discipline to set aside the less than best for the benefit of what we are really trying to do?

Which is hopefully to create life changing moments through the fusion for the technical and creative arts.

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grace for production

I ran monitors the other day. Don’t tell anyone, but it was the first time I had done real monitors with IEMs in my life. Not only that, but on a console I had never touched until that day.

imageI’ve lost track of how many times I’ve been at FOH, and I used to run wedge mixes from FOH exclusively. So the idea of monitors wasn’t new to me, nor the act of giving artists what they think they want :)

I’m pretty sure I did OK. I guarantee that there are many others who are better than me, but I think ministry happened, and I was a part of the team helping to facilitate the experience of hundreds of middle school students.

Upon reflection, I had two major feelings after my experience.

I had so much fun creating. Building mixes for people. Helping them experience the music so that they could help lead the group. It was a thrill to be a part of facilitating worship from a more hands on perspective. I’ve spent the better part of a decade leading technical artists, which is an art to itself. But getting my hands “dirty” brought back so many great memories, including why I fell in love with production.

The second feeling was of gratitude for the grace that the team showed me. There were bumps along the way. There were “gremlins” in the system…either that or operator error. There was definitely a team spirit to create something together, and we were all in it with each other.

If we hope to build our teams, and to eventually move from where we are to expand to somewhere better, we need to leave room for people to learn and grow. Instead of just empowering one superstar tech person, we need to open things up to create opportunities for those people that have potential, but need a chance to learn.

Giving your team a chance to learn means that mistakes will happen, but creating a grace-filled environment will help our teams achieve more and more.

I have to say that Arnez, the TD of Elevate, Willow Creek’s Jr. High ministry, has done a great job creating atmosphere of “let’s try it!” It is that spirit that gives people room to figure out new things with a safety net of grace.

The worship leader, Delwin, also made me feel at home and a part of what was happening. As I watched him coach his band, and interact with me at monitors, he pushed us to do our best, even to try harder at times. But the overarching vibe was one of grace and team.

If only each one of our experiences serving could have been as amazing as mine was this past weekend!

What are some ways we can create opportunities for our teams to feel fully empowered to serve? How can we create atmospheres full of grace?

(I have a quick favor…click on the twitter link for Delwin @delwoodworks and give him a quick shout out? They are going into their fall camp with probably 1000 Jr. Highers and could use some encouragement. If you have encouragement for Arnez, leave a comment here and I’ll make sure he gets it…no twitter for Arnez…yet.)

taking the next successful step

When I was a few years into the lighting part of my life, moving lights started to become a big deal. There were quite a few people on the team, my boss included, who wanted us to look into buying some moving lights. This sounds like a dream come true! My boss is asking me to spend money on new gear! Get out!


Even with it being such a rare occurrence, I pushed back pretty hard because I knew that I didn’t have the time necessary to devote to programming them…did I mention I was also shooting and editing all the videos at the time? Well, I finally gave in and we bought 2 spot fixtures. But except for Christmas and Easter, I never used them.

Just as I thought, I didn’t have the time necessary to really get the most out of them. They collected dust. And the whole time they were getting dusty, I kept thinking that we hadn’t been ready for this step. It was probably time to move in this direction, but we didn’t have the capacity to succeed at it.

Looking back, I would have continued to push back and figured out a way to spend that money on something else; something that would have moved us to the next step; the one we were actually ready to take.

Since we all have limited resources, it is important to spend them as wisely as possible. Sometimes saying no to something really cool is the right answer.

you are not alone

I’m leaving for Sweden this week. I’ve never been to Sweden before. Other than the $1 vanilla cone at IKEA, I don’t have any experience with things Swedish. (I never leave IKEA without one of those cones! It’s only $1!)

I’m super excited, because I get to be a part of a gathering of Swedish technical artists. As I’ve been preparing for what to share with them, I’ve realized that there is something I know about Sweden. Anytime you gather technical artists into a room, we are all connected by technology and the fact that we use our gifts for the benefit of the local church. We might be from different countries, but as technical artists, we have a ton in common.

Guangzhou: Soft ice-cream

Now that I think about it, there is a team of tech artists from Willow Creek down in the Dominican Republic right now, and I guarantee that they are experiencing a similar thing.

Whether your church is huge or normal sized; whether you are part of the old world or the new; whether you have every new tech gadget or you are gaff-taping something together to get one more use out of it; we are all in this thing together. We are all experiencing the joys and frustrations of being a technical artist in the local church.

So often we are physically alone. We are the first ones in the door and the last to leave an event. The “every day” of our lives as technical artists tends to feel lonely. In reality, there are individuals all over the world that are doing similar things at similar times. Making copies of the input list for the volunteers early on Sunday morning; driving a trailer full of gear to the local middle school so the gear can be unloaded at 5:30am; wishing the worship leader had remembered to tell you about that song change before now. The list could go on.

When we are in the middle of feeling alone, it is hard to think past your immediate circumstance. What I am most excited about my trip to Sweden is a chance for all of us technical artists to be in one room together and remember that we aren’t alone, that we are a part of a larger group leveraging technology for the message of the gospel.

I think it is important to remember that we are a part of this larger community. Who else really understands all the work it takes to do our job? Who else can recognize us for the good job we’ve done (instead of just when something goes wrong)?

I would like to challenge every technical artist reading this to find a way to encourage a fellow artist today. If we don’t go out of our way to lift each other up, who will? I would also suggest that each of you find a way to get connected into a community of technical artists in your area or through the great resource of the Church Technical Leaders online community.

Whether you are running on empty or you have full and have something to give, plug into the community of church technical artists to help us remember that we aren’t alone.

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stop taking yourself so seriously

Recently, I was leading a team to handle the production needs for a concert tour and for those of you who have worked something like this know that it is a ton of work. There was someone on the team who isn’t really a production person and that doesn’t normally serve with us. He kept saying how much work it was, and that normal people didn’t have a clue what it took to pull off what we even do on a normal basis.

Long neck ostrichI agree with him. Production is tough stuff. There is a ton of work that needs to get done. Lots of physical labor. Lots of details to manage. A crew of staff and/or volunteers to keep track of and keep moving forward.

I’ve been doing production work for a long time, and it never seems to get easier. When we build in new systems or buy new gear to make things more streamlined, we usually increase our capacity and then push ourselves to that new standard. It’s almost like the idea of computers and the internet will give us more free time…or just help us do more work.

I tell myself often that what I am privileged to do is not easy. But if I’m going to spend my life doing it, I want to enjoy it along the way.

Don’t Take Yourself Too Seriously

When you are talking about doing production in the local church, there is a lot at stake. We are trying to make production be as transparent as possible so that the gospel message is clear and unhindered. We also generally only get feedback when things don’t go according to plan, so it is really easy to be super intense to get everything exactly right all the time.

In reality, there is no way to keep up this intensity. It is so easy to get wrapped up in not making a mistake that you end up creating more pressure on yourself and your team than actually exists.

This somewhat artificial pressure can steal the joy of serving from you and your volunteers. I don’t know about you, but joyless serving doesn’t sound like God’s plan.

I love that God has chosen to use us and our gifts to help accomplish his purposes on this planet. I don’t understand it, but I’m so grateful that I get to be a part of bringing the kingdom of heaven to earth. However, if I am so worked up about not making a mistake, am I really contributing to bringing heaven to earth? And isn’t it true that God is infinite and is able to do things that are beyond my comprehension? And couldn’t he work in people’s lives whether there was feedback or not?

This is a giant mystery to me. God has chosen to use us, but doesn’t need us. We have to do everything we can to create an environment where people can meet with God in our services, but at the end of the day, God doesn’t need us to meet with his people.

With this as the backdrop, let’s stop taking ourselves too seriously. Yes we have lots of work to do. Yes it is important. Relax. Enjoy yourself.

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production foundation

To build a solid foundation for production at your church, requires gobs of tenacity. If you think about the foundation of a building, most of it is underground and will never be seen. But without it, the building couldn’t stand. Even though nobody sees what goes on down there, if corners are cut, the building will eventually come down.

Braced FoundationHow you handle the unseen parts of production will determine what your ministry will become. What kind of building can you construct on a shoddy foundation? Not a very good one. And not one that will last. Yet, by building a solid foundation, there is no telling what can be built upon it.

In the world of production, most of what we do goes unseen. You are the first in the venue getting things ready and you are the last to leave. There are countless hours in the editing suite getting things just right. Sitting behind the lighting console checking and rechecking the sequence of lighting cues doesn’t just happen by itself. Testing each mic line and instrument cable has to be done so that we know everything is working before we start rehearsal.

Most of us can relate to how tired you can get at the end of a long run of rehearsals. Do you stay and clean up now, or leave it for later? Do you watch the video one more time to make sure the edits line up with the audio? Do you troubleshoot a problem until you understand what happened and how to make sure it doesn’t happen again?

When I started shooting and editing videos, I learned this lesson the hard way. After I had finished the project, I would start transferring it to tape while I got up and stretched my legs. Then, I wouldn’t watch the tape until we were in the service. Inevitably there was a glitch or a piece of bad audio, or whatever. What I soon realized was that I needed to watch the transfer to tape…all the way through. In one instance, it was 1 1/2 hour final edit and it was 3am. Do I watch the whole thing, or do I take a nap? If I want to make sure it is done right, I need to watch the whole thing.

These are all examples of tenacity in the basics. Since there is nobody around to see that yours is the last car in the parking lot, what you are doing is definitely unseen. What is your commitment to the foundation of production done well?

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preparing to fail

A few months ago, I volunteered to provide production support for an event at one of my kid’s school. For me, it doesn’t matter where I’m doing production or for whom, I want to do great work. I don’t want people thinking about production, but about the content of the program. I want to be as transparent as possible.

Comikaze 2013 - Bane shrugsThere were a couple problems right off the bat. The gear at this school is suspect at best. I never know which mics will work or which lights turn on with which switches. Going in, I knew I was in for a challenge. The second issue was that the people presenting at the event wanted to use wireless headsets, even though they were just standing at a podium the whole time. Knowing what I do about the system that exists, I spent quite a bit of time trying to talk people into using a wired handheld mic, since it would give us the highest chance of success. No luck.

You can probably imagine where this is going. Mic after mic failed. Either because of RF interference, a bad connector or the flimsy headset mic falling off someone’s head. Fortunately, I had set up a wired mic by the podium just in case.

This example speaks to a few things.

We talked about it before the event

I knew that the gear was questionable at best, so I spoke up. Not to complain, but just to explain what could happen. After the decision maker decided to respectfully not take my advice, we used the wireless mics.

Prepare for failure

When they failed, I didn’t make a big deal out of it and I definitely didn’t say “I told you this would happen!”. I prepared for the chance that they might not work, and then I didn’t carry the weight of responsibility whether it worked or not. I’d spoken up and someone else made the decision. I’m going to still do my absolute best to make it work, but if it doesn’t, someone else made the decision and carries some of the responsibility for the distraction that was caused.

Because production is a mystery to most non-tech people, to some degree, only you know if you are doing everything you can to make sure things go well. Are you planning properly?

Do you have a “Plan B” in case “Plan A” doesn’t work?

Are you bringing up potential issues before they happen or only after they fail?

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