John Maher: Hi, I'm John Maher, and I'm here today with Greg Winch, Senior Sign Consultant at Stewart Signs. Welcome, Greg.
Greg Winch: Thank you for calling.
John: Sure. Greg, tell me a little bit about what you do at Stewart Signs.
Greg: Well, 23 years ago yesterday was the first day I worked here. They hired me, among other people, to help work with churches, to help them understand potentially their need, and how to serve their need using outdoor signs and meet that need with a good solution that does a job they hope it would do, and also [that] they can afford.
Church Sign Uses
John: Okay. What are some of the typical uses of a sign for a church?
Greg: Well, for many years ago, we wrote down — we used to call it, I think, our three I's and quite often that was most of the time they at least wanted to use an outdoor sign to identify their church. If they want to identify the church, almost always of course, that meant to have their church name on it, and quite often it's taken a step beyond that. They want to use a sign to inform people that go by, a little more about the church and that's expanding beyond identify. Many times, they took it another step further, as far as I was concerned, and that's what we used to call inspire. Inspire people as you go by — not just bringing a message to him, but inspire them to action.
We used to call it the three I's: identify, inform and inspire.
John: Okay, so obviously identify is letting people know what the name of the church, maybe what the denomination is, things like that. What are some of the other things that would be in that inform category that a church would want to inform the public or maybe inform their members about?
Greg: Depending where the church is planted. If they're planted in a small community inside a residential area is one thing. If they're out next to a major highway, interstate, it's another thing, usually a lot more people pass by. Depending where they are and who their drive-by congregation might be, beyond to let people know who they are, they'd usually use messages they put on the sign and since 1968, when Stewart Signs was simply called the J.M Stewart Corporation back then, most of that was with the black letters that you'd change.
People mainly put out the black letters to let people know what events they had going. Of course, they'd want to share quite often pieces of the gospel or Scripture with the people they'd travel by and probably gave them a little bit of the heartbeat of what's going on at the church, what they can do for their people individually, the individual person or family. The inform part would go beyond identifying, let people know a little more of what the church can do for them in that setting.
Upgrading a Church Sign
John: Right, like you said, upcoming events and maybe what time their services are on the weekend and things like that, right? What types of signs did churches have in the past? You mentioned those, I think what we call them changeable letter signs where somebody would have to go out and physically pull off the letters and put the new letters up, are they changing those now and what are most churches upgrading to?
Greg: That's a good question. As time has gone by, technology changes and it changes regardless of us, so for the last 50 years that our company's been making signs for churches, most of them were the signs with the black letters, the changeable copy letters. On the other hand, because I've been here 20-some years, I saw the trend change quite a bit, about a dozen years ago, where close to half of them start to get an electronic sign of some sort of LED signs now.
Of course the big benefit to that was it was easier to change, and back then they still had to change it from either the church office or in some cases with a handheld infrared remote by standing right in front of it. In the case, somewhere around a dozen years ago, the mid-2000s, some years most churches had started to convert over buying electronic signs for the convenience of it.
John: What type of signs were those 12 years ago? Were those those red letters that you might see on an old school electronic sign?
Greg: Yes, they're pretty much so. The red or amber, we usually call those monochrome, the mono meaning the one, so it's usually one color, but it would have multitudes of shade so it wouldn't look solid red or solid amber but those were the popular colors at that time, kind of red, kind of amber. They were less expensive than full color because in full color you had to have the three colors, RGB: red, green, blue. From RGB you can make just about infinite colors but the three LEDs for each pixel element was a lot more expensive than one LED per pixel.
Yes, for simplicity in technology most of them were monochrome, and churches desperately when they could, try to find a way to afford full color LED sign. That started happening more so a few years later.
John: Why is that you're finding more and more churches are going to full color signs? Is it just that the cost of those is coming way down?
Greg: The cost has come way down, yes sir. Also, of course it gives you more vibrant realistic image just like as we see things in nature, as we see things on television, as we see things on our computer screens. I've been convinced myself the last year just by watching people, everybody I'm around, a high percent of people today, they spend on a screen.
John: That's true.
Greg: They're used to get a computer screen, a high percent of the day at work, or they have their own phone screen, or laptop or iPad, whatever it happens to be. At home of course, quite often it's the television. People's minds gravitate towards screens, and if you give a church a full color screen, just like we see things all day long in full color, in my opinion, I've seen them become more relevant because it's more natural to people's mind to gravitate toward that.
Advantages of LED Signs for Churches
John: Talk a little bit more about what some of the advantages are that LED signs have for churches, especially these full color signs.
Greg: I serve churches in South Texas which is just about as far as you can go down to the Brownsville, Texas-Mexico border. Of course, in the summertime, South Texas is very hot. To go outside and change a message on a sign with the black letters . . . that might take you the better part of a half hour to an hour, is quite uncomfortable for a lot of people. Some of those days it's windy, some of those days it's rainy, and even if it's not, it's usually not a fun thing to do for most people.
Then, I more or less serve churches quite a bit, I-35 North through Oklahoma, which is pretty similar weather but Oklahoma also gets quite a bit of ice and sleet and hail, as well as tornadoes. Obviously you wouldn't change a message during a tornado itself but it shows you the extreme. Then if you keep going, I-35 North, I serve churches all the way up to the Canadian border in Minnesota and that's the other end of the spectrum. I can't imagine people going outside in the winter in Minnesota from probably the end of November through March-ish, something like that, to go out in the snow and ice to change a message very often — and to a large extent I think they don't.
A lot of those churches — their message stays just about the same probably for months on end quite often, until somebody goes out there. Most people nowadays, we're used to comfort, so it's much more convenient with our new technology now that we call SignCommand, that's all one word. On our website, signcommand.com, people can see that they can log in to signcommand.com, wherever they are with a device — whether it's a PC, laptop, their smartphone, whatever — and what we do with their church sign, is we put their church sign on the internet.
We either bring the internet from their church building out to the side, or we bring it to them via, for example, a Verizon cell data plan, if their internet service is not that strong. Either way, once their sign has the internet capability and they can connect to the internet, they made it signcommand.com and they can change a message there. [At] that point, they can change a message from their church office, of course, but they can change it from their home, they can change it sitting and having lunch at a cafe, they can change it from the airport, they can change it from across the world. It's just a lot more convenient.
John: That's really, really interesting and like you said, somebody, whoever that is, that's changing the sign, whether it's somebody who works in the office or whether that's the pastor of the church or whatever, they could be away on vacation and still change that sign if they wanted to, or like you pointed out, in the middle of bad weather, in the winter, with a snow storm say, or something like that. Maybe they have to cancel services for that day because of the weather and they could just put up a notice on that sign right away so that people see that.
Greg: We've also found that a lot of our church customers, they're not just interested in what they're doing, they try to tie in their community quite a bit. Like you've seen amber alerts and other alerts, a lot of churches, whether it's weather alerts, that kind of thing, will be in contact with their community, their city, whatever and find out when there's major events going on. Whether it's a catastrophic event, like a weather event, or sometimes even something like near the Fourth of July, some people may not know that there's a big community fireworks down at Swan Lake, whatever it happens to be, and they'll put that on their sign just because it benefits the community.
In either case, it just makes it really quick to get the heartbeat of what a new outdoor convenient LED sign can do to use it for all sorts of purposes.
Fundraising for a New Church Sign
John: How does a church typically raise the funds for a new sign like that? I know that they can be expensive and some churches have smaller budgets. What can a church do to help raise those funds?
Greg: Well, traditionally of course, it's their people and they put the need in front of their people, and it usually works the best for them when they've got a graphic representation of what they're shooting for in a meeting, where somebody like us have created a picture example representing probably their church name on that sign and showing how big it is and what kind of images they can put on their sign and for their sake. Of course, it's got to have the budget with it, so that quite often becomes a target to shoot for. Many times they put that whether it's on Bolton's, or on their private version of the website to the church, sometimes the public website, just depends.
That becomes at least one of their fundraisers for potentially the near future or sometime it's the long term future. Later on, it becomes, maybe sooner than later, which makes him happy and us happy too, because we love having new customers that can use their sign for the gospel's sake. Almost always it's at least a few months, many times many months, quite often, it's not unusual to a year or two or so, it depends how focused they're in that particular goal.
Sometimes it is something where somebody donates a large chunk of the money, sometimes maybe completely. Once in a while, somebody's investment has paid off or they've sold a property and they donate money. Sometimes in honor of a recent loved one that's passed on, they use some of that money to donate toward the sign, both are pretty common. In that case, sometimes it happens sooner than later, but I'd say fundraiser among the church folks is number one and also donation from individuals from big events tend to be not too far behind that I'd say.
Exceptional Customer Service
John: That's great that if the church contacts you, you can help mock that up and put together graphics and things like that, or a presentation, that they could show to their congregation. That says, "Hey this is what we're shooting for. This is what it's going to look like when it when it's on our property.", and that helps give people a real idea of, "Hey if I, if I donate some money to my church for this particular sign, I know what I'm getting in advance." It's not just some kind of amorphous thing that they don't understand.
Greg: A lot of those people have found out when they contact us at Stewart Signs, this is now our 51st year doing this. Even though the vast majority of those people we don't get to meet personally, still a high percent, I can't say most, but a pretty high percent of churches either are now part of a denomination or were recently part of a denomination where we just happened to have been at least for a couple decades, in some cases three or four decades or more, their denomination's official recommended sign company.
Sometimes those people, or that board, or that church have known of us directly or indirectly through the years, and maybe decades where even though they may not meet us personally unless they see us at a convention. Once in a while, we the people that, like myself are consultants, we had to go onsite meet people. Quite often there is a comfort level because of a reputation that's been established over five-plus decades and that helps make when we do a sign design or rendering for on a sketch, and the proposal includes the budget and a plan on how to get there. Quite often their confidence levels up versus some other folks that don't primarily serve churches that just might say, make signs for anybody.
John: What would be the church's first step if they wanted to learn more about a sign and find out what type of sign might be best for them?
Greg: If they want to just read up on their own at any point in time, our website is excellent, and that's stewartsigns.com. It's S-T-E-W-A-R-T-S-I-G-N-S.com. Very good. They can learn a whole lot in there. On the other hand, each area of the United States and even outside the U.S. has consultants that are regional consultants that work with churches and our other divisions which includes schools and other institutions in that area. If they reach one of the consultants that serve other churches like theirs in that area, we probably know a fair little bit about what it's going to take to do a good job there.
If they look at our website, it's real good. Get a heads-up of some general things about outdoor signs for churches or other divisions, or schools, or other institutions. If you talk to one of us, not just email but actually talk to one of us, we usually get a better idea of their heartbeat and what they want and hopefully we can respond to that with some experience, intelligence, and guidance to help them get where they want to go.
John: All right. That's really great information, Greg. Thanks again for speaking with me today.
Greg: Thank you, John.
John: For more information about church signs visit stewartsigns.com.