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Searching for Church Management Software? Seven Steps to Follow.

Whether you already have a ChMS and are considering making a switch or you're starting from scratch, selecting a ChMS isn't a small decision.

Church Management Software or ChMS can be a great tool to help church leaders do ministry.  You can leverage technology to follow-up with guests, coordinate volunteers, provide online communities, record donations, manage church facilities, and much more. The technology continues to improve and there are more vendors providing various options for churches.  The downside of all these options is it can be challenging to find the product that's best for your church. 

Whether you already have a ChMS and are considering making a switch or you're starting from scratch, selecting a ChMS isn't a small decision.  The investment of time and money can be significant, so you want to take time upfront to carefully choose the system that will best facilitate the vision of your church.  This isn't the time to just ask a few other churches what they use and go with that one.  Nor should you simply go with the highest rated software it might be great, but for someone else's church. 

So, how should you go about researching and selecting a new ChMS? 

Step #1: Tell the story

Pull your team together and ask them about a "typical" week.  What do they do to prepare for a service? Where do they look for volunteer contact information?  How do they know who's following up with last Sunday's guests? 

Capture the narrative of your team's weekly routine.  Then talk about planning for the next calendar year and what's involved in that process.  Once you've documented that information, you have a tool to use in communicating what you need a ChMS to support.

In talking with Steve Caton from Church Community Builder about how he's seen churches approach the ChMS selection process, he mentioned that many church leaders look for specific features instead of evaluating software based on the processes they need it to facilitate. He recommends churches approach this from a standpoint of, "This is how we operate as a church.  Here's what we're trying to accomplish.  Will this software align with our processes?"  He also recommends church leaders ask themselves if their processes are as effective as they could be.  If the answer to that question is "no," it's best to deal with the process conversation before looking for software. 

Executive Pastor Kevin Stone (and CCB user) recommends church leaders put a high priority on finding software to help them with people processes.  "Large churches have to get better at managing people one at a time and making sure people don't fall through the cracks."  He advocates evaluating software based on how well it helps your team manage hundreds or thousands of people through a process (such as assimilation). 

Make sure you've considered a few key areas such as:
Childcare Check-in
Volunteer Scheduling
Online giving
Donation receipts
Facilities management
Online communities
Small group coordination

Step #2: Research vendors

This is a company you'll work with for several years and this vendor needs to provide technology that supports the vision of your church.  At this point, do some initial research on vendors to see if they might be a good fit.

How long has the company been in business?
What are people saying about them online?
What's the vision and mission of this company? 
Do they understand the unique needs of churches? 
Do they work exclusively with churches and ministries?  If not, how many staff and resources do they dedicate to taking care of their church clients?

Step #3: Send out your story

Now that you know what you want the software to handle and what vendors you'd like to evaluate, it's time to find out if they can meet your requirements.  A standard method for handling this is to send out a Request for Proposal or RFP.  This document should include the narrative you captured from your team.  Put the story and objectives at the beginning of the document, and then include a list of requirements.  Send this to each vendor and ask them to respond to you by a specific date.  Send out your RFP to the top 5-10 vendors you're interested in evaluating. 

Step #4: Evaluate responses and narrow the field

As vendors respond, look for indications they understand the narrative and what your team wants to accomplish.  Next, check to see if the vendor can meet a specific requirement and if so, how.  If a vendor doesn't seem to understand your processes or can't meet the most important requirements, eliminate them from the list.  Rank the remaining vendors and select the top few to continue on with the evaluation process. 

Step #5: Participate in demos

Just because a vendor says they can meet your church's needs doesn't mean they'll meet them in the way you expect.  Their methods may not necessarily work for the culture of your church, so you need more than just words on an RFP - you need to see the software in action.

Schedule a demo with each vendor and include key staff and volunteer leaders.  You need people in the selection process who'll be responsible for implementing and using the software.  They have to live with this choice for years to come, so make sure you get their input. 
Each vendor should walk you through their software and address the key functionality.  Allow for 2-4 hours per demo.  This includes 1-2 hours for the vendor to demo the software and for questions from your team.  The remaining time is for your team to talk about the software (without the vendor present) and share initial impressions.
Rate the demos against your narrative and specific requirements.
Ask the vendor to provide your team with access to a demo version of their software.  Try it out for a week or two to see if it really works the way they say it'll work. 

Step #6: Ask more questions

You've narrowed the field and seen the software in action.  Now it's time to dig into even greater detail about the remaining vendors. 

Find out if they've recently merged with or been bought by another company.  This could be a good thing or it could indicate instability.
Ask how often they provide clients with updated versions and about compatibility with other systems.
Inquire about the company's profitability. Do they have cash flow to invest back into their software?  Can they stay in business for the long run?
Request client referrals from each vendor and contact those clients. Ask about the implementation process and the vendor's customer service.  Also inquire about the training provided by the vendor, what they like / dislike about the software and how much their congregation uses the tool.
Request pricing.
Request an implementation plan from each vendor including data migration, installation, training, and setup.

Step #7: Make the call

This is where you compile all the information you've collected and consider your options.  Realize that no software will be perfect or solve all your problems.  However, you need to select the one that is the best fit for the vision, processes, and culture of your church.  Choose the vendor you can trust that provides a quality product and service.

Once you've made the decision and start working with your new vendor, give careful thought to how you rollout this new tool.  Too much change all at once, even good change, can cause issues.  Get key staff and volunteer leaders using it first.  Once they've bought-in to the new system and become fans of the tool, they can help you get others on-board.

A ChMS can be a valuable ministry tool or a tremendous headache.  By taking the time in this selection process, you drastically increase your ability to choose a tool that supports the vision of your church.

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