Budgeting for Church Tech?

I was sitting in a church all-staff lunch, much like we do every Tuesday afternoon. This really is a time to get to catch up with other people on staff we normally don’t see or interface with on a normal basis. A brief discussion on the upcoming budget proposal deadline came up and one of the people sitting on a couch spoke up rather cheerfully to the finance guy, “oh, I could give you my budget now: $0. Or do you want me to email that to you?” There were a few giggles around the room and the conversation settled back into personal matters. Yes, tis the season (at least for our church) to look back on last year’s goals and budget numbers and play the weatherman to forecast the next year.
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I was sitting in a church all-staff lunch, much like we do every Tuesday afternoon. This really is a time to get to catch up with other people on staff we normally don’t see or interface with on a normal basis. A brief discussion on the upcoming budget proposal deadline came up and one of the people sitting on a couch spoke up rather cheerfully to the finance guy, “oh, I could give you my budget now: $0. Or do you want me to email that to you?” There were a few giggles around the room and the conversation settled back into personal matters. Yes, tis the season (at least for our church) to look back on last year’s goals and budget numbers and play the weatherman to forecast the next year.

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Here’s where things get tricky. I’m at a bit of a disadvantage in that our church has never had a Tech Director, I’m their first. Nine years since we moved into our permanent facility and spent around $650,000 to convert a big concrete box into a state of the art production facility. The assumption of the leadership at the time was that because they bought almost every thing new they were naive to think that they didn’t need to put aside money to regularly maintain it. Which makes me wonder if they ever rotated their tires or flushed their radiator fluid. You do that, don’t you?

And then things started to break or just need servicing from years of wear and tear usage. This leaves me in a bit of a dilemma. I come to equipment with smiley faces drawn on the accrued dust to try and to be something between MacGyver and Mr. Scott from Star Trek, but there are some things that can’t be fixed with a soldering iron or duct tape. I know that money is still tight so I couldn’t ask for what the reality of what it takes to run this tech ministry would be. We simply don’t have the money. Corporate America isn’t the only one who has been hit by this recession. Churches have been hit even worse in some senses. Our cash flow comes from people’s giving. So what happens when people lose their job or are forced to take a pay cut rather than losing their job? Those people have less money (some have no money) to support their local church. 

This meant that last year 90% of my operations budget went to just fixing things that broke. Mind you, it’s not that we have bad equipment. It’s just old, and was designed in a time when we had needs A, B, & C. And it met those needs very well. Nearly ten years on, we’re in a place where we have needs D, E, & F and we need to think about not only meeting those needs but trying to build a system that is flexible to meet future needs.

In some ways, church tech budgeting is very frustrating. Most churches don’t have a tech budget, or even a tech person. It gets lumped into a generalized “worship music budget” that the worship leader or pastor oversees. Most churches view AV equipment as a one-time capital expense and don’t bother to think about it until it breaks. At that point they don’t have the time to really look at all the options of new products that multiple manufacturers make, which options they can do without for the price, or shop around for the best deal. In that situation they have to find a solution that works and install it in less than 7 days. And even if you have the time to plan ahead, you rarely have the money to do it right.

Some of the worst decisions come from Pastors who get the mailings from places like Sam Ash or Guitar Center that show their latest price specials. Not because it came from Sam Ash or Guitar Center, but because the Pastor doesn’t know what he’s looking at. He’s drawn in by the flashy images and low price numbers and assumes (without any experience or knowledge) what will be the best solution for them. He doesn’t consider whether they need a 24-channel mixer with 6 auxiliaries or they really need a 32-channel mixer with 8 auxiliaries. Will a 12” JBL speaker be enough for their room, or should he buy the 15” speaker from Peavey? What’s the difference?? Some will even make the mistake of choosing a digital console. He can’t necessarily tell you why it’s the best solution for their needs, except that the included features to price ratio looked very attractive.

For me, I have a feeling that I’m going to be a bit unpopular when the leadership reads my budget proposals. Not because I’m asking for more money, although I am. It’s because I’m asking them to carefully consider how we look at our use of technology and why we are using the technology we have and whether it’s worth spending up to $400,000 over the next ten years?

Jeremy Blasongame is currently a part-time A3 for a concert production company and a Tech Arts Director at Sunridge Church. Over the past seven years, he has also worked in two major recording studios and is the author of Church Audio Blog. Feel free to email him at: jblasongame@gmail.com or find him on twitter at@JBsoundguy, or leave a comment below.