This article originally appeared at TechSoup.org, where you can find many other nonprofit technology resources and connect your nonprofit, charity, or public library with tech products and services. We’re grateful for the financial support our friends there provided for this article.
As people-focused organizations, churches can benefit from software that helps them keep track of and communicate with their congregants. As owners and renters of property that is often used for a variety of congregational and community activities, many churches can also benefit from software that helps them schedule and manage their physical spaces. And as organizations with myriad financial needs—from payroll to donation tracking to accounting—churches can benefit from software that easily manages the inflow and outflow of money.
Whether large or small, just about every church is a good candidate for some type of Church Management System (ChMS)—software that helps manage and automate many of the activities necessary to ensure the smooth functioning of a religious organization. This includes membership, donations, events, learning, committees and groups, mailings, and reporting. With nearly 200 vendors providing ChMS services to religious institutions, there is no shortage of tools from which to choose.
Which is right for your specific needs? Consultants such as Ministry Business Services, Inc. have tried to help ease the decision-making process by developing a feature matrix of 34 systems that meet a set of criteria related to active marketing, growth, and development. However, choosing the solution that’s best for your congregation is still challenging. So, what’s a church to do?
We spoke to a number of technology experts and Church Management System users for their advice and recommendations and compiled the information in this article.
How Much Will It Cost?
With such a wide range of vendors and solutions, it’s not surprising that there are also numerous pricing models. Most fees are based on either the size of the church or the number of seat licenses, users, or installations of the ChMS. Some ChMS providers charge monthly fees, while others charge one-time installation or licensing fees.
Capterra, a site that provides information about software for businesses, offers a good overview of the different pricing structures for ChMS systems on its website. Generally, the low-cost packages start around $50 for a license, or a monthly fee of $0.07 per active member or $0.30 per member record plus setup or annual fees. Churches can find mid-range solutions for less than $1,000, but this price can quickly escalate depending on add-ons and extras. The largest ChMS systems can be very expensive, but are often offered as a suite of different modules that can be implemented separately.
By using a subset of products or services, smaller congregations can gain some of the functionality of larger and more robust software packages while leaving room to grow into additional features as their ministry expands.
Organizations with a limited budget that have access to technologically-savvy employees or members should consider exploring open source ChMS software. BVCMS was built as an open source solution in 2008, and has since continued to grow in functionality. The software is free to download and use and BVCMS provides hosting, updates, and support for a low fee based on the size of your database.
Cloud-based vs. Installed Systems
While ChMS systems were traditionally installed on a church’s in-house server or run on individual desktops, an increasing number of congregations are electing to migrate to Cloud-based solutions. Until now, installed solutions have been more cost-effective for churches that have used a particular system for a decade or longer. However, in this increasingly mobile age, installed systems limit the accessibility of your ChMS data from remote locations and mobile devices and require support from an in-house IT person, either staff or volunteer. Furthermore, some server-based solutions provide no or limited support for Mac computers.
If you are looking at Cloud-based solutions, you need confidence that your data will be accessible when you need it, secure against hackers, regularly and appropriately backed up, and easy to export and download should you choose to switch systems. Furthermore, many software providers charge a hosting or management fee on top of the software license(s) for cloud-based solutions.
Establshing Your Requirements
The most important step in choosing a ChMS that fits your specific needs is to decide which features and functionality are most important to managing your particular ministry and serving your congregation.
The primary function for nearly all ChMS systems is the capture and tracking of member data. This includes basic contact information—names, addresses, phone numbers, and email—as well as such demographic information as life events (births, baptisms, confirmations, marriages) and participation in church activities (committees or groups).
While all the systems provide the ability to track family-level contact data, functionality varies when it comes to tracking more complex family structures with multiple contacts, such as families with divorced or separated parents or same-sex couples. Increasingly, youth group leaders also want to communicate directly with older children who have their own mobile phones and email addresses, so it is important for those churches to be able to store separate contact information for teens and young adults within family records. In specifying your requirements, be sure to ask whether you can associate more than one email address or mobile phone with a family, and how it handles contact data for all family members.
Solutions that include accounting or financial features or integrate with existing bookkeeping solutions such as Microsoft Dynamics or Intuit QuickBooks narrow the field considerably. Some churches use their ChMS primarily for tracking donations, while others run all their accounting, payroll, and human resources functions through the system. Some popular comprehensive solutions with accounting and payroll functionality include: ACS Technologies, one of the largest ChMS solutions on the market implemented by more than 50,000 ministries; CDM+; and Shelby Systems.
How many individuals will you have working with the software, and how comfortable are they working with technology? The user interface for entering data, as well as the interface for building and running reports, both go a long way toward making less technologically savvy staff or volunteers feel more comfortable with a system. We spoke to several Church Management Systems users who told us that the reporting functionality in one particular software package was confusing, while another package made it easy to build and save reports but extremely difficult to use the search function to build effective queries. You should also ask what training opportunities are available, ask how much training is required, and talk to existing users to obtain their feedback on ease-of-use.
Do you want members to have access to an online directory or to be able to update their own data online? Several systems provide that functionality, and a few, such as ACS Technologies and Elexio, even provide a Content Management System that allows churches to build and manage a website.
Will you need to restrict areas of the database to specific individuals? Some congregations greatly restrict who has access to financial data, such as donations. Not all software packages allow for effective access control and field-level security, so be sure to ask how you can keep member and financial data confidential.
Do you track congregant attendance at each service? A variety of different attendance solutions exist, but several users with whom we spoke said that they take attendance manually and enter it into the system later in the week. Software such as Servant Keeper extends that functionality to mobile devices, enabling ushers and greeters to check people in and add new members to the database as they arrive.
Does your church offer childcare and/or youth education programs? If so, you should consider software that can provide check-in/check-out capability, store allergy information, and perhaps even allow you to run background checks on potential volunteers and store that information in their record. Certain systems, such as Elexio, offer robust check-in capabilities, not only for childcare facilities, but also for church events and other controlled-access situations.
Churches seeking to schedule and manage the use of church property by members of the congregation or community groups have a number of options within a ChMS. While many churches make do with traditional paper calendars or shared online calendars, a ChMS can provide even more automated solutions. For example, Church Community Builder can be used to book facilities and track room capacity, while Fellowship One not only allows for space reservations but also for reservations of resources such as tables, chairs, A/V equipment, and more.
Finally, certain religious denominations have unique tracking and reporting needs, and as such should consider investigating a solution that specializes in their denomination. For example, ParishSOFT is a ChMS designed specifically for Catholic ministries, both at the parish and diocesan level.
There is a management system for every church out there. The key is knowing what your particular congregation needs, and then finding the best fit.
For More Information
“Church & Donor Management Software,” Ministry Business Services, Inc:
“The Smart Guide to Buying Church Management Software,” Capterra:
Robert Grove-Markwood, The BTS Center
Ashley Martinage, Rock Spring Congregational United Church of Christ
Susan Loyd, Falls Church Presbyterian Church