Building Trust Between the Stage and the Booth

by | Audio, Audio Connections, Production

When considering what makes a great church audio engineer for your team, what qualities are most important? Everybody loves a good snare sound. Showing up early and prepared is always good. Mixing for First-Baptist “Mega-town” looks nice on a resume. Formally educated… Sure, why not? All of these are great attributes. I could go on and on. However, in my conversations with church leaders, and in my experience, the most sought-after trait, even above technical ability is trustworthiness.  

Regardless of the church size, the audio presentation is the last link in the long chain of preparation of the message to the world. This applies to the musical portion of the worship experience and certainly to the teaching portion. It’s a weighty responsibility to be in the “you touched it last” position. I don’t want to disparage my lighting and video friends, your contribution is equally important. But in church environments, the audio presentation is typically the most scrutinized of the three main production disciplines. As I stated before, no one ever says, “I really could have gotten to the throne if there were more blinky lights.”, but congregants will walk out and tune out if they can’t hear, or when the audio is unpleasant. Pastoral and worship team leaders need to trust the person in that sometimes very hot seat. So how do audio engineers earn trust and how does leadership learn to bestow their trust in him or her?

Several years ago I was invited to help a local church by running FOH. They had experienced some difficulty finding quality contractors and I was hoping to rise above the fray and develop a good relationship with them. It was a great system and great people to work with. Throughout the first rehearsal, the worship leader would often walk out into the auditorium and listen. Being a professional, I didn’t let on that internally I found this very irritating. I was thinking to myself, “Here I am, a pro with a pretty good resume and reasonably solid reputation and this guy is standing in the middle of an empty auditorium judging my work.” This went on for several weeks, and we got to know each other a little better every time we worked together. He would ask a few questions and make a few comments. As it turns out his frequent trips off the platform were rooted in a lack of trust based on bad experiences with previous contractors. I worked hard to bring a good mix there but even harder at building relationships. Understandably, the worship leader doubted me because my predecessors were not trustworthy and I had to patiently re-earn his trust over time. Unfortunately, in the early stage of my season there, his actions unintentionally undermined the rest of the team’s trust in me. Ultimately, we developed a great relationship that started with me keeping my ego in check and listening to his concerns.

What steps can we take as leaders and team members to establish mutual trust? 

A good starting point is to actively break down the barrier between the booth and the platform. Any good sound tech will agree that quality audio starts at the source. It’s a good habit to get out of the booth frequently and get to know the worship team and their equipment. A guitarist’s tone may not be quite right, or the drummer may be hurting the overall mix by playing too hard or too softly. Maybe a vocalist is struggling with mic technique. Conversations to correct the issues at the source are much easier if you have some relational equity with that person. The guitarist will probably be much more receptive to your constructive criticism if you helped him bring in his equipment earlier that day. The more engagement you have with your team, the more likely they are to trust you. I worked with a church once where the previous engineer never left the booth and rarely spoke with the musicians. When I engaged with them and spoke into their individual contributions, rather than being defensive, they were grateful. The drummer thanked me and said no one had ever given him any feedback. 

I think sometimes audio engineers either become complacent or think they can fix everything at the console. The proper approach is to respectfully communicate to the worship team that nothing they do exists in a vacuum. Every instrumental and vocal element has an effect on the others. 

What I’ve experienced in encouraging this culture is that team members will start checking in with you unprompted: “How’s my tone? Is it working with the songs? Are you getting everything you need from me?” This is music to my ears. 

One of the greatest displays of trust is when the primary worship leader, typically near the end of rehearsal, asks the audio engineer over the mic if he needs anything from him or the team. This sounds simple but it profoundly communicates to the entire team the trust he has for the engineer.  

Well-intentioned critiques must be accepted in both directions. If you expect to be welcome on the stage, then the worship team must also be welcome in the booth.

Let’s remember that we’re all just people and everyone makes mistakes. We all need a little grace sometimes. Not if, but when you do mess up, transparency will earn you more grace than excuses, especially if you’ve been cultivating a culture of trustworthiness with the team. I’ve found that the bigger the mistake, the bigger the lesson. Own it, admit it, fix it, and move on.

I once worked with a lead pastor who, early in our season together, insisted on muting and unmuting his own headset microphone. After more than a few embarrassing self-inflicted mishaps on stage, I convinced him that it was the industry standard to allow me to do that from the console. And at the very least, I would get it right more often than he did. He thought that was funny and agreed. Fortunately, for the rest of our time together, I never missed a cue. I visited that church a few years later and he had reverted to self-muting and unmuting. Trust is hard-earned and easily lost. 

It takes time and effort to earn and bestow trust within a worship team. As tech leaders we should set the example in how we interact with each other, to nurture a culture of trustworthiness.

I hope this is helpful and I look forward to hearing how your team is doing in this area. You may reach out to me at rcochran@worshipfacility.com,

Until then, don’t forget to listen!

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