Mega Church Production – Running a Service for Thousands

Abbie Stancato of Rockin' God's HouseI returned to the well at Grace Community Church in Noblesville, Indiana for this piece. This church is as large as any I’ve attended. I interviewed Erin Meyer, one of several Production Directors. Erin’s background is in technical theater focusing on stage management and lighting design. Erin is in charge of the main auditorium stage of the Grace Community Church campus. The church has one other auditorium which duplicates her service weekly and is in process of launching an additional campus.

Tell me about the position and your weekly duties?

“We are a highly arts based church. We begin with a service design about five weeks out. We have a design team consisting of pastors, worship arts people, volunteers, and communications–basically anyone who has a hand in arts ministry. We meet once a week to design a weekend service. We develop the elements over the next five to six weeks—writing scripts and preparing or finding videos, music and songs based upon the message or series for that time. I’m in charge of how everything comes together, not necessarily the content.

“We have many directors who direct pieces of the service. As the production director, I’m in charge of coordinating all the technical production support (lighting, audio, graphics, and video) which we believe is also an art form. Additionally, we have an overall service director in charge of the spiritual sense and flow of the service, a music director, and If we have drama or dance, we have a director/ choreographer for those as well.

“We use ‘Planning Center Online,’ and presently have about one hundred-seventy production volunteers; about sixty of those are dedicated to the main auditorium. We rotate entire teams monthly so each team serves about once a month. We have thirteen auditoriums in total for services, including children’s and student’s worship spaces. It takes between twelve and fourteen volunteers to run the production on the main stage. We have nine production people on staff but the goal is to run the entire service with all production volunteers, so as we expand we don’t increase staff, while expecting the same quality of service and production from all our stages and facilities.

“We have one production volunteer as video director running the cameras and calling the shots. For our main service we run three cameras and are preparing to add a fourth. We do not offer broadcast video. However for other campuses we will begin a broadcast feed for the message only. We have about ten volunteers at various levels of training on the lighting board. The stage manager calls all the audio, computer graphics, and lighting cues. We have two directors calling simultaneous cues, one to the video team and one to the lighting, audio, and graphics backgrounds.”

How do you get a consistent quality from so many volunteers and teams?

“We’re in the process of developing a workshop program which will allow us to train people who are willing to commit to an entire year of service. The training is open to everyone. We may have a video guy who wants to understand more about lighting; he’s welcome to attend that workshop. That class may not lead them down the road to lighting, but may influence the way he directs video. Other than the workshop program, we start with 1-on-1 training for particular roles such as audio engineer, lighting programmer, or camera operator. If someone asks to learn lighting, we’ll explain it will take about six to eight months of training, and then we ask for a full year of serving in return. Some stay longer. We have some volunteers who have been with us for about twelve years—longer than I’ve been there.

“If someone wants to run audio, we would like them to have that background, but it’s not necessary. We’ll start them as an audio assistant and train them. We will start with issues basic to audio like microphone placement, running a simple recording system, or changing out batteries. We’ll put them next to the audio guy with a headset cuing him or her with instructions. If we discover they have a good ear for mix, taking instruction, and responding well to cues, we will step them up. That can take anywhere from twelve to eighteen months for audio. We’ve had some do it quicker, but they were coming in several times a month.

“We inform all volunteers up front, if we feel they’re unable to accomplish what we’re showing them, from either frustration or lack of understanding, we’ll inform them it’s not a good fit for them and work with them for a better fit to their personality and skills. We’ll help them along the way, but we give our volunteers ownership and expect a lot from them.

“A new project in development are internal discussion groups, we may discuss a new mixing policy, specific problems, or open the floor to questions. Again, this communication leads to a more consistent end product.”

How does someone get started as a production volunteer at your church?

“Tell us you want to help! Our Senior Director will then meet with each new volunteer. We learn about their background and their production experience, if any. There are sometimes concerns about a volunteer’s spirituality. If so, we’ll work to guide them to another ministry if they have issues to work through. There are many volunteers who don’t have a relationship with the Lord when they join the team, but since then they have developed that relationship with the Lord through working with our teams and volunteers. We place them according to their interest and our needs. Those promoted to leadership levels are there because we feel they are using their gifts in service, and they are very good at sharing that with others.”

Are your volunteers required to be members?

“No, but we encourage it. Most of our volunteers are not members. We only have about 600 members in a church of up to 7,000 attending on weekends and 10,000 attending on holidays. Our membership is called the “Covenant Community,” which is comprised of people who are extremely committed. Anyone can join, but there is a process. Most will begin serving in the church and then join the “Covenant Community.”

How do you handle equipment failure?

“We have a systems person on call; however, most problems are not equipment failure. We have a very limited time to put everything together for a service. Working under those conditions with volunteers always makes you prone to errors. Most problems are perhaps a camera getting called when it’s out of focus or a cue where the lights are turned off, usually minor issues. If there is a significant issue we always try to continue on with the service, making adjustments as we go. If it is a problem that the congregation is aware of… For example, we had some errors in our Nion system that was causing loud audio beep (110 db) through the PA system infrequently. Before we were able to fix the problem it occurred during a service. Our host acknowledged the problem from the stage when it happened, but we continued with the service. Sometimes it is best to let people know you are working on the problem; that allowed them to relax and hopefully focus on the message of the service. We have major noticeable problems so infrequently that we are given a lot of grace when we do have an issue. The important thing is to keep the service going.”

How do you prepare for a service?

“We practice with the band on Thursday nights. We do most of our programming at that time. We’ll listen to the band and discuss any changes. If other rehearsals are going on with drama or dance, we’ll attend those as well. We’ll watch and try to anticipate any questions or problems at that time. Early communication with the directors of music, drama, and dance are key. Saturday we have two technical rehearsals with all service elements and personnel before anyone comes through the door. The first run-through is chaos on the intercoms, but if everyone is doing their job, eventually it should run smoothly.

“We’ve been experimenting with more of a loose format recently. One where we can make live adjustments as worship leaders feel led by the spirit to improvise. Everyone must be on their toes and it takes strong intercom communications.”

How did you find a gig like the Production Director at Grace Community Church?

“I first attended Grace with my husband when we moved to Indiana before the new auditorium was built. I was working as a high school technical theater teacher at the time. I was aware that Grace was building a new facility and was interested in a position, but I actually discovered the position posted on the church website. It’s amazing that I am blessed to do what I love for a living.”