Mission+MoneyMaximizing the worship AV budget. 10/13/2010 11:14 AM Eastern
Oct 13, 2010 3:14 PM, By Dan Daley
Maximizing the worship AV budget.
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.
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.
Oct 13, 2010 3:14 PM, By Dan Daley
Maximizing the worship AV budget.
David May, president of DCI Sound in Marcellus, N.Y., says this type of client relies more heavily on automated systems solutions to take the place of operators. DCI had traditionally applied the same Crestron systems that are found in high-end commercial installations to his Catholic church clientele, customized for each project. However, in the last two years, the company has switched to using a more standardized systems interface, composed of a Lectrosonics DM series DSP and a Crestron TSP-4 touchpanel controller, for most of its installations. “This has simplified the way we approach automation, putting all the programming toward the end of the project instead of using a lot of different kinds of elements in custom configurations toward the beginning,” May explains. “That’s lowered costs.”
He cites the renovation done at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Albany, N.Y., as an example of how a lower-cost DSP and controller package lowered the church’s costs. “Between the cost of the equipment and the amount of labor for installation and programming, this [combination] reduced that part of the original budget by one-third,” he estimates.
Another phenomenon in response to the diminished parish sizes has been consolidation of two or three churches into a single congregation. That has actually helped increase AV budgets for the consolidated facility. “It lets us keep quality of the equipment at a higher level, too,” May says.
Even as one of the nation’s largest systems integrators, AVI-SPL has noticed the effects of a two-year recession on its HOW clients, including longer cycle times between project phases, more deliberative time in budget committees, and tightened budgets in general.
Ward LaDuke, a sales engineer who oversaw projects including the Valley Family Church in Kalamazoo, Mich., and the Resurrection Life Church in Cadillac, Mich., says the company continued to adhere to its practice of presenting a single design proposition to clients based on the project’s requirements. However, the company has increased the use of more efficient systems components and found ways to streamline systems design, such as using inhouse networking infrastructure throughout an installation rather than using multiple cable types.
“We’ll use IP-based infrastructure all the way throughout a design because it’s inexpensive and reliable, which gives us the ability to choose I/O components accordingly,” he explains. Self-powered audio speakers are an example of a product-based solution, but their benefit versus their somewhat higher cost also reveals how integrators have to budget time to explain the long-term economic advantages of certain products to HOW clients, who are understandably focused on the short term at the moment. Citing the self-powered ISP speakers line-array systems he often specifies for that reason, LaDuke says, “Each driver has an amplifier specifically designed for the specifications for the driver. Having all the amplifiers at the drivers that are in the speaker minimizes the need for multiple cable runs, and instead of having to run 10 12-gauge strands of copper, we can run it all on one Cat-5 line, so the installation costs are also lower. It also reduces the number of racks we need since the amplifiers are part of the speaker cabinets. But we have to take time to lay out [to the client] where the long-term savings will come in.”
The same goes for the use of LED lighting. LaDuke ticks off long-term savings in the form of lower BTUs emitted, resulting in lower HVAC costs as well as longer bulb life, reducing spare parts costs and replacement labor costs, and eliminating down time for components like lighting fixtures.
Yet another strategy that some integrators with engineering and other expertise are making use of is moving into or increasing the number of design/build propositions they take on. “That gets us into the process earlier, which is better for the budget and for how we work with the other trades,” says Dave Collin, vice president of sales for Communications and Entertainment in Atlanta, who says they applied the strategy for HOW clients who were adding onto existing structures. One such client was the Holy Spirit Catholic Church in Atlanta, where the company worked in conjunction with an architect on a new parish hall, education rooms, and a chapel. Citing why the design/build aspect was so useful, Collin points to intricate millwork in one the spaces that would also get a Da-Lite motorized screen system.
“They would need access points to the screen that would be in the millwork,” he explains. “We were able to work with the architect and the woodworking guys on that ahead of time, something we might not have been able to do as well if the process had to go through a consultant, who might not have foreseen the issue.”
But as well as many of these tactics work for integrators and their HOW clients, there will be long-term strategic consequences of this recent downturn. As Kurt Bevers, director of technical engineering for Delta AV in Milwaukee, points out, “Churches that are putting off investing in their AV infrastructure will be facing major [systems] failures at some point in the future, and then they’re going to need those systems very quickly and more expensively than had it been properly planned. The recession has changed the complexion of the cycle. A lot of churches will have put off upgrades and deferred maintenance for close to a decade if they hadn’t begun to address it before [the recession]. That’s going to lead to catastrophic problems in the future.”
In response, Bevers is taking the design/build approach out a lot further, as well. The company is offering churches a technology evaluation, generally at no charge, with the intent of starting the upgrade process well before any funds have been allocated or even raised. “Without a plan, there’s nothing for them to be pushing forward toward,” he explains. “The idea is, let’s start the conversation, even if there’s no money for it now because what’s happened in the last couple of years is going to be affecting us all for years to come.”
Coming To Terms
The recession has had systems integrators rethinking their financial strategies. In the past, churches tended to pay cash for systems, often after special fundraisers had brought in additional capital specifically for the project, says John Westra of Audio Design Specialists. As the recession deepened, Westra would increasingly design new systems based on what was in his inventory. This has allowed him to offer better prices and faster turnaround, which helped him win bids. But as HOW budgets have became even tighter, he has modified that concept by offering to extend payments over the course of a year. This idea was first applied to a new 800-seat church in Wisconsin this year. The congregation agreed to use Tannoy PA components and MC2 amplifiers that were already in Audio Design Specialists’ warehouse. “That allowed the deal to be sealed immediately,” says Westra, who adds that the idea was also prompted by the expansion of the company’s woodworking shop, which needed some of the space currently being used to store inventory. “We’re looking for solutions that help everyone, including us.”
Other companies, like DCI, have become more liberal with their terms, spreading payments over longer periods. However, as with others whose main client base is HOWs, DCI does not impose finance charges, which would contradict scriptural prohibitions on usury. “That’s just the nature of the market,” says DCI President David May. —D.D.