The Indianapolis Center for Congregations has worked closely with dozens of congregations in selecting computer software as well as hardware and has reviewed and compared more than fifty Congregational Management Software (CMS) packages now on the market. If your congregation is considering using CMS for the first time or needs to change existing software, consider the following tips from the Indianapolis Center:
- Get help in locating the right package. Check with congregations similar to yours; look at magazines focusing on congregation business and technology, such as Church Business or Christian Computing; consult local or national chapters of organizations like the National Association of Church Business Administration (NACBA) or the Christian Management Association (CMA); take advantage of Internet search engines.
- Look for appropriate features. Recognize that practices and culture vary, so match software features with the practices of your congregation. Some examples: Have you recently eliminated the use of numbered offering envelopes? Some software requires that pledges or contributions be recorded by envelope number, and it will be extremely frustrating (not to mention hard to explain) if your new software package requires using numbered envelopes again. When recording attendance, do you want to keep track of who received communion? Some programs allow this but others do not. Does your congregation have people with identical first and last names? Much of the software currently on the market does a poor job of making the necessary distinctions, especially when recording contributions or attendance. Remember that there is no such thing as a perfect CMS for your congregation’s particular practices. There are, however, products that are better matches than others to your congregation’s needs.
- Current users can give you a realistic picture. Talk to users of any software you seriously consider. Some vendors will provide lists of local users of their product. Ask other congregations about quality, ease of use, technical support and training. What do they wish they had thought about before they made a selection?
- Consider converting (converting data, that is!). Determine how current information will be entered into the new software. Can data be moved electronically to the new CMS, or do you wish to enter all information by hand? Some products provide data importing tools that allow you to convert data in-house, some require the software vendor to convert the data from your current database for you (usually at an additional cost), and others make no provision for entering data electronically.
- Capitalize on compatibility. The compatibility and integration of membership, attendance, and contribution data are the chief benefits of CMS packages to congregational ministry. It is most important, therefore, that all of this information be contained within one database. We recommend that you choose a CMS package for your congregation based upon this consideration rather than on accounting or other features. If necessary, different software may be used for accounting (Quicken, QuickBooks, Peachtree, and others), scheduling (Event Management Systems (EMS) Lite) and inventory tracking (perhaps a generic database within an office suite).
- Do not undervalue training and support. Develop training plans and a generous training budget for each person who will use the software. The most frequent mistake made by new CMS users is lack of adequate training. Many helpful features remain unused or underutilized because users have not had enough training! Ask software providers what training is available and take their advice. Some sponsor regional user groups, which can be a great help to both new and experienced users. We also recommend that congregations purchase and maintain the technical support (sometimes called maintenance support) offered by the vendor. In its most common form, this support provides unlimited telephone calls and free or deeply discounted software updates for an annual fee. We have also learned that volunteer support provided by congregation members who are technology professionals, while inexpensive, more often than not becomes problematic. While well meaning and competent in their own areas, they usually do not know the ins and outs of CMS and always seem to get transferred to another state just when you have learned to rely on them!
Here are three CMS packages we regularly recommend to local congregations, based upon a combination of features, quality and price:
Servant Keeper includes membership, attendance, and contribution functions, with automatic links to Quicken or QuickBooks accounting software. It offers a rich array of features often found in more expensive products, such as complete name fields, data tables designed specifically for recording an individual’s gifts and services to the congregation, and multiple formats for contribution statements. Servant Keeper is very easy to use, and its technical support staff receives high marks for responsive assistance to users. www.servantpc.com
LOGOS offers comprehensive church management, financial management, and scheduling modules as basic options. The church management module contains displays and features useful to medium- and large-size congregations. The data tables for gifts and services provide a nice balance of flexibility and ease of use. The financial management module is intended specifically for congregations who need fund accounting and reporting functions, and the scheduling component is the best we’ve seen within a CMS. Any one or combination of these three modules may be used. www.logoslbe.com
ACS (Automated Church Systems) provides a most complete array of functions potentially needed by congregations of different sizes and faith traditions. It has many modules that can be combined to suit your congregation’s requirements. The contributions module is outstanding, offering the best pledge/gift information screens and contributions entry process that we have evaluated. Membership (called People) has an extensive set of individual and family data fields and a very powerful activities section for skills/service/participation notations. The financial modules, several in number, can accommodate even the largest congregation’s fund accounting needs. The scheduling module is new and adequate, but not particularly easy to understand or use. Because of the higher level of power and sophistication of some features, particularly in finance, more training hours may be required for ACS than with most other software. Purchase price, training, and technical support can make this software one of the most expensive to use, but ACS offers reduced pricing for smaller congregations. www.acshome.com
Nancy Armstrong is a resource consultant with the Indianapolis Center for Congregations (www.centerforcongregations.org). She is a church administrator who specializes in the area of computer technology. She is co-leader of a series of workshops entitled Computers and Ministry: Making Technology Work for Your Congregation.
A Site of Your Own
Sound complicated? It’s not! Thanks to tremendous progress in Internet technology, a fully functional, professional-looking Web presence is not only affordable but also easy to maintain. A turnkey, ready-to-go site you can update yourself shouldn’t take more than a few hundred dollars and a couple of hours of work.
Your site should be more than a simple home page with pictures and service hours. Consider some of the things you can do online:
- Share your vision
- Communicate with members
- Encourage visitors
- Create an events calendar
- Accept payments and tithing
- Display pictures
- Identify prayer requests
- Post and archive sermons
- Develop a pictorial member directory
- Provide a guest book
- Post your bulletin
- Conduct private meetings
- Send greeting cards
A couple of years ago, a site offering these services would have cost thousands of dollars and required an extensive knowledge of the Internet to maintain. Today, maintenance is much simpler, and multiple levels of security allow several people to get involved.
So what do you do?
- Strategize. Weigh and understand the importance of your Web site—don’t sell your congregation short. Make solid short-term decisions that support your long-term strategy.
- Prioritize. Choose your needs from the features listed above, recognizing that your site is a work-in-progress.
- Go shopping. Numerous companies, including local Web developers and several national players, offer programs specifically designed for churches. Observe the Web site of any potential partner. Does it look professional? Ask for testimonials from current customers.
- Consider costs. Look into all aspects of the pricing. If an online giving tool is provided, are there costs to the church in terms of application fees, depository requirements or transactional fees? Is there an additional cost for member e-mail?
- Consider revenues. Ask your vendor about Internet fundraising opportunities such as online malls (when members shop, the congregation gets a commission) or permission-based e-mail marketing to members, which can raise enough money to pay for the site.
- Evangelize. By all means, promote your site to prospective members and encourage existing ones to visit regularly. See if your provider offers marketing materials such as bulletin inserts or outdoor signs.
- Stay up to date. Assign several key members the responsibility of maintaining the site. Keep the events calendar current and continually integrate new information and pictures.
- Have fun. This is the easiest way to encourage utilization. Integrate into your site ways to highlight certain areas of your ministry, promote the spirit of sharing, and build community. Experience the joy of communicating and learning from others.
Ed Weaver is founder and CEO of ChurchMatters, Inc. (www.churchmatters.com). For the last three years he has dedicated himself to better understanding the Internet and applying this knowledge to help churches more effectively expand their ministry through technology. He has also held various corporate managerial positions.