One week into his final college summer vacation and Travis was already bored out of his mind.
He had updated all of the software on his parents’ clunky desktop computer, mowed the lawn, completed Metal Gear Solid V, and taken his yellow lab Shiloh for a dozen walks to every corner of town.
So, on a lazy Monday afternoon, Travis and Shiloh stopped in at the church to chat with Pastor Bill.
“Hey, there he is!” Bill warmly greeted Travis as he entered the church’s cluttered office, Shiloh in tow. “How the heck have you been, Travis?”
Bill’s glasses slipped down the bridge of his nose as he distractedly sifted through binders and stacks of paper, wheeling around the room in a worn-down office chair. The cooling fan on a decades old computer whizzed into hyperdrive as a LaserJet printer spit out a draft of the church’s bulletin, one herky-jerky line at a time.
“Wow! How is this thing still running?” Travis marveled at the bulky set-up as he clapped Bill on the shoulders. “It’s great to see you! How’s everything going?”
Bill tousled Shiloh’s ears and fished a Milk Bone out of a file-cabinet drawer.
“It’s going,” Bill said. “Numbers have been down, but we had about 30 folks here for yesterday’s morning service. Then again, we usually see a spike like that for the summer potluck picnic. By the way, tell your mom thanks again for the macaroni salad.”
Travis inspected a disturbing mass of wires and picked up a 1997 church directory binder from the floor.
“What kind of church management software are you using nowadays, anyway?” Travis asked.
Bill put down the manila folder labeled “RECEIPTS” and studied Travis momentarily.
“Church what ware, now? Oh, that. Well, we’ve got Windows 98 for all of our bookkeeping and stuff. And I’ve got all these free America Online CD-ROMs that Mrs. Lark donated for our internet. Sometimes I treat myself on a Friday afternoon with a few games of SkiFree.”
Windows 98 commercial
Travis and Shiloh winced.
“Oh my,” he said. “This is the same set-up you had when I got that donated Gateway up and running as a middle schooler. How is this possible? Why haven’t you upgraded?”
The 5 Biggest Church Tech Problems
Bill leaned back in his creaking chair, took off his glasses, and began massaging his temples.
“Where do I begin? We can’t afford to update our system, with the cost of computer machines these days. We don’t have enough volunteers as it is to pass the basket, let alone run a bunch of computers. And even if we did, who would know how? Besides, our congregation doesn’t even like computers. Heck, I couldn’t even tell you how many people here even own a computer phone.”
Travis looked down at Shiloh reassuringly.
‘Get comfy, girl,” he said. “This could take awhile.”
1. Lack of budget
“How much do you think church management software costs, anyway?” Travis asked. “Would you be surprised if I told you you could get a system up and running for a very reasonable price of zero dollars?”
Bill seemed incredulous.
“A free option especially makes sense for a church our size, and once you start to get the hang of it, we always have the ability to upgrade for a nominal fee to a paid version with expanded features,” Travis explained.
But Bill was still not convinced.
“I have my hands full as it is trying to organize Vacation Bible School and train the new volunteers. Who’s going to work this free church management software?”
2. Lack of manpower
As Travis had learned in his volunteer management course at college, when it comes to volunteers, availability is always more important than ability.
“Do you know of any congregants who do their own taxes? Can you think of anyone who has recently retired?” Travis asked. “Anyone like that will be able to implement a basic system with the most important features — membership directory, donation tracking, volunteer management — in no time.”
Travis could see the gears start turning in Bill’s head.
“Now that you mention it, Joe Williams did turn his accounting firm over to his son last spring, and he’s been bugging me ever since for a way to help out around here,” Bill said. “Come to think of it, his wife has also been asking me to find something for him to do.”
3. Adversity to technology
Shiloh let out a long yawn and then nestled her head back down on the well-worn carpeting of the church office.
Travis could sense that Bill was opening up a little more, but still wasn’t sold.
“All right, all right, I’m on board. If we can get Joe out of his fishing boat a couple times each week to keep this thing running, I think it could work. But getting the rest of the congregation to embrace a new system is going to be a different story. Mrs. Jefferson still thinks that her toaster is cutting-edge technology.”
Travis felt the pastor’s pain.
“It’s true. While some of these features will make things easier for everyone behind the scenes, we’re going to need almost everyone to connect — to make payments online and go to our web site, for example — to make it really worthwhile, even Mrs. Jefferson.”
4. Training and education
“Wait a minute,” Bill jumped in. “That sounds like a lot of work. I understand that Joe is going to help us out, and you’ll be here for the rest of the summer. But what happens when you go back to school in September, and what happens if Joe gets bored playing church accountant and takes up golf? What then?”
Travis nodded and considered Bill’s concern.
“Good volunteers beget good volunteers,” Travis said. “I’m going to make sure that Joe knows what he’s doing before I go back to school, and he’s going to share his knowledge with you. Once we start to roll out some of our new features — like a web site, Facebook page, and online donations — people will catch on and get excited. That’s when we can start recruiting and training more volunteers. After all, technology is cool.”
5. Keeping track
“I like what I’m hearing, and I’m starting to see how church management software could make things a lot easier around here,” Bill said. Travis waited for the second shoe and, sure enough, Bill went on, “I still have an issue, though. How is our computer going to give us all this information about our money and members if we can’t keep track of that stuff in the first place?”
It was a good question, and Travis had anticipated it.
“I see what you mean, and the answer is not easy, but it might not be as scary as you think,” he said. “See that stack of fading receipts over there, or this file cabinet full of old member directories? You have already been keeping track of the church. Now we’ll just be able to do it smarter.”
Travis offered to sit down with Pastor Bill and Joe Williams that weekend to develop a game plan and help out the rest of the summer by assisting with initial data entry.
Where are they now?
Travis went back to school in September with plenty of clean laundry. He wrote a case study, entitled “Software Implementation for Small Non-Profits” based on his experience with Pastor Bill, and graduated with honors as a computer science major. He is now a tech director for a megachurch in Texas, and lives with his wife and two young daughters.
Pastor Bill was finally able to discard the Gateway computer and the collection of AOL discs once Travis and Joe Williams got the new church management system running on a trio of sleek new laptops. He even upgraded to a smartphone and became known as The Tweeting Pastor.
Joe Williams was invigorated by his new gig as Church Geek, and eventually oversaw the expansion to a paid church management platform once the church crested 100 members. He eventually turned the reins over to a team of three bright proteges, but — to his wife’s relief — spent his newfound free time on the lake and golf course.
Shiloh missed her long walks with Travis when he went back to school, but she was able to catch up on a lot of napping.
The moral of the story
Overhauling a clunky, outdated system is scary, but it’s a heck of a lot better than continuing to use something that’s broken. With the right approach, even a small church with limited resources can address some of the biggest church tech problems and turn them into strengths.
Do you know someone like Travis, or Pastor Bill, or Joe Williams? What tools did you use to turn your church into a success story? If you found a great church management solution that addressed your needs, please leave a review!
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