Thursday, December 18, 2008

Life hits the pause button

This has been one of the busiest, and most stressful, years that I have ever had. We have lots of things to do to be ready for the Arena cutover, and we were supposed to do our final export of our data from our old system today.

Yesterday it started snowing very early. By noon the snow was getting so bad that we closed the office and sent everyone home due to snow, a first for me. Remember, we live in southern california... We live at an elevation around 4000 feet, so we usually get a snow or two each year, but never anything quite like this. In talking with others around here, it hasn't snowed like this in 30 years.

We woke up today to a winter wonderland, with between 14 and 24 inches of snow everywhere. We played in the snow early, took pictures, and had a wonderful time. Then a little later we build a snowman, a big one (taller than Patty), in our front yard. Then around 4pm a friend came by in his 4x4 (snow had been melting, making our house accessible, although I still don't know if I can get the jeep out of my driveway, it's rather buried in snow). We built a killer sled run with our friends and finished the day out sledding. I'm really tired, and rather sore, but this has been a fantastic day.

In the middle of all the stress, in the midst of all the busyness, in the hectic hustle and bustle of the season, God called a time out. And we got to play in the snow.



Monday, December 8, 2008

One Roll of Velvia

One roll of Velvia is all it took to remind me in glorious color why I still shoot film.

One roll of Velvia is all it took to remind me what breathtaking photos really look like.

One roll of Velvia is all it took to remind me why I take the time to work with a film scanner.

One roll of film brought back all the passion, all the joy, and all the love of photography.

One roll of film also reminded me how important the photofinisher is, as a few frames were badly scratched... Grrrrr!

But one roll of film, what a glorious roll it was!


More thoughts from the little flowers

This book is very interesting. It reads like legend, and seems to exaggerate things quite often. Still, there are good lessons to be learned and pondered from the text. When I talk about legend, it is passages like this one that stand out:

"Inasmuch as the faithful servant of Christ, St. Francis, was in certain things almost another Christ"

That is, to be frank, way over the top for me. But then this is a style of literature I don't normally read...

The next chapter retells a journey of St. Francis and Friar Leo, in which they discuss what perfect joy is. To Francis, perfect joy is to experience a hint of the suffering of Christ. He rejects all the things of life in return for suffering, and claims that perfect joy would be to arrive at the end of their journey and suffer unjustly for the love of Christ. While I think there is a certain pride at work in the asceticism. the key point that perfect joy is only found in Christ is rock solid.

Why do we think the things of this world will satisfy? Why do we boast of our own talents and abilities, when they are nothing without Christ? This book is a good reminder that without Christ, we are nothing.


Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Pondering the little flowers (revised for clarity)

I'm currently reading the little flowers of St. Francis of Assisi. It's a small little book that reads a bit like Christian legend. Interesting stuff. One thing that I've been pondering:

Francis was raising money to repair physical church buildings. He also was collecting stone and such. At one point a man he had bought stone from came back to him (knowing that Francis had money) and demanded more money for the stone he had sold. The text uses something like "with avarice in his heart" so it was clear that at least in the mind of Francis the man was being dishonest. Despite this, Francis paid him God used that in Sylvester's life. The text reads:

"Then St. Francis, marveling at his [Sylvester's] greed and not wishing to contend with him, as a true follower of the Holy Gospel, put his hands into the bosom of Bernard and, having filled them with money, put them into the bosom of Sylvester, saying that if he wanted more he would give him more. Sylvester, being content with that which he had received, departed and went to his house. In the evening, thinking over what he had done during the day and considering the zeal of Bernard and the sanctity of St. Francis, he repented of his avarice. That night and on the two following nights, he had a vision from God, in which he beheld how from the mouth of St. Francis issued a cross of gold, the top of which reached to heaven, and arms of which extended from the East all the way to the West. By reason of this vision he gave away all that he had for the love of God and became a minor friar, and he was of such holiness and grace in the Order, that he spoke with God even as one friend speaks with another, as St. Francis many time attested, and as shall be described in what follows."


How should we interact with someone who rips us off? I know the little flowers aren't scripture, but I've been pondering this lately due to something that happened to me personally. Should we confront someone who rips us off? Should we take them to court? (scripture is clear on that one, at least if they are a believer, and has another process outlined in matthew 18) Should we just ignore it?

Food for thought, no conclusions here...


Tuesday, November 18, 2008

iPhone Apps

This year I finally broke down and bought an iPhone. Of all the technology devices I've ever owned, this has to be the most useful overall in a day to day capacity. Things I like:

(1) The Camera isn't great, but it's good. And that's far better than any other cellphone camera I've ever had. I use it constantly to take photos that I want to capture where I don't have a real camera with me. I also use it to snap photos of prices and item information when I'm comparison shopping for goods... But the real reason I use it so much is that I can quickly email the photos to people, allowing me to share the moment with friends. I _love_ that feature.

(2) Weather. It isn't perfect (is any weather forecast?) but it provides the fastest way for me to get weather information for where I am and where I'm planning to go. I also keep Buffalo on there, so that no matter how bad the weather is where I am, I can see that someone else is more miserable :-)

(3) Maps - I cannot overstate how cool it is having google maps on a phone. No need for a nav system anymore. Google something, find an address, look it up in google maps, have the phone tell me how to get there from where I am right now. If you don't think you would use this, you are wrong. This is the second best feature of the phone after having the internet with you at all times.

(4) Safari - Having the real internet with you at all times is amazing. Want to find the best restaurant in the middle of connecticut while you are on vacation? No problem. Want to find what subway train to take in the middle of New York City to get to the restaurant for dinner? No problem. Want to know what something costs online before you buy it in a store? No problem. Want to remember who the lead singer was of that obscure band you are hearing on the radio? That's easy. The mobile internet rocks.

Those are just the built-in apps. Now the fun stuff:

(5) Facebook - Say what you want about social networking, having a dedicated client on your phone makes it way, way better.

(6) Ebay - Sniping is no longer a problem when you can bid anytime, anywhere. Set an alarm to remind you if it's critical, then place your bid.

(7) AirSharing - The last trip we took, I printed out every receipt, every reservation screen etc. as pdf's and put them on my phone via AirSharing, making it quick and easy to find what I needed. Great way to have documents with you when you travel.

(8) Units - How many ounces are in a gallon? How fast is 240 KM in MPH? If I buy a 60 kilo bag of coffee, how many pounds am i getting? Units makes it quick and easy to find the answers to these kinds of questions.

(9) AroundMe - What is the closest coffee shop to me? This uses your location to tell you... It covers more than just coffee, gas, banks, grocery stores etc. But all I care about is coffee ;-)

(10) SportsTap - How much is USC winning by right now? Quick access to that answer and other less important sports results all in one place.

(11) YouVersion - Bible software from, this completely rocks. Search or just browse, a daily reading plan, and almost any translation you could possibly want available when you are online, all for free. There are also some downloadable translations, but not as many. The best!

On the whole, I _love_ the iPhone. It has been a great tool and is by far the best phone I've ever owned. It also plays a few pretty good games...


Monday, November 10, 2008

ChMS - The Kickoff

Today we had our first official meeting with Arena as clients. We walked through the schedule, which is quite aggressive considering the holidays. Thankfully, the IT staff here has worked hard to get a head start on things. Our hardware in installed, and we have Windows Server 2003 SP2 up and running, and had installed SQL Server 2005. The Arena guys made some suggestions for improving our 2005 install, so we pulled it and did it again in order to insure that everything was set properly. We also uploaded our data from our prior database to them during the meeting, so things are moving on the data conversion front. We then talked with one of the IT guys and verified that we are totally ready for the install. We have scheduled it for Wednesday morning.

My IT staff is hard at work on the technical side of things, and Judy is pulling together the secretarial staff to work on mapping our groups and keywords to Arena's groups and tags etc. The mapping is based on what functionality we want with those items, and how to best maximize the power that Arena offers us.

Taking good advice given to us by other Arena churches, we are not trying to do the entire product all at once. We are going live with the functionality we need to enter contributions by January 1 and use Arena as our only database. From there we are scheduling a plan to go live with additional functionality weekly. We haven't scheduled it all out, but we will try to be done with everything except check-in by the end of February, and deploy check-in during the month of March. Our implementation visit and initial training will be in December, and we have reserved some of the training for the later roll outs, particularly check-in.

The important thing for us is that we don't want Arena waiting on our team. We are moving as quickly as possible to get our tasks done, in order to get this whole conversion done with as quickly as possible. The Asterisk conversion went beautifully this year, we hope the Arena one goes as well or better.


Wednesday, October 29, 2008

flying the unfriendly skies

Flying used to be fun and reasonbly pleasant. Not any more. Now the nickel and diming is so severe it feels like I'm being nibbled to death by a duck. $15 to check the first (!) bag. Want a seat not designed with a midget in mind? It's an Additional $78 each. When you get on the plane they will sell you the better seats at a discount. It used to be you could just move. Food? Extra. I expect that they will charge you not to sit next to a flatulant guy soon. Hmmm, now that's a job could do. Break wind to entice passengers into paying for upgrades! I swear, with where the airlines are right now that wouldn't surprise me.


Thursday, October 23, 2008

And so it begins

In those boxes is our new server, and a backup. The backup will serve as redundant hardware for both the asterisk server and for the Arena server. The idea is that if either of those fail, we can drop the hard drives (RAID 6) into the backup server and be back up and running instantly. This is important for Arena but even more important for asterisk, as that runs all the telecommunications on this campus.

We have been using Dell hardware for linux servers for a while now, so these will fit nicely into our environment. They are very fast. Eight cores and 8GB each, although I think we will steal some of that RAM to make the primary even faster. Now we have to get to installing the hard drives, the operating system, and sql server. With that in place we will be ready for the Arena install.


Thursday, October 16, 2008

ChMS - The Summary

There has been a huge sigh of relief now that the database selection process is over. Of course, now the hard work begins. One of the things I've realized as I shared my blog with people is that it's very difficult to follow the process as it spans over such a long time. Here's my attempt at a summary:

In July of 2008 HDC began a search for a new church database. We started with the Church Management Software Finder from capterra. From there our process began, although I did look elsewhere to be sure I didn't miss anything.

My first round comments I called "A Serious Technical Detour"

The next thing I posted was a quick summary of our needs.

I selected 22 solutions for further investigation. I then spent some time on the web learning as much about them as I could. The solutions evaluated in the second round (links are to my posts about them): Church Growth Software, Church Management Solutions, EzRA Church Management, Connect Our People, E-Church Essentials, Five Talent Church, IconCMO, Kingdom Tools, Excellerate, Member Systems, Arena, CDM+, Membership Edge, People Driven Software, Church Office Online, and Member Connect.

The next phase was picking which companies to contact and schedule demos with. I initially chose six, which expanded to eight. The round of six was announced in "And the finalists are..." After that I had some further conversation with People Driven Software.

It was around this time that I started chatting with the folks at Arena and found that I had really missed the boat on what it was and what it could do.

From there I did live demos (on the phone and over the internet) with each of the companies. These demos ranged from one hour to five hours each. Afterwards I recorded my comments on PurposeWare, myFlock, Ascribe, and Church Community Builder.

At the end of the third round we had three solutions that each seemed flexible enough and solid enough to be HDC's choice of database. I talk about each of those in "Three Great Solutions"

One of the first steps to evaluating these three solutions was to ask them each the same 26 questions.

In a small detour, I discussed the idea of integrating accounting with membership and contributions.

In early September I posted a status update on the project and some details of our process.

To help HDC choose between the three finalists, we created a directed demo that would show us how each database handled functions that were important to us. We also created a bogus dataset that we requred each vendor to use so that we had commonality and could notice when things weren't right.

Finally we announced that a company had been chosen. This includes a good summary of the overall process (better than the one here, but without all the links).

Lastly I announced the winner of this whole process, as well as providing my analysis of Connection Power and Fellowship One, the other two finalists.

In 2010 I evaluated MinistryPlatform to add this important new player in the ChMS world to my research. In 2011 I saw a demo of BVCMS and met with David Carroll of, another significant product that you should consider in your research.

On the whole I put hundreds of hours into the selection process, spanning over four months. We are excited to be moving forward, and excited about the ways in which our new database can help us to minister to our people more effectively. I blogged this whole thing to share my work with the church community as a whole, I hope it has been some help in your selection process.


PS - To read "post install" comments about Arena, click here.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

New Laptop

My laptop is old, and it is dying. This year I've replaced the hard drive, the CD drive, the bluetooth, and found that my wifi was forevermore history. I rely on this machine quite a bit, and so I was waiting for this round to be released as I like to keep machines as long as possible. I bought my current laptop in January of 2004 and used it all through seminary. It has been a wonderful tool and I've gotten great use out of it.

I was targeting the new Macbook, and at first glance it looked really cool. The price point was good, I liked the new features etc. Except one HUGE omission. It has no firewire port. Huh?

No firewire port.

A big deal? Well, let's see. First off, my wife's video camera (I hate video) uses firewire to import video. It has USB, but you cannot import video over that, only still photos. Ok, well at least USB 2.0 is faster than firewire right? Nope. File transfers take over twice as long on USB 2.0 as they do with Firewire 400. Firewire 800 is as much as 4X faster. Ok, how about target disk mode, something that has saved my bacon more than once. Nope, that would be "FIREWIRE target disk mode" my friends.

So, I could "upgrade" to a laptop that can't import video, can't do target disk mode, can't use firewire hard drives, and operates half as fast when copying files to an external device. Hmmm.....

Apple's desire is that guys like me who care will happily pony up the extra $700 for a MacBook Pro. Except that the features of the MBP over the MB are not worth $700 to me. What to do, what to do. I'm not about to run Vista--I'm not desperate here. Linux is cool, but my hair isn't long enough and I didn't spend last night optimizing my TCP/IP stack by hand for maximum speed, so that's not really an option either. Keeping my current laptop is an option, but I'm getting tired of replacing parts, so I have to do something else.

I mulled this over for a day and finally landed on this: a refurbished last generation macbook pro. It was only $200 more than the new macbook, and vastly superior. It has a faster processor, 2x as much L2 Cache, a larger display, DVI instead of the goofy display port, 512MB of dedicated video memory & a real video card, a real mouse button and both Firewire 400 and 800.

It seems weird to be buying the last generation rather than the new one, I'm generally a cutting edge guy, but in my opinion Apple really blew it with the new macbooks.

I'm looking forward to the experience, it should be a good one.


Wednesday, October 8, 2008

ChMS - Fellowship One

And now the other two finalists. You know that these companies made it all the way to the final round, but until now I haven't posted much about them. Here goes:

If you haven't already, you MUST read the summary of what we are looking for. This is critical to understand my comments. The vendors being reviewed work hard to provide a good product to serve the church, and they should be commended for that. Our needs are very specific, and just because a product isn't right for us does not mean that it isn't perfect for your church. By the same token, just because we didn't like a product does not mean it doesn't meet needs or provide genuine value to its clients. The blurb and "target market" are taken from the capterra list I referenced in my first post. Finally, my thoughts are my own and not an official position of my employer. Thank you.

Fellowship Technologies - Fellowship One
Internet-based church management software for the dynamic church.
Target Market: Small - Large
Quick Summary - Kicks butt...

Level 2 Analysis:

How big? - 69
How many customers? - 900
How long in business? - 2004
Are they profitable? - Yes
Technical Details - .NET 2.0, MS SQL

Volunteer Management - F1 was the database that showed me how this could work...
Web Integration - All inclusive
Attendance - Some issues for HDC
Assimilation - Meets the needs of HDC

Level 2 Summary - F1 offers an excellent solution. Their website brags that they have 19 of the 50 most influential churches in America, 31 of the 100 largest churches, and 24 of the 100 fastest growing churches. I believe them. It’s a great product, but last time it wasn’t the right fit for HDC due to the attendance issue (something they offered to address contractually if we signed with them this time around), and it is expensive. Still, it’s top notch and deserves to be at the top of the chart for consideration.

Level 3 Analysis - Fellowship One is the gold standard in this industry, IMHO. It was very clear when we did our demo that Fellowship Technologies had the best overall organization and planning. That doesn’t mean; however, that it is the obvious choice. Still it is the market leader and could be our solution.

Comments after final round:

The F1 community, is exceptional. It provides a way for users to vote on new features, provides status of F1’s servers, average page load times, etc. It also has videos with Curtis talking about new features of the database and how they will benefit the clients. F1 also fosters regional users groups and tries to send representatives to their meetings to gather information and provide assistance.

The F1 interface hides items that you don’t have access to. Thus, if you don’t have access to giving info, you wont’ even see a tab for it. Incidentally, the giving access provides exactly what we want in allowing pastors to see only giving events, without seeing numbers.

Attendance data can be viewed by household if desired, not just individual, which was important to us. I really liked that data entry is verified against USPS records, making for more accurate addresses. The report library is extensive and has 1500+ reports. You can create a favorites list so you don’t have to hunt through all of those every time.

I also think that Fellowship One has the best check-in application of all the vendors we looked at. It seemed to be the most flexible and well designed of everything we looked at. The new interface that Fellowship One is developing is also very exciting, and has some features that nobody else offers in how things like giving and attendance can be displayed.

If it seems like I'm very positive about Fellowship One, you are right. It's a fantastic solution. I really have very little negative to say about Fellowship One. At the end of the day the choice between Arena and Fellowship One was very close, but Arena won the day with its flexibility and some unique features that connected perfectly with the needs of HDC.

In my opinion Fellowship One should be part of every church's database search. It isn't right for everyone, but they are the market leader for a reason, and they've earned their position through hard work and perseverance. Fellowship One got me to think differently about what a church database could do, and how technology could be used to really enhance our ability to minister to our people. For that, I thank them profoundly even though we didn't end up choosing them. Although we aren't a customer, I am definitely a Fellowship One fan.


ChMS - Connection Power

Important! ConnectionPower has been acquired by ActiveNetwork and will be rolled into the ActiveNetwork | Faith product. Read about it here.

And now the other two finalists. You know that these companies made it all the way to the final round, but until now I haven't posted much about them. Here goes:

If you haven't already, you MUST read the summary of what we are looking for. This is critical to understand my comments. The vendors being reviewed work hard to provide a good product to serve the church, and they should be commended for that. Our needs are very specific, and just because a product isn't right for us does not mean that it isn't perfect for your church. By the same token, just because we didn't like a product does not mean it doesn't meet needs or provide genuine value to its clients. The blurb and "target market" are taken from the capterra list I referenced in my first post. Finally, my thoughts are my own and not an official position of my employer. Thank you. 

ConnectionPower - Church Ministry Software
Church ministry software that integrates contributions with your visitor assimilation and member care ministries.
Target Market: Small - Large
Quick Summary - Worth Consideration

Level 2 Analysis:

How big? - 30
How many customers? - 1000+
How long in business? - I’m guessing 2004.
Are they profitable? - Yes
Technical Details - MySQL + PHP

Volunteer Management - The best.
Web Integration - Completely. 
Attendance - Solid, will meet our needs. 
Assimilation - This is the forte of ConnectionPower. It’s all about calling new people and following up with them.

Level 2 Summary - Some things I like, others not so much. One comment I found online was that at least a couple of years ago they didn’t have a way for couples to have different last names, but that has been fixed now. I think they deserve to be considered further. I'm excited about this solution after hearing from Dominic Silla, VP of sales.

Level 3 Analysis - ConnectionPower has a few oddities, but might be the very best solution out there for HDC. The whole philosophy behind the product seems to be what we are trying to accomplish. Although the overall interface isn't as attractive as the competition, it offers the very best volunteer tracking and management out there. Conclusion: ConnectionPower is an excellent solution that could work for HDC. It has the very best volunteer management and assimilation tools. This is a finalist and could be our solution.

Comments after final round:

ConnectionPower is an interesting product, and a very solid church management software solution. ConnectionPower's primary focus is on assimilation, that is, taking people from an unattached visitor to someone who is fully plugged in to the ministry of your church. This is something we need to do better, which is why ConnectionPower was part of our process to the very end.

CP was the least expensive of the solutions in front of us, and is an amazing value for what it offers. The downside of that is that CP has the least extensive process to get your church up and running with their software. The other companies in this comparison have implementation teams that come on site to assist you in making the decisions necessary to setup and begin using their software. This, of course, costs money. CP is designed to help you through this process without bringing their staff to your site. 

CP did well in our "26 questions" comparison and in the references, but did not fare as well in our guided demo. While their check-in application is very nice, it does not meet the specific needs of HDC in how we check in kids, particularly in our pre-school department. Our preschool does not use class rosters of any kind, but is very flexible in which rooms kids land in. Likewise, our people have a tendency to attend different services each week and are very difficult to pin down. Although Dominic states that CP can handle "no-roster" check in, our kids team did not feel that the check-in would work for HDC's needs.

ConnectionPower handled "inactive" people better than some of the other solutions, requiring you to specifically include inactive people in searches and queries. This makes moving an account to "inactive" far superior to deleting people because you still have access to the information if you need to get it, for example if they are looking for a giving statement years later.

Another feature that Connection Power offered over the competition was that the check-in works even without a stable internet connection. The next time the stations sync with the internet they will upload the data they have collected. Very nice!  I was also quite impressed with the calendar, and the forethought that went in to scheduling an event. Unfortunately when I looked at some of the "real world" sites that use CP, it seemed like people too often left everything blank when scheduling events. Not really CP's fault, but unfortunate. Overall the calendar, event scheduling, registration and followup was really good-another strong point for CP.

ConnectionPower is very good at assigning tasks to people. For tracking visitors and assigning volunteers to help connect them to the church they have an automated process that is _far_ superior to what the competition offers. It matches visitors to volunteers by sex, age, location etc. This matched up perfectly with questions we had during our first round. The assimilation type tasks are where connection power really shines, but for HDC we had some specific needs that CP simply couldn't meet. 

Although in the end Connection Power wasn't the right solution for HDC, it is a great solution that deserves your consideration. 


Friday, October 3, 2008

And the winner is ...

And the winner is ...


If anyone has earned the title of "comeback kid" in this comparison, it would have to be Arena. Based on their "worst in class" website I wrote them off during the round of 22. Which is what really makes this process so remarkable.

When I decided to blog this, I did it in order to help other people who were undertaking the same challenge, and I honestly never considered that by making this public, my own process would be affected, but that's exactly what happened. The only reason Arena even knows they were considered by HDC is because I put the process out there for public comment. Jeremy Hoff of Shepherd of the Hills saw my post and told the Arena guys about me and suggested that they contact me because Arena was not portrayed favorably in my review. Those contacts lead to Arena making the final three, and at the end of the day, Arena is our choice in this whole process. That simply would not have happened had I not made this effort.

I am very pleased with our choice. After the long (6-9 hours each) demos with these companies, Judy and I sat down and compared the answers to the 26 question company survey, the references we received back on the companies, and how each vendor did with the 91 question demo. As we looked over those three elements the choice became very clear. Arena stood out above the competitors for HDC in the areas that were important to us. Each of the other two solutions was very solid, and I will post a full review of those shortly, but in the end Arena won the day for the following reasons:

(1) Arena is tops at tracking and identifying non-obvious relationships among our people. One of the difficulties in ministering to a large flock is trying to figure out who knows who. Too often we struggle to figure out how people are connected and often times we find out after a crisis that "person a" knew "person b" and if we had known that we could have ministered more effectively right out of the gate. Arena helps us identify those relationships based on the activities, groups, programs, and ministries that people are part of.

(2) Arena is more customizable than the alternative solutions. Every church has its own unique ways of doing certain things as the culture arises over a period of time. Arena provides HDC with the most flexible platform for us to make those small changes that we require culturally. A great example of this is that there are several check-in solutions for Arena, including one church that is developing a mac version of the check-in software. One size doesn't always fit all, and Arena is built and designed to work with those who beat to a different drum. Arena was the only company that provides a developer program that encourages an open source model of development of their software including access to alpha and beta code of the core software.

(3) Arena is hosted locally. Although I am confident in the hosting solutions offered by the other companies, I am more comfortable having my data located in my own datacenter and backed up offsite. I already have a server room, high quality racks, extensive battery backup, dedicated air conditioning, and a highly competent IT staff. These resources are paid for and an integral part of my operation now, although I will have to add some hours to my IT staff in order to setup, use and develop for Arena. Also, no matter how fast my internet connection is, it doesn't hold a candle to my gigabit network and a totally dedicated server.

(4) Arena is more "geographically aware" than the other products. If you want to know who lives within a mile of someone in your database, Arena will tell you. The others will not. There were other ways of getting at some of that information, but not to the level and sophistication of Arena. This is a heritage of the CCV origins of the product, as those guys focus a lot on neighborhood small groups and such.

(5) Arena met the requirements of our guided demo better than the competition. Of the 91 questions there were five that none of the solutions could accomplish. Beyond those five, there were only three that Arena did not meet. Those three break down into two business purposes, and one of those areas could already be addressed in Arena but the interface for it was not acceptable. During the demo the Arena team expressed that they would be willing to solve that problem for us as part of our implementation. Thus, there was only one business task that they did not accomplish, and we were told it was part of their development plan. We tried hard to focus on the databases "as they were" and only looked to "future development" at the end of the day. Arena wins either way. The other two solutions had 12 and 27 non-acceptables for us (after removing the five common tasks) in our guided demo.

(6) The references for Arena were overwhelmingly positive. Arena, like any company, has unhappy customers and former customers. I talked with two of those. But at the end of the day the churches that were using Arena effectively seemed more positive about their choice and their solution than the references of the competition, and their satisfaction is something that we hope to emulate :-) The churches that seem to be most positive about Arena are the churches that are part of the developer program and the churches that want to work with Arena in moving the product forward. That fits the attitude of HDC and my team, and we look forward to being part of the Arena developer group.

It's important to realize that we were evaluating three great solutions. Each of the products considered at this level has many satisfied customers, and is working very hard to serve the church as a whole. There was a point (well, three points actually) in this process where I thought we would be choosing each of the three companies. Each of the salesmen in this process is absolutely convinced that they have the right solution for HDC, and two of them are convinced I made the wrong choice :-) That's a good thing. These guys are passionate about what they do, and they are working hard to put their product in the hands of as many churches as possible.

I again want to reiterate my appreciation for Mark White of Arena, Steve Drechsler of Fellowship Technologies, and Dominic Silla of Connection Power. Each of these guys worked very hard, and took the time to answer all of our questions and be available to us in every way possible. The work they did allowed us to get a full understanding of their product and how it connected with the needs of HDC. Without their hard work our process would have been a lot more difficult. HDC owes a debt of gratitude to each of these guys.

At the end of the day, Arena was the right choice for HDC. It may be the right choice for your organization, it may not. You can only decide by putting the companies in front of you through your own process identifying what features are important to you and your organization, and then see who meets that criteria the best.


ChMS - A company is chosen!

We Have a Database Company!

It's been a very long process, spreading over four separate months, but yesterday we reached our decision. We have chosen a vendor.

The process has been grueling. I started with an open mind and a list of every church software vendor I could find. In all there were 147 choices on that list, and based on the information presented there I looked a little closer at 46 solutions that appeared to be appropriate for large churches.

Just in case that list wasn't complete I looked around for other solutions as well. I found one or two that also deserved some consideration, but nothing that cleared the hurdle for the second tier. It was during this time that I realized how little information was actually out there, and decided to blog the search in order to provide some good information to those people who are doing the same search we are.

From that list of 46 I narrowed the field to 22 solutions that I felt deserved further research. I spent anywhere from 10 minutes to an hour on the websites for each of those companies. I tried to find out everything I could about the company, the product, and the suitability for HDC.

From the list of 22 I narrowed the field to six companies that I was willing to invest the time into to talk to salesman and go through a demo of the product. After posting the entries I got a very nice email from Chris Rivers of Arena Software telling me a bit about their product. It was very clear that I had not gotten a good picture of the product from his email, so I offered them an hour in the interest of "accuracy and fairness" to show me what Arena could do as I don't like having inaccurate things written with my name attached to them.

That hour demo showed me that Arena was much better than I thought, and so I added them to the list of six. I also heard from Kingdom Tools and did a demo with them to be sure that I left "no stone unturned" through this process. If there was a solution out there that was a viable option, I wanted to be sure we evaluated it. So the field went from 147 to 46 to 8.

I was prepared to spend as much time as necessary with those eight companies to learn as much about the product as possible. I also felt that it would be foolish of me to continue alone, so at this point I brought in Judy Caffey, HDC's Director of Office Administration. Judy supervises all of our secretarial staff as well as the counters, so she would have insight into the database and be able to spot things that I wouldn't recognize as being a problem. In the end, bringing Judy in at this point proved to be a fantastic decision.

With two of us involved we installed the conference phone in my office and spent between 1 and 5 hours on the phone with each of the eight vendors. Those conversations were very illuminating, and at the end of "round 3" we had narrowed the field to three very solid vendors (Arena, Connection Power, and Fellowship One). The problem was that our field was three vendors, not one. Each vendor had strengths and weaknesses. Each vendor had reasons why we should go with them. So we had to look even closer.

Thus the final round was born. First I sent each vendor a list of 26 questions about their company and their product. I asked for 12 references each, including their largest church. I emailed each of those references and talked with people who used each of those databases. Finally I spent a great deal of time creating a bogus database and then a set of 91 questions that would put each database through its paces with the kind of tasks that HDC uses its database for.

Each of the vendors chose to do the demos in person for this final round, and we had a great time getting to know them. Many thanks go out to Dominic Silla of Connection Power, Steve Drechsler of Fellowship Technologies, and Mark White of Arena. Fellowship One also brought out Jeff Rice, the director of delivery services at Fellowship One. Each of the vendors put in a lot of time preparing for our demo, and they all did an excellent job of presenting why they offered the best solution for HDC.

After each presentation Judy and I sat down and harmonized our notes on the each product. We found that our comments were very similar, and we both had similar impressions of each products strengths and weaknesses. After the third presentation (and a little rest, I was sick as a dog by the end of this process) Judy and I sat down and evaluated each vendor based on the demo, the "26 questions" related to the company, and the references. Judy put together a comparison of the "acceptable/not acceptable" responses to our 91 question demo which we also utilized in the process.

I could not have been happier with how the final round went. At the end of the day, we both agreed on which vendor we thought was the right one for HDC. The choice, for us, was clear. We have found our database.

In my next entry, I'll tell you what it is :-)


Monday, September 15, 2008

ChMS - The directed demo

So, the directed demo is completed and has been submitted to each of our three finalists. It's been an amazing amount of work to try to put something together that thinks through the various ways we use the database, and provides clear instructions of what we want to do. Some of these are things we do now, some of them are things that we wish we could do.

If you're like me, you've found that many demos are frustrating because there is simply not good information in the demo sets of data. Often times the salesman will go to the same one or two records for everything, and if you try to run reports you don't know if it's because the report doesn't work or because there is no data. Other times, you never actually see the emails, text messages, or other output because nobody ever wants to click submit.

So I created a completely bogus set of data (warning: links to an excel file that will download). I added to what I've given you a number of staff so that I could refer to them and log in as them etc. I filled in the address and phone number with real addresses from our database, and the cellphone numbers with real cellphone numbers of our staff (I have removed all of the "real" information for obvious reasons).

I used TV families and such for the names because it made them easier to remember as I was discussing the various functions. Bonus points to anyone (or any vendor ) who can name all of the TV shows and movies referenced here...

All told it's about six pages of directions and questions. It should give you an idea of the type of questions we are asking, and hopefully if you are looking at this blog because you are looking for a Church Management Software solution, these questions might think through how you use your database and the type of situations you face.

Download the guided demo (rtf document).

I gave these documents to all three vendors and asked them to read over both the questions and the data I wanted imported before we do the demos next week. I want them to have everything in advance so that we don't waste time hunting for reports etc.

I'm excited about this. I now have my first impressions, my evaluation in the "grand tour" demo, and the answers to the 26 questions to work with. After this demo, which should be similar for all three vendors, I can hopefully evaluate which solution is the best one for HDC (after I call all of the references. A LOT of phone calls to make!).


Tuesday, September 9, 2008

ChMS - Status Update

Hey all,

I haven't forgotten about this search, I've just hit a huge obstacle: My days only have 24 hours each. If I could resolve that problem, this search would be finished by now...

In addition to trying to land this plane, I have the annual church budget (I'm also the CFO) to put together, and the phone system to replace. Thankfully my team is doing most of the load for the phone system, but it still requires thought and attention.

Back to the database thing:

First, thanks to Tony Dye, Andrew Mitry and Jeffrey Thompson for the work they have put in over the years in this area. I used Tony's articles on Innovative Church IT, and his CMS Wishlist in this process. Mark detailed his process in selecting their database (Fellowship One) at St. Mark's. Jeffrey combined a bunch of threads from the Church IT Roundtable Google Group, and created a very helpful summary of needs and requirements.

At this point I am trying to combine all of the information from those sources along with the requests my users made (I'll share those later) into a guided demo that I can have each of the three remaining vendors give us. The guided demo (we direct, they show us) will allow us to compare the solutions directly, and see where each of them meets our needs, exceeds our needs, or falls short. I also have to call the references for each of the products and get a feel for how they each fit in the church environment. That data, coupled with their answers from the 26 questions I gave them, coupled with the demo should bring us to a decision point and get us started on implementation with one vendor.

So, the list goes on. But now, my wife is here to take me to lunch. I'm outta here!


Sunday, September 7, 2008

The motions

Today was a long day. I got here early, and began prepping for our board meeting. I needed to present the database search so far to them, and get approval to move forward with whichever vendor I chose. Needless to say, although I had the service up "on the feed" on my desktop, I really didn't hear anything.

After a long board meeting (database acquisition approved, yay!) I was exhausted, and the easiest thing to do was just to go home.

Instead, I decided that I really needed worship more than anything, so I went to our seven community.

I really, really needed that. At one point Matt, the worship leader, talked about the origins of "O For a Thousand Tongues to Sing" and how John Wesley was really just going through the motions of "doing church" for so long. I think that was a bit how I was feeling, that I was "doing church" lately but not truly engaging with God. Tonight was a good time to engage with God, to interact with Him, and to worship Him.

I feel recharged.

Time to go home now. I'm recharged, but also hungry :-)


Tuesday, September 2, 2008


About two years ago it became apparent that our current phone system was not long for this world. As we began to search for a replacement, we discovered Asterisk, an open source voice over IP PBX. We downloaded it, installed it on an old machine, and began testing and developing it. After a while we were far enough along that we needed some real phones, not just the software ones, so we purchased a batch of phones for testing. We tried phones from Polycom, Linksys, Grandstream, Snom, and Aastra. After about three weeks of testing we sent back all the phones except the Grandstream and the Snom.

In that first round of testing we liked the Polycom a lot, but we noticed that there were problems getting it to hang up reliably. The receiver would appear to be hung up but would be slightly off hook. The Grandstream had issues, but many of those were fixed by a firmware update about halfway through our testing. We felt the Linksys was light on features but very well made, and nobody liked the Aastra. The Snom is a great phone but has so many buttons it would be very confusing for our pastors.

About a year ago we replaced our old voice mail system with the Asterisk, making the first step of the transition.

About a week ago we started to receive reports that the church phone was not answering. As we tested it, we found that the old system would intermittently just ignore calls. We tested it and everything claimed to be working, but it clearly was not. Uh oh. Time to move on the replacement.

So this weekend we connected our T1 directly to the Asterisk instead of breaking it out to analog channels and running it through the old NEC. All incoming calls now are processed by the asterisk first, and then are transferred to the NEC. Outgoing calls are sent over analog lines to the Asterisk, which then connects them with the telco.

After much testing and a little tweaking it is working, and quite well. Today we are deploying the second round of testing phones. We are trying the Linksys again, a Polycom 430, and the Grandstream 2020. We also still have the Grandstream 2000 from last time, the Snom 360 and the Polycom 320 we plan to deploy to locations that don't need a desk phone. Our POE switches should arrive today, allowing us to prep the next phase of transition.

On the whole, the asterisk is amazing. The last time I put in a phone system I spent somewhere in the neighborhood of $100K and it involved working for months with an outside contractor. This time my IT team has been able to build the phone system as a project, and we are doing the deployment ourselves. The savings are huge. If you haven't considered asterisk for your next phone system, now's the time to look into it.


Friday, August 29, 2008

ChMS - Should Accounting be integrated with a ChMS?

If there is one question I've been asked more than any other over the years, it's whether or not a church management system should include accounting or not.

In short: No, but it's ok if it does.

Let me explain: Church Management Systems need to include contribution data, because that's the best way to keep donations associated with the proper people without duplication of data. In fact, properly attributing contributions and creating year end reports and giving letters is one of the single most important functions of a church database. At a prior church I wrote a database specifically around this need after the IRS regulations changed in 1994, so I understand this area very well.

However, after those contributions are recorded, the actual entry into the finance system is a simple one. Generally a single journal entry that matches the deposit and assigns the income to the necessary accounts is all that is required. This takes, at most, a few minutes a week. So, while it's ok for a church management system and a finance system to be together in one package, it is completely unnecessary. What is important is that you have a church finance system that works the way you want it to, and supports your organization with accurate financials and reporting, and that you have a church membership database that meets your needs and helps your church minister more effectively to the people God has entrusted to your care.

It is not worth compromising either function for the sake of integration. Buy the best financial package to meet your needs, and buy the best church management solution to meet your needs.


Thursday, August 21, 2008

ChMS - Questions

I asked each of our three finalists to answer questions about the strength of their company and the direction of their products. HDC is a large operation, and the investment we will place in software goes far beyond the costs charged by the vendor. I expect that we will invest significant hours/days/weeks in design and implementation, significant time in data conversion, and a massive investment in training our staff. Beyond the staff, we have volunteers to educate about the use of the system, our people to train in using the check-in and web functions, and cultural and procedural shifts that will accompany something of this scope.

In short, I don't want to get this one wrong.

I want to be sure that the company we choose will be around in a five years. I also want to be sure the product won't be abandoned, and I want to know what the future plans are for it. I won't share these responses with you, because they are too confidential for a public forum such as this, but I will give you my questions:


(1) What is your largest church. How many people records do they have in their database?
Who do I contact to ask about the database?

(2) Please provide me with contact info for a forward thinking church of about 4000 weekly that uses your solution.

(3) Please provide me with list of ten references other than the two above.

(4) What is your "signature church?" In other words, what church do you believe uses your solution more effectively than any other?
Who do I talk to at that church?

(5) What is the single strongest selling point for your solution?

(6) Why should I choose your product over the others in this comparison?

(7) What does the development roadmap look like over the next year?

(8) Is your company profitable?

(9) How many people are on your development team?
Tech support team?
Sales team?
Any unique positions that you feel set your company apart from the others?
What is the total staff size of the company?

(10) How many total churches are using the product?

(11) What are the technical details of the backend?
What SQL database?
What other technologies is the product based on (php, .net, ajax etc.)?

(12) Please explain to me, in detail, the setup and conversion process. If I signed a contract with your company on September 8, what would the process look like from there?

(13) Our current database is Roll Call.
How much of our data can we expect to carry over from Roll Call?
Is the responsibility on me to figure out how to export or data or will your team work on our database directly?
We are operating under the assumption that all of our data (name, address, phone, email, group membership, keywords, attendance data, confidential comments, contributions, etc.) is valuable unless proven otherwise. We are willing to pay extra to facilitate this conversion properly, but we'd need a quote. We currently have 24354 people records, 12650 addresses, 136791 donations.
Have you done a Roll Call conversion before?
Please give me a contact name & number for the church as I'd like to ascertain their view of the conversion process.

(14) How will our online giving and event registration be processed?
What is the fee schedule for online giving, registration etc.

(15) Please explain where my data will be located.
How often is it backed up?
How far back is the data kept?
Is there offsite backup in a city/region other than the primary one in which my data is located?
How often is that offsite backup updated?

(16) What is the annual cost for my database at 3900 weekly adult attendance (which is our current average for September '07 through August '08),
4000 weekly,
5000 weekly,
6000, 7000, 8000, 9000 and 10,000 weekly?

(17) Please explain how customers can extend your product.
Is there an API?
What does that API cover?
What are some ways your customers have used that power to do creative and unique things with your database?
What is in place to allow customers to share those tools that are developed?

(18) Is there a method for us to get direct read access (for pure SQL queries and such) to our data, or a very recent copy of our data?

(19) Please detail the technical requirements for a checkin station: processor, ram, hd space, version of windows (or better yet, linux or mac os) required, label printer (and average cost), screen resolution, can it utilize a touch screen, does it require a keyboard, does it require a mouse, and anything else of note.

(20) Does the checkin continue to function if our internet connection goes down?

(21) Please describe what security is in place to protect our data from hackers.

(22) Please describe what method is used to insure that separate users do not simultaneously edit the same record, or if they can, what is in place to protect against data corruption?

(23) Is there an online community of users for your product?
Please provide me with a login to peruse the members area of the community.

(24) What are the tech support hours?
How do I get ahold of someone if there appears to be a significant problem on a weekend?
How do you troubleshoot speed issues with clients?

(25) Does the database have any provision for login from "lite" internet devices, such as an iphone for on the go access to data?

(26) Is there an LDAP server providing our mail clients the ability to search our database to address an email?

These questions are general in nature, but will help me understand the companies better as we look at this with a long term view. These are only one part of the analysis. I'll share the other parts with you in another post.


Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Soul Graffiti

Soul Graffiti is a book by Mark Scandrette, a book about making a life in the way of Jesus. What exactly, does that mean? That's the purpose and point of this book.

Mark is an effective storyteller, and that trait permeates this book. An open and honest discussion about how to live like Jesus is interwoven with stories of Mark and his family living among the poor and the disadvantaged in the mission district of San Francisco. What makes this book powerful are those stories, because they tell of action. This book is not about theory, about postulating, it's about living as Christ to those around us. I loved the story Mark recounted of moving into a house, of being gracious to those that had lived there before him, and then having the police come to his door saying "Do you realize what was going on in this house before you moved in?" Mark and his family did not seek to stay away from the decay of the city, they put themselves right in the middle of it.

While the stories give the book its power, there are some very engaging thoughts that I've been grappling with for a while. In a section titled "Tasting a World that is Alive with the Energy of God" Mark contrasts our modern society with an older agricultural community. "On Sundays after barn chores, they arrived at a building with mud on their feet to give thanks to God, seated next to neighbors with whom they had worked in fields during the week. Perhaps as they sang 'Praise God from Whom All Blessings Flow' they called to mind a good heavy spring rain or the fruit of their fields set on their tables" Mark continues a paragraph or two later "In the hurried and technological society in which we live, we have to be more intentional about practices that help us recognize the goodness of God revealed in creation...We have lost our connection to the soil, our food sources, and the skill of making things with our hands."

Although a minor point in his book, I have been grappling with this since the day I first read it. We live in a world where we spend the week indoors, under fluorescent lights, and then on the weekends we want people to come to church to worship God indoors. How do we, as a church, help people reconnect with God the creator, with the God of the universe?

The conclusion of Mark's book, Enter the Jesus Dojo, is a bit of a letdown. I think that's because it in many ways is not really necessary. Mark leads by example through this book, and a chapter "wrapping things up" is really unnecessary. Mark has shown through his words and deeds what it means to live like Christ, and this book inspires the reader to do the same.


Monday, August 18, 2008

ChMS - Three Great Solutions

With this post, I breathe a huge sigh of relief. Although the process is not done, we at last have narrowed the field to three very solid contenders who we believe are well suited to meet our needs. All in all we had phone appointments and online demos with eight companies. Those demos ranged from one hour to five hours (!) and seemed to average about three hours each. Beyond the actual time on the phone we spent time going over the features, discussing what we had seen, and writing up summaries and notes to keep things fresh. It is amazing how difficult it is to keep eight distinct software solutions clear in my mind...

You might notice I have been saying "we" and that's because I brought Judy Caffey, my director of office administration in on this phase of evaluation. Her insight and understanding of how we use the database proved extraordinarily helpful as we evaluated all of these solutions. She also provided someone to bounce my thoughts off of, and to hear her thoughts as well. The great thing was that at the end of the day, we were on the same page with each of the solutions.

After two solid weeks of meetings, we have narrowed the field to three. Each of these solutions has its strengths and its weaknesses. At this point there is no clear leader. We now have to dig as deep as possible into each solution to figure out who offers the very best solution for our particular needs. Although I'm sure everyone reading this wants to know which company we finally end up with, I am fully confident that if your needs are similar to HDC, any one of these three companies can provide a fantastic solution.

Our next phase is to meet with the rest of the staff team, discuss their database needs, and line those up with the solutions set before us. You might wonder why we did not do that first. It's a fair question, and one that I can answer. I spent five hours with a vendor looking over their solution with only our current needs plus a general sense of where we wanted to go. If I had to try to keep dozens of other requirements in mind as well, it would be completely overwhelming. I needed to know what our options truly were before we could get down to the fine level of detail of trying to meet everyone's needs. As a second point, people who don't understand what this software does may want things that simply cannot be provided. With the knowledge we have now we are very clear on what can be done, and what cannot be done. Finally, sometimes people want things that aren't necessarily the best idea. It's easy to focus on "how we do it now" rather than what is the best way to get a task done. We are well aware that we will have to revamp our processes in order to take full advantage of a new database. I didn't want a huge list of requirements to get in the way, or to distract us from our focus of finding the best solution to our particular problems.

So, the three companies that we are going to select from are (in alphabetical order):


Don't be fooled by the website for Arena, it's a fantastic product. Their website does a brilliant job of concealing the power of Arena from potential customers, obscuring it in a sea of marketing and irrelevant talking points. Arena is unique in this comparison in that you can host the server in your own server room if you wish, although that is not required (the _vast_ majority of the customers host it personally). It also offers something that nobody else does in Asterisk integration. Asterisk is an open source VOIP telephone system that we are moving to, so I was very excited by that prospect.

Beyond hosting the product myself, I really like the fact that Arena offers a developer program that allows our staff to do some customization, and has thought through the issues to make that work. The product has a beautiful interface, and it seems very intuitive to me. One of the very coolest unique features is tracking mission trips, which appears to take the administration out of mission trips, allowing your staff to focus on preparing the team instead of little details like who has their money in and did they get a passport... Beyond that, it nails the basics, which is obviously critical. Arena is not perfect, but we'll get to that later.

Connection Power has the most impressive volunteer management and assimilation tools of the group. It's checkin module works offline and will upload the data when the internet connection is restored. CP sends text messages to volunteers to let them know of time sensitive assignments, recognizing that many people rarely check their email. Connection Power also nails the basics, which is most important. Connection Power is not perfect, but we'll get to that later.

Fellowship One has the most impressive user community of all the various software companies. I love the way they work to get information from their users, and information to their users. It seems that Fellowship One is working very hard to insure that the churches that use their product get the most out of it. Address information is verified against USPS records, making for very accurate database information. The new people screen interface provides quick access to many little details that we are seeking, and is very attractive as well. Fellowship One is not perfect, but we'll get to that later.

There are far more things to love about each of these products than what I have listed here. I have only shown a few things that really stood out to me about each product. Now it's time to get back to work, to narrow the field again to a final company that we can partner with to provide our database needs. I'll keep you posted on our progress.


ChMS - Church Community Builder

If you haven't already, you MUST read the summary of what we are looking for. This is critical to understand my comments. The vendors being reviewed work hard to provide a good product to serve the church, and they should be commended for that. Our needs are very specific, and just because a product isn't right for us does not mean that it isn't perfect for your church. By the same token, just because we didn't like a product does not mean it doesn't meet needs or provide genuine value to its clients. The blurb and "target market" are taken from the capterra list I referenced in my first post. Finally, my thoughts are my own and not an official position of my employer. Thank you.

If you've been with me for a while in this journey you know that we started with a list of 147 companies which was narrowed to 46, then 22 and finally six, which eventually became eight. Two companies (Arena and Kingdom Tools) contacted me and I gave them each a second look. After evaluating all of these solutions, there were five that stood out from the rest, and three that made the final grouping. CCB is one of the two products that did not make the last grouping, but it is a very solid solution.

Church Community Builder - CCB
Web-based church management system that helps a church's staff, leaders, members and visitors easily communicate.
Target Market: Small - Large
Quick Summary - Worth Consideration

Level 2 Analysis:

How big? - At least 15
How many customers? - 850+
How long in business? - 9 years
Are they profitable? - Yes. Also debt free.
Technical Details - Has an XML based API allowing PHP, Perl, Java etc. to access CCB

Volunteer Management - Provides ways for volunteers to indicate interest and staff to search for potential volunteers.
Web Integration - Offers an extensible API for integration
Attendance - It’s there, but not sure how this works for services. Examples are for sunday school classes, small groups etc. Also tracks headcount for events. Not sure of they are separate.
Assimilation -Provides accountability for staff and volunteers to complete their tasks and followup.

Level 2 Summary - CCB seems very mature, robust, and forward looking. The API is very exciting, because it allows us to extend the product on our own without having to pay CCB to do so. This is an excellent product that belongs in our top five for consideration.

Level 3 Analysis - CCB is a very good product that just ... doesn’t ... fit ... HDC. I don’t know how else to explain it. The interface seems quite cumbersome at times, and the stuff that really “makes” CCB just doesn't seem to be us. That said, there is much to love about CCB.

The forms module is the most impressive feature. It allows you to build very robust online forms that will cause things to happen like register you for an event. The forms are totally customizable and it was very powerful. The other strength was the check-in, which seemed very well thought through. Interestingly, this was the only one that worked on a web interface instead of requiring software running on a windows box.

One very nice feature of CCB was an “iphone mode” that provides a smaller interface suitable for the iphone for information retrieval on the go. Very cool idea!

In any comparison there will be bad solutions, good solutions, and great solutions. CCB is a very good solution, but it isn't the right solution for HDC. Still, even though it wasn't right for us, it may be perfect for you and deserves your consideration.


ChMS - Ascribe

If you haven't already, you MUST read the summary of what we are looking for. This is critical to understand my comments. The vendors being reviewed work hard to provide a good product to serve the church, and they should be commended for that. Our needs are very specific, and just because a product isn't right for us does not mean that it isn't perfect for your church. By the same token, just because we didn't like a product does not mean it doesn't meet needs or provide genuine value to its clients. The blurb and "target market" are taken from the capterra list I referenced in my first post. Finally, my thoughts are my own and not an official position of my employer. Thank you.

If you've been with me for a while in this journey you know that we started with a list of 147 companies which was narrowed to 46, then 22 and finally six, which eventually became eight. Two companies (Arena and Kingdom Tools) contacted me and I gave them each a second look. After evaluating all of these solutions, there were five that stood out from the rest, and three that made the final grouping. Ascribe is one of the two products that did not make the last grouping, but it is a very solid solution.

Ascribe Data Systems - Ascribe
A powerful and easy-to-use online software to help churches as they disciple, equip, steward, preach and more.
Target Market: Small - Large
Quick Summary - Young Product

Level 2 Analysis:

How big? - Small Company
How many customers? - As of August 2006, around 20. A bit more now.
How long in business? - Software started 2001, customers seem to date from 2004 or so.
Are they profitable? - Yes
Technical Details - PHP, Javascript, Ajax, MySQL

Volunteer Management - Good.
Web Integration - Good.
Attendance - It’s simple to take attendance, but it shows attendance as a log, which is harder to digest at a glance than what we use now.
Assimilation - Ascribe’s assimilation and visitor followup would fit nicely with the process we are developing, and some of the things it does are better than some of my finalists.

Level 2 Summary - Ascribe is a small software company that appears to have a pretty good product. There are two large churches using the product, as best as I can tell. It’s web based and seems reasonably flexible. The website seems to be dated late 2005 or early 2006.

Level 3 Analysis - Ascribe is an amazing product. The website does not do it justice, and actually represents an old version of the product. The interface is very attractive and it is well thought through. There are some confusing elements, but once you get used to its way of thinking it’s not hard to move around in ascribe very quickly. Ascribe has a good volunteer management and visitor assimilation featureset, and it could work for us very nicely.

There are problems with ascribe though. Reporting is limited and not flexible enough for us. My director of office administration felt that the interface required a lot of mouse activity. There is no check scanning or automated check-in available at this time, which might not be a big deal for you but it was for us. Those quibbles aside, Ascribe is a very good solution, and I believe that anyone undertaking this comparison should include it for consideration.

Although it was not the right solution for us, I believe that Ascribe has a bright future. This is a good product that feels polished and powerful.


ChMS - myFlock

If you haven't already, you MUST read the summary of what we are looking for. This is critical to understand my comments. The vendors being reviewed work hard to provide a good product to serve the church, and they should be commended for that. Our needs are very specific, and just because a product isn't right for us does not mean that it isn't perfect for your church. By the same token, just because we didn't like a product does not mean it doesn't meet needs or provide genuine value to its clients. The blurb and "target market" are taken from the capterra list I referenced in my first post. Finally, my thoughts are my own and not an official position of my employer. Thank you.

I included myFlock into this comparison because I wanted to see what social networking looked like within a church website.

Christian social networking for you, a complete web solution for your church.
Target Market: Medium - Large
Quick Summary - Seems like jack of all trades, master of none, but we should look at it to evaluate the social networking aspects.

Level 2 Analysis:

How big? - Small Company
How many customers? - 500
How long in business? - 2001
Are they profitable? - I assume so
Technical Details - Apache, MySQL, PHP, Perl

Volunteer Management - Does not provide the task accountability we are seeking
Web Integration - Complete.
Attendance - Not well suited to our size dataset
Assimilation - Not comprehensive

Level 2 Summary - I really need to do the demo to get a better picture of this software. At this point, I am still interested and I like what I see and I’d like to see where they are going with it.

Level 3 Analysis - myFlock does a decent job of being a private myspace, to foster interaction among the church community. My biggest issue is that I'm not sure I like that approach. We focus on people reaching their OIKOS, the 8-15 people in their relational world that God has supernaturally and strategically placed in their life. The problem is that their OIKOS is not going to want to have an account on a church version of myspace, they already have an account on facebook... I think, for us and our approach, we really need to look at how the church can leverage a tool like facebook.

myFlock has far better church management tools than you can discern from their website, but they aren't at the level we are looking for. The interface is a bit cumbersome, and it seems like it's built on older web technology. The good side of that is that the technology is tested and stable, but it doesn't have the polish or smooth operation of some of the other solutions that leverage all the latest goodies.

Reservations aside, myflock is not a bad product. It is by far the cheapest solution I considered. It something like 10% of the cost of some of the other solutions, and is a pretty good value for the money.


Sunday, August 17, 2008

Clone Wars

Star Wars.

Those two words invoke great excitement to me and almost any other male around my age. Seeing Star Wars for the first time as a five year old was an awe inspiring experience. I had never seen _anything_ like it, and it completely blew me away. I still remember the feeling I had when I got home, of wanting nothing more in the world than to see it again...

Much has been written about the five movies that followed, both good and bad. I am not in the group of people that thinks that Lucas should be producing Citizen Kane quality scripts for the prequels. I enjoyed them for what they were, and enjoyed the immensely. Were they perfect? No. Episode II could have been vastly improved with the inclusion of a couple of scenes that made the DVD as deleted scenes, for one. But they were fun, which was the point.

A cartoon network series called "The Clone Wars" was produced between Episode II and III. What made those cool was that they filled in a lot of the gaps between the two movies. General Grievious is not all that interesting in Episode III, but he is awesome in the cartoon. Further, if you saw the clone wars, you understand why Grievious was coughing and injured when we first meet him in Episode III.

But I digress (and provide a suitable disclaimer for my enthusiasm!)

On Friday I took my seven year old son to see the new "Clone Wars" that was released in the theaters. In short, we had a great time.

Lucas has always wanted to produce saturday morning serials in space, and with the clone wars he finally has it. It even begins with the feel of "we join our fearless heros as they fight this epic battle!" with a cheesy announcer over the action. The Clone Wars is to be a TV series this fall on cartoon network, and this movie lays the groundwork for a lot of action adventure. I almost expected a voiceover at the end to say "tune in next week to see our heros fight evil once again!"

The story was simple, but a fun ride. Dooku is the prime villain, but the movie is about small piece of the galactic conflict and the republic having access to space routes controlled by the hutts. There are no earth shattering plot twists, it's simple and straightforward. Exactly what you would expect from a saturday morning serial aimed at kids.

The only uncomfortable moment for me is the character of ziro the hutt, who is clearly a transvestite. Thankfully, my son has no idea but I wasn't exactly amused. The character is terrible top to bottom, and has no place in a star wars universe. Hopefully he is history after this movie.

My son is seven, and he can't wait for the tv series this fall. And that's really the point. Lucas has always wanted to do this, and he finally has his venue. The Clone Wars lets him create what he has always wanted to do, and we get to come along and enjoy the ride. I am grateful that we can enjoy this. Would I go see this in the theater if I didn't have a seven year old? No, but I would definitely buy the dvd.


Friday, August 8, 2008

ChMS - PurposeWare

If you haven't already, you MUST read the summary of what we are looking for. This is critical to understand my comments. The vendors being reviewed work hard to provide a good product to serve the church, and they should be commended for that. Our needs are very specific, and just because a product isn't right for us does not mean that it isn't perfect for your church. By the same token, just because we didn't like a product does not mean it doesn't meet needs or provide genuine value to its clients. The blurb and "target market" are taken from the capterra list I referenced in my first post. Finally, my thoughts are my own and not an official position of my employer. Thank you.

This is the first company I am reviewing that made my "level 3" grouping. Once I've put a company through an analysis this in depth, I'm pretty sure they don't want me laying out every detail in such a public forum, so my level three analysis may seem a little brief, but I'll try to give you my overall impression of the product.

Simple, easy-to-use, web-based management system for your entire church. Manage members, track visitors & get people plugged into ministry.
Target Market: Small - Large
Quick Summary - Good looking site, like the focus on people.

Level 2 Analysis:

How big? - Smallish company, separate sales organization in gofishmedia.
How many customers? - Contact them for this info.
How long in business? - 2003
Are they profitable? - Declined to state.
Technical Details - .NET 3.5, AJAX, MS SQL 2005

Volunteer Management - Some good ideas, but missing some key features.
Web Integration - Yes, SAAS product
Attendance - Cannot handle our weekend attendance easily.
Assimilation - Integrates SHAPE, no online gifts assessment.

Level 2 Summary - Frustratingly little real information on their website, but the product looks solid. Although I don’t like doing this, something about PurposeWare appeals to me, so I will take them to a level 3 analysis.

Level 3 Summary - PurposeWare is an attractive looking product, but it is not mature enough for our needs. While I enjoyed our interaction with PurposeWare, there were too many issues with handling a dataset of our size that would make it a step backwards for much of our current functionality. Clearly not for us.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

ChMS - Arena - I totally missed the boat

So if you've been following along, I've been hard at work trying to discern the best church management system for our church. I started with a huge list of companies, and narrowed it down several times to this point.

Several of the vendors who did not make the cut to round three have contacted me, but one really stood out to me. When I reviewed the information available online about Arena, it seemed to me to be a web integration module for the old shelby church management package. I was puzzled by that because my impression going into this comparison was that it was much more. Chris Rivers of Arena contacted me with a friendly little sales pitch for Arena, and included this statement "4. Arena is a complete ChMS solution including Contributions, Online Giving and Online Registrations."

Since that was widely different than what I had written, I took them up on their offer of a demo to clear the matter up...

In short, Arena is a very full featured solution and an incredible product. Although I have been very reluctant to move anyone else into my "top six" it would be foolish not to after looking over the product today. After spending time with Mark White and looking over the product in pretty good detail, I can say without qualification that Arena deserves consideration by any larger church looking for a ChMS solution.

Was it perfect? No. The demo process started off very bumpy when the solution they are using from go2meeting required windows, which I do not use. We were able to resolve that by setting up a different type of meeting that works on macs, but it took a little while. During the demo, we discovered that Mark had installed some new modules that did not work properly and we will have to go back at a later time to revisit some of the functionality. I'm very concerned about the windows-centric nature of Shelby as a company, and today didn't resolve those concerns, but that's why my research isn't over :-)

Still, I was very impressed by what they have to offer and will be giving them a complete level 3 analysis.


Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Kung Fu Panda

We don't get out to movies much, and this certainly wasn't at the top of our list, but since we are on vacation and looking for things to do with Renee's girls while we are out here, we caught this today. This movie is all but gone from theaters. We were the only ones in the theater for the last showing if the day, right around lunchtime... So I assume if you're reading this, you are wondering if it's worth the rental or if it's worth buying in DVD.

The movie is entertaining, and the girls seemed to enjoy it. It also has a good message about self confidence & belief. What Kung Fu Panda is missing is that second level of humor (one that the kids don't get but the adults do) that is often to me what makes kids movies enjoyable. The movie also is slow at points, because there is only so much you can do with animals and kung fu...

Worth renting? Sure. Buy it sight unseen? No.


Monday, July 28, 2008

Taking a break

This week we are on vacation, so there won't be any ChMS updates. We are in North Carolina hanging out with Renee and the family. It's nice to be back here and able to just relax and enjoy hanging out, the last visit was rather traumatic...

It won't be an activity packed vacation, but it should be a nice bit of downtime. When I return, the software search will continue in earnest.


Wednesday, July 23, 2008

ChMS - People Driven Software Revisit?

As is always the case, things never go as we plan...

I just received an email from People Driven Software with answers to my questions, and I have updated the post on them. But what is really interesting is that they have a new product called PDS Live which is a web based product with an MS SQL backend. Since my biggest problem with PDS was their use of Access, this is big news.


So my "top six" may become a top seven. I'll have to do more research into PDS Live and let you know. The nice thing is I didn't set out to have a top six, I set out to find which solutions merited the time investment for a full analysis.

I'll keep you posted.


Update: I've looked over everything they have available on their website regarding PDS Live. At this point it is still a young product and it requires a windows based client to use effectively. If the product had been out longer in the marketplace and there were a lot of churches I could talk to who were using it, I might be willing to go further. However, the product is still in its infancy and would require a significant investment on our part to utilize the windows client (we use Mac OS X, so purchasing windows + VM software like Parallels or VMware for each client, plus the added support costs). Not the right solution for us.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

ChMS - And the finalists are...

If you're still with me, I've shared my notes on what I called my "Level 2 Analysis" of 16 church management solutions that are not right for us. I started with a list from of 147 software companies, and narrowed it down to 44 (later 46) that I took the time to do a cursory glance of their websites to get an idea of whether or not they could meet our needs. From those 46 I selected 22 for a larger analysis. To catch you up to speed we've had:

Joel's Quick Summaries of 44 Church Management Software Solutions

and then I explained a bit of what we are looking for:

A quick summary of our needs

Next I posted sixteen reviews of companies that weren't right for our particular needs:

Church Growth Software
EzRA Church Management
Connect Our People
E-Church Essentials
Five Talent Church
Kingdom Tools
Member Systems
Membership Edge
People Driven Software
Church Office Online
Member Connect

If you want to see everything as one long page, click here.

So, without further adieu, here are the six solutions that I have chosen for the complete analysis:

Ascribe Data Systems - Ascribe
Church Community Builder "CCB"
Fellowship One

Some of these are obvious, some not so obvious, and some are probably a surprise. Each of them presents different strengths and weaknesses. The one common thread is that each of these is a SAAS, or "Software as a Service" solution. I intentionally did not set out with this as a goal. I have a very nice server room, and an excellent IT staff who is very competent to maintain servers. At our size, the purchase and maintenance of a server is generally less money than an annual SAAS fee. I focused solely on what the software could do for us and the companies behind that software. The end result was six SAAS solutions.

Not all of these companies are huge. They range from a customer base of about 20 to a customer base of over 1000. From very small to over 50 employees. All of them started after 2000, which makes sense as they are all selling web solutions and the tools to build these products didn't exist in the 90's. In the case of the smaller companies, the product is compelling enough to be worth working with them to insure the long term security and stability of our data.

I'm very relieved to be through stage 2 and on to stage 3. This is where the real work begins (although the last stage was rather exhausting!). I will likely post the review for each of them one at a time as I do them. Let the fun begin!