The Error Factor: Volunteers vs Staff in Live Production Environments

Every large church with a media department runs into this issue. There comes a time when you begin to consider adding a staff member to cover what needs to be done. It’s an easier decision when you have a list of tasks to be done during the week, and finding people is difficult because they all have regular jobs. But what about paid positions during weekend services? Volunteers will make mistakes. It’s The Error Factor.

It’s Sunday morning, your fifth service. Your volunteer team has been through the service so many times it’s like a habit. But one volunteer has to leave because he has promised his wife to go to their small group class. Where are his priorities? That’s OK, because you have scheduled his replacement. You walk new guy through the sequences and go over the cues. He nods like he understands, but then proceeds to make no less than 1000 errors. He jumps cues, he cuts things off. He causes every manner of distraction, just short of running out into the congregation without a shirt. No wait, he’s loosening his buttons now… The Error Factor strikes again.

The worship pastor and senior pastor want to know why you let this happen? Didn’t you tell him what he was to do? Weren’t you there, coaching him up? Why didn’t you just push him out of the way and do it for him? Now get back in there and get ready to roll the video about “getting plugged in” by volunteering to serve.

Then just wait until Monday, and the inevitable conversation about how we can keep this from happening again. Many times the discussion will drift toward whether it’s time to fill that position with a paid person or not.

There’s a tug-o-war going on, and good old-fashioned pulling contest between wanting to perform with excellence (sometimes mistaken for perfection) and wanting to give people opportunities to serve in ministry. No one wants to cause distractions in worship. No one. When the technical set up is simple that is easy. But when things become increasingly more complicated, it becomes increasingly more difficult to be technically transparent. The potential Error Factor increases exponentially.

Suddenly things like audio feed back, wrong lyrics, and missed lighting cues creep into the service. Every time that happens people lose focus, and are distracted from worship. It’s the electronic equivalent of someone running into a coffee shop and screaming and then running out. Everyone looks, wonders what that was about, and then looks back to God asking, “What were we talking about, again?”

The simple answer would be to put a staff person in the position. They are available during the week to set everything up and go through rehearsal. Then you know that you have the best chance of successful execution without error. They are much less likely to to make a mistake and if they did, they know how to quickly get out of the situation. Which is much better than making a mistake and then making six more trying to get out of it. You know, like when the lyrics get off, then the screen switches to an out of focus camera, and then to a blank green screen, and then to black, and back to what it’s supposed to be all smooth like nothing went wrong. On the other hand I have seen a staff member make a mistake and correct it so fast that if you had blinked, you missed it. There is no doubt that an employee filling a position reduces the Error Factor.

But what about the church being a place where people find a place of service? We currently need 17 people to fill the tech slots on a weekend service. The vast majority are filled by volunteers. We have chosen to place staff people in a few key positions, but we want to be a place where technical types can find an outlet for service. It’s one thing to push buttons, it’s another thing to push buttons for an eternally significant purpose.

When we fill a live production position with staff, we eliminate a volunteer position. When we eliminate a position, we tell all those people that not only are they not good enough at this task, they now must find another place to serve. for some that is in the same ministry area. For others, that volunteer slot may be the only one they are trained for.

I think it requires balance. There are some positions that are critical, and that have to be filled by capable people every time. If the volunteers are not getting it done, then you have to make a move toward staff. One of those in the main Front of House Audio position. In a church that has three different types of worship with an analog board, we must have someone that is on staff during the week, here for rehearsals and stage reset so that we can function on the weekends. That doesn’t mean we don’t use volunteers to help in audio, but they take their cues from an employee.

There are other positions that are complicated, but if you have talented volunteers, they can be trained to run them. Staying with the audio theme, we use volunteers to mix broadcast audio for the live stream and record the multitrack ProTools session for later mixing. This is complicated, but we are blessed to have some very gifted guys in the broadcast ministry with multitrack experience so we don’t always have to have a staff person in that role.

There are times when you have to look at the service, and the person scheduled. I have told volunteers that during certain parts of the service a staff member was going to jump into their seat, because a particular sequence was very complicated. The vast majority of the time the volunteer is relieved and uses the time to learn about how to better run that position.

You must look at your own situation and make the call. Do you have a good mix of gifted volunteers to handle the complicated positions? Can you invest enough time in training the volunteers? Even if you train them, are you prepared for them to make a mistake and cause a distraction? When weighing how much of an Error Factor you can stand, ask yourself this: Is it more important that the job be done without errors or to provide a position for service in ministry?