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Oct 13, 2010 3:14 PM, By Dan Daley

Maximizing the worship AV budget.

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Coming To Terms

First Baptist Church of Oviedo

AVI-SPL and WaveGuide Consulting used fiber studio cabling to give the First Baptist Church of Oviedo the benefits of high-definition production quality at an affordable price. The system allows for the adaptability of the fiber-optic networking behind Sony’s Nipros system, with custom SMPTE 311 to Neutrik OpticalCon cables.

In a recent article on tech blog CNET, Brady Boyd, the lead pastor at Colorado’s 10,000-plus-member nondenominational New Life Church, summed up how integral AV technology has become to American worship congregations. “The American church can’t measure its success now only by who ... comes on Sunday,” Boyd said. “Our message is being broadcast more and more through digital means, and they may not ever come to our building; they may never sit in a chair in our church. But they are certainly listening and receiving ministry because of the technology that’s available. So the scope of your influence is really unlimited—if you’re willing to invest the time and money.”

American houses of worship may have realized how important AV technology is to their success, but how to pay for that investment these days is another matter. According to a 2009 Christianity Today International survey, the single biggest source of church income is tithes and offerings, making up 87 percent of the church budget; however, nearly 40 percent of congregations responding say that current economic conditions have resulted in a decrease in weekly giving by 2 percent or more last year. As the survey starkly states, “Churches today are in uncharted waters financially.”

Strategies and Tactics

This conundrum—the need for AV and IT technology to grow a church’s reach but a declining base with which to pay for it—has led to strategic rethinking of how to continue to keep that technology integrated into HOW operations and to keep updating it as systems need replacing.

John Westra, CEO of Audio Design Specialists in Madison, Wis., says many HOW clients are only beginning to feel the effects of a constricted economy. But as more churches feel the pinch, he has devised several strategies to address that. One tactic has been to call upon the church’s volunteer labor pool, which is already tapped to run the gear, for help with nontechnical installation tasks such as pulling wire. He applied that to a recent installation of new sound, lighting, and video systems at the 4,000-seat Faith Family Church in Canton, Ohio. And it paid off. Westra estimates that the church shaved $10,000 off the total installation cost of the sound system. “We had used that approach in the past over the last two decades but always to free up more money in the budget to buy a higher level of equipment,” Westra says. “Now, the savings from the labor may be what’s required to sell systems at all.”

Another technology tactic has been to make better use of either existing—and thus already paid for—equipment or to specify less expensive, lesser-featured items like audio mixers with fewer channels and basic automation or minimizing monitor speakers. A planned upgrade path provides for adequate function in the short term, with the expectation that less-expensive or legacy components will be upgraded in the future when budgets allow. At Faith Family Church, Westra incorporated the use of a pair of Midas mixers the church already owned from its original location in place of a new, larger digital console.

Good, Better, Best

Gary Zandstra, HOW specialist with Parkway Electric in Holland, Mich., has taken a page from the custom homebuilders’ playbook, developing a budget-based good-better-best set of menu choices for churches. “We used to simply provide our recommendation for the equipment and design what we felt was the best for each project; now, we need to have a good-better-best set of options ready for them just to get to the table,” he says. One recent bid illustrates the matrix (see sidebar). Zandstra says the severity of the economic downturn has impacted even churches that have not seen their revenues decrease significantly; like other businesses, church boards are reluctant to commit funds to systems expansions and upgrades until they feel the economic landscape is stabilizing. “The close cycle is stretched out to forever now,” he says, referring to the time between initial bid and contract signing. “I’m doing more demos now than I have ever done. That’s part of helping them sell the idea of systems to their congregations.” Parkway has also instituted a practice of letting congregation clients use a sound system over a weekend to see how well it performs, increasing the company’s cost per sale, and damping down already intensely thin profit margins in what he describes as a highly competitive market in Michigan and neighboring states.

Yet another tactic, though once carefully employed, has been to help connect clients with key pieces of used equipment. The use of owner-furnished equipment is not unusual even under normal circumstances, but historically it has been equipment that a church already owns and used in a previous location. The purchase of used gear from third parties can help lower costs, but Zandstra says he has to make the limits of his company’s liability crystal clear and cautions clients that used equipment may end up costing them more in the long run.

What works better, Zandstra says, is the practice of temporarily trading gear between churches on an as-needed basis. He helps facilitate a quarterly meeting of area worship leaders, connecting one that might need a spotlight and a fogger for a special production with another who needs a wireless microphone system for a week or two.

Liturgical Differences

Catholic churches, which represent the single largest specific denomination in the U.S., have been under economic pressure well before the recession, due to large financial settlements of lawsuits against several of its largest diocese. Furthermore, Catholic churches tend to be older and smaller than many evangelical churches, presenting additional systems challenges, especially in terms of sound systems and acoustical requirements. And the way the Catholic liturgy is structured—more daily and weekend services than Protestant denominations with less average attendance at each one—means they are less able to rely on parishioner volunteers to man sound and lighting systems. Once the effects of the recession began to affect these churches, integrators with sizable Catholic client bases had to step up their responses.

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