Thursday, September 5, 2013

Five Items That Every 21st Century Church Office Needs

(If y'all remember my recent attempt to be systematically theological or somesuch in this post explaining my views on penal substitutionary atonement, take a moment to read through a friend's response to it here.  Rev. Evan Welcher is the pastor of a congregation in western Iowa, not far from my own hometown of Kansas City, and we correspond frequently on Twitter.  While he and I obviously have differing opinions on the atonement, I truly appreciated the thoughtfulness, care, deliberation, and mutual respect his argument contains, and in responding to me, he does me the courtesy of framing my main thesis far better than I originally did: "Grace that is paid for is not grace at all."  I commend his post to y'all as a perspective on what the other side of this particular coin looks like.  -E.A.)

Here at FCC, I am lucky to work with Charlotte, our hardowkring, kind, and very competent office secretary.  One of my Achilles' heels in the workplace is office work: I am not, nor have I ever been, a good organizer or administrator, and she does a good job of seeing what my eyes miss and keeping me accountable for things that I forget.

But that job--not only of working well with the church pastor but of simply being able to work well, period--was made unnecessarily difficult for a long time because of outdated software and office equipment, and so during my first two years here, we have, bit by bit, upgraded almost everything in her office: we bought a new printer/scanner and shredder, a new wireless modem (along with a new wireless tower to expand our network to the main building as well as our office building), a new (refurbished) copier, and just last week, a new desktop computer, along with the newest Microsoft Office software.

The difference has been phenomenal.  I think we have only had one mechanical breakdown of any piece of office equipment that required the calling of a repair specialist, and even that was a pretty easy fix, saving us both time and money.  The new Office software should be able to allow us to bolster the production value of our church materials and publications.  And our responsiveness to a great many tasks has become more efficient and streamlined.

Yet I have also seen a great many church offices that do still operate with outdated equipment and software, and it is a shame because I know that while church budgets are usually very tight, we pastors also have a terrible tendency to be penny-wise and pound-foolish, unwilling to make upgrades that might, in the long run, actually be better for our congregations.

In light of this, here are five items that I have come to believe that no church office should be without.  If you're from a bigger church, you likely already have all these things...this is admittedly a post more geared towards my small church colleagues.  The first entry here is the longest and most important:

1. A computer with the following: Windows 7 or 8, Microsoft Office 2010 or later (including Word, Excel, Access, PowerPoint, Publisher, and Paint), Constant Contact (or a similar program), and QuickBooks (or similar software).

As this list indicates, I am a PC person, but the same is true if your office has a Mac: technology is changing, and there are a great many things we need now that we might not have needed ten or fifteen years ago.  Our new computer has Windows 8--and so far is receiving mixed reviews from Charlotte--but Windows 7 is a more than capable OS and represents a major step up from the outdated XP and Vista systems--it is generally more secure from viruses and malware, and it more easily supports later (and better) versions of Office software.

Having a program to enable professional-level email communication with your congregation is also, in my book, a must-have.  At FCC Concord, the church I served for two years as a part-time student associate while in seminary, we used Constant Contact to email out weekly news updates as well as one-time announcements and devotionals, and it was more than worth the subscription fee we paid.

Granted, most churches in my experience do have QuickBooks or something similar, but I still hear the horror stories of churches that do their accounting in, say, an Excel Spreadsheet.  Charlotte is able to, with Quickbooks, break down every source of income and every expenditure so that it can be isolated and studied by me and our board, and that sort of transparency is priceless for a church.

Finally, a word about PowerPoint, Paint, Publisher, and similar programs: I can't say how important it is to have programs like these and to be competent in them.  They allow your church to put on a professional facade for members and visitors alike, and they help engage visual (as opposed to verbal) thinkers, thus allow for a more inclusive manner of communication to the church as a whole.

2. A color printer/copier/scanner all-in-one (fax, too, I guess, but who the heck still faxes anything anymore?)

Gone are the days where churches have to devote tons of space to file cabinets for every financial report, every minutes of every committee meeting ever, and for a bunch of other deceased trees we use to record the minutiae of church life.  Charlotte was able to transfer all our documents either digitally (or via CD for the bigger stuff), and we're already up and running on the new computer.  Everything these days can be saved, stored, and archived digitally via email, Cloud, etc.--or at least archived on CDs.  Even with hard copy documents, the inexpensiveness and ubiquity of scanners means there's no excuse for maintaining stacks of file cabinets anymore.  That office space could be put to better use for almost anything  (I personally recommend a beer fridge.  Just don't indulge while on the clock. ;-) ).

3. A shredder that...you know, shreds.

Charlotte and I deal in a lot of confidential work, especially concerning the use of my discretionary fund (which is earmarked for direct financial assistance to needy families).  Maintaining the privacy of the people we aid is crucial to the dignity of our ministry, and simply ripping up paper in half is not good enough, even if you think the chances of someone finding it and read it are slim.  You'd be amazed at who goes dumpster diving at churches.  If you haven't yet, invest a hundred bucks in a shredder.  You'll be glad you did.

4. Wireless capability over the entire church building

One of the long term visions I had (have) for our beautiful grounds here at FCC Longview was to make this a place where folks can simply hang out and enjoy one another's company and fellowship.  We have experienced some real successes in that regard so far: our praise team turns our fellowship hall into a garage band venue once a month, and we had a Pilates class on Saturday mornings that sprawled into an open house-type of environment for all sorts of folks.  Both of these ministries have brought in new people to the church.  Having internet access will one day, I hope, go a long way towards facilitating this type of atmosphere, since people can camp out at the church like at a coffeehouse...except that at a church, you can offer programs and opportunities a coffeehouse never could.

It's simple to do, and much less expensive than you might think, especially if you already have a strong modem.  If you're worried about people using the network illicitly, just rotate the password on it every so often.  And you'll find plenty of other uses for it, too, trust me.  Sunday School, small groups, even worship: the possibilities are endless.

5. An online presence

This last one isn't so much an item as a paradigm or vision...but I'm still amazed at the legions of smaller churches that steadfastly refuse to either create an online presence, or update the meager online presence they have.  The church website is increasingly the first point of contact for first-time visitors, and everyone in your office should be familiar with how the website works and how to update it.  There is TONS of open-source software out there that makes this sort of thing fairly idiotproof--our own website uses Website Baker software that I was able to master fairly quickly, and the daughter of one of my congregants has been teaching me FTP code so that I can add podcasts and mp3s to the website.

But the website is for your members as well: your church's calendar should be online.  Sermon mp3s should be online.  Newsletters should be online (or at least emailed out to members).  And much like several of the other points here, all of these are just the tip of the proverbial iceberg...compared to many bigger churches, our own website (and what it offers) is really quite bare bones!

Which returns me to my original asterisk that accompanied this list...if you belong to a bigger church, chances are you already have ALL these things I have listed.  But bigger churches often are not the ones that are in immediate danger of dying off because of a lack of access to the outside world.

A properly equipped office allows your church to properly equip its staff and members to engage in the mission of the body of Christ: to express the love of God, to strive for compassion, and to make disciples.  You owe it to yourself to make as many tools available as possible to achieve that mission.

Yours in Christ,
Eric

PS: As a disclaimer: while I describe a great many technology products in this post, I am not necessarily endorsing those specific versions, as there exist a great many products a church can use for similar purposes (trust me, there is plenty of  different email and small business accounting software out there).  I am simply endorsing having programs, software, and equipment, with comparable capacities.

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  2. Certainly. And with church work comes a lot of documents like prayers, sermons, and readings that have to be reproduced and distributed. It would take a lot of the load off the usual work to get good photocopiers. There's lots of services and middlemen out there that provide good, top-drawer ones.

    Dannie @ 1st-Office

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