An Introduction to Untrained Volunteers
Most church tech teams run on volunteers. Finding, training, and retaining those volunteers is one of the hardest things technical leaders have to do. And once we find someone who expresses an interest in joining the team, how to we get them engaged? It’s pretty rare we find someone who already has experience in live production; typically, we’re getting untrained folks who simply want to serve. Maybe they have some related experience, maybe not. Either way, it’s rare we can set a new person down at FOH and have them get right to work. Some churches try this, and it rarely works well for anyone.
So what do we do? When someone raises their hand and says, “I’d like to give this tech thing a try!” What is our next move? Here are a few suggestions.
What we do as technical artists is not easy. It’s not easy to learn, and it’s hard to master. Programming lighting or running audio are daunting tasks to a newcomer. Don’t expect them to be able to grasp what we do right away. Instead, create a gentle learning slope for them to climb.
Following the live production industry, we’ve created both lead and assistant lighting and FOH positions—L1 and L2, A1 and A2. New volunteers start off at the 2 position. They learn the basics first; setting the stage, coiling cables, what mic’s to use for what purpose, how to press next at the right time on the lighting console.
This is all done with plenty of supervision and training, and it gives them plenty of time in the booth to see what we do. The training is broken down into bite-sized chunks, which makes it easy to go over a principle, put it in action, practice it a few times, and then add to it. We don’t start off expecting too much from them, which keeps their stress level low. At the same time, there is plenty to do, so they’re not just sitting there for six hours.
Have a Plan
I think people get frustrated when they start serving but don’t know where it’s going to go. We have fully developed position descriptions for every technical position, along with a training plan for each. When someone wants to join the team, we sit down with them and find out what their interests are. We go over the position descriptions and walk them through the training process.
My A2s know it will likely take 6-12 months for them to be mixing FOH solo. They’re okay with that because they know the plan. Our training is milestone-based, so as each volunteer masters certain things, they move on to the next level. L2s tend to move up a bit faster, but it all depends on how quickly they learn.
With a plan in place, the volunteers know they are not wasting their time learning the basics, wondering if they’ll ever get to sit in the seat. The on-ramps and plan also make it easy to sort out who will be able to commit the time necessary to the task and who is serving for the right reasons.
Play to Volunteers’ Strengths
Everyone has different strengths, and volunteer techs are no exception. Oftentimes, someone will volunteer to serve, but not really know what they want to do. After talking with them and going over the various positions, you’ll usually pick one to start them off in. You may find after a while that they are simply not very good at it, however. This is frustrating for all involved, especially them. No one wants to feel like they are failing every time they try to do something. In that case, it may be time to try something else.
We had this come up with a young volunteer about a year ago. He started off on ProPresenter. But no matter how much we tried to teach him and he tried to learn, he couldn’t get the timing right. He was forever late (and sometimes early) with each slide. But he has a great attitude and really wanted to serve. So we moved him to the video team. Turns out, he has a great eye and took to it almost immediately. He’s now a regular camera operator on one team and often fills in on other teams.
We’ve moved people from camera to lighting, from lighting to audio, and audio to lighting. Sometimes it just takes some time to figure out what people are going to excel at. Once you find it, help them be the best they can be. They will thank you for it (and so will everyone else).
Build Community First
It’s important to remember that while we do have a job to do, and the job is important, the people are more important. I’ve found people tend to get involved with tech because they either want to serve or they enjoy it. But they stay involved because of the community they find there.
We spend a lot of time together each week in the booth, and it really pays dividends if it’s fun. When everyone gets along, the volunteers are known and cared for, and there is a sense of community, the hours go by very quickly.
Welcoming newcomers into the community is important. You may want to pair new people up with veterans to give them a “buddy” right off the bat. Or perhaps you just spend some extra time at the beginning getting to know them and their story. Be sure to introduce them to everyone else who is serving, not only on the tech team but in the band as well.
As I said, volunteers are the lifeblood of our tech teams. Figuring out how to engage them, setting them up to succeed, and continually encouraging them is job #1 for a technical leader. Master this, and you’ll be well on your way to Jedi Master level.