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When Bill Davis proposed giving his church a computer, everyone was ecstatic. The trustees, the financial secretary, the treasurer, the Sunday school superintendent, and the office secretary-not to mention the pastor-looked forward to entering the computer age. The computer would help them save time and energy, and make their ministries more effective.
A few months later, the computer sits to one side in the church office, largely unused.
This story, though hypothetical, fairly represents many situations I've seen as a consultant offering computer services to churches and other nonprofit organizations. In their eagerness to become computerized, some churches have not examined closely the obstacles they'll need to overcome before a computer will genuinely help them.
Here are four "bugs" that I've found need to be worked out of the system.
Determining what the computer will do
Acquiring a computer is a simple, three-step process:
1. determine what you want a computer to accomplish;
2. find the software programs that do those jobs;
3. buy the computer that runs that software
Problems arise, however, whenever a church doesn't spend enough time on step one. Determining what specific jobs the church computer will do is most important; it's the starting point.
I recommend establishing a committee of three or four members familiar with church activities to delve into what specifically the church needs a computer to do. It's important to remember a computer is nothing more than a machine-one of many office tools to organize the administrative functions of a church.
Here are some tasks churches have chosen to handle with a computer:
-updating membership and mailing lists (In addition to name, address, and home phone number, such a list could indicate who in the family is a member, dates they joined, dates they were baptized, birth dates, wedding anniversary, occupations and office phone numbers, children's names and birthdays, and so on.)
-storing standard letters and documents such as the church constitution and bylaws, letters for membership transfer, and letters to visitors
-maintaining visitor lists
-recording contributions by envelope number and producing quarterly and annual statements
-keeping budget and accounting data such as accounts payable, year-to-date spending, payroll
-maintaining a skills/gifts inventory of members
-recording Sunday school or midweek club attendance and data
-preparing sermons and lessons.
The computer can be a tremendous timesaver, a benefit the promotional material always trumpets, but some people overlook the fact that first the information has to be entered into the computer. Regardless of the size of the church, this will be a time-consuming and tedious task.
Entering the data. The first element of this job, gathering and organizing the information, is formidable. More than likely, the church secretary keeps the mailing list up to date. But the church clerk has the membership records, the deacons the list of visitors, and the treasurer the financial records. And in many congregations, the financial secretary maintains the contributor records and issues the offering envelopes each year. Add in the Sunday school superintendent and teachers who keep attendance records, and you can see it will take time-and perhaps some relational finesse-to gather the scattered information, which is now on ledger sheets, legal pads, note cards, and typewriter paper.
Then someone has to enter this data-accurately. Simply typing mailing labels for three hundred church members is a sizable project. Someone may need to be hired on a temporary basis.
The computer, though, quickly pays off, even in the entering-information stage. Most people find a computer imposes a new kind of discipline, no matter how accurate or detail-oriented they were before.
Maintaining the data. The next question is, "Who will maintain and update the various files once they are entered into the computer?" A four-hundred-member church in the Chicago suburbs splits its work. A secretary takes about an hour each Monday morning to enter the church attendance information. On Thursdays, a retired member with bookkeeping experience enters the contributor information, pays the bills, and posts the amounts to the proper accounts. She also takes extra time once a month to produce the monthly financial statements for the church board and pastoral staff.
A similar-sized church near Flint, Michigan, hired one of its members, a young accountant, as part-time church treasurer. She spends one day a week entering accounts-payable information and contributor records, paying the bills, and producing monthly and quarterly reports.
No matter how many people do the work, it's a good policy to have all information for computer processing funnel through one person. This person does not have to be a computer expert. But someone needs to see that information is entered correctly, that the computer doesn't become clogged with outdated information, and that reports are printed on time.
Another reason for appointing one person as system manager is confidentiality. Consider it this way: Suppose the current financial secretary posts the weekly contributions to members' records; the treasurer enters all accounts-payable vouchers and check information, and produces monthly, quarterly, and annual reports; the church clerk maintains the membership files; and the office secretary maintains the family member records, mailing lists, and visitor lists.
With this common division of labor, your church may have at least four people who have access to confidential and sensitive information. Whether or not that's a good idea depends on the church. But it's wise to consider the tough questions about keeping records confidential: Who will authorize people to use the computer and assign passwords? Who will hold the key that unlocks the computer keyboard or typing station?
The cost of furniture and supplies is often overlooked or underestimated. Most churches buying a computer will also need a printer, a typing-height table, an electrical surge protector, mailing labels, computer paper, printer ribbons, preprinted computer checks, blank diskettes, and a diskette storage case. In addition, continuing expenses for paper and supplies need to be written into the budget.
Taking all this into account, however, many churches still find a computer an asset to their ministries. With a little thoughtful preparation for its arrival, most churches discover the computer's bark is worse than its byte.
-Frederick W. Miller
Glen Ellyn, Illinois
Copyright © 1988 by the author or Christianity Today/Leadership Journal.
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