Technology in Ministry

Tim Isbell (updated 5/2014)

Table of Contents

Table of Contents

Let’s collaborate.

Over-riding Themes:

Develop an Integrated Framework

Build-out your domain

Move to Cloud Computing

Personal tools for ministry

Office tools

Study and sermon prep tools

Tablets for preaching

Social media

Photos

Music

Backups

Communication and marketing tools

Websites

Broadcast live to your Youtube account and through your website

Email newsletters

Author rank

Other such things:

Church management tools

Collaborative tools

Build document libraries in the cloud

Invitations and specialized greeting cards

Church calendar(s)

Financial accounting software

People database technology

Volunteer coordination

Telephones

Worship technology

Core presentation software

Sound systems

Videos

Cost considerations

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Let’s collaborate.

This document contains a list of the many technologies used around churches. In many cases I provide a link to a manufacturer, but I’m sure many readers have additional (and perhaps better) recommendations or advice. So please share your experience/advice with me clicking on Contact Tim.

Over-riding Themes:

  1. The advantages of an integrated framework over a collection of hot tools.
  2. The value of building-out your “domain.”
  3. It’s time to take advantage of cloud computing - for more than just storage.

Develop an Integrated Framework

It is impossible to purchase all the technology tools we need to run a church from one vendor. But it is wise to settle on one vendor who can supply as many of the tools as possible, stick with this vendor as much as possible. The results in tools are more consistent with each other: the human interfaces are more familiar, the “help” system framework is the same for each product, and so on. If instead we select the hottest individual software tool for each application we will soon discover that they do their own job nicely enough, but don’t integrate very well with adjacent tools. In the long run, efficiency of operation is more about the integration of tools into a usable framework than trying to glue together the hottest individual tools.

One example of a vendor that you can use for your basic framework is Google, with the side-benefit that it's virtually free.  All you need to get started is to sign up for a free gmail account and you immediately have access to a wide variety of tools (email, contacts, calendars, task managers, documents, photos, videos, collaboration groups, website hosting... ) with the potential to integrate a lot of church functions. And as your needs grow, most of their products remain free, especially for non-profits!

Build-out your domain

Most churches purchase a domain name so that their website is easy for people to find and remember. A good website host offers many ways for you to build out your domain, greatly improving your organization’s effectiveness. So look for a place to host your domain that offers a toolbox of applications. For example, hosting your domain at Google Apps Account (free) makes it easy to create additional websites (also free) as subdomains. And having your own domain enables you to create consistent and easy-to-remember email addresses for your staff and ministry leaders. You can develop a very efficient church calendar system, collaborate on ministry projects easier, and many more.

Check out Michael Hyatt’s book: Platform - Get Noticed in a Noisy World. It is about even more than building out your domain, it’s about the broader concept of building out your “platform.” This is something worth considering for yourself, and also for your church or non-profit.

In today’s world, building out your domain also includes your connections to social media.

Move to Cloud Computing

As churches use more and more software technologies, simply maintaining backups and the church’s computing environment takes ever increasing time and skill. Moving data and applications to the cloud greatly simplifies the need for your own IT person/department. Cloud computing inherently offers built-in backup. All you need is a browser to access your tools and your data - whether you are working in the office, at a local coffee shop, at home, or are operating from somewhere on the road -  even out of the country. If you can access a computer’s browser, your entire computing world is available to you. Cloud computing also offers rich ways to collaborate with other team members, even if they're a thousand miles away. And I don’t mean just by sending emails, I mean really collaborating. Cloud computing is cheap, almost free - far cheaper than the old pc-centric model.

Since August 2012 my own files are completely in the cloud. I use Google Drive for everything except my personal financial files (which I upload every 2 weeks to Quicken Cloud backup). Google's 15Gb of free storage is enough for all my data, including my pictures (I admit, I don't take a lot of pictures!). And when I need more can  upgrade to 100Gb of memory for justs $1.999/month!

For additional perspective on Cloud Computing see this post by Jamie Hart. 

Personal tools for ministry

Office tools

Such as text processing, presentation software, spreadsheets, databases, address books, task managers, and so on. Historically, churches used Microsoft Office running on their local computers. OpenOffice is an open-source (free) version of a large subset of these same tools. It also runs on your local computer.

Better approaches are now available in cloud computing: Google Drive (Docs), Apple iCloud, Microsoft Office 365 (with annual subscription fee). While these don’t offer quite all the functionality of the desktop versions, they offer a complete complement of office software tools. The convenience and cost savings of moving to the cloud more than compensates.

Here’s an excellent 15 minute Youtube tutorial on an Introduction to Google Docs.

If you are using a Google doc you may not see a spell checker. That’s because the Google tools don’t have one; instead the spell checker is in the Chrome browser. So click on Chrome’s control button (the 3 horizontal lines in the upper right hand corner), go down to Settings, then down to Advanced Settings where you will see the option to turn on spell checking. If you are using a different browser you may not have spell checking available.

Study and sermon prep tools

I’ll leave this for another time.

Tablets for preaching

It’s time for preachers to consider moving away from the distraction of shuffling paper notes while preaching and move to tablet-based preaching notes. The first decision is on how big a tablet to use, the second is the format/font size that they can easily see. One benefit is the ease of editing within minutes of entering the platform. If your content is stored in the cloud, another consideration is the reliable wifi. Proclaim is a software product you can download onto a tablet (Droid or Apple). It includes the capacity to display the Presentation Slides alongside your preaching notes.

Social media

Consider opening a Google+ and a Facebook page presence. My experience is that Google+ has the more depth and adult-level communications. Facebook has more users and has the most trivial chit-chat.

If you are a pastor, your Facebook account will help you know what’s going on in the lives of your youth, and even of your adults. This is quite useful if you are not too active yourself, but use these mainly to know the heartbeat of your people and the culture.

Google+ is organized around Circles, and there is a significant category of Circles called Communities. These are organized around topics and are very valuable for getting into meaningful conversations about all kinds of things. For instance, there’s a Community for Church Tech which I joined. It is a place to process the exact sorts of things that this Technology in Ministry document focuses on. There are also Communities focused on Google Sites, Google Drive, Google Apps in Education, Christians in Business, Christian Music, Personal Finance, Preaching, Youth Ministry, and on and on. Plus, you can start your own Community, and make it either private or public.

Consider an online (live) class or Bible Study with Google+ Hangouts. I much prefer face-to-face Bible studies but there is a place for some online options. In some churches there are enough older people who can’t get out in the evenings but are Internet-savvy enough to participate in an online study. Also, there may be some parents, especially single moms, who can’t leave their child at home alone but could participate in an online study after their children are tucked in bed.

My advice: keep politics out of your social media unless you are in a sub-community where the topic is politics. Avoid inviting people into online games. These may be attractive to some readers, they are unattractive to far more. Avoid trivia, like pictures of yourself in a restaurant with a description of the minutia of your life. Before you post anything, think carefully from the perspective of all the readers who might read your post. There’s no way to reel in an inappropriate post!

Photos

There are many ways to work with photos. Some are expensive; some are free. I use Picasa on my desktop (free from Google), and Google+ > Photos.

I seldom print high quality photos; mostly I just use them on the web. So I default to Standard size, which stores for free in Google. But you can default to Full size if you want.

Occasionally run the download version of Picasa on my laptop for the precise editing. I sync some of my desktop albums with Google+, which stores everything in the cloud.

I run the Picasa app on my Droid Smartphone and use its Auto Upload feature, set to run only when I have a Wifi connection and am connected to an ac adaptor. These upload to the Auto Upload album in my Google+ > Photos. From there I can use them in Google+, or download them to my Picasa desktop environment.

So I can get to my pictures from anywhere, and send/share them in various ways... from email attachments to my Google+ circles to putting them in Google+ albums and sharing them by url.

Music

Apple’s iTunes, Amazon, and Google Play-Music are the major players in this market. You can buy a wide range of music from any of these. They all integrate together pretty well. Since I’m a Google/Droid user, I manage my playlists and such with Google Play-Music. I purchase music from all of the three vendors. I’m also a Pandora user. When I hear a tune on Pandora and click on the “Buy” button, it asks me whether I want to buy it from Apple’s iTunes store or from Amazon. Both do a fine job of downloading my purchase into the appropriate folder in My Music. Syncing music between my laptop, Droid, and Google Play-Music in the cloud is automatic.

Backups

Remember, a hard drive sitting next to your computer is not a real backup - if your house/apartment burns down you’ll lose them both, ditto if you are robbed. A really solid backup means storing your latest data at a completely different address, at least weekly or monthly.

In today’s world, the smartest way to do this is to backup your data to the cloud, and it’s automatic. If you’ve moved your office tools to the cloud you’ve already established a place to back up the rest of your data. If you tools still reside on your local machine, why not go with the free Google Drive and just use it for backup. As time goes by you have the option to give their cloud office tools a try. At least consider backing up to the cloud using Dropbox, Amazon Cloud Drive, or the Apple cloud.

Communication and marketing tools

Websites

Every church needs a website and many churches need one website in multiple languages. So before you commit to a website framework, make sure it can handle all the languages you’ll need. For an example of a multi-language site, see New Life Church (Cupertino) which is built on Google Apps. That one uses both English and Chinese.

Up-to-date information is more important than style. It’s long past time to stop paying for Yellow Page advertisements. Virtually everyone who visits a church or preschool has first researched your website. If not by referral, the most likely way they found your church/preschool in the first place was by Googling.

Ministry leaders must be able to create, edit, and link their own sections of the site - without going through a webmaster. For more on this, see this tutorial on how to do Website Design. My site is implemented on a Google Apps platform and hosted there, by Google.

In addition to a host for your website, you need to secure a domain name and subscribe to a DNS service. There are many options for each; in my case I use EasyDNS. To learn more about these techy areas, see Stage 3 of Website Design Details. This page is relevant regardless of whether you are on a Google Apps platform or something else.

A good website is not enough - it’s too passive. Even if you put some sort of Announcements box on your home page, and keep it current with what’s going on around your church and your site, you cannot expect many people to come back to your site just to see if there’s anything new. But you can offer all your visitors and parishioners the opportunity to subscribe to announcements of new content that you post on your site. One form of these is called Feeds. They come in two forms: RSS & email. You can find more detail on this topic at Sending Feeds from Your Site.

Broadcast live to your Youtube account and through your website

You now can create a live broadcast to any audience in the world using Google+ Hangouts On Air. You can broadcast it through your YouTube account, or you can post it live to your website. After the live session ends, you can leave a copy of the video online for people to watch at their leisure. You can share it to the general public, or selectively through the video’s url.

Email newsletters  

The days of mailing paper church newsletters through the post office are over. Compared with paper newsletters, email newsletters are easier to publish, faster to publish, more professional, and cheaper than paper newsletters. For the few parishioners who don’t have email, you can simply print out a paper copy and send it to them through the post!  One excellent email newsletter tool is Mailchimp; it’s free to nonprofits. Here’s a screen capture from New Life Nazarene Church enews.

Author rank

Google has extended its search capability so that the order of Google search results incorporates their ranking of the author of the work AND whether or not the searcher (or someone they know) may already be familiar with this author. And where the author has a Google+ Profile account, Google puts their Profile photo adjacent to their search result. (This is how those little photos get integrated into your search results.)

The cornerstone of the system is that the author must have a Google+ account, which includes a 21 digit Profile number identifying the author. Then the author buries this number somewhere in their work. For more on this go to: Author Rank.

Other such things:

Podcasts. The most common form of podcasting from churches is the posting of the pastor’s weekly sermon. To do this right generally takes a bit of audio processing/editing before actually posting the sermon online. At New Life we used Audacity, which is an open-source product available for free download. If you have good experience with other options, please contact me.

Blogs.

Google Groups. NorCal uses these pretty effectively to communicate across a wide variety of topics. But there’s nothing to keep a local church or individual parishioner from starting a group for something like reflections on the week’s lectionary readings.

In addition to a conventional website, some churches develop a parallel presence on either Facebook for Business or Google+ Pages for Business. Here’s a comparison. Then they construct a link between this social media tool and their website.

Have you noticed all these short video clips?  Why not develop one for your church, congregation, teen group, or whatever?

Church management tools

Collaborative tools

Many church staffs and ministry leaders still pass text documents around in email attachments to manage major ministry programs. Taking advantage of cloud computing allows geographically dispersed team members to work together on common text, spreadsheet, presentation and other documents. This is especially helpful when planning for major seasonal thrusts such as Easter and Christmas, which require the pastor/staff to coordinate among virtually all the departments of a local church. Indeed, many middle and high schools now teach their students to collaborate on projects using Google Drive/Docs. This approach greatly reduces the number of times you have to get all the team members in a face-to-face meeting.

When you need to meet face-to-face but can’t, use Google+ Hangouts. It handles video conferencing of up to 10 people - for free. This is a viable approach for things like District Finance Committee and District Properties Board meetings, for example. Here’s a resource to help you get started: Getting Started with Google+ Hangouts.

Another free option is to do an audio conference using Skype. (Skype’s free video conferencing only handles a 2 way conversation.)to

Build document libraries in the cloud

Churches have some documents they want to be readily available to the staff and maybe to lay leaders. These are things like policies (for vacation... ), procedures (for ushers & greeters...), drawings and technical information on buildings and grounds, shopping lists for supplies, forms to report attendance, and so on. Google Drive allows you to control access at an individual or group level. Everyone who needs access has it from anywhere (at home, or on the road). And when you change a document, all you need to do is send an email to those needing it saying that the document is revised.

Invitations and specialized greeting cards

Sometimes electronic invitations and greeting cards are okay, and sometimes you need the more personal touch of a personalized paper card arriving in the mailbox. Evites offers electronic invitations, and also also offers Ecards that you can design and mail through the postal service. My wife, Robin, uses Blue Mountain to design specialized Ecards, and also to create and print very attractive paper cards for personal communications. Another popular vendor (especially among women) in this field is Jacquie Lawson. Instead of purchasing a shoebox of various greeting cards for birthdays, graduations, get-well encouragement, and extending sympathy - only half of which ever get used - why not print out your own cards tuned precisely for the situation. It’s cheaper, much more personal, and faster than searching through that shoebox only to realize that none are suitable.

Church calendar(s)  

It is very powerful when a church has a single, unified calendar that is always up-to-date and available online to any parishioner or leader (who might be planning some sort of event and would work around the church calendar if they had access to it). One person needs to maintain the church’s Public Calendar. It’s extremely powerful when staffers can overlay the church’s Public Calendar with their own personal calendar(s). Google calendar (and probably others) does this well,  And you can integrate the Public Calendar into your website. See the implementation at New Life Nazarene Church.

Financial accounting software

If you still use Excel or another spreadsheet, it’s time to change to software that is designed for accounting. This kind of software will helps you keep MUCH cleaner books. It also allows you to easily split transactions among several categories, restate past transactions to reflect new realities, correct past errors and ripple the corrections right up to the present, and many more things. It is impossible to convince anyone who knows how accounting is supposed to be done that it is safe to donate to your church if they find your financial books are kept on a spreadsheet.

At New Life we use Quicken (available for about $60, and easy to use) for the church and QuickBooks for the preschool. It took some work get the chart of accounts the way we wanted them, but Quicken is flexible enough that we were always able to get what we wanted. And it is relatively painless to make changes later.

I should include some advice on managing payroll, especially if your church has a preschool or some other entity that has several employees. After running into quarterly payroll tax problems with the IRS, we shifted the payroll function to an external vendor. It is VERY risky to have a parish volunteer manage payroll; it is just too complex and changes to often to leave it to anyone but a pro. California Payroll is the vendor we use at New Life.

Now for a few lines about individual donor accounting. We don’t use Quicken for individual donor accounting. Instead we use a submodule of a people database software product. See the next section for more on this. Indeed, if you can find a people database product that meets your parish management needs and it also has a church accounting module, take a good look at the whole package. It’s probably the way to go.

People database technology

In an ideal world we want database capable of handling multiple languages (which implies that it is built on Unicode) and that integrates individual contributions with the church’s accounting system. And it needs to be very secure. Maybe there’s a solution now in the marketplace that meets these requirements; if you know of it please let me know.

The best advice I have at this point is to take a look at ServantKeeper (see the videos in the upper right hand corner of this link). It looks pretty good to me. It integrates personal contributions with a wide range of other people management functions.

Another product in this area is Church Windows. It looks good on their website; it even has a web/cloud option. But at this point I don’t know of a church using it. If you have some experience with it, please let me know!

ChurchSoft is another option. At New Life we use only the personal contribution accounting subset. Our main people database is an in-house design built on Microsoft Access (handles Unicode). However we never developed the human interface sufficiently, nor added a donor accounting function. To manage donor giving we used a subset of ChurchSoft (which only works in English and has limited flexibility). This product is a pretty complete people database - if your only language is English..

I’m aware of another church managing their donor giving on CCIS.

Volunteer coordination

There is a universe of options ranging from using Google Drive collaborative spreadsheets/word processing documents to Rotunda.

Telephones

Nothing to say on this, other than terminate your Yellow Pages advertisements (see above).

Worship technology  

Core presentation software

Microsoft PowerPoint. Used in many places for the entire worship set - music, announcements, sermon. Most core presentation software packages (below) accept embedded PowerPoint files. So many pastors develop PowerPoint sermon files and then the church’s tech team imports these into the main worship software. The Google equivalent is called Google Presentation.

LiveWorship  Used at Vallejo First Nazarene and Petaluma Hillside (along with Planning Center).

PlanningCenter  Used at Petaluma Hillside Nazarene.

EasyWorship. Used by Eureka First Nazarene and Salinas New Life Nazarene.

ProPresenter   Used at Santa Rosa Nazarene on Apple products. Previously they used Sunday Plus.

Sound systems

No suggestions on this one. Let me know what is working.

Videos

In the early days I used some video clips embedded in sermons, but eventually migrated away from this. The best clips are usually embedded in movies that I’d rather not implicitly endorse, especially in a worship environment. Even showing a clip from a PG film in worship is inappropriate because the parents had no chance to decide whether or not to let their child see it. Occasionally I found a good clip from a Christian supplier, but too many of these are mini-sermons in themselves. What a sermon needs is a clip (or better yet, a live skit) that sets up a question - NOT one that proposes a question and then answers it. Sermons are supposed to do that!

If you create a video and want to publish it on the web, YouTube or Vimeo are good choices in ministry settings. Here’s a (low quality) Vimeo clip of an interview of me done in a church plant in San Francisco where I speak occasionally. Vimeo is capable of quite good quality. I’ve seen a couple of really nifty church-designed video clips that used parishioners to very creatively (and humorously) publicize an upcoming church event.

Watch out for transitions! A sloppy transition into or out of a great 3-minute video clip is a net loss!  You can’t fumble around with the Youtube interface while the congregation watches. It’s sloppy and dangerous. Download the clip onto your worship computer and test it carefully after it is embedded in the worship presentation software.

Cost considerations

The Google suite of products is extremely robust for churches and nonprofits. And it is free. It resides in the cloud, but you can download the data and work with it on your local computer all you want. It is inherently designed for a BYOD (Bring Your Own Device) world, meaning it works in an open environment through a browser on a wide range of hardware types. Over time this implies that they run on the lowest cost hardware choices.

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www.IsbellOnline.org                 Authored by Tim Isbell