O ne crisis after another.” Does this commentary, given to me by a leader about his congregation’s approach to technology, describe your church? In a lot of churches, technology is a runaway freight train of freak out. At first, we ignore it. Then, once we’re headed for a crash, we stick our head out of the caboose and scream for someone to pull the brake.
First, to clarify: why a post about technology on a blog about creative arts? Because technology of any kind is the vehicle for communication. It is the means by which people experience the stories we tell.
Digital technology is an integral part of good 21st century storytelling.
Many churches under-plan for the storytelling power of digital technology. Avoid a future archeology dig of dead digital equipment in your church by avoiding these five strategic mistakes, and use my strategic planning worksheet to create a Five Year Plan. Just click the big button:Get Your Creative Worship Checklist!
And then, read on about the five mistakes we make in church technology, and how to solve each:
1. Putting a Specialist in Charge.
When I arrived at my church, I discovered that they had burned through a series of employees in a full-time “technology operations specialist” role. As the job description was cast, a single person was responsible for the execution of demands for worship and classroom support, administrative overhead, contractor relationships, repairs and maintenance, trends and industry knowledge, and research for new projects at a large church. It was a never-ending grind of duties.
Worse, as it was perceived, the specialist’s primary job was to react to the daily needs of pastors, teachers, presenters, and worship leaders. The usual list of tasks was crazypants, and the church had gone through a series of hires, each averaging less than 2 years until he or she had burned out and quit.
Solution: Recast the position as Technology Manager.
The difference? Instead of a surface nod to a wide range of duties, I tightened the deliverables to a primary set of strategic concerns, and put emphasis on coaching and building up the contractor team.
Of course, the daily execution is still necessary, but a technology director is empowered to do more than turn on gear. She or he can begin to ask questions and make plans for strategic planning and development.
The position isn’t star player, but player / coach, empowered to develop his or her own set of stars, whether volunteer or contractor.
Tip: It’s rare to find someone with technical, administrative and people skills – all three. If this is too much to locate, try for the first and third. If you’ve got someone with technical and people skills, you can give the administrative detail to someone else.
2. Buying new equipment on an as-needed basis.
Much of church technology purchasing is project-based, in freak-out mode. If something is broken, it needs repair, pronto! Otherwise, no one thinks about it.
“Freak Out Mode” is not a good technology strategy.
Solution: Build a five year plan.
The goal of a Technology Five Year Plan is to create a multi-year, comprehensive plan for campus-wide technology needs, to provide context and develop decision-making priorities. Here’s what I did:
a. I gathered every stakeholder who cared to participate together in a conference room to brainstorm every conceivable tech improvement project the church might need in the coming several years.
b. After the meeting, I assigned someone to do just enough market research to create a more accurate ballpark budget number to each item.
c. We then designated each project as high, medium or low priority.
d. We created a master ranking of tech needs for the church from highest to lowest priority. The goal was to preemptively identify all possible technology needs.
e. We shared the list with every leader – pastors, church leaders and stakeholders.
For a more detailed look at the plan, with details and to-dos, download the free checklist:Get Your Creative Worship Checklist!
With the help of our finance people we designated a $2000 cut off between operating and capital. Anything under $2K we designated as operating costs and looked for ways to address them in the existing budget.
I never promised any of these things to my team, and in fact said what we were doing was probably fantasyland. But the result of the list was knowledge, context and rational thinking for everyone in the organization.
Such planning reduces the power of personality and emotion, which are primary causes of the freight train of freak out.
With the support of my fellow church leaders, we ended up buying several things on the list in a faster timeline that my team and I originally projected.
Of course the five year plan isn’t bulletproof. We sometime must juggle demands to implement everything at once. But the simple exercise of naming projects aided our planning, and helped flow money toward needs.
Tip: To keep the plan relevant, re-evaluate your lists and ranking every 12 months and shuffle high, medium, and low priority as necessary.
3. Spending “Bad Money”
I define “bad money” as any money that doesn’t align with our five-year plan. One example might be new bulbs for an existing standard definition projector, at a cost of over $1000, when we know because of the five-year plan that we hope to buy a high-definition projector in 12 months for $3000.
Solution: Spend as little as possible on anything that doesn’t serve the five year plan.
Sometimes, if the need is urgent, spending bad money is necessary, but the more I point to the five-year plan, the more people understand the wisdom of ensuring that our purchasing fits long term goals.
Tip: Holding to a more strategic approach to expenditures builds trust with other leaders that you are trying to be a good steward of resources, which in turn builds confidence in your ability to make the right decision on expensive equipment, when the time comes.
4. Buying On-the-Cheap
Similar to #3 above – many churches select less than top-of-the-line equipment in order to meet project goals; for example, a mid-level sound board that frees up extra resources for outboard sound processing equipment.
The consequence is often compatibility problems and a long-term higher cost of ownership.
Solution: When you buy, always buy state of the art.
When adhering to a spending plan, you have to make hard choices. Given the choice, I prefer new over old and quality over quantity. I try to buy state of the art, even if it means I get less gear, because technology changes so rapidly. To buy anything less is just… bad money.
Tip: I rarely wait for upgrades or new models. Things just change too fast. Whenever I am ready to buy, I just go with the best the industry has to offer that day.
5. Requiring 3 Different Vendor Proposals for Every Transaction
When it comes to working with vendors there are a couple of different approaches.
One approach is hardline: start every project from ground zero and require 3 competing proposals.
This approach usually assumes that if you’re not watching a vendor like a hawk, they will try to take advantage of a situation. At one level, accountability is appropriate: the vendor’s trying to make a living. But I have seen that a church, by assuming the vendor is not fully doing their job, creates the very problem of distrust they wish to avoid.
I know of one church who burned through several Audio-Video-Lighting vendors in short order by adopting a hardline view. They developed such a reputation that, after a period, some local vendors refused to work with the church or submit proposals for projects.
Solution: Develop a primary vendor relationship.
This is a second approach. I try not to be naïve about a vendor’s desire to make money, but I also operate with the understanding that I assume the best from others until proven otherwise.
After building a five-year plan at my church, I interviewed several AVL vendors, selected one with a strong portfolio of churches, and declared to everyone involved that I intended to work with this vendor whenever possible.
Developing a relationship works both ways.
On one project, some expensive speakers came in white. We’d originally asked for them to be painted. We looked at the paperwork, and the final quote said white speakers. We had signed off without reading it over correctly. Oops. Even though it was our fault, I just called the vendor and said, “Hey, our bad, but we got the wrong speakers.” Our sales rep apologized, told me he remembered us mentioning painted speakers at one point, and ordered new ones on his dime.
The flip side is that they’ve made mistakes, too. Once we had several issues with an HD video upgrade that caused some minor problems in worship. The next day I called them and told them what happened, and said, “No worries, whenever you can get to it.” I didn’t demand a “pain and suffering” discount. They came and fixed it that week. One week later, we had an electrical problem unrelated to their install. We didn’t have a service contract, so it was our responsibility, but they sent a tech guy who solved our problem for free.
Tip: There’s a constant give and take in this relationship. I’ve asked for and received some steep discounts on jobs while making clear that we intend to come back to them in the future.
Get my entire Creative Toolbox for free here.
Also, as a bonus:
This is one of 9 options in my Complete Creative Toolbox, which including practical must-have templates, how-tos and more for developing a creative arts ministry in your church! Available with an email address here:
Note: Plan Technology Purchasing is one of 8 Big Steps to Unleash an Outstanding Creative Arts Ministry in your church. Here are the other 7.