what our services can learn from car design

My dad was an engineer at GM for 32 years.  He is one of the smartest people I know, a brilliant engineer, and when I was a kid, I thought what my dad got to do was the coolest.  I remember we used to start every family vacation with picking him up from work and taking one loop around the test track with our van loaded to the roof with stuff.  I always thought we would tip over as we went around those crazy banked turns.  It was awesome!

I don’t recall much about his actual job, but I do remember him complaining about designers a lot.  They were all so worried about what the car looked like, that they didn’t care about whether it would run or not.  When I stop and think about it, without a beautiful design, no one would probably be attracted to the car enough to buy it in the first place.  But on the flip side, if the car doesn’t run well, the word will get out and nobody will buy the car, regardless of how good it looks.

As a result, there are have been many cars that nobody remembers.

There is a values tug of war at play here.

I would argue that these forgettable cars were so altered by immovable values of each department that they end up with a car that nobody wants.  “I need this much space to make the transmission work.”  “I HAVE to have this space for my air duct design.”  “The headlight has to be shaped this exact way.”

When you have so many people demanding that their thing is the most important, you end up making decisions along the way that compromise the big idea.

Let’s translate all this into the local church service context that most of us are dealing with:  “I have to have the band as close together as possible.”  “I have to know the order of lyrics, exactly.”  “This service won’t work without a particular amount of time for the message.”

It is so important for each area to care deeply about what matters most to them.  If you are a lighting designer, you care most about lighting angles.  You don’t really care about message length, as long as the person giving the message is standing in exactly the right spot.  If you are an audio engineer, the lyrics don’t matter to you, as long as the vocalists know their part so that you can get the perfect mix.  If you are the video director, who cares about how long the message is, just give me the frickin’ graphics on time!

These are all extremes, but how can we all work together to create the best service possible?  How can we care deeply about our thing, but hold it loosely enough to make the most amazing experience?

I realize that so much of this depends on a vision.  Just like there needs to be a person who know what a car needs to become, someone has to own where this thing is going.  There has to be some sense of “we are all this together”, or else your loose grip will mean that the thing you care deeply about will be ripped from your grasp.

Let’s just say you have a clear idea of what the goal is.  Let’s pretend that you know exactly what the finished product is supposed to look like…just for a moment.

How tightly are you holding onto the thing that you care most deeply about?

How can you fight fiercely for the thing you care most deeply about, then let it go for the sake of the whole?

photo by: tinou bao

find the expert

 This is the first foray into having a guest post.  I have asked Mike Sessler, a friend of mine and the Technical Director at Coast Hills Community Church, to add his voice to this blog, hoping that it helps you become a better technical artist.  He writes regularly for Church Production Mag and Live Sound as well as his own blog at www.churchtecharts.org. Listen to the regular podcast, Church Tech Weekly at www.churchtechweekly.com and follow him on Twitter @mikesessler.

When I first started as a church TD, I believed it was my job to be the expert in all forms of production technology. In fact, I felt it was my responsibility to be the expert. This was even reinforced by my boss. When I would tell her of some equipment I was thinking of buying or a change I was preparing to make, she would say, “OK, you’re the expert.”

It wasn’t long, however, before I learned—the hard way—that I wasn’t always the expert. I made a bad call on an equipment purchase and ended up wasting the church’s money. I was really bummed out. I felt like a failure. I eventually got over it, but it took a while.

I suspect I’m not alone in this. Many a church tech has gone into their job thinking they have to be the expert, without even pausing to consider what that means. But think about it for a minute; how could we possibly be the expert in live sound, and lighting, and presentation, and video, and IT and whatever else they throw at us? Any one of those disciplines requires a lifetime to master.

The great theologian Clint Eastwood, while playing the character of Dirty Harry once said, “A man’s got to know his limitations.” I think this holds very true in the world of church tech. Too often, either the church or the tech will put too much stock in their expertise, and end up making poor choices that ultimately cost the church a lot of money, not to mention deliver a great deal of frustration. Sometimes, it’s the church being cheap; other times it’s the hubris of the tech that gets in the way of good decisions.

As church techs, what we need to do is find the expert. And sometimes the expert is me. There are many times when I am confident I know enough about a particular situation, technology, process or problem that I can solve it. In those cases, I can move forward with confidence and come up with a great solution.

But other times, I am not the expert, or at least the right expert. Sometimes, I need to call in the heavy hitters. That is one of the great things about having a network of other church techs. I have guys I call on when I have lighting issues, or when I can’t get a Windows machine working properly. When I didn’t know which control network was best for my new lighting system, I called on an expert (actually three of them). The final decision was reached with their input and was far more informed than what I would have made on my own.

One reason I love going to trade shows is to meet people from manufacturers who really are experts in their field or with their equipment. I’ve had many a question answered because I picked up the phone or sent an email. Sometimes I even get to be the expert for someone else, and that’s a great feeling.

The point is, you don’t always have to be the expert—you can’t always be the expert—you just need to know where to find them. Taking the time to seek out the advice of others more knowledgeable than you is not a sign of weakness—it’s a sign of wisdom. Our job is not to prove how smart we are, it’s to make the best choices for our churches. So take the time to find the expert. You’ll be glad you did!


photo by: joxin

the overflow


When I have a lot going on, it is easy for me to get depleted and sick of what I do and the people I am around, both my co-workers and my family.  To be running around, not taking any time to fill myself up with good things.  I don’t read my Bible.  I don’t pray.  I don’t think of others first.  In those times, I am overflowing with whatever is in my heart, which by itself can be a pretty dark place.  I know that without Christ as the center of my life, I am not much good to myself or anyone. 

As the pastor of the Baptist Church I attended in college would say “What’s down in the well, comes up in the bucket!”

I also know that life can be pretty tough, and without taking time to allow God to fill me up, it is really easy to lose hope. 

Right now, I am reading through Romans, and pretty much just read from major heading to major heading, and I try and read that much each day.  This morning however, the verse right before the section I was supposed to read caught my eye:

“May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.” – Romans 15:13

Wow.  What timing.  With tons of things going on that are out of my control, I have one thing that is in my control:  I can put my trust in God.

The God of hope wants to fill me with joy and peace.  All I need to do is put my trust in him.  I can overflow with hope, if I would just let go of the control of my circumstances, and allow God to have his way.  I know that I will not overflow with hope if it is left up to me.

In what ways are you hanging onto things you have no control over?

What are you overflowing with?

photo by: echiner1

a production history lesson

A few months ago, I received this photo of one of the pioneers of technology at Willow Creek.  It is circa 1976, or thereabouts. I was struck by several things in this picture.   How many audio consoles are side-carred together?  Is that duct tape holding stuff down?  I wonder if you could still get that shirt at Urban Outfitters?

Through the miracle of Facebook, I connected with the guy in this picture and asked if we could have lunch together.  He said yes, and as the date approached, I began compiling a list of questions to ask him.  I was interested in learning all about how production values got their start at Willow Creek, which eventually changed the landscape of how technology is now used in the local church.

Pretty soon into the conversation, I realized that my list of questions were irrelevant.  My preconceived ideas of why production mattered in the early years of the church were way off.  What was surprising is that what I learned wasn’t really new information.

You have to start somewhere.  From the picture it is obvious that Willow Creek didn’t have tons of gear, or necessarily the best or the exact right piece of equipment.  They were using what they could get their hands on, to most effectively communicate the message of Christ.  They were using what they had in ways that it probably wasn’t designed to do, but they stretched everything to again…most effectively communicate the message of Christ.

Relationship matters more than strategy.  When I asked what the strategy was for using technology, all I got in response was a blank stare.  There was no strategy.  At the beginning, it was two best friends trying to figure out ways to…effectively communicate the message of Christ.  It was the partnership of a programming person and a production person leveraging their individual uniqueness and their relationship to pull off something together.

These are things that I believe pretty strongly in, and was reminded again how much they matter.

Use what I have.  Do my very best with it.  Don’t wait for more equipment.

Relationships matter more than just about anything else.  For the fusion of the technical and creative      arts to really happen, we need to spend time on building relationships.

The same concepts that help start a church 30+ years ago, still are true today.

How can you spend your time investing in these two concepts?

a spiritual act

Every now and then I get caught up in what I am doing, in what my job title is or the amazing productions I am a part of pulling off.  Sometimes these are going well and I am flying high.  When things are going less well, I am faced with the question of where I derive my worth from.

If a production goes well, I’m a good person and worth something?  If a production doesn’t go well, am I a bad person and worth less?

I have been spending some time reading the book of Romans and yesterday it was time for Romans 12.

1Therefore, I urge you,brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice,holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship.

This hit me at just the right time.  What I do matters.  How I do it matters.  However, the outcome is not a representation of who I am as a person.  What I do and how I do it are acts of worship.  I do them not to define who I am, but I bring all of who I am as a spiritual discipline.

It can be easy to get caught up in doing cool things because they are cool.  So you go all out and bring your best because it is fun to be a part of something amazing.  It is also easy.  What about the mundane parts of my job?  Why do I do those things?

I was having a conversation with a friend about classical music the other day, and how there are two extremes versions of conductors:  those that select music for an amazing musical environment for the musicians, and those that give the audience the type of music that most people like to listen to.  The challenge with playing music the largest audience would like, is that the orchestra members end up playing the same Beethoven symphonies over and over again.  The audience gets what they want, but the orchestra slowly dies.

At the end of the day, each member of the orchestra needs to figure out why they are playing in the first place.  If they are playing music they love but nobody is coming to hear them, they don’t have a job.  If they only play the stuff people want to hear, how can they motivate themselves to pour their passion into Mozart’s 40th symphony one more time?

We all have less sexy parts of our jobs.  Right now, my answer for handling the mundane or the less than wonderful parts of my job, is that I am not doing it define my own value, I am doing it as my act of worship to a God who created me this way, and I want to show my thanks at every opportunity.  As we say around Willow Creek, I will give my best because God gave his best for me.

I would encourage you to read the rest of Romans 12.

You are not defined by what you do, but we are called to be all we were created for.

Let your actions be motivated in worship, not by trying to determine whether you are good enough or not.

photo by: James Jordan

plans are nothing; planning is everything.

Looking back through some old blog posts, I came across the one entitled “to lead or be led”, which was a reflection on the leadership style of Dwight D. Eisenhower while he was the PotUS.  In the process, I got distracted by the possibilities of the internet and started looking up quotes by my man Dwight.  The title of this blog is one that I found.

This feels like something that I believe strongly.  To plan like crazy, so you can be ready to throw the plan away.  This quote from my buddy Dwight was from his army days, talking about the fact that good offensive tactics in the army relied on planning like crazy, then letting the plan go if necessary.  This allowed individual commanders to make adjustments as the situation changed.

This is similar to a quote by Bill Hybels from the Gurus of Tech 2012 event that just happened.  “Build flexibility into your capability.”

When getting ready for an event, I try like crazy to know everything possible.  From there I try to imagine all the possible things that could happen and try to come up with Plan B’s and Plan C’s.  I have learned that things will change.

I approach every service like I can know only a part of what is going to happen.  I try to know that part like the back of my hand, so that I can be prepared for what I can’t know.  In a weekend service scenario, we are doing something completely different each week, which means we haven’t seen it, and really don’t have a clue if it is going to work.

Every other year, Willow does a conference in Germany.  It is tons of work, but an amazing time.  We take a crew from Willow Creek and meet up with a crew of German volunteers to walk into an arena and build everything up from scratch.  One year, for a particular session, we had something like 6 microphones fail in the span of 10 minutes.  Since one of our values is trying to minimize distraction, this was not a good thing.  Especially in front of 8000 people.

If I could boil it all down, we had abandoned a plan B.  In the US, we always have a wired handheld in the front row in case something happens to whatever mic is being used.  In Germany, we had one mic ready for that purpose in this particular session, but we didn’t take into account the translator.  We had used the second mic channel for another speaker earlier in that session.  The problem is that any time an American gets up on stage, we have someone translating it into German and at the last minute, an American decided to jump up on stage, requiring us to have 2 handheld mics.

What followed would have to be the worst production moment of my life this far.  I wanted to crawl into a hole.

Going back to the two quotes from above, I had locked myself into my plan.  I had plenty of capability, but I had thrown flexibility out the window.  The cue sheet had become my rule.

Part of knowing when to throw a plan away, or when to be flexible, requires experience, and learning from those experiences.  It also comes from having a plan in the first place, to know when it is time to change it.

Are you planning like crazy?  Are you learning from your experiences?  Are you ready to improvise when the time comes?

photo by: PhillipC

to lead or be led, pt. 2

I have been reflecting on a post I had written a couple of years ago, that talked about how Dwight Eisenhower would take the  initiative to lead, instead of just being manipulated by events as they came at him.  The challenge here is that, for those of us in production, so much of what we do is dependent on someone else to take the lead and then for us to respond to it.

So how can I take my own advice and not just be a victim in the circumstances that come at me, versus taking the initiative and possibly overstepping the role of production by becoming the person shaping events?

Here are a few areas I think are within my control to strive for action on, without turning someone else’s idea into something unrecognizable.


Building relationships with the creatives I work with is definitely within my control.  Instead of waiting to have someone understand my world, I can reach out and understand someone else’s world.  I can step out of the booth and make the first move to get to know the people on the stage.  I am responsible for my side of the relational equation.  What am I doing to help promote collaboration through relationship building?

Solution Oriented

Tech people are notorious for being perceived as saying “It can’t be done.” or just killing brainstorming by pointing out all the reasons someone won’t work.  In an interview I had with Blaine Hogan, we talked about the idea of “We can’t do that.” versus “How can we do that?”.  The difference in the two is vast.  One is alienating and the other is team oriented.  One is anti-team, the other communicates that we are for each other.  What language I use to help the collaboration process?

Define Reality

So much of the time, I don’t really understand the process that a creative artist goes through to make a service happen.  The opposite is true:  they generally don’t understand my world either.  Constantly communicating what it takes to pull off ideas, and refining the process of how we accomplish a service together is within my control.  Assuming that people know what is involved from a production standpoint doesn’t help making production the most effective it can be.  How can I define reality in such a way that it isn’t driving the process but helping us problem solve together?

Whether you are a member of a team, or the leader of a team, these are just a few ways to take control of your environment and make your situation better, without shaping events that aren’t your to necessarily shape.

photo by: Marion Doss