Should I buy and all-in-one or an integrated church management system?

IntegrateI thought I might write a couple of blogs to help churches get their heads around some of the issues and questions one should ask when choosing a church management solution.  I’m no expert but here are my credentials: In my years following university, I worked for two software companies.  Both were start-ups.  Both made significant headway into their industries and against their competition. One was an all-in-one solution and the other was a best-in-its-field single function solution. The former was eventually creamed by the competition; the latter is now in a strong position to dominate its’ part of the world-wide market.  In my last years before going into ministry, I was their systems integration consultant for the latter company.  Now, even though that is my experience, I will try to be fair.  So here goes …

There is no doubt that many churches struggle when choosing a church management software solution. Should it be an all-in-one solution, or should it be an integration of (sometimes existing) compatible functions?

The short answer is it depends on what the church needs. That sounds like a cop-out, but there is no substitute for understanding what a church is really trying to achieve and, hence, what tools are needed as a result. If a church is about making disciples for Christ then that should form the basis of choose the software that best meets current needs while allowing the greatest flexibility in the future.

This means that one church may choose an off-the-shelf, all-in-one solution.  Another church might build its software infrastructure by purchasing the best individual tools and linking them all together. Neither solution is a going to solve all problems or meet every requirement – for each solution will require a compromise of some sort. Again, there is no “right” answer to which way a church should go!

At the very least, it is very important for churches to weigh the benefits of all-in-one versus integrated service software solutions.

  1. All-in-one. An all-in-one package offers a quick, cost-effective solution. Working with a single vendor and software suite can provide significant savings, and the contractor does not need to worry about integrating your new system to existing systems – ie no costly consultants are needed!  However, one of the significant drawbacks with this option is that although the solution is often a “jack of all trades”, it is also not particularly good at anything.  For by being a fit-as-many-solutions-possible package, this may require your organisation to worked within its’ generic quasi-flexible options.
  2. Integrated. An integrated solution makes sense when a church is wiling to add specific functionality to an existing system – say a financial package.  In many ways, if the church manages to combine the best-in-field systems then this could result in a better solution than an all-in-one platform.  However, the cost of integrating your solution with other functions will most likely be costly in both consulting fees and/or bridging services between your different functions – having once worked in this area, this could double or triple (or quadruple) the initial cost of installation.

After selecting a member management software solution, churches often run into trouble with a laundry list of modifications they would like to make. Giving end users any special features they want will snowball your consulting costs. [And my experience is that the larger the vendor, the less likely they will respond to your feature requests. Also just remember that all vendors want to get large!]  I also find that churches with limited resources often miss opportunities to integrate the pieces that could dramatically increase efficiency (which in the long run will decrease your costs!)

It’s easy to spend time on integration without creating anything useful, just as it is easy to avoid integration and end up with something not particularly useful.

So what kind of solution should your church purchase?  Well here are a few questions that may help you decide:

  1. What’s the desired outcome? Make sure the required outcome is clear ahead of time, including what form and format the output will take, who is going to use it and what they plan to achieve with it. (Remember, you will probably never satisfy every requirement, so you will need to be willing to compromise somewhere). The church should identify these factors up front during the project scoping phase, making sure vital elements are included for any future solution.
  2. What’s the return on investment? In the end, any cost outlaid has to be justified. If integrated system pays for itself in six months, it’s probably worth it. If not, seriously think about what the church stands to gain. Or on the other hand, at the expense of some functionality, you may get a particular function that interests you in an all-in-one solution, but if you are only using that function 5% of the time, then is it worth it?
  3. Who can be trusted with this decision? Be wary of having only one person manage (and prioritise) the requirements and decision making in this area.  A small group of objective and qualified people who are invested in the outcome of what this tool will help the church accomplish is crucial.  All too often, the minister is left with this job and in many situations the minister may not be best suited to this task without some others helping normalise their thoughts and direction.