By Jason Davis
Running a department full of volunteers can be a double-edged sword. We’re taking pro-level equipment and putting it in the hands of people who have just hours’ worth of training on them — and yet expecting pro-level results. Realistically, practices and trainings can only go so far.
Moreover, the correct selection of gear from among hundreds of choices — from cameras, to speakers and cables, to hard drives — will help your department either soar or struggle.
The end goal for your AV department should always be a consistent, professional result, no matter the level of volunteer you garner.
Before even starting to look for gear and analyzing volunteers, we have to figure out what we want our final product to be. Make sure that you’re honest with your assessment of needs. The last thing you want to do is to plan for something small when, in all likelihood, you have something large you need to accomplish.
After the plan is finalized, you’re left with two major tasks: (1) ordering and installing the gear, and (2) the most important task: getting volunteers trained to run that gear correctly.
Relating to your volunteers = the make-or-break point
No department can function without volunteers, and the AV department depends on its volunteers as much (if not more) than any other due to the arrangement and number of components. Even though no one likes to admit it, no single person can truly run the entire department.
Keeping in mind that all volunteers have something to offer makes the job both very easy and very difficult. Knowing your volunteers can range from 13 to retiree-age has mutual benefits for both the department and the volunteers.
Sometimes, however, finding the gear that’s the perfect fit for the job — and also the perfect fit for the volunteers — can be a very interesting dynamic.
Picking AV gear that’s ultimately run by volunteers will always be the hardest part of any installation. Why? Because the gear has to be the perfect fit at that time to get the desired end result.
It also has to be forgiving enough to being volunteer-run. Often, the training we give our volunteers turns out to be more of a crash course in how to get by than an attempt to establish a true familiarity with that piece of equipment. Sometimes that’s a good thing, because we don’t want button-pushers. Yet, it can also handicap a volunteer to the point of not being able to troubleshoot a major issue during a service.
A happy medium
There will always be a happy medium when picking AV gear for volunteers — especially when you have both young and old in the department, with skill levels ranging from professional to complete novice. As such, I like to err on the side of professional-level gear to bring up the watermark for everyone in my department. Luckily, there are very specific pieces of gear that help me do that.
For instance, in my department, I have the need for a live display with a multi-camera switch + streaming live to a website and app + recording for later television broadcast. I also have volunteers who range from 13 to 60 years old. Two pieces of gear I chose
specifically to accommodate this wide age and experience range are the Blackmagicdesign ATEM 1 M/E Production Studio 4K and the ATEM 1 M/E Broadcast Panel.
These two pieces of gear are integral to our mission — not only to the number of inputs and the ability to send different feeds to recorders, but because of the ease-of-use component I’m not totally sure the volunteers even know are built-in.
My older volunteers like the feel of the Broadcast Panel buttons. They like to physically move the T-Bar handle to transition between cameras.
Meanwhile, my 13-year-olds would much rather (and do!) control the camera switches from their phones.
This is definitely an example of meeting the volunteers where they are and enabling them to use their current skill sets to accomplish the global goal.
In any church AV department, volunteers like to feel they’re using the same equipment they see when they go to a major, high-end production. At the same time, they don’t like to feel as if they’re being handed a large piece of equipment with no instruction.
As a department leader, you owe it to your volunteers to research all the possibilities and make informed decisions that are tailor-made to your specific needs, volunteer base and environment.
Jason Davis is technical director at Faith Outreach Church in Clarksville, Tenn.