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christmas production fever

I love Christmas time.  You know, when you are working crazy hours and your body starts shouting back at you to slow down, but because the show must go on, you push through until you collapse at the finish line, with nothing but a heap underneath the Christmas tree for your family to work around?  (I really don’t feel this way anymore, but it is fun to reminisce about days gone by.)

Swaffham Christmas Tree Festival

For us church technical artists, another thing that happens at Christmas time, or during any other large production, is that all the great things we do all year long are magnified.  Unfortunately, all our bad habits and not so great process issues are also magnified.  The things we put up with on a weekly basis but should probably change, are blown up to ugly proportions for us that we have to deal with.  All year long we live with a low grade fever, not quite bad enough to go to the doctor over, but when the pressure builds to Christmas proportions, it can send us to the emergency room…so to speak.

I am pretty good at saying:  “we’ll wait and figure that out when we are in rehearsal”.  Many times this is fine, but when we hit the big services this tend to bite us. We have too many details floating around to leave any for the last minute.  There will be enough details that pop up at the last minute that we should be planning everything else we possibly can so that we are ready for the unexpected.  A loose process week in and week out can wreak havoc when the big event rolls around.

In what ways could your process improve each week to make next Christmas be the best experience?  During our rehearsals and services, let’s be observant of the things that we can improve  for next year by doing small fixes throughout the year.

 

Creative Commons License photo credit: nickpix2011

com chatter

I have a friend who was a TD of a local church and when he started, he noticed that the volunteer team would talk over the intercom negatively about the people on stage and the content coming from said stage.  As a result the whole production team had a negative view of the creative arts team, and the wall that naturally exists between the booth and the stage was built taller and more robust each week.  When he realized this, my friend went to the worship leader and told him that from that day forward, the production team would not say one negative thing over the intercom or in conversation.  Instead of the standard operating procedure being criticizing someone’s performance or content, the MO would be to speak with positive words, or not say anything.

intercom

I was telling this story in a small group setting and there were a few people from the same church that looked at each other and groaned.  They all knew that the first part of the story described their team’s experience and that it was time to stop.  While they were having this revelation, I was having thoughts like “It is OK for my team to talk negatively, because my situation is unique.”  and “My friend’s church has a totally different set of issues that don’t apply to my environment.”  or “I am tired of staying on top of my team to stop the negative comments.” and on and on.  Right about then, I was convicted myself.

Letting our conversation slip into destructive negative comments is no better than letting technical excellence slip.  Would you let a camera operator continually give you bad headroom?  I hope not.  Would you let a FOH engineer keep forgetting to turn people’s mics on at the right time?  No way.  What may seem like harmless fun, slowly erodes respect and trust.

For me, the biggest challenge I have faced as a technical artist in the local church is breaking down the wall that can so easily be built between the technical and creative arts teams.  We talk a lot about wanting to feel like one team, but that can’t happen if we let negative chatter happen on our intercom, or in the back hallway or anywhere.

I’m not saying that you have to love everything happening on your stage, or that you have to be best buds with the worship leader.  I am saying that speaking in a destructive way, about the people whose art we are facilitating, is destroying any chance we have of creating something amazing together.  There should be room for constructive criticism, with emphasis on constructive.  There should be room to speak the truth, but in love.  We shouldn’t live with blinders on, but we shouldn’t live with n0-holds-barred either.

If you are a leader, please hold your tongue.  Your people are watching and listening to how you speak about the people on your stage.  If you are leader, hold your people to the highest standard.  Push your team to the high road.  Breaking down the wall between the creative arts and the technical arts requires constant attention.  Without diligence, it will naturally get built slowly, brick upon brick, which is the exact opposite of what we need and what we really want.

 

 

Creative Commons License photo credit: Pikesville

flying under the radar

After being at WFX last week, I talked with many technical artists about the concept of leading up.  How do you help your leadership understand what production in the local church is all about?  For my ministry and your ministry to survive, it rises and falls on how well you and I educate the decision makers at your church about what you and your team do.  Without this information, production is way too mysterious for senior church leaders to advocate on your behalf.  As important as it is for your leadership to get you and what you do, that is only part of it.

 

I have noticed that many tech people are introverts.  They also enjoy flying under the radar.  I’ll do my job, keep my head down and hopefully I won’t draw attention to myself.  I don’t like to be on stage and I would rather do my job by myself.  I would tend to put myself in this category.  Unfortunately for all of us who find ourselves in this place, more is required from us.  I am the leader of my team.  As a leader, my team looks to me to advocate for them; to stick up for their needs and to fight for what they need to do their jobs.  It is my job to clear the way for them so that they can be freed up to do what they are being asked to do and what they were created to do.

Even though my knee jerk reaction to life is to fly under the radar, my staff and the volunteers that serve with them are desperate for me to fly above the radar and be their advocate.  For me, I can tend to put my advocate hopes onto my boss and want him to do all the heavy lifting to the leaders above him.  In reality, I need to push the needs of my team up the food chain.  I need to be the one who shamelessly plugs the hopes and dreams of our production team.

I was in a meeting the other day where I realized that my desire to go unnoticed and put the advocacy hat on someone else had hurt my team.  In your situation and mine, no one understands the world of production like we do, no matter how much time you spend educating your boss.  No one cares as deeply as you do for the volunteers in your ministry, in spite of the fact your boss may come to your team Christmas party.  No one gets what makes the heart of a technical artist tick like you do.

Push.  Kick.  Praise.  Prod.  Insist.  Lift up.  Educate.  Recommend.

Do all these things in an effort to make your case known to the people in leadership above you, but don’t give up the responsibility of advocacy to someone else.  As a leader in production, you are, can I say, required to be your team’s champion.  No one else can do it as well as you can, no matter how inadequate you might feel.

 

Creative Commons License photo credit: jjlapierre

photo by: g7ahn

what did you expect?

I spent an entire day with technical artists from around the world yesterday during the Technical Director’s Retreat Day hosted by the WFX conference in Dallas.  It was inspiring and reassuring; sobering and sad, all at the same time.  It is great to see so many churches working hard to make a difference in the world through the use of production technology.  It was amazing to be surrounded by fellow technical artists trying to get better at their craft, while trying to help each other through issues we all face.  On the sobering and sad side were the people who are at the end of their rope, who feel misunderstood by their leadership and who are ready to throw in the towel.

Dickens

There was one universal theme that stuck out to me that all of us, as technical artists can work on:  Defining Expectations.

At one table I sat with, pretty much everyone had issues with expectations.  Whether it was what a senior pastor really wanted, or if it was being realistic about how long something would take to accomplish or how much something would cost; expectations were lacking at many churches.  The thing about expectations and the technical arts, is that for most non-technical people, things just magically happen, and there is no understanding of what it actually takes.  If we need someone to define expectations for us, we have to push them, we have to help them define them, we need to have data that supports our perspective.  

Leaders need information and to say you don’t have enough time or money is an answer that doesn’t work for most senior leaders I know.  They need to understand what you need to do the job, not just that you need more than you have now.  The next time you work on a video project, document how much time each phase of production took.  Now you have defined, with this much time and this much money, that this is the product you can expect.  Documenting how you spend your time is an amazing tool to communicate reality so that expectations can be set.

There is a apt quote in Charles Dickens’ book “Great Expectations”:

“Take nothing on its looks; take everything on evidence. There’s no better rule.”

Work with your leaders now to define what can be expected and change the outcome of your next project.

 

 

Creative Commons License photo credit: Andy Martini

if i only had ______, then everything would be perfect

In my last post, I mentioned that we are getting ready to replace the sound system in one of our venues at Willow.  We have been looking forward to this for so long and we have been placing so many of our hopes and dreams on getting something new and shining that will solve all our problems.  It is time, and the old one is horrible, but I predict that the new system will lose its luster, it won’t be perfect and we’ll move onto the next thing that is wrong, and put our expectations on the next thing that is just around the corner.

THE NEXT BIG THING

As technical artists, our forward looking selves are generally wanting our equipment and personnel issues to be solved or to pull off the next amazing production. We look forward to the day “if I only had HD cameras”, or “once the newest version of ProPresenter comes out” or “this Christmas is going to be amazing”.   Not that any of these things are bad, it is just that they don’t really solve all the problems, they don’t make life perfect, they will let us down.

Waiting for everything to be perfect is a fantasy.  Putting our hope in “things” cannot fully satisfy, and it is at odds with the very message of the gospel.  The new equipment that you are longing for will let you down.  Solving one problem will inevitably raise other, newer problems to the surface.  The next big idea will provide you with a great adrenaline rush, but then comes the crash.

In Psalm 42, the writer talks about how our souls long for God, yet he asks the question: “Why, my soul, are you so downcast?  Why so disturbed within me?”  The only solution to this feeling of being let down is to “Put your hope in God.”

Our jobs as technical artists in the local church is to push and strive for technical excellence; to look for new equipment, to recommend new ways of doing things, to push our current normal onto something special and extraordinary.  It is how we fulfill our role in the body of Christ.  We must also not put our hope in any of this.  Reach.  Strive.  Work your butt off.  But don’t place your identity in something new and shiny or flashing and amazing.  Put your hope in God.  Allow him to be your motivation.  Let him fill you up because the adrenaline will wear off.

 

 

Creative Commons License photo credit: marc falardeau

life change, in spite of bad audio

I am working in Willow Creek’s Lakeside Auditorium.  It used to be the main space where crazy productions have happened over the years.  Christmas programs.  Outreach events.  Conferences.  All these are great, but the most important thing that has happened over the years is that people’s lives have been changed for eternity.  God has met people here for close to 30 years.

I remember my first experience in this room back in 1989.  I remember most every detail.  Where I was sitting.  A rock band.  Concert lighting.  There was no hymnal, just lyrics projected from a slide projector.  It blew my mind for what church could look like.  Every now and then I am still amazed that I work at this place.   Tonight, I am sitting in the TD chair, having a difficult time keeping my headset on.  I am caught up in the worship, the mix, the lighting, the video, God moving…you name it.

Even with all this happening, we have been in need of a production upgrade in this room for quite some time.  Much of the gear we have in here is closing in on 20 years.  Especially the audio.  In 1992, this system was the state of the art, the cutting edge of technology.  It has been a work horse for our church, pushing air for countless amazing events where people met Christ.  However, it is now time to look for something new, to help make people’s experience as transparent as possible; to translate all that is happening on the stage out into the seats.

Our audio team is, needless to say, overjoyed at the prospect of replacing this dinosaur of a system.  To be able to experience clarity; to have low end; to not be sitting inside a giant comb filter.  Even with all these strikes against the current system, I have been in wonder at what God can do regardless of the PA hanging in the room.  There is an environment where 1000+ people are experiencing God.  Hands raised.  Voices lifted up.  The PA is transparent tonight.

I would be lying if I said I am not excited about a new sound system in this room.  It has been on the replacement list for years.  It sounds bad.  I feel responsible to offer up the best sound possible and this is not it.  But it is good for me to remember that God can work and move, regardless of the PA, regardless of graphics being on time or not, regardless of whether the color scrollers match.

Whatever the weak link in your production system is, it is not so bad that God can’t work.

As a technical artist in the local church, the Body of Christ needs me to care deeply about creating the best environment through the use of production and production equipment.  My church also needs me to grasp the fact that God can work and move without the latest and greatest piece of gear.  

As Andy Stanley would say, it is a tension to be managed.  How are you managing this tension?

pace yourself

As a tech person, I love to go to concerts and shows to see how people are using technology.  A couple things usually happen.  I’m inspired, then depressed.  They have way more money than me, they have tons of great content to make better through technology and they have months of time to rehearse and nail the timing and precision of each cue.

With the weekend rolling around with predictable regularity, it seems impossible to pull of what I see on TV or at the latest touring show, yet that is what we have many times been asked to do, with less time and less money.  For many years, my tendency was to go for it, every week; to push the envelope and do something new and hopefully amazing.  I was trying to chase after what I saw out in the “real world” and to accomplish what I thought people we asking me to do.

As time passed, I began to realize that I couldn’t keep up the pace.  Doing something incredible each week started to take it’s toll.  And for those of you who know me, you know that my wife started saying “come home early” because of this crazy treadmill I had jumped on.

Here are a couple things I learned:

Don’t make everything new and cool.  Doing something new always takes way more time than you planned, simply because you have never done it before and have no real idea how to plan.  Along with that, it is generally more expensive than you planned.

All that said, some of my most memorable times in ministry involved me trying something new and cool.  Sure I was at work until 2 am.  Sure my budget was depleted.  Sure my kids didn’t recognize me any more.  But I had been a part of doing something that helped move people closer to Christ, and potentially changed their eternity.  As an added bonus, it was also pretty cool.

I think we all need to go for it every now and then.  If my whole life was just maintaining the status quo, I would go crazy.  I don’t know about you, but I was created to dream and to think outside the box from time to time, and always coloring inside the lines doesn’t sound like the way I want to spend my life.  So what can we do?

Pace yourself.  In exercise, it is important to stretch yourself beyond what you normally do in order for muscles to grow.  Learning and growing as a human being requires you to push past normal to do something out of the ordinary.  I run on occasion.  When I just imagine pushing myself to the limit every time I exercise, my hips and knees start to hurt.  Our bodies need time to recover and adjust to the new, just like our lives need time to recover from pushing ourselves, after Christmas, after Easter, after that crazy.

I know that I have written a few times about figuring out what normal is and maybe this seems like a contradiction.  If you haven’t figured out normal, your normal will become like mine was, crazy, every moment.  It isn’t possible.

As you push your technical self from time to time, what was a stretch yesterday is normal today.  What you wouldn’t even think of doing a year ago now seems pretty ordinary.  Doing something incredible every week can’t be sustained, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t go after the dream every now and then.

 

 

revisiting normal

I am on a flight back from an event where I facilitated a table of TDs from local churches.  It was amazing time to connect with people who are in similar situations and have similar challenges.  We spent a lot of time talking about what is working well, what isn’t, and there was a particular subject that kept coming up.  Either these TDs were at a church where you were required to work at least 6 days a week, or a TD was at a church where they had 2 days off, but they rarely took them because there was too much work to get done.

Changed Priorities Ahead

This seems pretty normal in church production and it is one of the contributing factors to such widespread burnout and bitterness among TDs.  What can we do to change this trend.

Be realistic about what can be accomplished in week.

Someone at my table said that his senior pastor jokes with him that what he does is so mysterious that the TD doesn’t even really know what he does.  The role of TD is like being an auto mechanic.  We all need one, we don’t understand what they need to do to fix our car, but we just write the check.  We need to be ruthless to quantify what we do for our bosses, so that we aren’t just complaining that we work too much.  Take a month and keep track of every hour that you spend editing videos, updating Planning Center, cleaning your storage closet, whatever.  This exercise will help you get a handle on where all your time goes, as well as providing documentation for the people who lead you, to help them understand what is involved.

What can only you do?

Once you have all this data, sit down and figure out what you uniquely contribute and should be doing, and what things could you delegate to someone else.  This is a good place to start trying to figure out what needs to be done and what you should stop doing.

What is mission critical?

If you schedule is overfull, you will need to eliminate some things.  Sit down with your boss and go through the list of things that you spend your time on.  Get help to determine what you can stop doing and what is critical for church to continue to happen.  This can be a difficult exercise since everything seems mission critical or else you wouldn’t be killing yourself to get it all done.  The other challenge will be that your boss might have a different set of priorities on what is critical and what isn’t.

It is important to come to an agreement on what will and what won’t get done.  Mike Sessler, from Coast Hills Church was at my table and he recommended Andy Stanley’s book “Choosing to Cheat“, as a great resource for figuring out how to step back from working too many hours.

Letting go

For each of us to be in this for the long haul, we have to be ruthless with our time.  The list will never go away.  there will always be more to do than time to do it.  The abundant life that Christ offers us requires us to let go of control of certain things.  Are you willing to let go of some good things and hang onto only the most critical for you and your church?

There are times when long hours are necessary, but living with no margin to refresh, recharge and recenter yourself will ultimately only hurt you, your ministry and your church.

 

Creative Commons License photo credit: add1sun

the golden age

I was on a flight recently where I watched the movie “Midnight in Paris”.  The basic idea is that the main character is unhappy with his current sitution and dreams about a time in the past that seems more like a golden age.  People were more interesting, amazing things were happening, it was basically more perfect.  Through some mysterious method, he ends up in the 1930’s, in the very magical time he had been wishing for, and he is hanging out with all the amazing people he was only dreaming about earlier that day.

When he gets to this better time, he meets someone who is dissatisfied with her current situation, and dreams of a different golden age, of an earlier time.  Spoiler alert:  the main character realizes that he needs to start looking at the present as a golden age and live a different way.

As the people on my team are all too familiar with, I can tend to look back to my years at Kensington Community Church as my own Golden Years.  Even on our team at Willow, it is really easy to look back to the past and think about all the amazing productions we have been a part of and think back to a more magical time.

Looking back is interesting to me, because I am pretty sure things are never as amazing as I remember.  And if I fast forward into the future I would guess that people will talk about the era that I live as the best and most perfect time to be involved in production in the local church.

Seeing this movie and thinking about how much golden era thinking I do, and those around me do, amazingly, just like the main character in the movie, I started to realize that now is the Golden Era.  Now is the chance to create something that will effect people now and in the future.  Now is the opportunity to stop wishing for something from another era, and to create a whole new era, now.

Regardless of what era you are living in, it never seems quite like we are living in amazing times.  But what if we started to act like our era was the most incredible time?  What if we lived life, right now, like we believed the current era was special?  Golden years are great to look back on, but looking back doesn’t do any good unless we let them inform what our present can look like and what the possibilities of the future could be.

 

 

Creative Commons License photo credit: moleitau

a sleepless night

The other night, I woke up at 1:30 and couldn’t sleep, which is not normal for me.  When this happens, the thing that usually puts me back to sleep is reading.  It doesn’t matter what the book is.  It could be amazing or boring.  Both kinds will put me to sleep.  So I picked up my e-reading device and started reading.

Now,  no offense to Gary Molander, but I figured his book “Pursuing Christ, Creating Art” would do the trick.  Instead of falling back to sleep in 5 minutes, against all my expectations, I couldn’t put the book down.  One of the many sections I read was called “Missing the Mark”, where Gary talks about how easy it is for artists to be critical of the people in leadership over us, and it hit a little too close to home.

 

I was most awake during the section called “I Can Struggle to See the Big Picture”.  Gary says:

“I think my stories are the biggest, and the most important stories being told.  The lead visionary of the organization sees the clearest portrait of the organization’s story.  I do not.  The key leader gets ticked when the organization isn’t reaching its full potential.  I get ticked when my software takes too long to render.”

I am one of the first people to admit that production isn’t the most important thing all the time, but these words put this into an even brighter light.  When I think of the reason my pastor gets me graphics late, or that he wears a shirt that a mic has a difficult time clipping to; knowing that he is worrying about a mountain load of things that never even enter my mind, puts all the “short comings” into perspective.

We all have a lot to think about and plan for.  Our job as technical artists in the church is to care deeply for the things we were created for and then to execute to our best ability.  Our pastors need us to do that each week, otherwise the church wouldn’t function properly.

We must also cut our pastors some slack.  They have more going on than you or I could imagine.  I want him to care as much about my area as I do, and so does everyone else that works for my pastor.  Our pastors are carrying a mammoth load that I cannot comprehend.

Next time you wish your pastor cared more about your stuff, pray for them.  Pray that God would help them shoulder the burden of leadership to lead your church where God wants it to go.

 

photo credit:  Some rights reserved by igb

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