Finding a Lighting Designer Job

In Web Articles by tfwm

FindingThis article is made up of excerpts from email correspondence between a TFWM reader and two editorial contributors. We have reformatted the discussion here so that more readers can draw from the information.

Reader Question:
I’m a volunteer lighting designer at a church in [the midwestern US]. God may be leading me toward to change careers to become a church lighting designer. I also like to help design, build, and illuminate staging that compliments the sermon series. At this point I’m more drawn to working in a church rather than being a consultant. Therefore, I’m trying to gather information on this topic and hopefully determine if this is indeed where God is leading.

As part of my search, I’ve been looking at a number of churches on line and so far none have anyone hired specifically as a lighting tech full time. If they have lighting backgrounds, they are also doing other tech things.

How much are lighting designers paid to work in churches? Also, do you have any idea if there is a good way to find such jobs rather than contacting each church individually?

Editorial contributor response #1
As much as I love working with Houses of Worship, I find that there are very few that have it in their budget to support a lighting technician or designer fulltime. There are of course some exceptions, but for the most part, the folks that I know work with their church on a part time basis at best and have to maintain another job- either in or out of the industry on the side.

As for the compensation value, I find that in most cases this is provided to someone that has grown into the position at a facility and the church has found some means to support them in the position. In other words, it is somewhat rare to see a church advertising for a full time lighting technician. I also find the pay to be a bit on the lower scale from a house of worship.

I would love to be more involved with a specific facility, but I find that it is more economical for me to be available to several clients on a project basis and I will then work with their internal team of staff or volunteers as needed. Just as some smaller churches have a part time clergy they share with other parishes, I will go between churches as they need design work.

There are really two parts to the question you have posed as I see it. The first is to find a facility that needs a designer and the second is to find someone that can be a designer also.

I find more often than not, the folks who are technicians and designers in the larger more technically savvy facilities have found their way their through more secular channels. I started out with a traditional theatrical background, and although I have always had a religious background, I never considered that I would have the opportunity to design with a church. Where I do occasionally see a church reaching out in its staffing is when they are trying to form a new image, look or feel and they want some outside influence to affect their services. More often than not, the media head will lead this but sometimes a lighting specific person is brought on board.

The other consideration is if a facility is large enough to gainfully employ a person to concentrate on lighting specifically. Although many facilities will have elaborate lighting systems, it is a bit of a rare exception I believe to find a facility with enough weekly production to demand the attention of a dedicated person throughout the week.

As a Light Designer, I consider it to be an art of sorts and one that I will do whether paid or not. If you can find someone that will let you practice your art and they eventually find it in their heart and budget to compensate you for it, you are doing great.

It is a hard business in which to make a living in general, and even more difficult to focus on only one genre of design. You can do and say amazing things with light as in any art, but it is hard to let it guide you to an income. I know of many media leads that are wonderful designers, who get to practice their art occasionally, but in between they are setting up TVs and mixing audio for the youth groups. I also know many folks that are great LDs but use it as their hobby, their outlet and their refuge at their church. These folks usually work a “traditional” job during the day.

Please understand that I am not trying to discourage you in any way, this is simply an encouragement to light what you can without waiting for the money. If God wants you to do this and just this, he will put a way in front of you at some point down the line. You may need to show your wares often enough so that the chance presents itself. There are a lot of folks out there trying to make it at theatre and you will need to stand out and be the “one”.

As for learning, the Internet is your friend. There are several good message boards that focus on the lighting industry in general. Also go out, watch shows and interpret what you see. There are a few conferences where you can gather with others and discuss the trade.

Lastly, practice. No college, book or teacher can teach you anything that you cannot learn for yourself if you try. Lighting must inspire you and be something you can truly see a beauty in. Anyone can shine a light onto an object but only a few can illuminate it and bring it out. You must learn two simple things, what tools do you have at your disposal and what can you do with each. Pigments and clays and a horsehair brush meant nothing until Leonardo picked them up and painted.

I am passionate about light and I believe that any other designer has something of a passion in them in order to “see” what someone else can’t. I cannot teach you what is beautiful to you, I can only encourage you to discover what is pleasing to you and then find out how to manipulate the light to make it pleasing to everyone. There must be something to set you apart from the other person that points the lights for less. Many people can get up on a stage and sing but very few have the charisma to be a star.

Editorial Advisor Response #2

I understand the need for knowledge in the area of church tech. I have been in lighting my entire career, I attended a 2 year school for media production but my focus was lighting. While at school, I was a roadie for a band made up of my class mates and our lighting teacher was their manager. I didn’t start off running lights, but paid attention enough that when the lighting guy quit I could step right in.

After graduation I took jobs on cruise ships, running sound, lights, video, and even learning pyro. Again the more you know, the more jobs you can get. After ship life I moved to Nashville, working my way up from a tech to working with named country acts. It was there through a friend I was offered a programming job with [a large church in Texas]. I did such a great job they hired me full time which allowed me to be apart of the new facility design. I have started my own consultant company and have been able to assist over 2 dozen ministries.

All this is said to show that experience and reputation is key. Doing different jobs will prepare you for the next. With every job you will encounter different situations. such as the stage being bigger, or budget being smaller, or no volunteers to help, or volunteers that think they know more than you, equipment failures… you name it, I’ve seen it. Your ability to work under pressure is very important to your success.

Working for the largest TV ministries, there is a lot of pressure to get it right the first time. Knowing how to treat your volunteers by showing them how important they are can be difficult for them to understand, since most people determine their importance based on what they are paid. As you continue working you will have to create new ways to bring up new techs. Starting with the youth, planting that seed and developing their talent over a few years, you can end up with several good assistants.

At my church, I was the only lighting person, so it was up to me. If I needed help I had to find it. I worked with our youth leaders to bring up several people to help me during the week and run youth services on the weekends. Many of my assistants have gone on to be full time lighting directors at large churches. I am now working for a lighting manufacturer to develop their presence in the worship market. This presence is based highly on education and relationships. The more informed someone is the better decision they can make, especially in these times.

As you are finding out, churches are tight-knitted. It is hard to break into the church market if you aren’t known. Again your reputation will carry you. Most jobs aren’t advertised, because they are looking for experience. If you want to work at your home church, then the best way is to volunteer and create a need for yourself, then as you get established and comfortable, you can branch out and assist other churches in the area. As you do more and more, those churches that were happy with your work will refer you to others.

Only you can determine what you’re worth. Most churches aren’t large enough to keep a full time lighting person on staff, and those that are usually only pay $25,000-$30,000 per year, again depending on experience. It is all relative to what you are willing to do for that price. Again, what is your time and experience worth, and how much can you afford to give away?

I don’t want to discourage you; Media Ministry is a great opportunity and it is a very much needed role to fill. The trick is to find the right resources to get educated.

My advice is get involved, ask questions, go to trade shows, attend classes, look at what others are doing and try to mimic it for your own situation, create a network of professionals that you can call on to get advice, and be careful, not everyone has your best interest at heart!

Please let me know if I can assist further and we are happy to be a part of your network.

If you have your own questions about this topic- let us hear them! You can email krc@tfwm.com and we’ll set it up for discussion in a future e-newsletter or in the print version of TFWM.