6 Ways to Speed Up Your Portable Church Setup Time

A couple years ago I was attending a portable church that met in a middle school close to where I lived.

After I got comfortable and decided to make it my church home, I naturally started volunteering to help with the technical needs of the church.

As I walked into the auditorium doors that first week to help setup, what I found surprised me.

Remember, I work as a professional stage lighting technician, and for some reason expected the volunteers to be like my coworkers.

Every week, the volunteers setting up the audio, video and lighting equipment would lay out every single cable between every piece of gear individually.

Now this surprised me for 2 reasons. 1) I work in the production industry, so I’m used to working with multicable, and 2) The setup was about 90% the same each and every week and never changed.

This meant that there was an enormous space for speed improvement through some really simple techniques.

Today, I want to share with you ways that big touring production shows make things happen and setup/teardown in just 4 hours each.  And while I don’t expect you to work at a rabbits pace and be drenched in sweat at the end of setup, I want to share with you some simple ways to become more efficient.

I also don’t expect you to go out and buy new stuff to speed up your setup, as  I know the church world’s budget!

With that said, there is a ton we can learn from the professional production industry and become more efficient without breaking the bank.

Think: Solutions

The next part of this post is the think section.  I want to go through a bunch of strategies that I use in professional production and help you think of ways to use the principles in your church.

The point is not to copy professional production point-blank, but to be inspired and figure out how you can improve your portable church setup and teardown.

Therefore, this is the kind of post that I want you to read along with a yellow pad of paper and record things that might help you in your particular context.  Then, figure out exactly how they will work for you the next step to make that happen and go!

Think: Transportation

Most portable churches I’ve worked with or seen work out of a trailer pulled by someone’s pickup truck.  This is already great for a number of reasons, so don’t change a thing.

  1. Most portable churches unload to the ground level to get into their venue.  A dock height truck will just be extra work.
  2. When you are only pulling the trailer once a week, using a congregants pickup truck makes sense.  Do you really want to own and maintain a vehicle that only drives 200 miles a year?
  3. Most trailers used for portable churches have a ramp door, so you don’t have to move and store around a heavy ramp.
  4. You can store the trailer somewhere safe with a good hitch lock and padlocks, and you never have to unload it into a storage space.

Regardless of whether you will use a box truck or a trailer, you need to make sure of a few things inside of your truck.  First, you need to make sure there is adequate lighting inside of the truck.

You can have 12 volt lighting built into the truck with an on-off switch to save your batteries.  If you don’t have that already installed in your truck, you can do this variation:

Buy aluminum scoop lights at your local hardware store and screw them into the walls of your truck so they reflect off of the roof.  

Then, wire them together with extension cords neatly and run them all together to a power strip and extension cord mounted right inside the door.  

When you start your load-in every Sunday, open the trailer door and run the extension cord to the nearest outlet so you have lights- and for a lot cheaper than the installed option!  If you have hot summers, also consider a couple fans to circulate the air.

Questions to Ask Yourself:

  • Is there someone who can pick up and tow the trailer with their truck(Think construction contractors, etc)?  Make sure you have a backup person and truck on schedule always- you never know what could happen!
  • Where can we buy a used trailer and who in the church has the knowledge to do so and get a great deal?
  • Where can we park this thing?

Think: Wheels

If you’ve ever watched a large production show loading out, you’ll quickly notice that no one is carrying anything for the big push to the truck or trailer.

Everything is on a good set of wheels, and for good purpose.  Good cases and dollies also keep the truck pack easy and protect equipment while it is rolling and/or traveling in the truck.

  1. First, wheels allow anyone to push just about anything.  Your volunteers can be anyone from Teenagers to Moms and Retirees. 80% of your equipment will be pushable by everyone, with a few large heavy pieces that must be pushed by the strongest men.
  2. Wheels save your back since you don’t have to lift anything once you have your items into the cases or onto the wheels.

With that said, if you have any single stairs or 3-4 stair cases, try to find a way to avoid them.

If you can’t avoid them, you can buy an aluminum movers ramp or build a small wooden ramp to bridge the gap during setup and tear down.

Questions to Ask Yourself:

  • What items do we have without wheels?
  • Where can we get weight-appropriate castors for them?
  • Do we have a stair problem?  Who can build us a ramp?

Think: Truck Pack

When packing a truck, we want to consider the safety of the loaders and equipment, space efficiency, difficulty of pack, and lastly the order of loading.

Safety of the Loaders.  Safety is always our #1 priority in production.  The people loading the truck need to be aware of their surroundings at all times.

Things are constantly moving and items that are stacked poorly can fall as other items are pulled out.  If you are loading/unloading on sloped ground, keep in mind to never let go of anything in the truck or out, as it may roll away and be damaged or hurt someone.  Always look out for others in the truck as well as yourself, all the time.

Safety of the Equipment.  Know that in the truck, like items need to go together and fragile items need to be stacked on top or strapped alone.

All of your gear needs to be in a protective case, but I’m not telling you to go out and buy all new ATA flight cases for everything.  That’s really expensive and not necessary.  Painted wooden boxes and even plastic bins on wheels work great, and staging decks can be carted.

However, you can’t put stage decks or an ATA case right next to a plastic bin as the plastic bin will lose every time.  So, plastic bins need to be either on top or strapped separate from ATA cases, and definitely away from staging decks which will damage just about anything then can rub against directly.

Durable items like lighting truss don’t need cases, they can just stack on top.

Space Efficiency. When thinking about saving space, we need to think about space lost in rows, columns, and stacking.

The rows across the truck need to be as even as possible, with cases working together to keep air space in between cases as possible.  In the columns of the truck or trailer, you need to also look for air spaces above 6 inches and re-arrange to eliminate it.

These spaces may not seem like much, but they do add up over the length of the truck.  The stacking space on top of your wheeled items is the other place you can make tons of room.

Try to pack like-height wheeled items together so that you can use the space on top most effectively.

Difficulty of Pack and Order of Loading.  You want to make the truck easy to pack, but you also have the conflicting need of getting your items off in a somewhat orderly method.  Try numbering the cases for the truck order, make a overhead drawing of the pack and color code cases by what room they go in to save time.

When you are unloading the truck, keep in mind that some items will need to be stacked on others to have wheels into the building.

Awkward sized items such as lighting trusses can ride on top of cases, but be sure to have 2 people pushing it.  When pushing, lifting, or pulling heavy and/or large equipment, always be sure to use an appropriate number of people, and stay on the conservative edge of safety.  You don’t need to be superman.

Questions to Ask Yourself:

  • How can I use these tips to improve truck loading safety and efficiency?

Think: Looms

If you have elements of your staging, lighting or audio setup that remain the same week to week, my best time saving tip is right here.

Simply put, I believe that there is no greater place to save time than with your cabling.  Stop and think for a minute about how long you spend determining which data cables go where, then locating and running out each individual cable for data and power every week.  Wouldn’t it be easier to run out one bundle of cable, and the connectors land right where you need them?

Looming, or bundling cable is a great, cost-effective way to speed up your setup time.

Without any investment in additional cable, you can use electrical tape to loom cables together.

Here’s how to do it.  First, setup your fixtures in the normal setup that you are creating the loom for.  It typically makes sense to make one loom per lighting position(i.e. – FOH truss, each stage truss, ground fixtures, PA stacks, etc).

While it is possible to make a “master loom” for all positions, I don’t suggest this as it isn’t flexible if something needs to move.  And it’s really darn heavy.

Now,  lay out your cables neatly and plug them into all of your fixtures, leaving extra cable at the dimmer/power end and some slack at each fixture in case something moves.

Last, start at the dimmer end and tape together your cables every 3-5 feet.  Data cables will need taped more frequently than power cables, and you should tape around the bundle 3-6 times for strength.  Be sure to label all power and data ends to the fixture number that they plug into, so that there is no confusion when setting up every week.

Also wrap a “spike” of colored electrical-tape around the cables at the end of the truss or stage the cables runs off of to show volunteers how far to pull the cable out.  Consider running a few spare data cables into the mix just in case you need them later.

Again, looming is only for lighting positions that don’t move around much, but you can also create a loom just to get multiple lines of power to the lighting position, and then you can cable the individual fixtures from scratch.

When you’re done, just coil up the loom into a case, and leave a tail out of the side for your dimmers.  Or, if your looms are small, you can just coil them all on top of each other within the case.

When you are setting up, you just pull them out, 1 by 1 and run them out to your lighting positions and plug it all in.  Then, step back and admire to job you have completed, and how neat your exposed cables on stage are!

Questions to Ask Yourself:

  • What lighting, audio and video positions can we loom together?
  • When can we find time to do this?

Think: Diagrams on Cases and Inside Lids

Have you ever had a new volunteer get stuck when packing a case, not knowing how to put a particular piece of gear away?  Wouldn’t it be nice if they could figure out where something goes without asking anyone?

A great way to fix this problem is to have pictures posted inside all of your cases of how the case is supposed to be packed.  This means that they are able to hand over the packing of any case to anybody, and it can be done properly, keeping your equipment in good shape.

By adding arrows and text to the pictures you are able to make this simple guide self-explanatory.  Be sure to also list all of the contents inside the lid of cases for small and buried items that are hard to see on the picture.  Plus, it’s a good double check before you close the lid.

Questions to Ask Yourself:

  • Are we doing this already with any of our cases?
  • How many cases do we have that need this?
  • Can we start with 1 case per/week in implementing this system?

Think: Volunteer Flow and Optimization

The last “think” concept I want to introduce involves people more than any of the other tips thus far.  If you’ve ever loaded in a show, portable church or setup for a conference, you know that managing your crew(volunteers) can make a huge difference in how time efficient your setup is.  Here are some pointers in making your volunteers the most effective.

As volunteers bring the cases into the room, direct the case into the right place the first time, so that nothing moves 2 or 3 times when possible.  Get equipment in place first, then come back and do cabling afterwards.

Try structure volunteer ministries so that volunteers are the same for before/after the service.

Have an initial task ready for whenever your volunteers are first ready, so that they don’t have to wait on your instruction while you’re busy wrapping up the service or turning off lights.

Questions to Ask Yourself:

  • In what specific part of our setup can I use volunteers more wisely?
  • What initial task can I give them for when church dismisses?
  • How can I use all of the “think” segments of this post to improve our church setup efficiency and effectiveness?

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