Once upon a time, I found out that our church had a member that had worked in a recording studio with a couple of my favorite artists (back in the ’80s). The guy came across as a gentle and wise person. He had been a part of the church for a year already and was part of a small group. I invited him to join the sound team: wouldn’t you?
We desperately needed him! We had nobody in the building that was confident about what the mute button did. Now we had a guy who brought a soldering iron with him and suggested new ways of hooking everything up . . . Aaaand that’s where the trouble began.
Remember the decade that I referenced with his studio work? It’s not exactly the perfect fit with modern pop/rock worship sound, and it showed from day one. Most of you already know what his mixes sounded like: no low-end impact at all, acoustic and electric guitar at the same volume (or the acoustic louder), the lead vocal way out front and sounding displaced. It was terrible, and we had conversation after conversation about it that went nowhere. Our first few conversations where we listened to the recordings we were trying to emulate went all right, but after that, it became increasingly tense. He was trying his hardest to make me happy; I didn’t hear any real changes in his mix; everyone got more frustrated, and I walked on eggshells for a year. I felt like every time I was going to ask for the kick drum to come up in the mix I needed to buy him dinner first. Looking back, there’s a clear answer and I wish I had arrived at it sooner.
I fired him.
Church leaders look at me like I have three heads when I talk passionately about firing volunteers, like somehow this is the unpardonable sin. But when you step out of a situation to look at it, everyone is miserable, the level of dysfunction around the situation is growing, and ministry is suffering. Leaders make hard calls, and this is just one of them. If there were a nursery team member that was annoyed by babies and was rude to parents, he or she wouldn’t last long. Unfortunately, things are not always as objective with sound tech, and we have lots of mercy for people in support roles. To be honest, I think what we tell ourselves it’s kindness (“let’s just give them one more chance”), but it’s usually just our fear of conflict, and/or our fear of that person (who has often been there longer than you) getting mad and leaving the church.
I have not encountered this situation just once or twice, but dozens of times (I’m not exaggerating). Something about the sound and tech areas attracts a certain type of personality. These often-forgotten folks need to be lead and pastored wisely. The worship stage also does, too, but they are people with different types of issues, and that’s another article for another day.
Here are some signs that you need to consider making a hard call of “firing” your volunteer sound tech:
1.) Everything is a battle. Should it really be a 10-minute conversation when you’d like something turned up or down? Should you really be anxious leading up to that conversation and exhausted when it’s over? Would you accept the same behavior and attitude from a band member? Is there constant pushback to every (or nearly every) suggestion?
2.) Your volunteer sound tech is avoided by other members of the team. I’ve been in situations where every time the sound tech starts talking the band members look at each other and roll their eyes. When you can sense a clear divide happening between the stage and the booth, the time for addressing the situation is overdue.
3.) The sound person owns a lot of the stuff or buys a lot of the stuff. I know this one may be surprising, but almost anytime I have seen this it is a red flag that other problems exist. The type of personality that tends to cause problems in this area is territorial and controlling, and what seems like on the surface a generous gift is often leverage to further entrench themselves in ownership of their domain. I could tell you story after story after story. Let’s just say that if your sound person buys batteries and doesn’t turn in a receipt, that’s fine; but don’t let them purchase your sound system or instruments.
Not every one of these situations turns out the same way. When the situation is addressed head-on as early as possible and clear expectations can be established, sometimes the situation can be saved. But you cannot be afraid to move people out of a role when all the signs in the universe point to this not being where God wants them. As I’m working on this article, just this last Sunday I was called in at the last minute to cover for a large church that had lost their one and only sound guy after years of bad behavior — and now no one knows how to work anything because it was this guy’s “territory.” I could literally finish the worship leaders sentences as he was telling me about this person I’d never met.
It’s not all bad. To end on a bit of hope:
[Do] you know what happened in my situation? Of course, I’m not saying this is the norm — sometimes people get mad and leave your church, and you can’t stop it. But I had a hard conversation with “Jeff” (not his real name) and after deciding that we bring the frustrating situation to an end, I had another suggestion. I said “Jeff, why don’t you take the next season of your life and spend it on encouragement for the team. Everyone knows that you’re an expert in this area and compliments mean a lot coming from you. I’ve got a lot of younger players that could really use some affirmation.” Not only did he take that suggestion to heart, but also within a few months of him being removed from that role and on a new mission, he became one of the most relationally sought out people in our church. A couple [of] years later when my own life was turned on its head, he was one of the first people I called for advice.
Sometimes people are just on the wrong seat on the bus, and we’re ignoring the signs. When we aren’t afraid to have hard conversations, we can work in step with the Spirit to direct people to a place of fulfillment in their calling.