Monday, August 23, 2010


I recently finished up reading Markings by Dag Hammarskjold. This book is not the type of book you can read quickly. This book requires you to read a bit and ponder, and then maybe read it again. I can usually read a book in one or two nights, I read this on and off for months. In fact I have blogged from it before, on contentment.

This book contains verses, poetry, quick thoughts and ruminations on life and God and the interaction between the two. It's difficult to review this book, because it reads so differently depending on the state of mind you are in. Many times various things in here struck me. I'd like to share a couple of them here:

Thou who art over us,
Thou who art one of us,
Thou who art--
Also within us,
May all see Thee--in me also,
May I prepare the way for Thee,
May I thank Thee for all that shall fall to my lot,
May I also not forget the needs of others,
Keep me in Thy love
As Thou wouldest that all should be kept in mine.
May everything in this my being be directed to Thy glory
And may I never despair.
For I am under Thy hand,
And in Thee is all power and goodness.

Give me a pure heart--that I may see Thee,
A humble heart--that I may hear Thee,
A heart of love--that I may serve Thee,
A heart of faith--that I may abide in Thee.


The first time I read that page I blazed right on by, the second time it hit me hard. This is a great prayer, that others would see Christ in us, that we would thank Him for everything, good and bad, that comes our way, and that we would think of others. That everything we do would be directed to His glory!

Another passage that spoke to me deeply:

"The best and most wonderful thing that can happen to you in this life, is that you should be silent and let God work and speak."
   Long ago, you gripped me, Slinger. Now into the storm. Now towards your target.


Simple, yet profound. That is the best way to describe this book. I've read chapters multiple times, and had different things strike me each time through. I really enjoyed Markings, but it's definitely not for everyone one. As for me, I'm pretty confident I'll read it again, and relatively soon.


Thursday, August 19, 2010

ChMS - MinistryPlatform

Church Management Software is not standing still, and in an effort to keep this blog up to date and useful to people who are reading it I try to follow new developments and write on them when they come up. A new player in the market that is not reflected anywhere in my work to this point is MinistryPlatform. While the name may seem a bit plain at first, as you will see it describes the product perfectly (not that it's plain, but they have built a very robust platform!).

MinistryPlatform (hereafter MP) has been operational since May of 2009 and utilizes the SQL Server 2005/2008 platform and like any modern ChMS is a browser based platform agnostic system. Kevin McCord, the gentlemen who showed me the ropes with MP has a background as a professional DBA, and as such the backend of this product is designed to be incredibly robust and to follow the rules of an ideal database (things like all the data being in third normal form for those of us geeky enough to understand what that means). Kevin's statement to me was that they work to leverage the DBMS as much as possible, and do everything else through an API.

Ah, now things get very interesting, and if you are early in your search and haven't spent a lot of time thinking about this your eyes are going to glaze over very quickly. Let me see if I can explain this simply: Church Management Software is really two things in one. The first part is the database, which is the actual repository for the data. In its simplest form a database is just a table. A single table might have your name, your birthday, perhaps a social security number and anything else that is always completely unique to you. A database for a church management system will have hundreds of tables, all related to one another. To interface with this data you need an application, and it is this application layer that we think of as the Church Management System. The application interfaces with the database and presents the data to the user.

The approach that MP has taken is to build the best set of tables possible, and then build an API that interfaces with those tables. The advantage of this approach is that it makes no presumptions about what you want to do with the data, and provides the maximum flexibility for developers to utilize that data. This approach takes more time on the front end (building API's isn't easy, and it doesn't result in anything an end user can actually use), but once the API is complete this allows a church to build pretty much anything they want.

Of course if all MP amounted to was a database and an API, there would be very few churches that could ever do anything with it. With the foundation in place Kevin and his team have built a very nice full featured Church Management System, ticking all of the important checkboxes and even adding a few that others miss. At this point the system is geared towards churches of 2000 people or more (although they are targeting 750 and up), and is designed with scalability and speed in mind. Most of the time that is a good thing, although there are some things about the interface that I don't like that Kevin explained are built that way with speed as the highest priority. This is part of the reason for the large church focus. When you only have a few thousand giving records in your system speed isn't really an issues. When you have millions of records, speed quickly becomes very, very important.

Kevin explained it like this: "At times it is important to distinguish between the Software Application Framework and the API.  The API is part of the Software Application Framework and it allows other applications to leverage MinistryPlatform.  MinistryPlatform is an Open Architecture, Software Application Framework that allows you to extend the scope of data it can manage without development.  In this way you can leverage MinistryPlatform to manage that new data.  At times a developer might also leverage the API for the new data that the framework is extended to cover.  It isn’t that we spent a lot of time on the API, we did!  However, we spent a lot more time on the framework that allows developers who use our API to focus on the specific ministry need behind the software they are building without worrying about managing all the data, developing workflow, or creating a security model. With MP you really don’t need a programmer to leverage most of what the software application framework can offer."

To drive home his point Kevin showed me a missions module that he had created as a non-programmer using only the application framework, in other words, only what you could do yourself not being a programmer.

I've talked a lot about the platform, and very little about the app itself. Part of that is because while I have looked at the product, I simply cannot give it the time and attention that I did to the products that were actively under consideration. For example, I spent five hours on the phone with FellowshipOne before bringing them in for an all day demo. All told I probably spent upwards of 20+ hours evaluating that solution for HDC. In the couple of hours getting to know MP I like what I see, but can't speak about the app with the same level of confidence I can of ArenaFellowshipOneConnectionPower or any of the finalists in my original comparison.

That doesn't mean I didn't learn anything in the time I spent. First off, MP is multi-site at its very core. The database is designed around multiple sites. As such, multi-site is not an afterthought or a tag, it is integral to the data design and table structure. If you are a multi-site church, this fact alone should have MP on your list of solutions to evaluate.

The overall interface of the product, as I reflect, felt a bit clunky. It seemed to me like I would have some training issues getting users fully up to speed on the product. It was very flexible and Kevin could definitely move around quickly, but the interface is not as polished as some of the competition. That said, I've seen far worse interfaces in my search than what MP presented, it just wasn't my favorite.

The product has solid assimilation and workflow features, including the concept of journey vs. milestones. Each person in the database can be in various journeys, and there are milestones that you can track and help move them along within those journeys. The workflow features seemed good, but I really didn't get to delve deeply into them to see how they would or would not work in our setting.

Another thing I liked about the product was the fact that you could add data from multiple locations. In other words, you weren't always having to go to the "right" place to enter the data you needed, the product seemed geared to allowing efficient operation across the board.

MinistryPlatform also includes event and facility management, which is not an essential part of a ChMS suite, but one that many churches ask for.

All told I was very impressed by what I saw with MinistryPlatform. If we were doing our search right now I am very confident that they would be a finalist. I really like the back end of the product and the philosophies on which it is built. The focus on API makes it extraordinarily powerful and customizable. If you are a church with weekend attendance over 2000 (or well on your way there), you should absolutely take the time to evaluate MinistryPlatform as part of your ChMS search.


Wednesday, August 18, 2010


This is my coffee mug. It was given to me by my friend Dathan Brown, who was on staff with me at the First Evangelical Free Church in Fullerton.

Last week I was preparing to put it under the Saeco Magic for another glorious cup of coffee and I dropped it. It hit the ground and the handle broke off and shattered.

I stood there and looked at it, and realized there is so much in common with this season. The hopes and dreams of Dodgers fans lie broken and shattered on the ground like the handle of my coffee cup. Furthermore, like my cup, the handle has truly come off the season on this Dodger team.

I think I will keep this cup in my office until the end of the season, at which point I will throw this out like the garbage that is the Dodger 2010 season.


Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Making Ideas Happen

The latest book to move from the "read soon" pile to the bookshelf is Making Ideas Happen by Scott Belsky. I picked this up because I saw it listed on Dan Kimballs blog as one of the "books by the bed" and it looked interesting.

The thesis of this book is this: Vision is useless if you don't ship. Belsky does a great job of showing the importance of organization coupled with the creative process. He introduced a formula that I really liked. It goes like this:

100 Creativity X 0 Organization = 0
50 Creativity X 2 Organization = 100

The most gifted and creative person in the world is going to be unsuccessful without organizational skills to enable them to ship product. On the other hand, it only takes a little organization coupled with some creative ability to make a big impact.

Belsky then talked about James Patterson and Thomas Kincade. Say what you want about their work, they are dang successful at both shipping product and profiting from it. This is followed by a section entitled "The Action Method: Work and Life with a Bias Toward Action." This is one of the most valuable things I've ever read. It caused me to completely rethink how I approach my workday, and reconfigure the way that I manage the myriad of tasks I have to accomplish at any given time.

If you read this blog regularly, you've probably noticed an increase in posts in the last couple of weeks. That started after I read this book, and my productivity has increased dramatically (and allowed me to budget time for things like updating this blog). It wasn't that I wasn't doing anything before, but I have really been able to focus in and accomplish a lot more in the same amount of time. The great irony for me is that the system I have settled on is entirely paper based. For someone who is as technology oriented as I am, that is a huge shock. But I've found that nothing works as well for me as the tactile experience of writing out tomorrow's to-do list at the end of each day. As part of this process I try to create a list that I know I can accomplish after looking at my calendar, rather than one giant list of everything I should ever do.

The rest of the book is good, particularly the section on the forces of community. I am reminded of how much better our search for a database went by the fact that I chose to blog it and open up the process to the world. But for me the second two thirds of the book was overshadowed by the first third.

This is an important and valuable book that will help you be more effective at your job, even if you are not in a creative industry. Highly recommended.


Sunday, August 1, 2010

Drops Like Stars

Drops Like Stars: A Few Thoughts on Creativity and Suffering is the latest book and tour by Rob Bell. I hadn't heard about this book when I ordered it, and I was quite surprised when it arrived. The book is big, something like 9x11 and beautifully illustrated. Yes, illustrated.

It's hard to quantify exactly what category to put Drops like Stars in. It's a book, yes, but also a work of art. Think coffee table book coupled with theologically based musings on creativity and suffering.

The first page of the book is completely blank except for the words "I know a man who has two sons." As soon as I saw that, I knew this was a different kind of experience. This book is not meant to be read quickly, it is meant to be experienced. There are lots of moments to pause and reflect, and the book is paced very well.

Rob also did a "Drops Like Stars" tour in which he presented the material from this book, making it into a multi-sensory experience. It was fascinating to watch, although on the whole not as good (IMHO) as the "the gods aren't angry" tour of a few years back.

But what the live presentation really did was help this book to come alive even more, because you can hear Rob's voice and enthusiasm as you read it. Likewise, the audience responses add to the experience as you read the book. The book is better having experienced it live, although it definitely is not essential to enjoying the book.

All in all I really like this book. It's hard to review an experience, and pull quotes and such won't really convey what is inside. Suffice it to say, I will read this book again, many times. Don't miss this one.