A CMS Wish List

I have written previously about the tools that a pastor uses as he carries out his ministry. From high-tech to low-tech, these tools assist the pastor in his work of caring for the flock. Church Membership Software is one such tool. This is software that stores a congregation’s records, including membership data, attendance, and sometimes its finance and other information. In some cases, these functions can be carried out in other ways. In the past, churches primarily used a big book called a church register. This book had lined pages for the congregation’s baptisms, confirmations, weddings, etc. Even today, smaller congregations could simply keep these records on paper, in a word processing document or a simple spreadsheet. Financial data can be managed in a stand-alone system like Quickbooks. But very often churches desire a single software solution to manage all its data. Those types of software packages are called Church Membership Software (CMS).

The CMS with which I am most familiar is called Shepherd’s Staff. It is developed by Concordia Technology Solutions, a division of Concordia Publishing House. Incidentally, I think the name Shepherd’s Staff describes the purpose of this type of software, a tool in the hand of those who have been called to shepherd the flock of God.

My opinion is that Shepherd’s Staff, and other packages like it, do their job well. They are, in general, mature products with deep feature sets. But I’m wishing for something more. For a couple years already, I have been looking for something better. There are two main reasons. #1: Microsoft Windows. I’ve been a Mac user for almost 13 years. I have never personally owned a Windows machine, and I have never really been interested in one. I have never had much trouble finding applications for the Mac—except for church software. Shepherd’s Staff is Windows only. Right now I have VMware fusion on my Macbook Pro which runs Windows XP. But the only reason I have that is for Shepherd’s Staff—and I cringe every time I have to open it. If there were a better alternative, I would quickly delete Widows from my machine.

But I’m not really looking for a Mac version of Shepherd’s Staff or another CMS. That leads me to reason #2: The internet. The web is filled with Web 2.o applications for everything from social networking (like Facebook, etc), photo sharing (Flickr, etc), even banking (Mint.com, etc). It just blows my mind how much of your life you can organize, publish, and discover, not to mention how much time you can waste if you’re not careful—all with a modern web browser and an internet connection. Some people even predict that in the future all software will be web-based. Right now, there are just some things that work better as regular client software, mostly because of the limitations of web browsers (for example, web-based word processors or presentation software do not compare to regular local software). But for database-type applications, the web is a fine tool.

My wish is for a good CMS on the web. There are a few products out there. I have links to them at the end of the post. Some are good, others are not, still others are too expensive. But the advantages of this type of thing are huge. Since it’s web-based, it would be platform independent. It wouldn’t matter what kind of computer you’re using. It would also be hardware independent. Sometimes church office computers aren’t the newest machines in the world. Web-based software eliminates the need for the users to update the software on their machines. That means that your version will always be up-to-date (I’m currently using a version of Shepherd’s Staff from 2004). It would also provide built-in back-up and the data is not stored at the church. I know of more than one church which was broken into and had the church office computer stolen, complete with the electronic church records. I can also imagine other disasters which would have the same results.

The other advantage to web-based software is that it is accessible from anywhere. That means that church volunteers or staff can access the system from home, church, or wherever. I can just imagine a financial secretary entering contribution records at home, or a volunteer taking home the attendance cards or friendship registers and entering Sunday’s attendance. As a pastor, I would love quick access to membership information no matter where I am.

But while there are a few of these kinds of tools out there, I haven’t yet found what I’m looking for. Basically I’m looking for the feature set of your typical CMS, especially Shepherd’s Staff. Here is a list of a few of my more desirable features. Feel free to add your own ideas in the comments section.

  • Mobile Access – Ideally this would be an iPhone app. But at the very least, a mobile web version to do things like view and edit contact information for my members and prospects. I would like to be able to view their info, click on a phone number to call or click on their address to get directions. After a visit, I would like to be able to log my visit notes within the person’s record. I would also like to be able to take attendance for classes from the mobile version.
  • Lutheran terminology I have tried several options out there, but it seems that many of them are built for megachurches that have different needs. Lutherans (and probably other sacramental/liturgical churches) have their own terminology and critical information. Baptism and confirmation dates are important. Membership types are unique. That’s one of the reasons I really have always appreciated Shepherd’s Staff.
  • Tags I would like to see the ability to create groups by using a tagging feature. Most software allows you to create groups of members based on certain criteria. But I would like to be able to create those kind of “smart groups” based on tags that I have created. For example, we typically have three “types” of members: baptized, communicants, and voting members. But a typical drop-down menu doesn’t work for that, because our communicant members are also baptized members, and our voting members are all three. I would like to be able to simply assign tags to people. This kind of organization is used all over the web, including sites like Flickr and even blogs like this.
  • Permanent Records One of the biggest dangers of using computer software to keep track of church records is that when the technology changes or the software upgrades, current data formats may become obsolete. The things that churches need to record are often permanent records, especially the official pastoral and church acts, such as baptisms, confirmations, weddings, and funerals. This is important in small churches and large churches. In large churches because there is lots of data and people can get lost. In a small church this is important even if the church is small enough for the pastor to remember all the details about his members. But when that pastor takes a call or retires, the new pastor will have to rely heavily on those records. I’m convinced that churches still need to be able to keep a hard copy of all of this kind of data. So even web software needs to be able to export reports that can serve as these kind of archived records. I would recommend keeping this hard copy record in a fire-proof safe at church or off-site (but make sure someone knows where it is).
  • Attachments I want to be able to attach documents to personal or household records. I’m specifically thinking of scanned documents like baptismal certificates, transfer letters, marriage licenses, etc. That way our records can be stored off-site and are easily associated with a member’s other information. If there was an iPhone version, perhaps these attachments could be viewed from the phone.

Here is the list of web-based church membership software services. I know there are others, many of which are higher-priced. Leave a comment if you can recommend another.

4 thoughts on “A CMS Wish List

  1. Thanks for your post. This topic has been on my mind too.

    I’ve found that there are a number of options in the CRM world. I would suggest CiviCRM as an open-source option that could be customized to church needs. One drawback is that if you’re looking for a hosted solution, the CiviCRM organization is only focused on providing the module that integrates with Drupal and Joomla sites. I think there are a number of hosted CRM solutions that could work if they allow for customizations. Many allow for tags, as you mention.

    The main challenge I see is also integrating with a hosted Web 2.0 *fund accounting* solution. There are many hosted Web 2.0 CRM solutions that integrate with hosted Web 2.0 *business accounting* solutions, but just a few feeble attempts at hosted Web 2.0 fund accounting. At least in a large congregation, we need the efficiency of having integration between membership and accounting. Two systems would be too much work and confusion.

    I think it will take one of the major CMS companies entering the Web 2.0 world before we have an acceptable solution. Again, it looks like some are headed that way, but not there yet.

  2. Thank you for referencing our site “Church Office Online” in your blog. Much of what you listed as desired features in a CMS is available in Church Office Online. As an Online service company we have the added advantage of adding client features without down-time or upgrading cost. We maintain compatibility with all operating systems (including MAC)and web browsers.

    One client requested feature that we are about to release is Secure Individual Account Access (SIAA). This feature will allow an Individual to access their church’s CMS to input/correct/update contact information specific to their record and review and print their contributions.

    I like your record attachment idea and will consider placing it on our features requested list.

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