An in-depth group conversation with four former staff church filmmakers on the highs and lows of working at a church.
If this was one of those posts on Medium at the top it would say “820734 Minute Read”, but it is loaded with all sorts of good wisdom from four former staff church filmmakers, so grab a warm beverage, snuggle by the fire, and enjoy!
For this virtual round-table conversation we’ve got:
Ezra Cohen – Former Producer @ Gateway Church in Dallas
Bernardo Marentes – Former DP @ Elevation Church in Charlotte
Bjorn Amundsen – Former DP/Editor/Colorist @ Willow Creek Church in Chicago
Chris Francis – Former DP @ Rock Church in San Diego (that’s me)
Without further adieu, let’s jump in:
What did you do before getting a job as a church filmmaker? What was your background?
Ezra: Well for me, before working as a church filmmaker, I was… working as a church filmmaker. I developed a love for filmmaking when I was a young kid in my youth group, working for kid’s ministry on the weekends. I saw a need for some video content in that area and just started figuring stuff out – borrowing cameras, writing little stories, casting my little brothers, and editing on a Fujitsu Lifebook with Sony Vegas. So not the most glamorous beginnings but I learned super young how to try and be as resourceful as possible. And along the way, I had some amazing people helping me out and teaching me little tricks here and there. I definitely wouldn’t be a filmmaker today if it weren’t for those “big brother” type dudes at the church.
Bernardo: My first two full time jobs out of college were actually at churches, so before that I was doing some freelance work. I grew up in a missionary family, so all over the place, but I wasn’t really familiar with the whole MegaChurch world. Growing up a church was a “big” church when there were 200 people at a service.
Bjorn: I started out in graphic design to motion design to photography, and finally filmmaking. All of those disciplines helped me develop an aesthetic and the ability to communicate visually. I had seen the first nooma video during a service and thought “I want to do something like that” but it wasn’t until I got behind a camera that I really fell in love with filmmaking.
Chris: After graduating college from Indiana University, I packed my bags and moved to California to chase the dream. Unfortunately this was about two months before the housing market crashed and caused the recession of 2007, so by the time I got situated nobody was paying to have videos made. As a result I was putting that degree to use while delivering pizzas for Dominoes by day and trying to not freak out by night.
How did you get your job as a church filmmaker?
Ezra: Moving into a fulltime position was a pretty natural transition simply because of the effort that I’d put in to the little stuff at Gateway along the way. Right before coming on as a producer at Gateway Church, I had also done a year of freelance as well as a year producing and editing multicam live recordings and testimony videos at Christ for the Nations Institute – the Bible school I went to. So I thankfully had a little more to show for myself than the really poorly done kids ministry videos I had started out doing.
Bernardo: I was looking for something full time. As I was getting ready to graduate, I was trying to decide between going out to LA or NYC and try to work my way up the system or try something else. The something else I wanted was to be able to go into an agency in a smaller market and basically just start working on commercials. I knew I didn’t want to go out to the big markets and spend a couple of years being a PA, so I decided to try the second option. I thought I’d just walk in and they’d be hiring a DP/Director/Writer. Unfortunately that just wasn’t the case, a job where I could jump in and have a role that allowed me to make creative decisions and work on a level of a director or DP just wasn’t a real thing, specially with no real experience. It was a job that didn’t exist.
I tried to reach out to agencies and production companies, while working on freelance projects, but it didn’t really lead to what I wanted. One day I saw a video that an old classmate had posted. It was a great video, but what really caught my eye was that he had produced it for a church. Like I mentioned before, I just wasn’t aware of megachurches and definitely did not know that churches had media departments that were creating content. It opened my eyes to the possibilities and I started looking for these churches and I applied to a couple of openings I found.
This process led to me being hired by a church outside of Tampa. I met some great people and had amazing leadership around me that really got me excited about what I was doing and the “world” I had stepped into. I really enjoyed my time there but after a while, an opportunity came up to work at Elevation Church and my wife and I made the decision to pack up and move to Charlotte.
Bjorn: I had always done volunteer or basement wage work for non-profits and churches that I believed in. This gave them something they needed but couldn’t afford and allowed me the opportunity to get real world experience, develop a portfolio and meet the people who eventually hired me or recommended me for other work. It was through connections to these people that i got offered a full time job at Willow Creek, where worked for 4.5 years.
Chris: After feeling the frustration/depression of being 2,500 miles from home to deliver pizzas, I gave up on trying to make money through filmmaking and started emailing churches that had homeless ministries and offered my services to make a mini-documentary for them for free. After a couple months of people rejecting my free offers (come on people, it was FREE!!!) a big church gladly took me up on my offer. Long story short after a few months of working on it, I showed it to them, they loved it and signed me on as a full-time contractor a few days later.
What was the best part of making films for a church?
Ezra: There were a few “best parts” of working at Gateway. First, I believe in the power of the Gospel wholeheartedly – and not just the New Testament – the whole thing. I feel like I come alive a little bit every time I get to help connect the Old to the New and the New to the present (if that makes sense). Any chance I get to help develop a new connection point to the big picture version of the story through video or songs or creative stuff is a win for me.
Second, I got to pour back into my home church. I had been at the church for almost 8 years by that point, and it really was (and in many ways, is) still home to me. I met all my best friends there, played in the youth group bands, etc. It was a place that really molded me and helped me step into all the creative dreams that I had at the time. So getting to give back and bring a perspective to life in video that I had developed through being a member of the church was really awesome.
Third, I had a ton of creative freedom with a lot of growing resources – by the end of my time there we had a team of around 15 and we were shooting on Red Epics. I got to produce a big variety of content too – from event recaps to 3 minute mini docs to abstract conference openers to :30 promos. It was a really amazing time of getting to dream in and explore a few different genres.
Bernardo: The best part was getting to create right away. It was exactly the type of job I was looking for. I was able to jump in and basically do everything myself. As the teams grew I was able to work with more people in specialized positions, but it was amazing to be able to direct and DP from day one.
The people I worked with were incredible and it was so much fun to be surrounded by so many creative people.
I also loved that everything was so purposeful. Every video meant something and there were so many opportunities to connect and reach people through the work we were doing, whether it be a documentary about someone’s life that moved people to reexamine their own life, or an opener or creative element that set the tone and prepared people emotionally for the sermon or whatever they were about to experience.
Bjorn: The best part is working with people you love to create beautiful things to make the world a better place. Thats really what I want to do for the rest of my life. It was also a kind of film school for me. How can we put together ambitious pieces every week on a compressed timeline with few resources? Learning how to use the constraints to our benefit and saying “ok, here’s what we have available, what can we make out of this?”
When we had a crew I was thankful for it, but more often than not I was DP/AC/Gaffer/Grip/PA/DIT/
In the early days, since I didn’t have a dedicated camera team I forced myself to focus less on all the technical minutia and endless accessories of filmmaking and focus more on just storytelling. I didn’t want to get bogged down moving tripods, relighting, and reconfiguring matteboxes, swapping lenses, etc. As I’ve matured as a filmmaker and I’ve been able to have access to more support in the camera department and am able to appreciate those kinds of things, without relying on them to do good work, and I think thats served me well.
I’m someone who can tweak endlessly and the relentless deadlines taught me how to be very efficient and how to prioritize and to let something go when its not perfect. When I first started I’d spend hours and hours on a visual effect or a color grade, but the story was still weak. I had to learn how to really focus on the most important parts of storytelling first. I also learned how to be organized with footage and projects. I had to develop workflows that would let me spend less time on the mechanics of shooting or editing, because deadlines were always just a few days away.
Chris: Friendships for sure. When I moved out here I knew exactly 1 person in the whole state. My co-workers became my best friends and still are to this day. Also, I met my wife on staff, so that was a pretty good benefit, too 🙂
Ezra: Throughout everything, I think the hardest part for me was seeing how the resources of our team were being put to use. A lot of that we didn’t have control over, and it seemed like we were just an internal agency making ads for church events – when we all knew the power of the potential when you can use video/film to convey stories that actually change lives. To me, I have a really hard time justifying the expense of video announcements (which last for 1 play) vs testimonies, short films, video sermons, etc. which can last on the web forever.The other super hard thing which I’m sure all church video guys can relate to was always operating like a one-man-band. I probably did this to myself because I think I had some serious trust issues at the time, but I constantly found myself feeling burned out after writing, pitching, producing, directing, shooting, and editing 5 projects at the same time (naturally so).
Chris: Being as it was my first real job, there was a lot of things that weren’t my favorite – basically because I didn’t know how real jobs worked. I had zero professional development going in so it took me a while to realize that I’m an independent, introvert, entrepreneur, which now explains why I hated 90% of all meetings, why sharing an office drained me, and why I’d get totally deflated when people didn’t let me do whatever I wanted to do. Looking back I don’t know how some of my team members put up with me, haha.
How did you know it was time to move on?
Ezra: I knew it was time to move on when I saw that (see answer 4) none of those concerns seemed to be understood. If the goal was simply to become a better commercial director, then I knew I needed to take the next step.
Bernardo: For me, it was just a matter at looking ahead and trying to decide if where I was now, was where I wanted be in 5-10 years. I had been working at the two churches the whole time I had been married and the time commitment and just general commitment in working for a church was something that I didn’t really want to be dealing with forever. I had also seen other people in my position just burn out and leave in a bad way. It kind of ruined the church for them and ended a lot of great relationships and I didn’t want to go through that. I loved the church I was with and loved, still love, all the people I was able to work with every day ( and many many nights) so I wanted to leave on a good note, before I was overburdened and the experience turned sour. I think when you know you know, and it was just the right time for me to leave.
Bjorn: One of my friends on staff asked me “what are you doing now that is helping you become the artist you want to be in 5 years?” and my heart sank because the answer was “Nothing”. It got to the point where I was just getting things done and I wasn’t growing as an artist. I didn’t have the time to really develop ideas in prep or in post. I was relying on the same old tricks because we didn’t have the time margin to really try new approaches, or the financial margin to work with new people, or new kinds of gear. It felt like timelines and budgets were shrinking while expectations were increasing. I was also getting asked to do more freelance work on bigger kinds of projects and was having to turn those down. Willow was a great place to be, but when what I wanted to do, and what Willow needed me to wasn’t lining up, I knew it was time to move on.
Chris: I could see the writing on the wall about a year before I left. The trajectory of my skills and abilities were going in the opposite direction of the needs of the church. They were wanting more content in less time and were ok with a dip in quality to get there and I was wanting to create less content with more time and an increase in quality. I didn’t want to leave all my friends and I wasn’t ready to jump into freelance, so I found creative ways to keep myself engaged for another year (and to save up some money). I also met my wife in that year, so it was a total God thing that He let me stick around.
What are you up to now?
Ezra: Immediately after my time at Gateway, I spent a year at Musicbed as the lead producer and the manager of the film team there. I got to work with some incredibly talented dudes like Christian Schultz (also a former church filmmaker), Ben Joyner, Michael Leiato, Ryan Booth, and Lucas Harger. Getting to settle into a team with more dedicated roles (director, dp, etc) was really amazing and a huge breath of fresh air. And along the way, we got to put out some cool work (I think) including a series of multi-cam live performances called Musicbed Sessions and a feature length documentary called MAKE.
But now, I’m back in the freelance world and really really loving it. I’ve got some really amazing clients, and I’m loving the challenge of building a career and a company of my own. I guess that’s the producer in me. I love creating and dreaming, but I also love the business side of things. I’m quickly learning that I have a TON to quickly learn. But it’s incredible.
Bjorn: I’m currently based in the Chicagoland area as a freelance DP. I still do contract work with Willow Creek, and have been fortunate enough to work with lots of other talented people, companies, churches, and organizations that are making the world a better place.
What advice would you have for someone who’s currently a church staff filmmaker?
Ezra: The advice I would give to someone working as a filmmaker at a church is to stick with it and fight for the things that are good. Fight to use the time and the resources you have to create videos that can have a lasting impact. Learn what you can from being an efficient video announcement producer, but don’t forsake discovering the stories of the people in your church and the opportunity to share the Gospel more through those stories. On a more craft-based level, treat every project like all of Vimeo is going to see it. Take pride in every video and do everything you can to make it the best thing you’ve ever done. Ask the advice of everyone around you – fellow filmmakers and oblivious audience members and you’ll expand your perspective.Also, think big picture and build towards where you want to go. I specifically produced certain videos to add different types of work to my reel. I’m rambling, but the long story short is… Be faithful with little and you’ll be given much. You never know who’s watching. I got the job at Musicbed because I worked my butt off on a wedding video for someone at the church and the right person noticed.And final advice would be, when the time is right to leave, do it respectfully and quietly and carefully. The way you leave one place is the way you’ll start in the next.
Bernardo: Enjoy it. There’s definitely nothing like it anywhere else. Find balance in your work and personal life. Don’t feel like the only way you can be a Christian or serve God is by being at a church. There’s plenty of opportunities for ministry and work outside the walls of a church. And lastly, when you feel like you’re ready to leave, talk to the leadership around you, you might be right and its time to leave, but maybe you can be a part of rebuilding or changing something within the media team that allows you to stay. Either way, leave before it gets terrible. This way you get to keep your church and you get to keep your friends.
Bjorn: Find a good producer, and if you can’t hire them, see if they’ll volunteer. They’ll be honored you asked. Even if they have no experience, someone with administrative gifts and a won’t-take-no-for-an-answer will change the quality of your films.Stop copying other churches or other cool people on Vimeo. Learn what you like about what they do, but find your own voice. For real. This is why church culture is always behind the rest of culture, because it ends up being an echo chamber.If you are assigned a boring video, it is up to you to make it not be boring. Find a way to make the process and end result something you can be proud of. Figure out how to turn the work they want you to do into the work you want to do.Make every project a chance to learn something new. Bigger budgets does not mean better work. The most embarrassing video I ever made had the biggest budget.Cameras/lenses don’t matter. Cameras/lenses are really important. Both of these are true. Learn how to live in that tension. Just remember if you have the best camera/lenses in the world, but what you’re shooting is boring, no one will care. Good lighting makes even crappy cameras look great.
Learn how to pitch your ideas well. That’s the difference between doing the work you want to do and the work that the decision makers think they want you to do.
Don’t worry too much about how “the industry” does things (yet). The church is not “the industry”. You have a lot of unique challenges and opportunities that require you to solve your problems differently. Lean into that.
You’re doing good work, and it’s really hard. Don’t give up.
Chris: Stay as humble as possible and repent often, haha. My biggest warning would be to avoid becoming cynical and critical at all costs. Being behind the scenes you’re probably going to see, hear, and experience stuff that can leave you jaded if you’re not taking responsibility to steward your own thriving and intimate relationship with Jesus. When the Bible talks about continually renewing your mind I think the translators forgot to include the part right after that that reads “Especially for you, church employees!”
Other than that, I’d want you to know that in my experience it’s the relationships you make while working at your church that are going to be the biggest indicator of your success when you move on to your next gig. 90% of all the jobs I’ve landed in the last 2 years have came through my relationships I developed during my time at the church. I don’t have any Vimeo Staff Picks to my name, never had anything go viral, have rarely been hired for my reel, and yet I couldn’t be happier with how things are going with my company.
I’ve realized that “in the real world” very few clients want “the best” and they aren’t spending their time scouring Vimeo for the hot, new talent. Most of them want to work with people who communicate well, are reliable, honest, kind and consistently deliver “really good” work. It’s been my experience that the clients who value those things are finding me by asking the people in their circles of friends/coworkers if they know anyone that fits that description and our mutual connection not only thinks of me and my team, they convince the client that I’m their guy.
To keep tabs on everyone and see what their up to, here are a few links: