Serving a More Organized Church




Serving a More Organized Church

Safety and convenience arrive at the touch of a screen.
Mark Cutshall

In 1999, Rick Chatham, a software engineer, was struggling over his church's problem managing its growth. One of the biggest issues occurred on Sunday morning at crowded children's sign-in counters, where standstill lines and frustration were the norm. "Even with all of the best-trained volunteers in the world," Chatham says, "with felt pens, name tags and tokens, we were fighting a losing battle."

He was sitting in a Dallas restaurant when inspiration struck. "I noticed how waiters and waitresses at a local restaurant were using touch screens to assign tables for arriving customers," Chatham says. "No one was writing anything down, nor chasing after or losing little slips of paper. Instead, with a simple touch of a color-coded screen, this ingenious little system kept the lines moving. Hungry customers were seated, and everyone kept smiling."

As a result, Fellowship Church, which was averaging 6,000 in weekend attendance, tore an electronic page from the Dallas restaurant scene and developed its own fast, convenient, touch-screen children's check-in system. The new approach, part of a software package today known as "Fellowship One," reduced parents' typical Sunday morning children sign-in time from one and-a-half minutes to less than 20 seconds.

Fellowship Church developed its own software because nothing else quite fit. The automated yet-still-personable approach improves children's safety in this ever more complicated world. A well-designed identity and tracking system eliminated any risk from a non-guardian picking up a child who had been received into the church's custody. The touch-screen system can be used for adult activities and to track volunteers, as well.

But the complexity and burden of developing its own software proved costly for the church over time. In 2003, the church's executive staff concluded that the costs were more than it could comfortably bear. They decided to sell the software and all its rights to a company that had the core competency to build and support such a robust computer system. After looking at several marketplace alternatives, church leaders approached Jeff Hook, an accomplished software executive, to gauge his interest in taking the software to market.

"To be honest, I didn't want to sell software to churches," confesses Hook. "However, after telling a couple of friends about the opportunity, I felt God lead me to do just that."

Hook, along with a core group of developers, founded Fellowship Technologies in January 2004. Chatham became founding applications architect.

Since then, the company has built a client base of more than 700 partner churches, ranging from small church plants to the largest church in North America, Lakewood Church in Houston.

The company's rise has not been without challenges.

An Invitation to Change

"The biggest obstacle of marketing software to a church is the staff's inability to change its way of 'doing business'; its procedures and processes," says Hook. "Think about it: The institution that asks us, implores us to change to become better people, itself, has an aversion to change. When it comes to implementing innovative software systems, my word to the church leaders is: 'You must become change masters.'"

Church management software that Fellowship Technologies and other companies market to congregations begins and ends with data. It involves capturing, accessing, updating, and assessing a member's information to create meaningful intersections of ministry and opportunities and needs within the church body.

Hook knows that fresh analyses of raw data, beginning with Sunday attendance, can point to new possibilities for stewardship. He recalls a church with a quoted weekend children's attendance of 2,500. "We implemented Fellowship One and discovered the actual attendance was more like 3,300," Hook says.

"When you're trying to figure out church growth and new building sizes, it's nice to have accurate information, rather than underestimating the effort and resources required to build and operate a new children's education wing by 30 percent."

Whether or not there's a touch-screen-based check-in system in one's church, the choice to employ technology does come back to stewardship.

"Without an electronic registration system," says Hook, "I suggest churches succumb to the 80/20 rule: 80 percent administration required to deliver 20 percent of ministry. The right software can flip the equation around. Imagine if you needed just 20 percent of your time and effort and redirected the remaining 80 percent to the instruction, guidance, prayer, and caring of those seeking to learn."

File Cabinet, or File Management?

Hook eagerly preaches the gospel of technology to a sometimes skeptical or timid church.

"Historically, church management software has functioned as little more than an electronic file cabinet," Hook says. "Data was input and retrieved by a small group of people with the training required to operate the system."

To support a growing, dynamic church, modern church management software must support the church's primary function—caring for God's people. The software should be easy to learn and use and accessible anytime, anywhere to all of the church's staff members and to a certain extent even the congregation.

"Churches are spending God's tithes and must be good stewards of those resources. Offloading Information Technology costs to a third party helps to reduce both cost and risk," says Hook.

"His company offers security features such as 24/7 guarded patrol of all equipment and data, state-of-the-art encryption, daily backups, and compliance with industry data security standards.

"The bigger the church," says Hook, "the more professional and businesslike their leadership must be to help the congregation at large—along with numerous inherent small groups—get to God."

Other Options for Churches

Fellowship One's basic package manages attendance and contact information of visitors and members. It also tracks church activities, events, and finances. Other church management software companies, such as Shelby Systems, market similar products.

Sandee Didtel, Director of Financial Services at Wenatchee (Wash.) Free Methodist Church, gives high marks to Shelby's membership module. It tracks attendance, giving history, and participation in church activities, such as small groups.

"By seeing the people who are most connected," Didtel notes, "we can better identify those who are not connected and who, thus, are most likely to leave."

Another Shelby software module called "Servant" has helped match church members' gifts and talents with volunteer opportunities.

The congregation recently completed a $1.3 million renovation of its nursery. Didtel says the church hopes to launch Shelby's electronic check-in system this year.

Learning Curve

Didtel knows there's a learning curve to using and reaping the rewards of church management software package: "Shelby can do anything you want it to; you just have to understand how to use it."

Hook believes something as basic as the wise use of shared databases can help churches. "When all departments get their eyes on the same data," he notes, "they can avoid the risk of passing the baton of information from ministry to ministry."

Hook dispels the notion that today's church management software is too complex to appreciate, much less implement. "Software can and should be as simple and applicable as a touch screen a restaurant host uses to seat appreciative customers," he says.

"The same principle applies to the church: People who feel cared for and get assimilated will draw closer to Christ. And as they do, they'll give back in many different ways."

Mark Cutshall is editor of Outcomes.

For more resources on Systems and Capacity Building, go to ChristianLeadershipAlliance.com/SystemsCapacityBuilding.

Fellowship Technologies
Headquarters Irving, Texas
Founded 2004
CEO Jeff Hook
Employees 61
Mission To edify God and his Kingdom by empowering the church community through advanced technology
Clients 700-plus churches, including 30 of the 100 largest churches in the U.S. Also has clients in Canada, the United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand, and Singapore
Top product Fellowship One, a 100-percent Web-based church management software offering contact management, check-in, and real-time attendance tracking, small groups, contributions, and web-site integration
websiteFellowshipTech.com

CHURCH MANAGEMENT SOFTWARE PROVIDERS

ACS Technologies Group
ACSTechnologies.com
Information management solutions for churches, schools, and other faith-based organizations

Church Windows
ChurchWindows.com
User-friendly software for membership, scheduling, contributions, fund tracking, and payroll

Fellowship Technologies

FellowshipTech.com
Web-based enterprise church management systems

Shelby Systems, Inc.
ShelbyInc.com
Financial and membership software tools for ministries and other faith-based organizations

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