Insights to drive your church forward

What’s the next step in your members’ development? What teaching, ministry, or outreach would help them to become more like Christ? Would your church benefit from new weekday activities for retirees? A course in God-honoring financial management for young families? Or a small-group startup to engage an influx of new visitors?

It’s not uncommon to base these choices on an anecdotal understanding of your congregation, or on what the church next door has implemented, or on the preferences of the loudest members. Your programs should be designed for your whole congregation—who they truly are and what they need. Good decisions start with good data.

But getting clear and accurate data on your membership is easier said than done. Your best data-gathering (and decision-making) tool is a holistic church management software (ChMS) package. Today’s ChMS developers pluck tech features directly from the business world to help you cut through the clutter and overcome the church’s biggest barriers to reliable data.

Barrier #1: Too many records

Perhaps the biggest advantage of a ChMS is to prevent the distortion of data from redundant records. Luke Taylor, IT director for Highlands Church in Scottsdale, Ariz., finds this duplication especially challenging when churches need to fill volunteer roles. “It’s what happens when ministries are managed separately,” Taylor says, “with an Excel spreadsheet on one guy’s desk, another off the top of his head, another on a cell phone.” Without the central data storehouse of a ChMS, several ministry leads may think, That guy always helps—I’ll call him. The danger, Taylor notes, is that “you burn out volunteers pretty quickly, not from malicious action on the part of the church, but just from a lack of visibility into who’s doing what.”

Church management software can provide your ministry leads with a global view of the volunteer pool, including who’s served with which ministries and when, as well as the training or background checks that would qualify them for specific roles. Some even have a visual calendar that reveals how heavily a volunteer is scheduled in the coming weeks or months.

The best ChMS systems prevent data duplication right from the beginning, flagging any new entry that seems to share contact info with an existing profile—and giving you the option to link people from the same family or household (a great advantage for your children’s ministry registrars!).

Barrier #2: Patchy information

It’s never easy to get accurate data from a visitor form that’s quickly scrawled and dropped in an offering plate. The traditional cards also fail to capture complex situations, like children and parents who don’t live in the same household, or do so only on certain days of the week.

With their data housed in a ChMS, churches can increase their understanding of attendees with each visit, gradually filling in a clearer picture. Has someone been attending services for months but not yet engaged with a ministry or small group? Are their children attending youth group and other activities? Has attendance or giving fallen off suddenly? All of these facts can help the church customize communication to an individual level—communication that can range from an automated email to an in-person invitation. While there are many reasons for attenders to withdraw from a church, we can’t be content when some fall through the cracks. Christ doesn’t want a single one of his flock to be lost. Data management is one way—and in a large and busy church, perhaps the most reliable way—to ensure that no one is overlooked.

Barrier #3: Delays in data collection

Hosting a big event at your church used to mean hours of transcribing handwritten attendance forms—or abandoning any hope of capturing more than a rough number of participants. But with today’s technology, there’s no reason you can’t log exactly who attended and when.

Look for a ChMS that integrates solutions for mobile and social media, and you can collect registrations that feed directly into your database, during or even before your event. With church management tools, you can also slice, sort, and graph your data to see trends in attendance. Then you can make reasonable predictions about which age groups, socio-economic groups, or first-time visitors might be interested in future programs.

Messages can also be automated to reach out to attendees directly after an event. Your ChMS might capture real-time impressions, say, by texting out a survey to VBS parents, or give traction to a topic, with an emailed Bible study that digs deeper into a seminar’s lessons. By speaking to people with the immediacy and mediums they’re used to, the church can appear as nimble and responsive as the hippest Millennial brands.

Using data to forge deeper relationships

More important than looking nimble, though, is the church’s ability to act nimbly, backed by real data. When you understand what’s brought newcomers through the church doors, you can design your outreach to build the church’s influence in your community. Luke Taylor shares that before they started using Seraphim church management software, gaining visibility into infrequent attendees was a challenge. “Say someone shows up on a Sunday morning and puts an envelope or a prayer request in the offering. They go in your system, but you don’t really know what they’re doing after that.” Now, he says, “we’re working with the Seraphim guys to capture who’s coming and then learn how best to follow up and minister to those people.”

Our consumer-driven culture makes it comfortable for people to keep the church at arm’s length, attending as a spectator and perhaps never experiencing for themselves the full meaning of a Christ-filled life. The Message translator and pastor Eugene Peterson sees it as “my job … not to solve people’s problems or make them happy, but to help them see the grace operating in their lives.” Our plans and programs may draw people in, but it’s only by knowing people—first through recorded facts, then a more personal understanding—that we can help them discover God’s unique plan for their lives.