The 157-year-old Ebenezer United Methodist Church, in Stafford, VA, a suburb of Washington, D.C., has grown considerably in the 10 years since its current sanctuary opened.
Now, as the housing slump of the last five years begins to recede, the church is watching as construction of an estimated 1,800 new homes is poised to start on land adjacent to the church’s lot, with hundreds more homes in the area also planned for.
That represents a huge potential new base for the church, which currently serves 1,200 congregants in its 500-seat sanctuary. At the same time, the proximity of all of this new residential construction limits the church’s options for its own expansion.
The irony of the possibility of a huge influx into the church’s community and the limited number of options that it brings with it is not lost on James Mills, Ebenezer UMC’s director of Technology. “We’re geographically unique,” he says, also noting the church’s nearness to the United States Marine Corps’ headquarters base in Quantico, VA. “We’re about to have 1,800 new homes right next to us and the questions we’re asking ourselves is, how best to serve them? Do we go multi-site? Do we move to a larger site? Every option will come with a huge cost.”
For the time being, the big questions will have smaller answers. The first strategic response to actual and potential expansion of the congregation was to adds services, from four to five, making better use of all 24 hours on a Sunday and had the effect, says Mills, of “adding 500 more seats.”
The church now has four morning services and one evening service on Sundays, with three of them being contemporary worship style. This has underscored the shortcomings of A/V systems designed for the church the way it was a decade ago. A central-cluster main PA system and analog Mackie FOH mixer were sufficient for spoken word and traditional types of worship music but, Mills realized, they were underpowered for larger, the more energetic services the church was moving towards.
With budget considerations hanging over them, the church has embarked on a strategy of upgrading the A/V systems one piece at a time, starting with the sound system. The first piece in the A/V puzzle was the addition of a new Yamaha CL5 digital console, in time for the launch of its fourth morning service.
“Our decision to replace our existing analog console was based on three major factors,” states Mills. “It had to be a digital console since we have a tight turn-around of 15 minutes between services, and attempting to use an analog board to get accurate sound levels at each service would be very difficult. The console also had to physically fit in a tight space. And, as a church, we wanted to spend our money as wisely as possible, so looking at the long-term picture, it made sense to go with the CL5 knowing there would be plenty of room for growth.”
The new console also expanded the number of inputs on the stage to 32, and in the process allowed them to go to a networked pair of CAT-5 strands instead of 14 new copper-wire runs. “The console also has a lot of nice features that make it friendlier to our volunteer-operator environment, including channel labeling and plenty of room for custom banks,” he says.
The new console is also the pivot for the next phase of A/V upgrade, which Mills says will almost certainly be a replacement of the house sound system, from the current cluster design to a line array.
“We’ve really noticed that the existing system has really not kept up with our growth,” Mills says, noting that they’ve had to add fill speakers to improve coverage and subs to accommodate contemporary music. Assuming the church’s two projectors continue to hold up, video upgrades will likely follow in a few years.
In addition to enhancing the worship experience, what an upgraded A/V complement will do is give Ebenezer UMC a bit of breathing room as it tries to plot its next strategic moves to accommodate an expansion of its community. Mills points out that most new systems, like the Yamaha digital console, can come with the church if it decides to move, and digital’s lower overall costs and economies help reduce costs if they choose to go for satellite locations.
“There are a lot of decisions we’re going to have to face,” he says. “At least for the console, that’s one we’ve already made.”