Google Apps and Grace Family Church

As the I.T. Director for Grace Family Church, I am charged with determining the best path for us with regards to which technology best suits the needs of our vision, users, congregation, and budget.  Keeping that in mind, I began to look at our current email solution: Microsoft Exchange 2003.

Knowing that Microsoft recently released the 2010 version, immediately I saw we were behind in the technology.  In researching the new version, I saw that the only option to run Exchange 2010 was on a 64-bit capable server. Hmmm… I didn’t have one of those, nor did I have a VT capable server on which I could run Exchange 2010 in a virtual server.  That meant I would need to purchase a new server.  I also would need to purchase all new licensing for Exchange 2010, including new Client Access Licenses.  I know for a non-profit that the cost of the licensing is relatively nothing compared to the public sector, but it is a cost none the less.

Doing a little more research I found that Google gives the Education Edition of their Google Apps product FREE to non profits.  Ok – that got my attention.  What I also liked about Google Apps is that it runs in the “Cloud”.  In other words, it is hosted on Google’s servers, not mine, and therefore reduces some of my day to day overhead.  Since we already run our Church Management System, Fellowship One, in the Cloud, this seemed like a logical step to at least test Google Apps for Grace Family Church.

I am also a part of an close knit organization called The Church IT Roundtable (CITRT).  This organization is made up of Church IT Professionals and volunteers who make up the IT Staff for their respective churches.  On their Wiki Site is a page dedicated strictly to the discussion of Google Apps and it’s pros and cons.  Check it out! By the way,  if you do Church IT in any capacity, YOU NEED to be a part of this group – It’s a FREE and invaluable resource of friendship, advice, and professionalism!  Check out the main page here.

Moving on, the decision was made to move forward with Google Apps.  The setup process is extremely simple and Google even gives you a step by step tutorial within the management interface on how to set it up and get it working properly.  I have been able to do ALL of the setup myself.  Google provides excellent tools to assist you with the migration from Exchange to Google Apps.  I am  also using the Google Apps Migration Tool which makes moving users a piece of cake.  The Google Apps Directory Sync Tool also makes it simple to keep your users sync’d between your Microsoft Active Directory and Google Apps.  This blog post of mine explains how I use it and also how I was able to get user passwords to sync too.

What made this move good for us is that we were NOT using all of the features of Microsoft Exchange.  Let me be clear also – Google Apps is not a Microsoft Exchange equivalent.  While I can see this happening in the future (Google is continually improving Google Apps), it’s just not a full replacement yet.  For us the move made sense.  For your church it may not.

What do I like so far?  These are just few things I like.

  1. Google Talk – This is Google’s Instant Messaging (IM) platform which allows for text, video, and voice chats.  All of our users are now on the same IM platform.
  2. Google Sites – This allows you to create simple websites that can be used for Intranet purposes or even Internet purposes.  I was able to quickly create a Google Apps Tutorial website for my users where they can quickly learn the ins and outs of using Google Apps.
  3. The Web Interface – While it may not be the prettiest screen to look at, the interface is extremely functional.  I LOVE the conversation view of email messages.  I am using the keyboard shortcuts to compose new messages, reply, and add labels to messages.
  4. Labels – This is Google Apps version of Folders in Microsoft Exchange email.  The best part here is that you can easily apply multiple labels to an email message to make it easier to find later.
  5. Calendar – I’m finding the ability to overlay multiple calendars from different places over the top of my calendar extremely helpful.  Calendars are also easily shared between users in order to make overlaying calendars possible.

Also – Google Apps might be a good solution for you if you need to provide email addresses to your volunteers but not give them access to your exchange server.  You can setup your domain on Google apps but not “activate” it for email, docs, talk, etc.  You then add a subdomain to your Google Apps installation where you would create user accounts for your volunteers at an address like stevew@volunteer.church.org.  Just an idea…

Enough of my rambling – I hope you find some of this information helpful or at least somewhat informative.  If you have questions, leave a comment – I’ll do my best to answer you through the comments (smart remarks are welcome too).  Or if you’d like to converse in more depth over the phone, let me know!

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Fellowship One, Shelby, Arena & Grace Family Church

It’s official.  We, Grace Family Church (GFC), are moving to Fellowship One (F1) for our Church Management System (ChMS).

How did we come to this decision?

When I came to GFC last April, one of my tasks was to evaluate the state of I.T. within Grace Family Church.  This process included interviewing, every single staff member of GFC and I asked the following questions:

  1. How do you use technology in your every day job here @ GFC?
  2. What software do you use?
  3. What “shadow systems” do you utilize (database/lists outside of our current ChMS)?
  4. What works great? Why?
  5. What’s broken? Why?
  6. Dream Big: What do you wish Technology could help/assist you with in your job functinon?
  7. How can I help you do your job effectively?

Over and over, the answer to question #5 was the name of our current ChMS provider.  But, why was it broken?

  1. Users weren’t trained properly from the beginning.
  2. The user interface is clumsy.
  3. The reporting engine isn’t easy to figure out.
  4. Too many clicks to do simple tasks.
  5. User’s couldn’t remember how to do simple everyday tasks because of the number of steps to complete these tasks.

This led to questions that HAD to be answered: Can we continue to use our current ChMS?  Can we properly train everyone?  Is there a misperception of the ChMS?  Do we need to drop what we are using and start over with a new ChMS provider?

So began the search for answers.  I read manuals; I played with our current ChMS and tried to learn it from the top down all while also evaluating other systems that were available to us.  I quickly came to the conclusion that if I was having trouble learning how to use the ChMS, how could I expect my users to learn it?  Our current system was not going to cut it and we needed to move.

What were our requirements for a new ChMS?  In no particular order, the top ones included:

  1. A web interface.
  2. Easy to understand user interface.
  3. An OUT OF THIS WORLD training program for our users.
  4. Easy to administer (since I have to take care of that).
  5. A reporting engine that the user can use to create reports.
  6. A workflow process for tracking assimilation or other processes.
  7. And, of course, able to keep our data safe.

I took my time researching options.  I payed particular attention to Joel Lingenfelter’s blog where he was chronicling his church’s journey on the search for a new ChMS.  His blog was truly a godsend for me.  He journaled every step in his search, making mine easier in the long run.  While I used his blog as a reference, I also talked to many, many other churches about what ChMS they were using, asking about their likes, dislikes, etc.

Eventually the choices were narrowed to two: Fellowship One, and Arena.  I dove into both.  I read their websites multiple times, had attended 2 demonstrations of each, and again, talked to MANY of their customers – not necessarily customers they referred me to, but customers I sought out on my own as well.  Of course, this process was also filled with prayer.  I had a real concern for the church and our finances.  I didn’t want to spend money on a product if it was not going to assist us in meeting our goals of Connecting our people to God, Others, Service, and Outreach.  If we were going to spend money, we needed to be good stewards as well.

Both ChMS’s are EXCELLENT and, quite frankly, going into our Board of Director’s meeting to make the presentation, the recommendation was going to be “either one” as the feeling was that the both would suit our needs.  BUT, as I was making the presentation, giving each a fair and equal shot, I came to the end where the recommendation was going to be “Choose One.”  At this point I really felt that God was telling me “Fellowship One”.  Huh?  That’s weird (even cool!).  Here I am in the middle of making a presentation and God is telling me to change my recommendation and choose Fellowship One.  I love the way God just intervenes when it’s time.

I know I’m not going into specifics as to why we selected Fellowship over Arena but in the end this is why God told us to go with Fellowship:

User Interface – I know this can sound corny, but God said that our users would get the most out of the Fellowship user interface.  Arena’s is FANTASTIC but our users will benefit most from the user interface that Fellowship One has to offer.  It is clear, clean, and concise and even self explanatory.

The Wall – Arena is a wholly owned subsidiary of our current ChMS provider, Shelby Systems.  God impressed upon me that there is a HUGE wall to climb with our users.  That wall was the link between Shelby and Arena.  Now, please don’t take what I am about say as a negative against Shelby.  I truly believe the reason Shelby is not working for us at GFC is because of it’s implementation.  Our leadership will say that Shelby was not implemented correctly and our users were not trained fully and properely from the “get go”.  Our leadership takes responsibility in this.  Where the wall comes in is here; our users have an extremely negative attitude towards Shelby and know that Arena and Shelby are the same company.  I know that the two products are completely different, but the end users don’t see it that way.  This wall is a HUGE hurdle for the GFC staff to overcome.  That being said, and I know God can overcome even the largest walls, this was one wall we needed to avoid.

I have to give props to the guys at Arena:  Mark White, Chris Rivers and Russell Byrd.  They did everything in their power to win our business and keep us within the Shelby Family.  They answered every question, stopped what they were doing in their days to assist me, and in the end they were gracious in defeat.

It’s clear that we are all in the business of winning souls for Christ, and in the same way people choose the church that best suits them, Grace Family also had to choose a ChMS that best suited us.  Mark, Chris, & Russell – Thank You!  Thank you for your time and your commitment to Grace Family Church throughout this process.  Just because we will not be partners in “Business” doesn’t mean we won’t continue to work together in expanding The Kingdom!

As for our future with Fellowship One, Grace Family Church is extremely excited!  We are ready to jump on board and look forward to doing ministry with you.  Thank you for all you have done for us Errol.  Thank you for going above and beyond during our selection process and hanging with us during our long decision process!

Finally, I look at the church as an Insurance Agency that specializes in Life Insurance, only this is the best life insurance that one can purchase.  We get to play a role in insuring AND ensuring The Eternal Life of the people throughout our communities.  The database is just a tool which allows us to better connect with our members and regular attenders.  It allows us to watch and enhance the Spiritual Growth of our people.  It also allows us to see who is not growing and even digressing in their walk, allowing us to pray, encourage, uplift, and pour into those that need a little extra attention.  The church is not the database, the database is the tool that allows us, the people to minister effectively to EVERYONE that is a part of GFC. The chruch IS the people.

A friend of mine frequently says, “We don’t have to, we get to”.  It is an honor to serve my Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ and it’s my privelege to serve with guys like Mark, Chris, Russell, and Errol who all want nothing more than to win souls for Him!

Press on Guys – Let’s do the Kingdom’s work!

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