Does it Make Sense? – 12 Days of Christmas (Posts)

Are you shocking your congregation just to shock them? I have a not-so-secret desire to work Meatloaf’s song “I’d Do Anything for Love, But I Won’t Do That” into a service. I have tried every angle possible, but still can’t quite find the right fit. See, I believe anything we put into the service needs to have a viable reason for being there. The reason could simply be “palette cleansing” or a way to turn the corner, but it needs to have a point for the greater good of the service. A disjointed mess of “good ideas” is still a mess when they pastor says, “Amen, you’re dismissed.” The congregation shouldn’t leave confused and not knowing what they just experienced.

Get someone else’s opinion: I like to wander the halls (that’s for a future post on my productivity) and pop in on co-workers in other departments. Catch them off guard and bounce an idea off them. See how they react, it may surprise you. Now just gather input, I don’t want to see you change your art by mob rule, or because the *accounting ladies didn’t get it. (*This is in no way a reflection on all accounting ladies or men for that matter. I just picked the most literal demographic I could think of). You just need the input from those outside your closest circle sometimes… That way you can fight off creative group think.

Creative Group Think happens when the team starts brainstorming an idea and it continues to snowball into either a giant inside joke that would take 20 minutes to setup or ends in showing tap dancing cats. These sessions can produce great ideas, but need to be bounced off others to make sure it’s not only funny to you or understood by “creative types.”

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Don’t waste your congregation’s time: I have seen so many great pieces used in Christmas services – the problem was, they could have been half as long. Once you have your givens established, like the sermon and offering, begin to fill in the holes. It’s safe to assume you’ll do some kind of “opener” for the service followed by worship/carols. Many churches end their services with a candle lighting / singing of Silent Night. With that, there’s 15 minutes or so left for programming something special. You don’t want to give your audience whiplash changing from topic to topic, but in a society that is conditioned to zone out quickly, you do want to keep their interest.

Christmas is a Time for Traditions: I’m not a big fan of doing things because “that’s how they’ve always been done” – Christmas being the exception. I feel most people picture that Norman Rockwell, Burl Ives, 1950’s perfect Christmas dream. They could sing all 18 verses of “O Holy Night” and be perfectly content. This is a time to play into that picture. While Christmas may not be a happy place for everyone, most people want it to be. Joy can come from what is familiar. I don’t think you need to do carbon copy services every year, but if something works for your congregation, don’t be afraid to keep bringing it back. At Northview, it’s snow machines. Year after year the service ends the same way, and it’s endearing to people. Embrace traditions when it doesn’t hurt anything to do so.

I wrote this in a post a while back and wanted to share it here:

[When Planning your services] take risks, be creative. The key is not to “wing it,” but to be intentional about each and every element that is put into a service. Ultimately, we aren’t in ministry to give the church a great show, but to provide an atmosphere of worship that helps the congregation connect with Christ.


War Room – 12 Days of Christmas (Posts)


One of my favorite movies is Dr. Strangelove. I have loved it since I was a kid (I am an old soul). One of my favorite lines is when the president yells at two men fighting saying, “gentlemen, you can’t fight in here, this is the war room.” I probably say that line at least twice during every creative meeting. I read somewhere when President Reagan was inaugurated for the first time, he asked his advisors if he could see the “War Room” and they told him that there wasn’t a real one, like in the movie. I have always longed for a room filled with monitors and dry erase boards where creativity could just flow, a blue-sky room per say. However I think “War Room” is much manlier. While preparing for Christmas, I it is important to find a space where you can “take over” for a month or so: put up a giant calendar, use a whiteboard if there is one, or my go to choice –  Sticky Post-it Flip Chart pages.

What goes in the War Room:

3D Drawings: I highly recommend someone on your team taking the time to learn a 3D modeling software like Sketchup. It’s free and can really help you visualize what you’re trying to create on stage.

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These mock-ups are from when we had Tim Hawkins perform at Northview. One of the guys on our team is great at drafting these for us, and since he’s way smarter about it than I, please feel free to reach out to him with questions @tmcarpen.

We print these stage designs out and attach them to the war room wall for review.

Calendar: I talked about this in my post on Limiting Activities, but want to revisit it here. I am all for saving trees and going digital. But it is hard to argue with a giant wall calendar. No one can blame a phone upgrade or spilling coffee on his or her laptop for not logging into the shared digital calendar. I love the wall calendar because it stares you down every time you walk by it. I suggest color-coding or using symbols to differentiate tasks or people. But put everything that is relevant to the Christmas season on it.

Ongoing Service Flow: Keep an updated service order on the wall. Highlight missing areas or where there are still unanswered questions. Like the calendar, it will stare at you until you answer it.

Finally, if you want to get really focused, I like to print out daily tasks that must be accomplished before leaving, and tape it to the door. With Christmas, there is a lot of task juggling and it’s easy for something to get dropped. Trying to find ways to avoid that is crucial. Especially when you’re as ADD as me.



Think on Your Feet – 12 Days of Christmas (Posts)

This post is important to me. As I constantly strive for better ways to manage productivity, this one is key. Now as you start reading, you may think this doesn’t apply to you. While technically this is geared for churches with production staff, it can still work for volunteer leaders.

The Standing Meeting – a scheduled, recurring, “standing” meeting. You can schedule them daily, weekly, or for whatever time frame works for your team. Here’s the part I love: no one sits down. Everyone remains standing. Seems simple right? This idea ensures the meeting will be short and to the point, since no one likes to stand unnecessarily. This style isn’t a new concept, and it doesn’t work for all meetings, but it does help me keep things moving.

I do not have a disdain for meetings, what I do hate is wasting time in meetings. When a group of creatives gets together it’s so easy to rabbit trail and ADD the meeting right off a cliff. Ten minutes later, you don’t even remember where you were going and may call off the meeting for lack of direction.

With so much happening this time of the year it’s important to keep everyone on the same page, but also productive. Standing meetings are the perfect way to accomplish this.


Here are a few tips for productive standing meetings:

Get progress reports: Know what each person or team is working on. Might I add that this isn’t the time for micromanaging – it’s simply to share information and keep everyone up-to-date. The point is so everyone knows what Person A is working on and how that might affect the rest of the team.

Give clear directions: Do not end the meeting with confusion. This just leads to more meetings… Why would you want that? Instead, make sure each person has an understanding of what they’re supposed to be doing and the direction their tasks are heading.

Delegate and Set Deadlines: You can’t do everything yourself: I know, I’ve tried. Empower your team members to run with key elements of the season. Not only will the job get done more efficiently, but delegation shows that you trust in your team. Having deadlines for said delegated elements just gives everyone a goal to reach. Each person needs something to strive for, and deadlines provide a measure of success.

Bottom line: keep your meetings to the point and productive.

What do you do to keep meetings moving?


Limit Activities – 12 Days of Christmas (Posts)

December is known in the church world for its unending “ask.” Every ministry needs tech help for their parties or events. As a people pleaser and overall nice guy, this is the season I tend to see everyone but my own family. Being busy this time of year is expected, but it shouldn’t kill you. There are givens: Christmas Eve services will happen, rehearsals will take place, and there may be a party or two you need to attend. The key, though, is moderation – you only have a finite amount of time, and if you’re dead before Christmas you’re no good to anyone. Most churches do not have a large staff body, most of you reading this post right now are probably the only tech on staff or you’re the go-to volunteer. Things like video creation, choir media (making CD’s or uploading to the web) and stage setup all fall to you before you even get to the actual services. I have been there, and am still there in many respects.

“Little knot here, you can work on that.”

Here are three ideas to limit the Christmas Chaos:

Empower some volunteers for the season: I always envision myself deputizing several key members of my team to help reduce the overall burden. Allow these key people to run with the Christmas activities that happen around the building.

Plan early: We all know Christmas is coming as it does every year, right around the 25th of December. Get yourself a big calendar for the wall. Start blocking off known dates, like rehearsals and services. This will help give you a bigger picture of what you can realistically take on. I realize for most of us, a vacation is out of the question during this season, but plan time off. Even if it’s just an afternoon, you need time to recoup your energy. In a 1926 interview, Henry Ford discussed his experiments with productivity … his conclusion was that after 40 hours of work, the employees’ quality of work diminishes (Read more about Diminishing Returns Here). A long lunch, a quick nap, or just going for a walk can help clear the mind and refresh you.

Practice saying no: This is so hard for me. I hate the word NO. Internally, I feel like it leads to people looking at me like I’m an ogre. I know, though, that I don’t have to be seen as a jerk for letting people know I cannot take on another project. It not only protects me from burning out, it protects others from getting a shoddy product. If I can’t put adequate time, resources, or brainpower into something in order to do it right, then I have to say no. Practice saying it in the mirror, it won’t help but it might at least make you laugh.

As Christmas approaches, try seeking out those key decision makers that haven’t gotten with you yet. Let them know that you’re planning ahead and need to know what they’ll require during the holiday season. Anything you can do to avoid the last minute asks will greatly help.

What’s the biggest last minute task you’ve ever been given?


Don’t be Stupid – 12 Days of Christmas (Posts)

Why are new updates so tempting? With new fixes and features added, you can just feel them calling to you to install them. That may be one of the things I now miss with the new Mac OS Mavericks. It just installs them for you. I don’t get to see what is changing. Well with so much digital equipment in the church these days, it seems like a full time job just keeping things up  to date. However, there is a good time and a bad time to install these.

Last Christmas season, while tuning our wireless microphones, I noticed there was a firmware update for the receivers. The temptation was too great, and I began installing. The first 6 units went just fine. Then it happened. I bricked the seventh wireless. If you’re not sure what that means, its a term for when a piece of electronic equipment gets misconfigured or damaged from an update and it no longer functions. It’s basically a brick to you. Yep, I did it: I bricked the unit and had to send it back to the manufacturer for repair. img_2316

Now I was not wrong in installing updates, and the problem that occurred could have happened to anyone at anytime. But I was stupid to do it at our busiest season when the microphones were functioning just fine. Sometimes though you have no choice, as in the case with a few video recorders we own at Northview. These units had a bug in them, and we had to install the update in order to use them effectively in our system. That was a risk worth taking because they were no good to us the way they were. img_2186

Technology will fail, and cause you headaches at the most inconvenient times, like these pictures of our backscreen with a giant 80’x30′ blue screen of death showing on it (thank you Microsoft). But during this ever important season, don’t tempt the update gods. Do your best to hold off when your schedule allows for proper testing and even time to repair if need be. This post may seem common sense; but as someone who has been in live production as long as I have, I still do stupid things at times, and we could all use a good reminder.


Okay, I spilled my guts on the internet, care to join me and share your story?


Maintenance Plans – 12 Days of Christmas (Posts)

Proper maintenance of production equipment often gets overlooked due to time and budget. Even though church equipment doesn’t get beat up like gear on a tour, (unless you have a portable setup) it still requires continual upkeep.

Know your lamp life – Projectors and “Intelligent” Lighting all have a set number of operating hours that must not be exceeded.Lamps that are aging become volatile and can explode inside the equipment causing damage. I can also guarantee that the lamp will go out in the middle of your service … every time.  Check out this video from Northview:

That was one of our back screen projectors: the lamp exploded shooting glass in all directions. Luckily, the unit is kept in a room alone so no one was in danger.

Keep an eye on your inventory – This time of year is perfect for taking inventory on your stash of gaffer’s tape, lamps, batteries, etc. Make sure you have enough of the little things to get you through the holidays. I try to stock up on in-ear foamies for the musicians, as well as lamps for music stand lights, and Clorox wipes to disinfect the microphones after every use.

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Me repairing microphone cables

Keep a backup – I realize it’s unreasonable to keep backups of every piece of equipment you have. It’s not common to find a church with an exact spare soundboard just sitting in storage. But with so much that is digital these days, make sure you keep a backup of all your files. I keep a USB stick locked up with ALL the equipment settings: from the soundboard, speaker processor, and wireless microphone system to the lighting and video consoles. I then upload the files to a cloud-based system like Dropbox or Google Drive. If something catastrophic happened, you can recall settings after repairs are complete or a rental is brought in.


Create a Disaster recovery plan – This is a big task, but has huge pay off! A disaster recover plan is simply a binder or online document that everyone on your team has access to. In it they should be able to find solutions to issues such as, “no audio coming from the sound board.” The solution would be to check mutes, and whatever other steps go into your particular situation. Keep it simple for the holidays. Maybe just give the basics – that way, if you get sick from eating gas station sushi on December 23rd your team knows what’s in your head.


Everything you can do on the front end to prepare for the big services will ensure a much smoother and less stressful experience for everyone.


So you saw my projector explode. What is something that has failed during a service for you that everyone noticed?






Rentals – 12 Days of Christmas (Posts)

I have mentioned rentals in a few previous posts, but I wanted to devote a little more time to the idea. Rentals are a great way to augment your existing capabilities, but the process can seem daunting. Who to call, what to ask for, and are you getting a good deal, are always questions that come up. I worked in the rental business for many years before my days on the road, and now working in the church, I utilize rentals for when I need extra gear that I can’t justify buying or storing.

Rental companies come in all sizes; so don’t be quick to jump to conclusions on their quality. As someone who has worked for a small town rental facility, they can sometimes give you the best deals. Plus, different companies will specialize in certain areas of production. Whether that includes video, audio, lighting or staging. One might have ample lighting and staging, but only a few microphones and small conference room style sound systems. Here in the Indianapolis area, I have three companies I rent from regularly, depending on what I need.

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Like I said in the post on planning (read it here), even if you don’t know exactly what you’re doing for Christmas, it’s not a bad idea to reserve what you think you’ll need. For instance – I know for a fact that we’ll do our annual concert in December. I will need more inputs for the band and more outputs for the vocalists’ in-ears. I reserved another mixing console months ago. Same with snow machines, we have made these a tradition at Northview, and have a standing rental with one of our local companies.

Again, you don’t have to always have the finished plan in mind when renting, but knowing the big picture can help narrow down your options. Say, you want a “WOW” lighting factor; talking with a rental company and seeing what they can offer could help steer your big picture into a more defined portrait.

Three quick tips for renting equipment:

Know how much it costs to buy. If you’re going to rent something for a month and the production company charges you retail price, you may want to simply purchase it.

Make sure your insurance will cover rentals. A lot of times companies won’t rent without a certificate of insurance. This protects them as well as you. So make sure you have this covered before you rent.

Check the gear as soon as possible. The downside to rentals is that you don’t know how it was used in the past. Inspect cabling, and take notes of damage you see. I call the rental facility as soon as I notice something that’s not right. If I can deal with it, I move forward but want them to know I was not responsible for said issue. When it’s something big like blown lamps, or speakers, the rental house needs to make it right.

This season, as you’re planning for you Christmas festivities, renting may be a great option to help make your ideas come to life.

What is the craziest thing you’ve ever rented?


Volunteers – 12 Days of Christmas (Posts)

Volunteers are the life force behind any successful church. Without them, not much of anything could happen. While having staff is great, I am not aware of any churches that survive solely on the use of paid staff members. With this immense need for volunteers, it’s important to show them that you acknowledge their sacrifice of time. I’m aware that they are giving it to the Lord as an offering, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t care for them.  A happy, appreciated team gets much more accomplished than one that’s run out of guilt and pressure.

This Christmas Season, make sure you go out of your way to encourage those that serve so faithfully along side of you.


Feed Them

Everyone works better when there is food involved. Plan a hospitality area for the team and include their families if you can. Christmas Eve services require a lot more of a time commitment than the average weekend, usually covering dinnertime. Having a place to grab a soda (Pop, Coke, whatever you call it) and a snack goes a long way to keeping volunteers happy.  There is no right or wrong way to setup a hospitality area, just make sure to pamper your volunteers. It really is more the thought that counts (and cookies).


Communicate early, and often. Just like with rehearsals, volunteers are not always in all the meetings leading up to the service. You have to continually bring them into the loop. A well informed volunteer is much more effective, and may even think of an overlooked area. As soon as I have times for the Christmas services (usually sometime in August or September), I send out my first round of emails letting the group know; that way they can begin looking at their schedules and planning to serve.

Respect Their Time

Volunteers have families, jobs, and other commitments. Christmas is a huge ask, so look for ways to lessen the load for them. One idea is to split serving opportunities when possible. I divide our camera operators up between the services: as long as the video director is on their game, and the camera op has been part of a rehearsal or run through we tend to have very few mistakes.

Most of the time, volunteers will bend over backwards for you if you treat them right. Make sure you’re loving on them extra this season.

In an effort to respect your time I purposely kept this post short.  Join the conversation though and share if you’re doing something special to honor your volunteers this year.


Rehearsal Plan – 12 Days of Christmas (Posts)

The holidays are the time of the year when larger productions are being put on. With these larger scale services, it is important to establish a rehearsal plan.

It’s essential to start early working with all the different groups involved. Many times Christmas services are comprised of choirs, dramas, and large worship bands with more vocalists. This requires separate group rehearsals before the technical and dress rehearsals even occur.

Separate Group Rehearsals help vocalists and choirs workout their parts without taking time from the band or production crew. The lighting and video team should walk through the service together, making sure lights are complimenting video and that people who need to be seen are not standing in the dark. These types of one-on-one rehearsals help save time and allow for a smoother technical rehearsal.

Technical Rehearsals are a critical step in the production process that often times get overlooked. They are choppy – and that’s okay, they should be. Lights are adjusted, microphones moved around, and new camera angles tried. For years I have experienced Christmas Eve service rehearsals that are just a copy of the typical Wednesday night run-through. During these times, the band gets a chance to rehearse, but no thought is given to the production side of things. As ministry staff members we have to remember that while we have dreamt about this event for weeks (possibly even months), the volunteers and musicians may be seeing/hearing everything come together for the very first time at rehearsal.

Final run-through/Dress rehearsal should be conducted just as it will be for the service. Practicing it exactly the way it needs to happen, especially the transitions, helps solidify it in everyone’s mind.


As someone who has been through more Christmas productions than I can count, here are three things I stand by when it comes to rehearsing.

Rehearse Early:
Rehearse early enough to make changes. Even the dress rehearsal should be done several days in advance. In school, our dress rehearsals were always the day before our event … I can only assume it was because the teachers were afraid we’d forget everything if we had a day off. But this isn’t an elementary school Christmas program – production at this level is intense, and “going dark” (to borrow a theatre term) the day before a performance gives everyone a chance to calm down, allowing for a smoother performance. The other thing this provides is a day to make any necessary adjustments. While I do not approve of changes after the run through/dress rehearsal, sometimes they cannot be avoided, and this downtime allows for that.

Be Prepared
When working with volunteers, the worst thing you can do is waste their time (well I guess you could kick them in the shin, but I digress). Have music, flows, and all other required materials printed out and ready to go ahead of time. Also, consider staggering arrival times for your teams. It doesn’t benefit the choir to hear the band warm up and sound check. At Northview, a typical non-Christmas weekend rehearsal schedule looks like this:

12:00pm – Staff
1:00pm – Volunteer Sound and Lighting operators
1:30pm – Band
2:30pm – Vocalists
2:45pm – Camera Ops
3:00pm – Service run-through

Know when it’s “Good Enough”
It hurt typing that.
I know as a creative, good enough should not be in my vocabulary; but at some point we have to force ourselves to stop tweaking, step back, and say it is finished. Always remember you’re working with real people, most who have a day job that has nothing to do with what you’re asking them to do during the service. Sometimes the camera shakes, and the lyrics come up late; or a vocalist forgets to turn their microphone on (why they turned it off in the first place, I’ll never understand). These people are giving their time, and their best for Lord, and we need to accept their offering of service and know when to end the rehearsal, so people can get home.

Last Christmas I wrote a post about adding tech rehearsals to Christmas Eve services – check it out here.

Also, be sure to check out the Christmas Resources Page.

How do you approach rehearsals? Join the conversation and share below.


Know Your Capabilities – 12 Days of Christmas (Posts)

As a production director, it is my job to make sure the dreams of the creative team come true. If they want a car on stage, I make sure we can do it. When they ask for snow, my team makes it snow. That’s what we do. However, it is crucial that we – the production staff – are part of those first creative meetings to help steer the conversation into the realms of reality. (See Yesterday’s post about Planning Teams.) I am all for “blue sky” dreaming, but at some point you have to land the plane.
Christmas services are a time to pull out all the stops. But you have to know what your realistic capabilities are. Here are three things I do in preparation leading up to each Christmas season.

A few years ago, I was part of a production where the music minister had scheduled the band, singers, drama, and a choir before knowing what the system capabilities were for that year*. By the time I found out, rentals were hard to come by and a stressful production ensued. Simple communication with all members of the team can help avoid problems.

The following year, I was prepared.
I worked ahead of time (before songs were picked and a band was selected) to secure extra equipment.

Know What You Have:
Every year I make an “inventory” spreadsheet containing the following information:
– # of available wireless microphones along with their frequencies
–  # of wired vocal mics
– # of instruments mics and what instruments each mic can accommodate
While these categories are important and it’s essential to know what equipment you’re working with, that last one is crucial; it allows the worship leader to know how many special instruments he can schedule.

Rent Early:
Christmas is that wonderful time of year when us production guys get to max out every piece of equipment the church owns. We use all the lights, all the audio channels, and A LOT OF ELECTRICTY; but lets face it, pushing the limits of our equipment can cause major problems. I have found that working with a local production rental company early enough in the year can greatly reduce stress not only on your system and your team, but also on your wallet.Clark Grisswald Even if in July the only specifics we have are that we are in fact having Christmas services, I still give the rental place a call. There are always going to be certain givens: I’m going to be lighting up at least 100 trees with lights, we will need more audio channels, and some unknown “special opener” will require additional lighting.

If you call and rent these “given” pieces of equipment WAY in advance, you can usually get a great price. Plus, you know you aren’t going to run into the issue of not being able to get what you need because everyone else has gotten first dibs.

Moral of this post: PLAN EARLY.

What do you usually rent for Christmas Productions? Join in the conversation below.