Thursday, September 7, 2017

Rethinking the First Step of your ChMS Search

Over the last 11 years, as I’ve been consulting with churches on technology and discipleship, I’ve seen many Church Management Systems (ChMS) come into the marketplace.  When our organization started 17 years ago, the options were very limited as was the diversity.  Fast forward to today and you have an industry that is plump with dozens of offerings of every shape and size.  While it’s great for churches to have options, it becomes more and more difficult for companies to differentiate their product from the pool of options.

Unfortunately, this puts churches at a disadvantage.  For the most parts, churches aren’t experts in Church Management Software.  If they’re lucky, hopefully they’ve only gone through the process of changing out a system a small amount of times.  The reality that I’ve seen, however, is that there are many churches that go through the process every one or two years, it seems.  Some churches have come back to us 3-4 times since I’ve been here to briefly kick the tires and then choose some other system for a reason that seems logical to them at the time.

Again, I realize that churches are at a disadvantage.  Because there is usually not someone on staff who can lead the process of evaluation, they will call on a volunteer “who has a background in IT”, an external consultant, or they will look at one of the online resources that “compare” church management systems and narrow the list based off of that.

Note: I put quotations around “compare” because most of those comparisons online are biased towards one type of software and actually act as an obstacle to keep a church away from the “right” solution for their church.  That’s another topic for another post.  


The challenge with a lot of these evaluations is that they’re starting the process asking the wrong questions.  Whether a church is following a consultant through an RFP (Request for Proposal) Process or they’re using an online comparison matrix, the software providers are coming into the conversation with pre-defined functionality on a list that they’re expected to address.  

The conversation starts at functionality and it isn’t even an open question like, “What functionality does the software have?”  It’s a closed and leading question that asks, “Does that software do A, B, C, D, and E?”

There are a few issues with this approach:

First, those lists often include current functionality that the church is trying to replicate.  This may seem like it’s an important thing but there may be some cases where replicating an outdated or sub-standard process may be holding the church back.  

EXAMPLE: I often have churches that want a certain level of ‘field options’ because they track first visit, second visit, third visit, classes attended, etc. in a field.  In these cases, their process was being dictated by limitations in their current software and rather than focusing on the end goal (i.e. We want to be able to easily track someone’s visits and classes), they’re pointing to the tactical way that they’re doing it.  Different software may have a different way to accomplish the same thing.

Secondly, focusing on functionality can tie the hands of the software provider who is trying to serve the needs of the church.  “Why are you wanting that particular function?”  Is it so that they can increase giving?  Is it because they’ve had employee fraud in the past and want to protect against that in the future?  Is it because the large church down the street uses that function and it would just be cool?  In reality, if the software provider is allowed to address the need, they may have much better options for meeting that need than the one you are seeking.  Removing them from understanding the why only works if all software systems are identical, which is not the case.

EXAMPLE:  There was a legacy software offering called Connection Power whose primary strength was on guest follow-up and retention.  I believe they did it better than any other solution at the time.  If a church shared that their primary focus was on retaining more first-time visitors, Connection Power was able to share expertise and functionality that no other option  in the industry had.  Churches that spoke to them as a potential partner were much better served than those who brought them a pre-determined list based on someone else’s understanding of guest follow-up.

Third, starting the conversation at functionality is an time-dependent comparison.  The world of software changes daily, as new technologies and updates come into light.  Any software company that is worth its salt is releasing new updates, functionality and improvements on a regular basis.  Focusing on a functionality comparison may show you what software is going to meet those specific functions on that particular day, but if another solution comes up with an update that addresses the gap two weeks later, the church has gone down a less-than-ideal path to support their ministry.  This wrong decision will often cost them a lot of time, money, frustration, and trust within their church family. 

EXAMPLE:  A few years ago, mobile apps hit the industry like wildfire.  Several ChMS companies quickly came out with an app and were able to ‘click the checkbox’ on a functionality comparison against those companies that did not have one.  As logic would dictate, rushing anything out the door can often lead to a less-than-stellar product.  Many churches made the wrong decision for their church based on the presence of an “app”.  Of course, other companies took their time to develop a mobile strategy that was more solid and intentional but those churches that jumped the gun based on a check-box missed that opportunity.

Finally, starting the software conversation at functionality often is influenced by bias or inaccurate information.  In the case of software comparison charts, the author of the chart usually has their own background, expertise, and solutions that will slant the chart in a particular direction.  For example, comparison charts usually are very heavy with administrative functionality and less focused on the ministry and discipleship side of the house.  What this does is heavily favor the administrative-focused solutions which can check most of the boxes.  

Unfortunately, there are usually several things that other software providers that do not appear on the list, like “leadership training / mentoring”.  I don’t recall ever seeing a software comparison chart that included that and most don’t even focus on congregational care or discipleship.  That is because traditional church management focused on administration and that bias is still prevalent in a lot of these comparison tools.

Another way that these comparisons become biased is false information.  Since software changes so much, comparison charts need to be updated regularly to provide churches with an accurate comparison.  Most of these comparisons are formulated annually and are not updated throughout the year.  Placing too much trust in online comparisons has a good chance of leading a church down a wrong path toward a poor decision.

EXAMPLE:  A church management consultant published a 2017 comparison chart for Church and Donor Management solutions.  In this chart he compared nearly 40 church management systems against 12 categories with over 80 different features.  Because of the make-up of the list, the chart heavily favored administrative-focused software and there were several solutions that had many unchecked boxes because their software was not designed for administration and finance.  Additionally, while he obviously included many church management options that I haven't even heard of in my 11 years in this industry, one solution that was missing from the list was incidentally the original online church management solution that was serving thousands of churches in 18 countries.  

There are several possible reasons that could contribute to bias, false information and omissions.  Regardless of the reason behind it, it brings to light an inherent problem with trusting these types of resources with such an important decision as your church management system.  Trusting someone else to tell you what functionality is most important for you to know and which companies you should consider is a mistake.  

Starting the conversation with a hyper focused list of specific functionality assumes that your team or your resource knows every possible function and option that is available to you … which would be an impossibility.  


So with all of these reasons NOT to start the conversation with functionality, what is a better option?  Where should a church start the conversation?

My experience over the last 11 years in working with churches of all sizes through this process has shown that the best place to start the conversation is to start at the high level of Focus.

There are two points of view to consider when discussing focus: the church and the software.

The Church’s Focus

At the end of the day, what is most critical for the church to accomplish with the software?  Where does the church want to take the ministry in the next 5, 10 or 20 years?  What are the areas of ministry that the church wants to immediately improve?  What is the church’s mission or vision statement?  That is important for an evaluation team to determine first and foremost, answering the question, “Where do we want our next Church Management software to take us?”

The Software Company’s Focus

Believe it or not, every software option that is available in the marketplace has an initial focus.  The organization that is behind the software generally has a focus, as well.  That focus is going to determine the direction that they will be taking the software in the future.  The trajectory of that software option is being driven by something and a biased functionality comparison will never show you what the software is designed to do.  

Examples of software focus include:
  • A focus on affordability
  • A focus on customization (i.e. open source options)
  • A focus on administration
  • A focus on group management
  • A focus on facilities and events
When you look behind the software at the organization that you will be partnering with in the future, they can potentially have a separate focus, as well.
  • A focus on profitability for shareholders
  • A focus on acquisition or buyout
The focus of the software and the organization behind it are a critical place to start the conversation because this will determine the future of any church that is partnered with them.  

Finding Alignment with a Potential Partner

It’s not enough to just know the focus of your ministry and the software you are considering.  It is critical to make sure there is alignment between where your ministry wants to go and where the software is designed to take you.  Once you know that there is alignment and that you and the organization are heading in the same direction, then you can start un-peeling the other levels of your evaluation.

Finally, I would like to say that I know there is no ‘silver bullet’ that can quickly lead you to the right ChMS solution for your church.  That’s a good thing because this shouldn’t be a quick, casual decision.  The ChMS partner that you choose is going to have a direct impact on the efficiency and the effectiveness of your ministry for the next 1+ years.  It is critical that you start the conversation with the differentiators that are going to determine the future of the options being considered.  Once you have alignment there, not only is the number of options reduced greatly but you are almost guaranteed to be on your way toward the best solution for your ministry needs.

Happy Hunting!