We are standing at the center of a new era of technology. Each passing day brings new tools, new opportunities, and new ways to work more efficiently and securely. Naturally, technology can always be a bit daunting at first but once you’ve equipped yourself with the right tools and knowledge, you’ll spend less time maintaining systems and more time doing the job that matters most: ministry.
Chances are, you’ve heard the words “cloud computing” at one point or another, but do you know what it actually means? Cloud computing is when you store your records on computers that aren’t kept at your church. You access and update them from any phone or computer that has Internet access. (“The Cloud” just sounds much cooler than “the Internet,” so the term’s caught on.) One or more companies own the Cloud software and storage used to manage your records. You pay a subscription fee (usually monthly) for the cost of their computers, IT departments, and software programmers.
Corporations were the first to see the financial savings from cloud services. But, as a church, you can benefit far more since cloud computing now gives you access to sophisticated technology that was out of reach to small users just a few years ago.
Consider these 5 practical advantages:
1). You no longer have to buy new and more powerful computers every couple of years since most of the computer processing is handled by the cloud company. Your computer or cell phone becomes little more than a viewing device through which you update your data.
2). You don’t have to worry about losing all your records. The best of these companies keep backups of your data in more than one location, so it’s highly unlikely that any single disaster will cause your information to be lost.
3). You can quit losing sleep over the constantly changing world of tech security: viruses, hacking, and the like. A good cloud-based church management company employs teams of experts and maintains the latest data protection. In fact, most experts now agree that the cloud offers a significant increase in security over on-site computing.
4). You no longer have to install software updates. Since cloud computing is located on the Internet, your cloud-provider creates and updates your church management software for you.
5). Best of all, you can work with your records from practically anywhere: church, home, a ball game—all you need is the Internet.
Ready to switch? Well, before you do you need to do a little homework. Since you’re trusting a business with your congregants’ records, it’s vital to make sure your cloud company meets some basic requirements. Don’t get slack here: a church has every right to expect the best.
Examine the Software:
The software is what you see on the screen when you log in from your phone or computer. Here are some important questions to ask about that software:
In addition to your staff, does it allow your congregants to log on, stay in touch with their groups, read announcements, register for events, and update their profile information? Those new to this technology might be unsettled letting members use these features. If this is you, ask, “Is there the option to turn off this kind of interaction?” But for most churches, the advantages of “crowdsourcing” the administrative workload is a godsend, allowing them to spend less time and money on record keeping while engaging more worshipers.
Does it track attendance and contributions? You should also be able to easily create any member’s contribution statement at tax time. A “nice to have” option is the ability to track pledge campaigns.
Does it let you take contributions online? In other words, can members and guests make offerings to your church over the Internet? You might not think your church needs this right now, but each year, more and more of us are choosing online giving over any other contribution method. Church people of all ages now prefer to give this way. Another “nice to have” is text giving.
Does it present your statistics in an easy-to-understand format? Can it easily search your records and present figures quickly as graphs and charts? Can you use the results to send mass emails or export the stats as spreadsheets?
Does it provide a check-in system that prints security badges for safely managing children’s events?
Is it easy to learn? If you remember how long it took to learn the old desktop church management systems, you’ll know how important it is that your staff can hit the ground running with your cloud choice. Usability has become much more important in software design in recent years. Customers rarely have to tolerate crowded, complicated windows with new technology. If your staff can’t quickly see the improvement, find another product.
How mobile is it? Mobility is a prime reason for going to the cloud. There are two possibilities here. First, most of the software’s features (and your data) can be accessed on a phone or tablet. This is called responsive design: the full program just resizes for your device. The second possibility requires a mobile app to be downloaded to let you access your data and some of the software. It’s faster, but you give up a number of features when mobile.
Is there a matching accounting solution? You might not be in the market for this right now, but why not make sure you can get something that interfaces with your record keeping system if the time comes?
Is support included? When pricing cloud solutions, factor this in. If support costs extra, make sure you find out how much it adds to your bottom line.
Examine the Company as well its Hardware
Do they have a long church management track record? A lot of businesses sprang up in the past few years promising to cobble together “cloud” solutions for churches. They combine a patchwork of existing programs from other companies that may or may not work well together and then charge you a regular fee to maintain this system. Since there are one-stop solutions designed exclusively for churches, you should avoid these ad hoc consultants.
Do they make security a priority? Where is our data stored? Who can see it? If stored on your servers, how easy is it to access to your company’s buildings and equipment?
Do you (or the companies you contract with) have dedicated IT staffers to maintain firewalls, the latest virus protection, and operating system updates?
Do you perform nightly backups, store copies of data off-site (either physically or in the cloud), and have an uninterrupted power supply? Understand, of course, that the company you choose might not store your data on site. It’s quite possible that they, also, use cloud solutions, which is not necessarily a bad thing. But if anything goes wrong, there should be somebody at the business who has certified expertise in the IT field. Preferably a team of somebodies.
Don’t Stress Too Much
It’s ok to trust your records to the cloud. Really, it is. In fact, you’re missing an opportunity if you don’t. There are companies doing this who have good reputations. Just do a little research. Your ministry deserves it.