Virtual Organist

If your church…
…struggles to find an organist to play for services
…uses MIDI or Hymnsoft for services, but would appreciate something better
…needs to find a way to give organists a Sunday off
…wishes for a well-trained church organist to help lead the congregation’s song,

demo pack
I highly recommend you check out The Virtual Organist service from Church Music Solutions. This Sunday we used this service to accompany our service for the first time, and I am very pleased with how it went. I won’t describe the whole thing here; just go to their web site and take a look. Contact them and ask them to send you a demo unit so that you can see and hear for yourself 1) how easy it is and 2) how good it sounds.

I will still say that in most situations I would prefer to have a real, live (even mediocre) organist on the bench each Sunday. And I still feel strongly that we need to work hard to recruit and encourage kids to become good church organists. But I am fairly confident to agree that in many situations, this is the next best thing.

Lutheran Public Radio – Music for the World

I’ve been listening to this whenever I can. Check it out!

The reformer Martin Luther had this to say about the Holy Spirit, God’s Word and music:

The Holy Ghost himself honors music as an instrument for his proper work when in the Holy Scriptures he asserts that through her gifts were instilled in the prophets, namely, the inclination to all virtues, as can be seen in Elisha (2 Kings 3:15)…The gift of language combined with the gift of song was only given to man to let him know that he should praise God with both word and music, namely, by proclaiming the Word of God through music and by providing sweet melodies with words.

The Holy Spirit is working through God’s word put to music on Lutheran Public Radio, Sacred Music for the World. You’ll hear hymns like “Thy Strong Word,” “The Church’s One Foundation, ” “Lord, Thee I Love with All My Heart,” “God’s Own Child I Gladly Say It,” “My Hope Is Built on Nothing Less” and more.

You can listen to sacred music 24/7 at Lutheran Public Radio. You can also listen on mobile devices like an iPhone or iPad or any Android phone.

2011 Goals

The beginning of a new year is a typical time for people to make resolutions and set goals for the upcoming year. For me, it’s probably not so much that it’s the end of the year, but in the weeks following Christmas I find myself actually having a minute or two to think about things. This year I was thinking specifically about how I can better use my time in the new year. So, I’ve set a few goals that I would like to take on this year. Some are ongoing things, and things I’ve been trying to do some time. So, here are the things I’m thinking about today:

  1. Spend more time in sermon preparation. It’s probably easy to make this happen in the month following the Christmas season. During the month of December I prepared 10 sermons. I only preached 15 times my whole vicar year. Obviously, when the services are as frequent as they are in December, the amount of available time for study and preparation declines. But I really need to carve out more time in the new year to dedicate to preparation. That may mean that some other things don’t get done, but it should be time well spent.
  2. Learn Spanish. I’ve been telling myself I need to do this for years—since even before we moved to El Paso. But I’ve been here for almost three years and it just strikes me as ridiculous to not make this a priority. I know it will be process that will take longer than just one year, but I need to get serious about it.
  3. Post to the blog once a week. In 2010, I published 27 posts to the blog. I don’t think I can commit to posting every day, as some are aiming for, but I if I could post once a week, I would double the number of posts. It seems to be attainable. Only time will tell if it’s a worthy use of my time.
  4. Limit Email and Facebook. I know that these can be time-wasters, especially when I have it available on my phone at all times. My goal is to limit the number of times I check both email and facebook to just a couple times per day. Facebook should be easier than email, since I get lots of email. But if I limit myself, I know that I need to deal with my email when I’m in email mode, and not be watching emails stream in all day long. Occasionally someone will try to reach me by email and need an immediate response, but most often it can wait at least a few hours. I’m hoping that this will not only save me the time I waste by checking it and reviewing all the messages that I haven’t done anything about yet. But I hope that it will also allow me to focus my attention on other things which need my attention. Say, like goal #1.


I’m pretty happy to have been able to get the TomTom app for iPhone, thanks to an unexpected honorarium I received. The app is on sale for $49 for a couple weeks. I use the GPS feature on my phone quite often. It will be very nice to be able to drive without having to keep watching the phone. That’s not very safe, especially when you don’t know where you’re going.

I turned it on this morning on my way to church and noticed something interesting. It told me that my exit is “Hondo Pass Rd.” It is true that a couple of the highway signs read “Hondo Pass Rd,” but most others read “Hondo Pass Dr.” I have also seen it printed “Hondo Pass Ave.” Apparently, no one seems to know what kind of road Hondo Pass is.

I have noticed that most people in El Paso don’t even bother with the type of street. Rd, Dr, Blvd, St, Ave, Way, Cir—those don’t seem to matter around here. I noticed that the first time I looked at Trinity’s directory when I was deliberating the call here.

That’s so different from the way it is, for example, in the Minneapolis area, where all the streets run east/west and the avenues run north/south. That way, if I have an address, I can pretty much guess where it’s at. That was rather useful to me the summer I spent delivering sod in Minneapolis. I suppose that being able to locate nearly any address on a grid of streets would eliminate the need for GPS, though, wouldn’t it?

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 (, 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.

Bulletin Covers

At the beginning of Advent this past year our congregation stopped using the NPH bulletin covers. The covers feature full color pictures and usually have a phrase from one of the lessons for that Sunday of the church year. However, it seemed that more often than not, the featured phrase was not the part of that lesson that made a connection to the other lessons and formed the theme for the day. In some cases, the emphasis on the cover seemed to draw the emphasis away from the theme of the day. On top of that, Christian Worship Supplement has a supplementary lectionary and if we happen to substitute the lesson with the featured phrase, the cover really makes little sense.

The cost of the bulletin covers is not outrageous, but there was a savings for us in dropping the subscription. We were also starting to print out our services in the bulletins, so the cost savings from the covers has helped cover the cost of the extra printing.

So, for several months now I have had to find some kind of graphic to use on the cover to our bulletin. I have almost always been able to find something appropriate from the collection Clip Art…for the Liturgical Year. That’s my go-to clip art collection. If someone has a good suggestion for another collection with high-quality B/W art suitable for this kind of thing, leave me a comment.

But every once in a while I just can’t find something that really fits. That happened last Sunday. I just couldn’t find something that was just right. So I tried something that I had seen before, but had never found an opportunity to use it. is a web application that creates a graphic visualization of a body of text, with the most frequent words in larger type. I tried it with my sermon text, the second lesson for the day—Ephesians 2:4–10. This is what I got:

I thought it turned out very well and was exactly what I needed for my bulletin cover. I’m sure that not every text works out like that, with the most frequent words as the most important words. But this is a tool I’ll probably want to check every once in a while, especially when I can’t find a bulletin cover.

WELSTech Podcast

A number of weeks ago, I did an interview for the WELSTech podcast, which is produced by our Synod's Technology office. The episode with the interview was released today.

The interview was about how the iPhone can be used as a tool for ministry. I had written a little about that here some months back. Follow the link above or click on the picture to read about or listen to the episode.

I would like to say that is was a privilege to talk about this topic. Many of you know that I'm always happy to talk about Apple hardware and software. I would also like to welcome any new readers who found their way here through this podcast. 

Kid Pictures

This evening I uploaded a couple albums of pictures from the kids' cameras. Both Hannah and Andrew have the Fisher-Price Digital Cameras, which they got as Christmas presents. The cameras don't take great pictures, but they're fun for the kids, they really do take pictures, and every once in a while a good picture comes out. As I emptied the cameras tonight, Andrew's camera had over 800 pics; Hannah's had almost 300. On our gallery page, you can see the selection of pictures that were better than most. Enjoy.