Tech Arts Burnout

More services. More venues. More campuses. It all leads to an obvious conclusion: more volunteers. What may not be as obvious is the increased importance of creating scalable systems with a focus on the people and not the technology. When tech supersedes people, burn out happens.

Let me start with a disclaimer: “Hi, I’m Anthony Coppedge, and I’m a recovering church staff burnout person. Not only have I personally experienced burn out, but I have been a leading contributor of burn out to volunteers while I served at one of the three churches where I was on staff.” defines burn out like this:

“Physical or emotional exhaustion, especially as a result of long-term stress or dissipation.”

I’d add to that spiritual exhaustion, because I think that it’s the main reason that media personnel experience burn out. We expect a lot out of volunteers, but we in tech arts often fail to spend time pouring time and spiritual life into them outside of services.

Spiritual Exhaustion
Technical arts ministries are often a behind-the-scenes place with people who don’t want to attend a small group or Bible study. Many of these folks would rather click a mouse, spin a knob, or push a button than talk with people about personal and spiritual matters. “Hey, no one asks me to quote Bible verses when I’m mixing sound,” say people I’ve talked to before.

The technical ministry is perhaps the one ministry area where it’s easy to hide from spiritual discussions. Yet this is robbing them of personal growth, a closer relationship with the God who loves them, and a stronger sense of mission and purpose for the tech team. We can no longer afford to ask our volunteers to serve unless we serve them with spiritual food, too! Any tech leader reading this should memorize it, print it out, and post it:

The technical ministry is not about the tech. It’s about the people behind the tech.

Emotional Exhaustion
Volunteers are unwittingly set up to burn out when we don’t provide adequate and consistent training. This puts a real toll on tech arts staff and volunteers who feel the pressure to make everything work flawlessly week in and week out but who do not have the proper training, planning, or practice to produce effective results.

The stress of having to perform without the right training and the right amount of preparation wipes out volunteers who are often under-appreciated and not shown the love they need.

Physical Exhaustion
If you’re serving more than twice a month in a volunteer capacity, I think you’re probably serving too often. We need a break. We need to experience corporate worship. We need to unplug from the matrix of tech volunteering and focus on the message, not the medium.

“But we don’t have enough technical volunteers, so I have to be here,” some try to explain. I say this in love: You have not because you ask not. Every person in your church has a sphere of influence. That is your starting point: asking those who you know are not serving regularly (or at all). And I’m not just talking about pew-sitters, either. We all have unchurched friends who share some of our same interests. We can invite them to come and observe the tech operations and see if it piques their interest. In addition to growing your ranks, you also get people involved in church, as attendance outside of volunteering should be required for every member of the tech team.

“I can worship while I’m serving in tech.” I’m sure you can, to some extent. But that worship isn’t the same as being out of the sight line of the tech gear! When you can totally focus on worshiping God, then – and only then – will you be able to recharge, refresh and – here’s the bonus – force the church leadership to replicate you!

“But I’m paid to be there! It’s my job to run (insert job here)!” Having been on staff at three mega churches, I know all about this one. It is possible that one of your roles is to ensure a job is done well every weekend. We simply translate that to mean, “I have to mix/direct/lead.” What would happen if you looked at your job as being one of finding the diamonds-in-the-rough that have an ear for mixing or an eye for directing? Sure, you’ll do the job of mixing or directing many times, but if you’re not actively training and looking for these unique individuals, how will the next “you” come along? At some point, your job is to prepare for the weekend services.

How to Avoid Burnout

Become a Volunteer
How can you ask people with full-time jobs to volunteer their time on the weekends if you’re not willing to do the same? Your level of responsibility and authority is different, but your availability to volunteer is the same as theirs. I do understand that certain positions (pastors in particular) have to be there every (or most) weekends. For these few, taking days off during the week creates a chance for rest and Sabbath. For the rest of us, well, I just think it’s possible we’ve allowed ourselves to assume we have to be there most weekends, too. Yet I wonder: is that really the truth? What happens if you get sick? Or get hit by a car? Or die? Would the church service flop without you? Force the issue, talk with your leadership, and explain how dangerous it is to rely on just one person.

Don’t Blur the Lines
Work and ministry are two different things. Don’t confuse them. If you will take the time and effort to separate work from ministry, change your scenery, go mobile, work no more than 50 hours a week, and volunteer your time on the weekend, you can avoid burn out. If you don’t take those steps, you will experience burn out; it’s just a matter of time.

Recruit like Your Ministry Depends on It!
A technical team may have one or two “super-techs,” but that only means you have more talent to train new volunteers. It does not mean that this person has to do it all and surround themselves with a “team” of volunteers who merely serve coffee and bow before the super tech at appropriate intervals. Jesus said it best: “…For he who is least among you all – he is the greatest.” (Luke 9:48b) Your top techs must be willing to step out of the way and let others get involved.

Training and Rehearsals Are Mandatory
If you’re like most people, you don’t want to be made to look like an idiot. Yet we thrust new volunteers into the hot seats of mixing sound, running lights, or running camera without adequate training. And guess what? They fail in front of everyone and want to run away from volunteering! Easing new recruits into ministry is one of the best ways to not put people on the instant burn out track. Perhaps the best way to accomplish this is to hold monthly mandatory training sessions during band rehearsals. This low-stress environment allows people to experiment, succeed, and even fail without serious embarrassment.

For the porta-church guys, rehearsal might have to be earlier in the morning during setup or, if that’s not possible, then a mentorship program where new recruits help with setup and shadow experienced techies for a few weeks, share responsibilities for a few weeks, and then have the expert standing next to them as their assistant for a couple of weeks is the way to go.

Mistakes Happen. Have a Plan.
It’s inevitable: techies make mistakes. It’s going to happen, so part of your training is how to handle the unexpected. That may be a simple checklist for what to do in case of a power loss, how to reboot a computer and launch the right programs, where to go for a spare mic or batteries or even how to troubleshoot a video signal issue. The point is to not let the pressure of the moment get to the volunteers. And, perhaps most important of all, the team leader must take the heat.

Remember this, print it out, laminate it, and display it in the tech area: “All success is shared. All perceived failure is the sole responsibility of the team leader.”

Give Volunteers a Break
Beyond setting up a rotation schedule that allows volunteers to focus on corporate worship, make sure you give your volunteers at least two months a year where they do not touch tech. I don’t care how committed your people are or how much they say, “But I like doing it,” or “I don’t need that much time off.” Do it. Balance is part of life, and I guarantee your volunteers will come back refreshed – eager, even! – to get involved again! Volunteers are your greatest asset, so make time for them to recharge.

Ease Burned Out Volunteers Back In
Some of your best volunteers may be hiding since the last major blow up. These people gave until they had nothing left and eventually walked away. Again, Jesus gives us the model to follow:

“What do you think? If a man owns a hundred sheep, and one of them wanders away, will he not leave the ninety-nine on the hills and go to look for the one that wandered off? And if he finds it, I tell you the truth, he is happier about that one sheep than about the ninety-nine that did not wander off. In the same way, your Father in heaven is not willing that any of these little ones should be lost.” (Matthew 18:12-14)

Your first step is to apologize sincerely. Invite them back in on a low-rotation basis, and let them pick and choose what they want to do. In other words, prove to them that you don’t just want to use and abuse them, but that you value them (even if it wasn’t your personal fault) and want them to plug back in and help grow the tech arts ministry.

Leading with humility, providing consistent training, and pouring spiritually into your volunteers will grow your ministry in ways you can’t imagine!  

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Anthony has worked in the secular world of A/V, the ministry world of church staff and the para-church ministry of three companies that serve the church space (Auxano, Fellowship Technologies and Worlds of Wow!). Today, his consultancy focuses on helping churches and para-church ministries leverage appropriate systems, processes and technologies for more effective ministry. Anthony leads out of his strengths of effectively caring for people, efficiently managing resources and enabling scalable growth. He has been consulting, teaching, writing and speaking to church and business leaders for nearly 20 years.