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Church and COVID-19

This post was originally posted to my personal blog on April 13, 2020. I am re-posting it here as it is a prime example of how intertwined technology is with our church.

My church has been streaming our service for several years and has been live on a local FM station since before I became a member. I setup streaming initially and have been involved in all kinds of services. During that time I’ve run into just about every type of issue or challenge a sound or audio video tech in a midsize church can… or so I thought.

School and Church Closures

When the local schools decided on Thursday evening, March 12th to close down, that meant our church would also close its office and cancel all events per our safety policy. Word went out on Friday the 13th that the closure would start Sunday at noon and that we would only have a single event that day: the 11am service. Our members were also advised to stay home if in any of the high-risk categories. Sitting at the soundboard that Sunday was weird… I’ve never seen an 11 o’clock service so empty.

Adapt and Overcome

The following Tuesday the ministerial staff came up with a plan for the following Sunday: they would gather as a small group and have a more conversational service that included all the normal streaming and radio things. The one catch was that they wanted the camera closer to the front so that it wasn’t just showing a few people in the front of an empty church. They also decided we should do a rehearsal on Friday morning since we were basically winging it.

Like a lot of churches, our setup includes a camera and soundboard in the back of the sanctuary. We use a GoPro camera for streaming that has a feed from our soundboard piped into it. Video-wise, we connect the HDMI out of the camera to a Cam Link capture device from Elgato. The Cam Link is plugged into an Intel NUC that sits atop the soundboard’s desk. My initial plan was simply to order a 50’ HDMI cable and a 50’ audio cable from Amazon and run them down the main aisle to where I needed to set up. That’s where we ran into our first snag: the cables wouldn’t arrive in time for the service, much less the rehearsal on Friday morning.

Going Mobile

Some quick thinking was needed since the longer cables were no longer an option. The result was a decision to try streaming from my MacBook Pro. Elgato Game Capture is what we use on the NUC, so I figured I’d try installing it on my laptop. Bingo, that worked. I had also been toying with the idea of switching over to Open Broadcaster Software, better known as OBS, so I went ahead and installed it, too. Wednesday evening, I went up to the church to test out the software and to find something to mount the camera on. In the end, I was able to move the existing mount for our GoPro to a spare mic stand. I tested both pieces of software, and it seemed to work fine. Whew.

All week, every news outlet was reiterating all the info about social distancing and emphasizing how important it was. With that in mind, during rehearsal we decided that the ministers should set a good example by not being crowded around each other… the problem was that this looked really strange. Time for a new plan.

The Oasis

Ending up with a mobile setup had a fringe benefit: it opened up options for where we streamed from because once portable there really isn’t any difference between the sanctuary and somewhere else. Our revised plan ended up being to stream from an area called The Oasis that is a sitting area in one of our buildings. This actually worked pretty well. The seating is set up in a horseshoe configuration. Our pastor sat on one side on a couch between a couple of windows and was flanked by our youth minister and our children’s minister, each in a chair near the end of the couch. Our associate minister of pastoral care was in a chair next to the children’s minister on the short part of the horseshoe. To his right on another couch was a couple that serves as our music minister and director of Christian education. In the middle of the sitting area is a round coffee table where we were able to place the Lenten wreath. On the open end of the horseshoe is a long countertop with bookcases to either side of a TV. After some trial and error, we decided to frame the children’s minister, pastor, and youth minister in the shot and let the others be off-camera.

Synchronization

The rest of the rehearsal went pretty well with the exception of one glaring technical issue: the audio and video were noticeably out-of-sync on the test stream… as in a second or two out from each other! Seeing as we only have the one camera, this was worrying as it kinda defeated the point of having the camera up close. Fortunately, sometime Friday evening I had an epiphany. I realized that I had a Logitech C920 HD Pro Webcam that I use daily for video conferencing. I figured it might work in this scenario too, so I fired up OBS and in no time flat had both audio and video from it setup.

Sunday Morning

We all got to the church about an hour ahead of time. As soon as everyone was there, I did a quick test recording using OBS and the Logitech C920 to check synchronization and video quality. To my relief, everything looked good… on my end, at least.

Everyone’s Streaming

On Sunday March 22nd there were so many more churches streaming than usual, and so many more people watching the streams, that StreamSpot had some issues. We were able to stream without issue (thank goodness) but some of our congregation wasn’t able to watch live. I also recorded the service locally as a backup in case the stream broke partway through.

On a side note, StreamSpot’s CEO sent out a pretty awesome message that evening apologizing for the problems and assuring customers they were already working to scale their infrastructure so that there would not be a repeat of the day’s issues. I was thoroughly impressed with their transparency and forthrightness.

Post-service Debrief

Once the service was over, we watched part of it and were quite pleased with the quality. My wife had watched from home and said having some people off camera was weird, and we agreed. Since everyone was still around, I did a quick test to see if having a second camera under the TV that showed the entire group would be better. We all agreed it looked pretty good.

Since the wider view looked good, we decided to try doing a two-camera setup on the 29th where we’d start out showing everyone and then switch to one focused on the person doing the sermon. (The youth minister was on the schedule for that Sunday.)

New Gear

To pull off our new plan, I needed to get some new gear. I did some research right after getting home and found that we could get everything from Amazon via Prime except for the cameras. Logitech had those in stock though, so I set about putting in two orders:

Direct from Logitech

From Amazon

Shelter in Place

On Tuesday the 24th, our county passed a shelter-in-place order that closed all businesses except for essential services and drive-thru/takeout food. Under the order, all gatherings were also banned. This meant we were not allowed to even be at the church, much less do a broadcast from there. I welcomed this order as it was absolutely the right thing to do, but it also meant we had to reevaluate how to go about serving our congregation… again.

iPhones and iCloud to the Rescue

On Wednesday, our pastor posted a video to Facebook… let’s just say this was a momentous event. Aside from being a wonderful message, his video gave plausibility to an idea: he could record what he wanted to air ahead of time and send it to me via iMessage. Doing so would automagically create an iCloud sharing link that I could then use to pull down the video. This was a welcome development, for sure. I asked him for a sample so that we could both test the transfer process and so I could test the post-processing. Instead of recording a sample, he did one better: he sent me the entire Wednesday video. I did some testing and determined we were in a good spot.

Creating Sunday’s Service

He sent his video for the service over Friday morning. I set about downloading it after I got off work that evening and ran into a delay due to it apparently not having finished uploading. Fortunately, a couple of hours later, it finished uploading which meant I could download it and get to work.

Opposing Video Orientations

Most broadcasts viewed on TV’s, laptops, and tablets expect a landscape orientation but, like most cellphone videos, the one from the pastor was portrait. This meant I had two options: have large black bars on each side of the video or add a background image. Fortunately, not only is my wife good with graphics, she’s also the main administrative person for our church. That combination meant she not only had the graphics we’ve been using lately on the cover of our bulletin and knowledge of what the pastor’s sermon was about, but she also had the skills to make a background for me in a matter of moments. Talk about a winning combination!

Putting it all Together

Now I had everything I needed:

  • our normal intro and outro image that includes our church logo and url
  • the pastor’s recording
  • a background to make things look good

My plan was to load it all up in OBS and treat it like a live broadcast but record it locally instead of streaming it.

Video Format

It was about this time that I realized that I should look up the exact process and requirements around uploading a video to StreamSpot. I knew it was an option, but I had never done it before. Their docs were good, and I settled on using mp4 as the format.

Monitoring OBS

I got it all loaded into OBS and quickly realized I had no idea what needed changing so that I could monitor everything via headphones. I must have spent somewhere between thirty minutes and an hour trying to figure it out before wrapping my head around the related configuration options. It turns out that monitoring is a configuration setting on each audio source.

Creating the Recorded Service

With the monitoring figured out, I could finally start pretending I was streaming and generate the recording. There were a couple of starts and stops as I got the timing of the transition between the intro image and the video just right, but it was smooth sailing after that. A little over 30 minutes later, I had a video I was happy with.

You may be wondering why I went through the hassle of letting the entire thing play through and pretending I was streaming when I could have just used iMovie or some other video editing app… that would be a fair question. There are two reasons: first, I was having an internal debate up until about the last minute whether or not to do a recording or actually stream it; second, I knew there was an option that would be easier but I was drawing a complete and total blank about my options. I think the mental dead space was a result of stressing over getting something usable made in short order.

Simulated Live Broadcast

StreamSpot has a pretty cool feature: you can schedule any video in your archive to stream like it’s happening live. This option meant that I was able to upload the video Friday evening, mark it as hidden, and schedule it to air “live” at 11am on Sunday, March 29th. Since it was in our archive and just hidden from browsing, I was also able to do two other key things:

  1. send our pastor a link to the final product Saturday morning in case he wanted to review it.
  2. send both a streaming link and a download link to the radio station. They chose to utilize the download link so that the entire broadcast was staged locally at the radio station in preparation for Sunday morning.

Sunday March 29th

The service went off without a hitch. I did learn that a simulated live broadcast doesn’t unhide a video but that was quickly resolved Sunday morning by un-toggling the hidden button in StreamSpot.

Stepping It Up a Notch

The 29th proved we could do this fully-remote thing but left a lot of stuff out when compared to one of our normal services. Now that we’d all had time to wrap our heads around our current reality, the staff decided to aim for something a little closer to normal. Aside from just wanting to make it feel more like a normal service, the April 5th was the start of Holy Week, aka Palm Sunday. The plan for Palm Sunday included using multiple self-recorded videos, a couple of clips from a previous service, getting our bulletin up on the website, and at least one Sunday School class getting into lessons via video

Sunday School Videos

I had never imagined that some of our classes would be interested in publishing lessons as videos but am happy they are. We had a lot of back and forth about how best to accommodate this both from a staff/tech team perspective and from a technical perspective. In the end, I am thankful that our staff had the foresight to see that this could easily expand to more than one or two classes and that we needed to have someone other than me responsible for it. As it turns out, our assistant church administrator was itching for a way to contribute. We chatted back a bit and settled on both keeping things consistent and using this as an opportunity to drive more people to our church management app Realm. To that end, we decided that the process for Sunday Schools would be:

  1. send a video from an iPhone or iPad to our assistant church administrator’s iPhone at which point she’d
  2. stage it in Photos so that she could download it to her computer, then
  3. upload it to StreamSpot, and finally
  4. post a link to the video in the Sunday School’s group within Realm.

To facilitate this, I setup a Zoom session with her and a couple of other people to go over the process of getting a recording from someone over to her and then up onto StreamSpot. Everyone took to the process right away.

Clips from Church Members and Staff

Knowing that compiling all this was going to take time, we set a deadline of Thursday at lunch for each person who was doing a video to submit it to me. This was to ensure there was plenty of time for it to actually upload from their device so that I could then download it that evening and compile things on Friday. This went really well.

Assembly in iMovie

With all the clips in hand it was time to start putting things together. I knew I wanted to use iMovie for this so I dove right in. Each clip was shot in portrait orientation so I decided to do like I’d done in OBS and combine them with a background image. After some struggles, I figured out how to layer things in iMovie and was able to get a service put together that included each clip having a background image. After it was all done and exported, I watched some of it and decided I really hated the transitions… everything look choppy and you could really tell the video and background were separate things. Since it seemed that the issue was that the transitions were not being applied to the videos I decided to do the entire service without backgrounds and then over lay that in a second pass on the background… yeah, that didn’t work either. It turns out that once you do that the black bars to the side of the video clips actually become part of the recording so layering is no longer an option.

Adding Backgrounds to Each Clip

After some pondering I decided that the only course of action with the tools I had was to take each clip, add the background to it, export that as a new video, and then use the resulting new videos for the scenes in the service’s video. This took a bit of time to do but worked really well.

Palm Sunday’s Final Assembly

The final pass at putting together the April 5th, Palm Sunday, service went well. I got it uploaded on Friday night and sent information over to the radio station so they’d have what they needed for Sunday morning. The one pain point that I couldn’t do anything about though was that every transition felt rushed to me. To rectify this in future service I asked our staff to be sure to have each person making a video pause after getting into position for 5 seconds before starting their bit and then to also pause for another 5 seconds at the end. My hope was that with this I’d have plenty of buffer to do smooth transitions while allowing more than the blink of an eye to pass between one person speaking and the next.

Our Maundy Thursday Service

A Stumble

The huge expectations that come with Holy Week combined with a very new process finally caught up to us on Saturday April 4th (the day before Palm Sunday) when I got a text from our pastor asking if I’d gotten the videos he was trying to send me. I had no idea what he was talking about but quickly deduced that I was expected to put together a seven-segment devotional in time for our Maundy Thursday service. I also learned that, in addition to this, I needed to add in a clip of our handbells performing from earlier this year. I’m a volunteer so I reached out to our staff and let them know I was more than a little aggravated to have it dropped in my lap with no warning but that I was still willing to do it. Fortunately, we have a wonderful staff and they set about making things right immediately.

When Phones Act Up

I spent a ton of time Saturday going back and forth with our pastor trying to figure out why I wasn’t getting the videos he was sending. He said he was following the same process that had worked previously but nothing we tried seemed to work. We tried some more early on Sunday but around lunch time I threw in the towel and asked if he’d just drop his phone by so I could grab the videos myself and, maybe, figure out what was going on at the same time. He agreed and I was able to get everything sent over, though I never did figure out why thing were being so challenging.

Introducing Trello

Seeing all the moving pieces from Palm Sunday and what was on deck for Maundy Thursday, I sent this message out:

Hi friends! This week was proof that there are a LOT of moving parts to getting a service out the door. It also proved we need something better than a hope and a prayer to do this while not wanting to throw things out the window. To that end, I have made a little project tracking board that I’d like at least Lauren and I to use but would really love if all five of us participated in. The idea is simply to make sure no balls get dropped. If you are game to try this, please go to the link below and join the board. Assuming you all are game, we can all jump on a Zoom to talk about using it if y’all want.

The “little project tracking board” was a board I’d made on Trello. It contained three columns: to do, doing, and done. I added a card for what had gone into Palm Sunday to the done column and created a new one for Maundy Thursday and Easter with what I knew so far. To my surprise everyone seemed pretty happy to give it a go.

Finalizing Maundy Thursday

Tuesday night I ended up staying up quite late so that I could finish this service up. When everything was said and done we had a nice little video with a handbell performance at the beginning followed by the devotional segments from our pastor. My wonderful wife made some last minute graphics to go between each segment and I ended up being really happy with the way it turned out.

Easter’s Service

We may have stepped things up for Palm Sunday but that was nothing compared to what the staff had in mind for Easter. This didn’t come as a surprise though as Easter is always a big deal service-wise for our church. To put this in perspective, here’s the order of events, aka my to do list, that was provided for the services:

  • Welcome and Invocation – video from youth minster and his wife
  • Prelude from Easter 2018: “All Hail the Power of Jesus’ Name” arr. Holden Danny Underwood, organist
  • Call to Worship from Easter 2018 (reading and choir performance)
  • Hymn “Christ the Lord is Risen Today” from Easter 2018
  • Children’s Sermon – video from children’s minister
  • Reading – video from music minister and his wife
  • Prayer for God’s People – video from pastor
  • Lord’s Prayer – video from one of our youth
  • Scripture – Mark 16:1-8 – video from a church member
  • “Alleluia” arr. Hayes Sanctuary Choir from Easter 2018
  • Sermon – video from pastor
  • Stewardship Prayer – video from church member
  • Doxology from Easter 2018
  • Benediction – video from pastor
  • Postlude “Crown Him With Many Crowns” arr. Larson Brass Sextet from Easter 2018

In addition to all the bits above…

  • The prelude and call to worship were going to have a graphic with our meditation on it as the visible bit with the recordings’ audio playing.
  • Similarly, graphics with each stanza’s lyrics would be shown over the hymn.
  • The children’s sermon was in two parts with a series of photos submitted by kids’ parents in the middle
  • A graphic with the words of the Doxology would be over the audio of its recording
  • The postlude would play behind our outro graphic

No biggie.

Putting Easter’s Service Together

Fortunately, everyone was successful in doing the requested pauses at the beginning and end of their videos. All the videos got to me on time and I was able to get backgrounds added to each one Thursday night. Friday I was too tired to work on anything but got to work early Saturday putting things together. While doing so I learned two new things in iMovie: how to split a clip and how to adjust volume levels within a video clip. Working through getting it all assembled I was amazed at how much faster it went than expected. I imagine this is just a byproduct of repetition but, never the less, it was still pleasantly surprising. I actually ended up having everything wrapped up by mid day. Being finished with such an important service was a huge relief too.

See For Yourself

In closing, I wanted to share the fruits of the work talked about here in hopes that it may inspire you both spiritually and with regards to what’s possible with a bit of work:

If the Church body has to be apart physically, this is a wonderful time in history for that to happen. Never have we been able to be so connected when physically distanced. Technology for the win!