By G. Jeffrey MacDonald

When the pandemic erupted in March and virus-wary congregations scrambled to “do church” online, leaders raced to go digital with two primary tasks: streaming worship services and receiving online donations.

But tech enhancements didn’t end there. Behind the scenes, church management software (ChMS) has been playing a larger role in parish administration. It’s helping keep congregants connected, boost efficiencies, and facilitate ministries that weren’t needed back when every church was gathering weekly in person.

From organizing small neighborhood clusters to following up with first-time visitors to online worship, administrative teams are exploring how ChMS can enhance ministry – and how it can offer more than is being utilized now.

“A lot of churches have actually reorganized” during the pandemic, said David Rogers, senior vice president of marketing at Ministry Brands, maker of Shelby Systems and other ChMS products.  “They’ve taken their old brick-and-mortar structure and used our system to organize around the needs of the church in terms of outreach to congregation members and to new people coming into the church.”

Work flows have changed, Rogers observed. What’s needed now might be electronic reminders to call someone who’s isolated or to plan a Zoom gathering for prospective new members. With no physical guest book for worship attendees to sign, a digital welcome card is needed to track who’s been streaming worship services and to capture their contact information for clergy follow ups. ChMS systems provide such tools among others.

Though ChMS is hardly new, it’s drawn a wave of new interest from curious, sometimes panicked congregations during the pandemic. A Ministry Brands webinar introducing newcomers to its tools in mid-March drew a surprising 3,500 participants, Rogers said.

Churches have flocked to other platforms, too, as a competitive marketplace vies for their business. About 75 percent of congregations in the Diocese of Colorado now run some type of church management software, up from 60 percent before the pandemic, according to Missioner for Development and Financial Stewardship Paul Alexander. He said most use Realm, a cloud-based system that’s discounted for Colorado congregations through a package deal with the diocese.

Later this year or early in 2021, the Episcopal Church Foundation plans to begin offering a ChMS system of its own. ECF 360, now in a pilot phase, will be tailored for Episcopal congregations and priced competitively, according to Director of Institutional Advancement Bill Campbell. ECF 360 will give Episcopalians tools that meet their specific need, such as organizing acolyte schedules or staffing food pantries. ECF aims to keep the cost low and provide a format that’s easy for even the tech-phobic to use. Built on a Salesforce platform, ECF 360 will be geared toward fostering relationships with existing congregants and prospective new members alike.

“Our denomination is so far behind the rest of the world on this stuff that we don’t have a way of understanding who’s coming to our websites,” Campbell said, noting that demographic insights such as age, gender and zip code can make marketing more targeted and effective. “One the things that a Salesforce-based database will be able to do is take that pixel tracking and start turning that into lead development. Then you start to develop a picture of who are the types of people coming to your website.”

Congregations using ChMS have been branching out to see what more it can do. At St. Mark’s Church in Houston, administrators have for years used Shelby, which allows for integration of the church’s databases: membership, giving, and financial management. Having databases linked makes it easy to prepare year-end donor statements and to take pledging into account when preparing budgets, according to Rector Patrick Miller.

Since the pandemic began, Miller has been using Shelby more for managing congregational life at St. Mark’s, which drew 300 on an average pre-pandemic Sunday and has a staff of 10. The system gives him proxy signs for pastoral concerns, he said. Example: a sudden drop in a parishioner’s giving can be an indicator of personal problems such as a job loss and might warrant a pastoral call.

St. Mark’s has also started using the database to sort parishioners by neighborhood, which the church hadn’t done in the past. That’s useful now, Miller said, for organizing small outdoor prayer clusters among neighbors.

“I can create home churches” while in-person worship at St. Mark’s is suspended, Miller said. “There’s an opportunity to say: ‘You families live within eight blocks of each other. If you’re comfortable, go have evening prayer together. Or invite me over and I’ll come with my mask on to do evening prayer where you are’.”

In Oakland, California, St. John’s Church has been using Realm in new ways during COVID. Example: parishioners are increasingly using the online directory to stay connected. Many also using Realm features such as Text 2 Give or QR code scanning to make their offerings.

“During COVID, we’ve had some very big successes because we were intentional about teaching people about Realm and showing [parishioners] all the updates of what they can do with Realm,” said the Rev. Jon Owens, a deacon and associate for ministry development. “Because of online giving during this time, our pledges are up more than they’ve ever been. It’s more than covered what we would have had in the plate” if in-person worship had continued.

Congregations exploring ChMS options will find they’re no longer courting risks that come with software that lives on a staffer’s laptop or a desktop at the church. ChMS systems tend to be cloud-based, which means they’re offered as software as a service (SaaS), available for a monthly access fee. The software is updated regularly as part of a subscription.

Prices vary depending on church size and levels of service. Most in the Diocese of Colorado pay $50 to $100 per month, Alexander said. With Ministry Brands, a small Episcopal congregation might pay $35 to $50, Rogers said, while one with 500 members would pay closer to $95.

Church IT consultants say ChMS has become a must-have for large congregations with lots of groups and programs to manage, but smaller congregations have reasons to use it, too. Take security. Congregations of all sizes need secure data so nothing is lost, for instance, if a staffer’s laptop is stolen, according to Nick Nicholaou, a church IT consultant with Ministry Business Services in Huntington Beach, California. Cloud-based systems can provide more security, he said, though he cautions that some provide better safeguards than others.

“The first step is to encourage the vestry to think of this data in terms of being corporate data” belonging to the church, Nicholaou said. “Because if anything ever goes wrong, sure, the individual is held accountable, but so is the church. If the church had no control and no knowledge, they might think they have the ability to hide behind that in a liability situation, but that’s not the case. The church is required to govern the data and shepherd the data.”

Nicholaou advises clients to make a list of the features they need. For example: could you use an app that checks in children when they arrive and leave and mark who picked them up? How about an app that keeps a log of small group attendance? Or one that lets parishioners download small audio or video clips from a worship service?

With criteria in hand, query software makers to see which ones have the desired features. When you think you’ve found the best fit, request a free trial before committing.

Congregations with ChMS are exploring what more the terrain can do for them. The Diocese of California has signed up the Tech Chaplaincy Institute, a Boulder, Colorado-based consultancy, to offer its congregations a technology checkup for the pandemic. Doing more with ChMS is often part of the process.

Founder Shamika Goddard offers several tips: consider managing volunteers and engaging with donors through an easy-to-use platform like Planning Center. Use Capterra to search for ChMS systems on the basis of which features they offer. If the church budget has no room for new software, consider a free entry-level version of Tithe.ly or Planning Center. Perhaps upgrade to a more advanced, fee-based version later.

“Every faith community doesn’t need to get Planning Center, but every faith community does need to have a plan for their data and a way to store that information so it can live beyond the people who are currently serving as that faith community,” Goddard said. “Even if it just a Google sheet with everybody’s contact information on it, there needs to be workflow so that you can be adding to it and updating it every year.”

Getting the right fit can involve some evolution. Campbell cautions that some churches might have more software than they currently need, for instance if their system is designed for managing dozens of small groups. But they might not have to scrap what they have. Software that allows for Application Programming Interface (API) integration will be able to tie into ECF 360, which means a church can keep using its familiar database and simply add onto it.

Meanwhile congregations see room to do more with management tech. St. Mark’s has ambitions to use Shelby’s mobile application to a greater degree in years ahead. St. John’s sees potential in what Realm can do for managing small groups. For now, they’re happy to see what the tech has already delivered, even where congregants bring a mix of comfort levels with technology.

Realm “has group features, event calendars, all sorts of things you could do,” Owens said. “We don’t use a lot of those functions. Like a lot of Episcopal churches, we’re an aging congregation so you do have a technological divide on some things for the older demographic. But what we do use Realm for is quite effective.”