Volunteers and Lighting: Don’t Overwhelm, Start from The Ground Up

For lighting designers in the church, there are multiple “clients” to appease; the worship leader, the pastor, as well as the wide demographics of the congregation.

Much like other crafts in church media, lighting is largely a subjective art. While there are a few design “rules” we can follow (such as the color wheel), beauty tends to be very much in the eye of the beholder.

For typical lighting designers and programmers, this isn’t a big deal, because there is such a focus on being only concerned about making the client happy.

For lighting designers in the church, though, we have multiple “clients” to appease; the worship leader, the pastor, the wide demographics of the congregation, etc.

For many of us in churches that do not have a history of significant lighting elements in worship, the difference between a 3 second pan/tilt move, and a 6 second pan/tilt move means whether or not you’ll be receiving a stern text message in the next few minutes (not that I have ever experienced that personally).

With this much pressure on a lighting designer, how can we reasonably pursue utilizing volunteers to fill this role for our church services? 

Develop the Plan

First, make the complex simple; don’t start at the lighting console!

Start by giving your volunteers an overview of the church’s lighting system. Show them the lighting positions, talk about the kind of fixtures you have, show them the design of the rig and the areas the lights hit throughout the space. Even give them a very brief overview of how DMX works, and explain how the signal gets from point A to point B.

It’s good for them to know a little bit about how the system works, before you sit them down at the lighting console.

For instance, I remember the first time I sat down at a grandMA full-size lighting console from MA Lighting. It seemed insurmountable.  A grandMA lighting console from MA Lighting.

There was just too much of everything - buttons, faders, touch screens, Space Invaders.

I had to learn a lot of things the hard way, so it took me a while to realize that it’s possible to learn a console in bite-sized chunks.

Therefore, realize that volunteers don’t have to know what every button on the console does at first blush. Break the board into sections and only show them what really applies to the way they will use the console. Which leads to the next step...

Create a tiered system of learning. This system is totally based on your church’s needs, so adjust as needed. For example, in some churches that I have previously served in, the lighting would get programmed during the week, and from there, the set was very much in concrete.

On any given Sunday, I would then really just need a person who could hit “Go” at the right time, and maybe modify a few cues.

This was my Level 1 lighting volunteer.

They didn't need to know how to create and modify effects, or be able to put together the perfect color combination. I just needed someone who could fill the role for 95 percent of what the lighting position needed to handle on a Sunday morning.

A Level 2 lighting volunteer, though, would need to learn how to create cues for use in worship, some basic design theories, how to implement effects, and other basic programming skills. I could use a Level 2 volunteer to program simple services, based on presets I set up for them (more about that later).

Lastly, there is a Level 3 volunteer, who would be able to do everything from scratch, and I could use them for on-the-fly shows and such.

Between the three types, I never have very many Level 3 volunteers, but it sure is great when you can train a couple of them up to that level!

The point is, don’t limit your use of volunteers, based on thinking they have to know everything. Train them up step-by-step, and you’ll be able to use them in various settings along the way.

Next, for the love of all things, organize your console.

Now, I know that you might be able to sit down and see through the Matrix at whatever proprietary form of layout you’ve created in your beautiful mind.

Do everyone else a favor, though, and set up your views in a way that makes sense to normal people, who then can be taught (this may or may not be a pet peeve of mine).

Depending on your brand of console, this may vary, but use layouts to make fixture selection easier. Clearly label everything in a way that is either obvious or can be defined through training. Don’t get too clever with your setup, but if you do, hide that mess, so that the volunteers only have to see the basic stuff displayed on the console.

Finally, set up presets that allow you to consistently repeat results.

On the grandMA, for example, use All Presets to record major service elements like Walk-in, Welcome, Fast Song, Slow Song, Sermon, Baptism, etc. Also, come up with Color Presets that have predetermined and acceptable color combinations a volunteer can choose from. This kind of preprogramming allows you to give more ownership to your volunteers, but you get to keep the confidence that they are working within certain parameters.  


After you have done the work on the front end, it’s time to set your lighting volunteers up for success.

Create a training outline that shows what elements they will learn and in what order. Have a manual that is either printed or in digital form, where they have access to the details of everything you’re teaching them (you’ll be surprised at how many of them will actually read and appreciate it).

Create a checklist that sits next to the console with an actual pen they can use to check the boxes of the items they need to remember to do before, during, and after each service.

Finally, train in real-time.

Timing is everything in lighting, so make sure they know how to feel the music and what cue timings make sense. Have them run cues to the actual song in rehearsal or even prerecorded.

Whether you’re a one-man-show, or you have an entire team of lighting folks, there is always room to use lighting volunteers in your ministry.

Take away the shroud of mystery and give your church members an opportunity to use their creative passion to enhance worship - not with a hope and a prayer, but through some serious forethought and preparation.

For those of you with ears to hear, you can see how these same tactics can work for any other craft in our ministry! 

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