Evaluating Your Church Database
I have been in full-time church work for almost 20 years. In that time I have sat front row to at least four different church management solutions. A church management solution is simply a database holding the information of your church members: their phone numbers, emails, giving history, membership status, and anything else you may need to know. Some of these four solutions weren’t really solutions at all. I have seen everything from a massive Excel spreadsheet to a top-of-the-line on-site server costing us tens of thousands every year. After countless migrations and even an attempt at no database (a true nightmare), I’ve realized there are three questions to ask when evaluating your current solution.
Question #1: Is it usable?
Does the software do what you want it to do? I remember using a very costly software at a 1,000 member church—and it wasn’t even able to handle online giving. So we went out and paid another vendor to handle our online portion. Neither of those did nursery check-in, so we had a separate software for that. Before we knew it, we had four different databases with names and information. It became a secretary’s full-time headache to update any change in all four databases!
What do you want your database to do? What problems do you need to solve? There is a basic retrieval of information. If you cannot look up a church member’s phone number while on the road, your database is essentially worthless. I remember calling the office while on the road asking for addresses and phone numbers. We are in a new world of smartphones and the internet. Our database should, at a minimum, give us mobile access of our data. Make a list of things you need help with. Attendance in groups? Nursery check-in? Event sign-ups? Online giving? Keeping track of people’s giving? Does your current solution solve any of the needs your church currently has, or could it be improved?
Question #2: Is it user-friendly?
One of my favorite church management solutions was also one of the worst my team ever had to use. When we migrated over to their software our entire team had to undergo more than 10 hours of video training on how to use it. I remember in our weekly staff meeting persuading everyone to get their video training done. I spent months using my influence and leadership to make people watch boring training videos! I finished all my videos in the first week and was so excited to implement it among our teams. But it was never fully integrated because our pastors had more important things to do than becoming Ph.D. students of yet another church database solution.
How hard is it to train someone to use your database software? Does only one person in the church know how to use it? How difficult is it to run a report? To enter data? It is very possible for your software solution to become another problem.
As a church planter, I am currently in a high-volunteer environment with no other paid staff. There is no way to onramp people onto software like the one described above. It didn’t work with a large (paid) team; it is going to be disastrous for a volunteer team. You need a solution that is easy to use, easy to be taught, and easy to adopt.
Question #3: Is it used?
Does anyone in your church actually use your database? Once upon a time, we used an old server-based database. It was actually pretty powerful. It had many useful features and had at one time been a leader in the field. But it was ugly. Like old-school website ugly. It was ugly and clunky and required you to be on a certain computer to use it. So every single team just created their own solution. The nursery team had their own database. I was the youth pastor, and we had our own. The groups guy had an impressive Excel layout. It was the wild west, and no one used the actual central database. Over time it became a really expensive accounting software because all it was doing was tracking giving.
Your database is made more powerful by how much it is used. If you are not using it, then why throw away the money and the effort to keep it up-to-date? But if every team is using the same database, then all of a sudden you have real actionable intel. If I see that one family’s kids have not been in the nursery in 5 weeks, and they have stopped attending their weekly small group, then I have some real knowledge that they are drifting away. As a shepherd, you can step into that moment and be what you were called to be. But if that information is spread across multiple walled gardens, you may not know that story until a family has fallen off the edge.
Ask these three questions about your current database. If yours is useful, user-friendly, and used, then way to go. But if your answers are of a more pessimistic note, then maybe it's time to think about finding an actual solution.