So, You Have AV Volunteers. How Do You Keep Them?

by | Sep 6, 2021 | AVL Projects, Leadership, Production, Team Development

By Golden Preciado

Angela was so excited when Pastor Tony mentioned from the stage that they were in need of AV volunteers.

“You don’t need to know anything about audio or video. We’ll show you which buttons to push and which knobs to turn,” stated Pastor Tony. “We just need some willing hearts ready to serve.”

These words sparked a stirring in Angela’s heart. She loved to serve wherever she could. She had only been a part of her church for about 3 months and desired to become more integrated within her church community. “Perhaps,” she thought, “serving in AV would allow me to be of help to my church and develop some lasting friendships at the same time.”

“So,” continued Pastor Tony, “if you would like to serve in AV, please give me a show of hands.”

Knowing what she had to do, she joyfully raised her hand and thus began one of the most adventurous and difficult journeys of service in a church that she had ever embarked on.

She reported to the sound booth early the next Sunday. Another volunteer quickly started showing her the ropes. “Push this button at this time. Push this fader up if you need more volume. Oh and don’t forget to record the pastor’s message by pushing this button here.”

Angela frantically took notes as the volunteer continued showing her around. She was a capable woman with a great memory. She would do exactly what she had been instructed to do and fulfill her place of service.

When the volunteer was done explaining things, he left. Angela found herself alone and becoming anxious as she stared down at the mixing console replete with a plethora of colorful buttons, knobs, dials and faders staring back at her as if to say, “Yea, ha ha, you just try me and see what happens.”

Still, Angela was determined to be of service. So, as the pastor walked up on stage, she dutifully brought up the fader marked “pastors lav.” As she did this the sound system started wailing into multiple frequencies of feedback. She was startled and terrified. She wasn’t expecting this. So, she quickly turned the fader all the way down. The pastor made a quick joke about it from stage and continued with the Sunday morning greeting.

She again started to bring up the fader, but this time very slowly and cautiously. The result was the same as the feedback monster started to rear its ugly head again. Angela was so discouraged. She wanted so badly to be of service but instead her act of service at the sound board turned into an utter distraction to the pastor and the
entire congregation.

I imagine there are a number of you ministry leaders and volunteers painfully identifying with this story right now.

The fact of the matter is, of the 90% of churches worldwide with 200 people or less, almost all will utilize volunteers within their congregation to some capacity for their audio and visual needs. Serving as a volunteer can be one of the most fulfilling experiences. But, those who volunteer for AV oftentimes have no idea what they’re getting into. A lack of support and training will lead to frustration, discouragement and eventually burnout.

I grew up in church. I have been an AV volunteer. I have been a hired FOH and broadcast engineer. I have been an AV Director and am currently the AV Leader at my home church, Grace Fellowship in Costa Mesa, CA. In all my years of running church sound, I’ve learned that getting people to volunteer is only the beginning. The hard part is keeping your volunteers. In my experience keeping your AV volunteers boils down to 3 intentional practices: 1. leadership, 2. volunteer training and education, 3. cultivating relationships.

Leadership: Role of the AV Leader

First off, no matter what size church you are, it’s super helpful to establish an AV leader or overseer who has ample technical knowledge. This person might be employed by the church. They might be a volunteer who’s knowledgeable about AV or it might even be a contracted person from outside the church. With that said, the AV leader should have the following main roles:

  1. Maintain the systems. This doesn’t mean that they have to repair everything themselves but they need to be able to identify a problem or broken piece of equipment so they can either purchase the right replacement part or hire the right person and/or integrator for the solution.
  2. The AV leader will be the person to establish a unified technical protocol for volunteers to follow so that the volunteer knows exactly what’s expected of them. More on that in a bit.
  3. The AV leader should be the one to schedule the volunteers since they will know best the technical capabilities of the volunteers.

With that said, here are some helpful protocols that can be implemented to help create a productive and smooth experience for the volunteer tech and ultimately the church as well.

  1. Your volunteers must be trained on how to use the equipment they’re operating, whether that’s setting up the stage, operating the mixer or running the media and video. Training can take place as a specific event but is more realistically done while on the job during sound check and while service is happening. Making detailed how-to videos specifically related to your church’s setup and operations is super helpful and will prep a new volunteer before they ever touch the equipment.
  2. Never leave new and/or unexperienced volunteers alone to run sound. Though a volunteer may know what buttons to push at a certain time, if they haven’t yet learned the art of trouble shooting, when a problem arises that a volunteer will not know how to fix, it can be a very disheartening experience for them. It leads to frustration for everyone.
  3. As your more experienced volunteers gain skills, pair them up to work with less experienced volunteers. This not only allows the new volunteer to learn new skills, but reinforces those skills in the one teaching them.
  4. Because most unexperienced volunteers will generally not understand all the routing and signal flow in a system, following a unified and systematic technical protocol is essential.

So, what does a unified technical protocol look like? This will vary from church to church depending on the size and the capabilities of the volunteers but, for the average church of 200 or less it might look something like this:

On the stage, each instrument should have pre-assigned channels on the stage box or floor pockets to plug into. Label those inputs clearly so that the volunteer knows exactly where an instrument should be plugged in. Leave a few blank channels for instruments that might not be part of a normal worship setup.

All monitor wedges should have a unified position on stage and output assignment on the stage box or floor pockets. In-ear-monitor outputs should have a predetermined output designated for each position as well.

A word of caution: It’s not wise to repatch these output assignments, or an unsuspecting volunteer will come in on the next service, find that a monitor doesn’t work and will have no idea what happened to it or what to do to fix it.

On the mixer, it’s super helpful if every volunteer is working from a unified scene or session. The input channels on the scene should line up with the input channels on the stage: 1-to-1.

Again, here’s a word to the wise: Just because you CAN do a hard repatch or soft patch, doesn’t mean it’s a good idea. (Soft patching is a flexible function in our digital mixing world where you can assign a channel to a different channel.) This is very confusing to a volunteer. They will will come in to do their job, find that something doesn’t work and will have no idea what happened to it or what to do to fix it. Keep everything 1-to-1 when working with volunteer operators.

I remember assessing the sound system at a church because the audio volunteer told me that out of the 24 channels available, only 3 were still working. As I traced each signal path I discovered that every channel was working fine but channels had been repatched so many times that they had simply lost track of the signal flow.

Next, create and save instrument channel presets on your mixer. It’s helpful to have an experienced engineer dial in starting points for pre amp gains, EQs, dynamics and FX for the specific instruments that are used on a regular basis for worship. You can make a whole fun day of this for your worship team with pizza and the whole 9 yards. Save those presets to your mixer’s user library. Teach the volunteer how to pull in those instrument presets for that specific instrument or vocal.

Here are a few tips to maintain the stability for your sound system. After an experienced engineer has dialed in your system, restricting access to certain things like amplifiers and DSP processing gear is helpful. On hardware pieces you can use grill plates to do this. Once your routing is set up on your mixer, it’s a good idea to add restrictions on this as well.

When all is said and done, a perfect operating protocol for your tech volunteers doesn’t guarantee perfection and it certainly doesn’t guarantee that everything will run smoothly at all times. But, having a framework to work within and guidelines to follow will help everyone to know better what’s expected of them.

Volunteer Training and Education

When it comes to AV volunteers, just knowing which button or fader to push at what time or where something regularly gets plugged in will not be enough to solve problems as they arise; and rest assured technical issues will pop up from time to time.

For this reason and more, I highly recommend that church sound volunteers invest in expanding their audio knowledge though some kind of continuing education. No, you don’t have to go back to school. These days this is easily done as there are so many wonderful online audio courses available, many with a specific House of Worship application. Here are a few of my favorite resources.

QSC House of Worship Audio Training Series

This is a free Avixa accredited training that every church sound volunteer will benefit from. In this comprehensive, modular online training course, you’ll learn the basics of audio engineering: from properly rolling a cable and setting up a PA system, to building monitor mixes and running sound for your service.

Church Sound Training Facebook Group

This is a House of Worship audio training group that I started during the pandemic. Whether you’re a church sound volunteer or a seasoned sound person, the learning never ends. No matter where you are in your journey, this group is a valuable resource. You’ll learn universal audio concepts that apply across the board.

Church Sound Bootcamp

If you want to deliver a first class mix, free of feedback, missed mic cues, hums, buzzes and RF dropouts, never having to answer the question of “why is it so loud?”, and you want those results without ever having to hire a professional audio engineer, then this is an excellent course for you. You’ll learn how to create a better worship experience using the sound equipment you already have.

Church Sound University

This curriculum has been specifically tailored to focus on the KEY essentials for church tech teams – volunteers in particular – to attain consistent sonic quality at every worship service and event.

So, why invest in audio training and continuing education? Simple. Training breeds knowledge, knowledge brings understanding, and understanding delivers confidence to the volunteer empowering them to skillfully serve in their area of ministry. And who knows? One of your volunteers may very well be your next AV Leader.

Cultivating Relationships

Volunteers are more than just operational help. They are people with feelings who are freely giving their time for God’s service. Volunteers will often get involved in church services to become more integrated into their church body. Those who volunteer in AV are most likely not trying to make a career out of audio engineering. They just want to be a part of a greater whole. With this said, how ministry leaders and AV directors treat their volunteers is by far the largest contributing factor to whether a volunteer stays or leaves.

In my opening story, Angela was utterly discouraged from her disastrous first day of running sound. She was ready to quit. At the end of the service, the assistant pastor, Mark, sat next to her and extended her grace and encouragement. He assured her that her heart to serve was precious above all and that with more training she would play a vital role in her church’s AV.

Unfortunately, I have seen all too often where something goes wrong and the ministry staff and/or AV director becomes frustrated and angry with the volunteer(s). I’ve heard some altogether discouraging comments that lead them to give up and quit because they were so hurt.

Volunteers and church workers need to feel appreciated and encouraged by their church leadership. Every job performed in a church fellowship, whether it’s cleaning toilets, working in the children’s ministry, running sound or being the senior pastor is just as important as the next job as we are serving the greater body of Christ and
ultimately our Father God.

I could give you a list of how-to(s) on this but instead, I want to tell you about our senior teaching pastor, Dave, from my church. He often makes it a point to thank me for my work and tells me how much he appreciates what I do. He always extends a warm and hearty greeting when he sees me. He has often asked me this question, “How can I make your job easier?” There have been times when I’ve been short-handed and Dave jumps in there and helps with setup and tear down, carrying heavy equipment and rolling cables. These simple acts of kindness and servant leadership
make me feel appreciated.

In closing, if you have AV volunteers, remember these 3 intentional practices: provide clear leadership, offer and encourage training and education, and most importantly, cultivate relationships with your volunteers.

So, you have volunteers, now it’s time to keep them!

About Golden

Golden is a House of Worship Specialist for QSC. Golden grew up in the music industry and followed in her dad’s footsteps as an audio engineer, musician and worship leader. Golden is an accomplished front of house and broadcast engineer not only in the church world but in the secular music industry as well. She enjoys teaching her skill set to others, including in the Church Sound Training Facebook group and onsite where training is needed. Golden is a mother of 4 and and serves in the AV ministry at her church, Grace Fellowship in Costa Mesa, CA.

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