Category Archives: Ministry

Church Tech | Video Distribution

This article continues a series on church technology, particularly geared toward small to medium-sized churches. The previous article covered video production.


Video distribution is the process of taking a well-produced video and making it available on the web. Let’s look at several different avenues for video distribution and some tips for making the most of each one and some additional observations where needed.

Vimeo

Vimeo is a paid video hosting site that handles large video files in a clean, elegant interface. It’s important to think of Vimeo as a mom-and-pop hardware store. They don’t get a ton of foot traffic, but what they do, they do well. They provide a solid quality product, but you may have to go out of your way to find it. Here are some tips to make the most use of the medium:

  • As with all other platforms, add captions and a thumbnail for the ideal user experience.
  • Customize your embed settings and the player color scheme to match the colors for your ministry.
  • Change up the end screen to feature links, videos, etc.

Because Vimeo is a paid platform, it’s worth considering the pros and cons of using it for your video.

  • Pros
    • Vimeo gives you the most options when it comes to privacy. You can use this to your advantage when shooting video that addresses issues for members or that you want to keep from being embedded on another site.
    • Vimeo is the best ad-free, beautiful, and elegant video streaming player out there, bar none. If you want your video to look good on your site, use Vimeo.
    • Vimeo doesn’t downgrade your video quality, storing even the original video file for you to upload at any time.
    • Vimeo has stepped up its sharing tools, allowing you to push videos from its platform to YouTube and elsewhere with ease.
  • Cons
    • Vimeo is a competitor to Google-owned YouTube, and simply does not perform as well on Google search results as YouTube does.
    • Vimeo is not treated like a “social media platform” like YouTube, so don’t expect the kind of constant exposure that YouTube generates through subscriptions, especially among younger viewers.
    • Vimeo lacks tools for scheduling videos, exporting lists of data, and any sort of robust analytics. For example, I had to have a friend code an app to help me download a list of our videos on Vimeo.
    • Vimeo isn’t cheap. Expect to pay between $20–$99/mo depending on how much video your ministry is uploading. They do have a free plan, but its small upload limit may not be sufficient for a 30–45-minute Sunday sermon depending on its quality.

Facebook

Facebook provides an excellent outlet for all sorts of church video content, but you should be aware of some best practices for that platform:

  • Make sure you have captions and thumbnails, as always. Note that Facebook requires subtitle files (.srt) to have a specific filename structure: name+.en_US+.srt. So, the filename should be sermon.en_US.srt.
  • If you have a video series, upload them in bulk as drafts via Creator Studio. Once they’re uploaded, you can schedule and craft the posts.
  • Figure out peak times for video engagement for your ministry. Usually I’ve found that pre-8:00am, noonish, and post-5:00pm are the best slots for us. Once you find these slots, make it a regular practice to publish specific types of videos at those specific times.
  • Post video natively to Facebook, and do not link off to Vimeo or YouTube unless absolutely necessary (or if you’re cross-promoting those platforms in addition to the video on Facebook). Native video auto-plays and is treated better by Facebook than cross-posted video.

Twitter

Keep this one in mind, but don’t invest too much time in it. You can upload videos to Twitter’s media studio, and add title, description, thumbnail, captions, etc. One unique aspect of Twitter, is that you can add a call to action on this step. From there, you can schedule tweets with those videos. I don’t put a heavy emphasis on Twitter because Twitter is constantly a low-performer when it comes to video minutes watched. It’s simply not a medium where people go to consume video content.

YouTube

The opposite of Twitter, I encourage ministries to invest heavily in YouTube. Here are some best practices and observations you should know:

  1. You can use your personal or work Google account to start a new channel. Use YouTube’s studio to manage uploads, video details, analytics, comments, and more. Make sure that your channel name and description draw on your ministry’s branding and mission statement. Each week, review and respond to comments and follow other likeminded ministries.
  2. Thumbnails and captions are absolutely critical on YouTube. Those thumbnails show up in all sorts of places. A good thumbnail guarantees good traffic. While Google auto-captions videos, those auto-captions are generally quite terrible. Quality captions get crawled by Google, letting the internal content (not just the titles) of those videos show up on Google searches as well as YouTube searches.
  3. End screens should be unique. We talked about this under video production, but you need a unique video file with a special 20-second outro that allows you to point to a subscription section and to other videos. Play around with this before you commission an outro video so you’ll know what to request.
  4. Schedule your videos. The biggest mistake that I see ministries make is that they get excited about YouTube and then they dump all their content onto the platform day one. But YouTube for all intents and purposes is a social media site, not a video storage site. So treat it like that. If you want people to see your content, don’t post more than three items each day. If you have a big backlog of video, count your blessings and schedule them out for the next year or two. Never, ever, ever, dump them all at once just to “build a large channel.”
  5. Use your community feature. Once you start getting subscribers, you can begin sharing posts with text, photos, GIFs, polls, etc. This is a great way to keep your audience engaged with your video content. I try to use this feature to flag a new video series.
  6. Build playlists. You can do this with your own videos or with videos of other ministries. These can be really helpful, especially if you are trying to provide your people with worship music that you tend to use on Sundays or preaching/teaching on key issues. But certainly build playlists of your sermon series. More on that in a sec.
  7. Tag wisely. Choose tags that reflect your “brand” as well as the content of the video. You can set a series of channel tags that will be the default for any videos you post on your channel.
  8. Build out your homepage. Make a featured videos for subscribers and non-subscribers that auto-play on your channel homepage. This will help tell people what you’re about. You can customize the sections of your homepage by grouping your playlists and presenting them as “sermon series” or “teaching series” or “testimonies” for those who land on that channel page.
  9. Weigh advertising carefully. You may eventually reach a threshold where advertising becomes an option for your channel. This creates a revenue stream, but it also clutters up your video with ads. The one upside of advertising is that it unlocks some unique features of YouTube, such as linked cards and links on the end screens. These are quite powerful for steering viewers to your website, books, podcasts, etc.
  10. Write good descriptions. Don’t just echo your video title. Make a description that’s catchy and put links to your site and other relevant resources down below (e.g., study guides, recommended books, landing page on your site, etc.).
  11. Crosspost where you can. Many churches have a strong Facebook following but a poor YouTube subscription audience. Try linking the YouTube videos or subscription link (maybe with a video thumbnail or other picture) to push followers over to YouTube.
  12. Engage with your audience by calling for comments during the video and then interacting with those comments. Don’t engage with trolls.

LinkedIn

LinkedIn is a great option for video, especially when it comes to reaching the professionals in your church. I may need to come back and revise this section at some point, but my preliminary work with LinkedIn video has limited me to 200MB uploads (even when I’m not selecting anything for advertising). This limits video length substantially. So, if you have a short 1–3 minute video for professionals in the community, this is a great way to do it, and you may end up getting better analytics than you would with Facebook given that LinkedIn is less algorithm-heavy in their newsfeed.

Your Website

Consider making landing pages for each of your sermons that would include the embedded YouTube video, audio links/player, and a full-length transcript of the sermon audio. The key is the transcript. These will get picked up by Google and make inroads on Google searches. The more text content you have on your site around particular topics builds up its site authority on those topics, pushing up your ranking on those search terms.

ORR: Other random recommendations

  • I don’t use HootSuite/Buffer/other schedulers for video for a few reasons. (1) They tend to be more prohibitive with upload sizes (often taking a lowest common denominator approach). (2) They frequently don’t give me as much control over the custom aspects of videos that the native uploaders on the platforms allow me. (3) Videos are such a small aspect of most churches’ social media posting that you’re not really gaining much in terms of efficiency.
  • Watch what performs well and consider how to make repeat wins. Learn the nuances of each platform and its respective audience. Over time, you’ll be able to make the best use of each platform and each video.
  • Find ways to repurpose old content. Maybe a longer video or a panel discussion can be chopped up and released over a month rather than a single video on a single week.
  • Try to distribute new content around particular seasons in the life of the church. Quite literally, videos around Advent and Easter are valuable resources for the church body.

What other insights do you have from your experience distributing video? I’d love to hear your feedback. Any other recommendations or questions you’d like to have answered? Leave a comment, and I’ll address it.

Church Tech | Video Production

This article continues a series on church technology, particularly geared toward small and medium-sized churches. Previous articles have covered Church Management Software options and Online Giving solutions.


When it comes to church video solutions, the plethora of options can be overwhelming. Because costs have come down and because new platforms and technologies have brought radical changes even as recently as the past two years (e.g., live video on social media), churches are asking different questions and adopting different solutions. So let’s take a look at some of the common questions pastors and church staff are asking in regard to church video production. We’ll look at video distribution in the next post.

Should we go live on Sunday?

Facebook Live, YouTube Live, and other platforms have dominated the video conversation since 2017. Theoretically, these avenues provide a method for churches to reach further, alerting subscribers when the Sunday morning service is about to begin and giving them a chance to join-in. For small to mid-size churches that are thinking through this question, I’ll offer some quick thoughts:

  1. Think through your theology of the church. For some, this will seem necessary, and for others, this may seem absurd; however, I do think this is an important first step. I’m very pro-tech, and I think we should leverage the technology we have at our disposal for the glory of God. But hear me out on this possible caveat. For all that social media and live video brings to churches to expand their reach (especially on Sunday mornings), there is a flattening that’s happening as well. Social media flattens “community” to cheap interaction via posts and comments. It flattens “friends” as optional connections that don’t hear what we say when we disagree with them. It flattens “dialogue” into short tweets or TL;DR posts. And, in some ways, live video could have the same effect on our Sunday morning worship, particularly in flattening the perception of Sunday worship as an experience that’s equally relevant online as it is in person. But there may be ways to mitigate this if you’re thinking ahead of the curve. Just don’t forget to ask “what do we lose?” in addition to asking “what do we gain?”
  2. Understand monetization and distribution. Many of the churches and church media folks I hear that get excited about live video are attracted by the alleged reach and priority that live videos receive on certain platforms. I’ve personally done a number of well-publicized events on Facebook Live, and have found the reach to be underwhelming (i.e., distribution that was no more effective than regular video posts). YouTube Live has performed better, particularly for multi-day events that can continue to generate momentum across all platforms (pointing to it via Facebook, Twitter, web, etc.). Much of the reach issues that you’ll encounter on these platforms is because the platforms are not egalitarian. They prioritize paid content and incentivize organizations to boost the reach of their videos.
  3. Be aware of copyright issues.  If you’re doing more than singing music written before the 1920s, you are likely performing copyrighted content. There are complex ways of handling this, but for simplicity’s sake and for legal reasons, I would recommend omitting the musical portion of your worship service from the livestream.
  4. Think about engagement and interaction. The best use of a live video is not a camera in the back of the room gathering video content but video where the speaker is engaging with the live comments either during the video or after the video via comments. In other words, best practices for live videos often rule out the way that churches frequently use those platforms for their ministries (i.e., livestreaming a Sunday service). Instead, live video may be a better option for churches to deliver mid-week teaching or discuss events in the life of the church. You should also take a deeper look at analytics for your live videos. The best statistic is not “views” (on Facebook, 3 seconds watched is a “view”, whereas YouTube requires 30 seconds). Instead, look at minutes watched to see an apples-to-apples comparison of your live videos to pre-recorded videos.
  5. Weigh costs and options. There are a range of effective ways to deliver live video with inherent strengths and drawbacks.
    1. Level 1 is shooting live video via mobile phone. The strength here is in its portability and cost. It’s essentially free (you could add the cost of a $20 phone mount to improve quality), and it provides a great informal experience that actually lends itself to the live video platforms. Live video frequently provides a unique “behind-the-scenes” experience for followers that can be lost as production quality escalates.
    2. Level 2 is shooting video via a dedicated live camera. The dominant player in this space is the Mevo camera. For somewhere in the $500–$1000 range, the Mevo provides a great solution for live video. I would strongly recommend taking some time to familiarize yourself with the camera and some of the finicky behavior you’ll encounter from time-to-time before you do your first live video (e.g.,  Facebook Live allows you to go live with privacy settings so only you will see the video). Production quality on the Mevo is significantly higher than via the mobile phone, retains some of the informality of the platform, and provides a cheap fixed-point live video solution for multiple live videos.
    3. Level 3 involves HD video capture that is processed and streamed live via multiple cameras. Level 3 is often a solution that’s only accessible for churches with 7-figure budgets or substantial media teams. Production quality is extremely high, but it’s also important to note the principle of Ockham’s razor: the more cameras, audio equipment, computers, streaming software, etc. that get involved, the more likely it is that something will go disastrously wrong. An organization should only attempt level 3 live production when an experienced team is at the helm who has practiced and built up to this point. Even then, assume that something may still go sideways and sabotage your polished live video production.

What equipment should we use?

We’ve already talked about live video equipment earlier. But if you’re not focused on live video and want some bigger-picture and high-quality solutions for your church video, here are a few considerations.

  1. Know your crew. Your audio/video team is going to have preferences. They’ll have software they prefer working with and camera brands they use throughout the week. Pull them into the decision and try to get their input. At the same time, be careful of strong opinions that don’t get good online reviews or that seem to be out of sync with what other professionals in that space are recommending. You don’t want to invest thousands of dollars to make one of your volunteers happy, only to find out that it’s a terrible solution for everyone else.
  2. Know your budget and your intended use-cases. You can build a great starter kit for your Sunday morning church video needs for under $1k. That would include a DSLR camera like the Canon EOS Rebel SL2 (1080p) or SL3 (4K),  a solid lens,  a high-quality SD card, and a tripod.  If you want to record teaching/training videos or do high-quality announcement videos, you’ll need to add some important items such as a reference monitor that will give you a better idea of the picture you’re capturing, an audio receiver that will feed audio from the speaker directly into the camera (theoretically, a higher quality option is to do audio capture on a separate system and merge the audio and video files later, but this works just fine), a lighting kitacoustic panels (you may need around 30 of these 12 sq. ft. packs to fully cover the walls of a small office, but it’s worth it), and a backdrop. So you’re looking at probably around $1k to have a solid starter studio setup. Whatever route you go, you’ll also need to figure-in costs for video production software such as Final Cut or Premiere Pro (which comes with the Adobe CC suite, if you have team members already using Photoshop, etc.).
  3. Know where you’re going. In other words, before you get too deep into purchasing and rolling out new equipment, you should take some time to project 5 or 10 years into the future. Begin discussions with your pastoral and/or staff teams and seeking the Spirit’s guidance on these issues. What would be the ideal presence and posture you want your ministry to have online? What kind of video content do you want to distribute? What level of quality do you want to deliver? Who do you want to reach? Based on your answers to these and other questions, begin crafting an approach to visual media that will attain those objectives. Many churches struggle because they either (1) purchase too much nice gear but fail to have a good strategy for how it will be used to produce content over the long haul, or (2) purchase cheap gear and have lofty ideals about the quality and amount of content they’d like to produce over time. Instead, try to match your budget over the next 5 to 10 years with the kind of content you’d like to produce.

What about “post-production”?

Post-production is that phase between the video capture and the video’s distribution. Several things need to happen during this time if you want to distribute high-quality video.

  1. Add your bumpers. Go ahead and shell out some money to have custom bumper videos created. This should include a short animation of your church’s logo and/or tagline on the front end as an intro. And it should also include a set of two outro/end screen bumpers for the back end of the video. One of these outros should be a standard video end bumper that fairly quickly hits your logo and fades out. Another should be up to 20 seconds long that include a call to subscribe with open areas or designated slots for recommended videos and playlists (here’s one possible template).  The end result will be that you’ll export one video for social media/Vimeo that has the short outro bumper, and you’ll export a second video for YouTube with the longer outro bumper. I would recommend watching videos from other churches and ministries to get an idea of what their bumpers look like.
  2. Add lower thirds. These are elements that include the speaker name, titles, Scripture references, etc. High-quality lower thirds significantly enhance the look and feel of the video.
  3. Make a compelling thumbnail. Currently, YouTube uses a 1280×720 pixel thumbnail. If you use Canva/Photoshop to make images to this specification, you can use it with Facebook and Twitter as well. Some basic principles for thumbnails are:
    1. Make it pop by using bright and contrasting colors.
    2. Include text, but keep it minimum.
    3. Add visual interest with unique still frames or custom photography.
  4. [BONUS] Request captions. Captions are the secret sauce for video distribution, and good captions are essential. We’ll talk about the why and how of captions in the distribution section, but for now it’s important to know that you should immediately request transcripts once the video has been produced. There are two routes you can go here. One option is to request upper-tier AI Transcription (like Temi). You may need a staff member to look through Temi’s transcript to polish up the 10% that’s missed. Standard Human Transcription (like SpeechPad) is the other option. You won’t need to clean up these transcripts much (maybe inaccurate about 1–2% of the time), but they’re also more expensive (about $1.50/min for human transcription vs. $0.10/min for AI transcription). Human transcriptions can take up to a week (or rushed if necessary), so the earlier these can happen, the better.
  5. [BONUS] Burn captions. If you get solid transcripts, you can burn-in captions on your social media videos. Studies show that more and more social media viewers particularly prefer video with captions/text. Burning the captions into the videos ensures that the text is always available, even when someone’s social media settings don’t pull up the auto/uploaded captions.

What kind of content should we create?

Most churches have only one kind of content in mind when it comes to video: the Sunday sermon. It’s the one thing you can bank on every week. But your church should spend some time thinking about other ways to use the investment in cameras and equipment. Here are some possibilities:

  1. Mid-week update videos. This requires either a simple setup or simple live video from a pastor giving updates and prayer requests as an additional touch-point during the week.
  2. Video announcement reel. Most churches put someone on the spot to announce the upcoming events on a Sunday morning. By pre-recording these announcements, you can save time and make them look cleaner and take less time.
  3. Baptism or other testimonies. Shooting baptism testimonies helps convey stories more clearly and provides a resource for the person being baptized to share with their friends online or keep as a reminder.
  4. Special teaching series. Often churches can create training content that is on-par with or better than the off-the-shelf options via Lifeway or Right Now Media. For example, with the investment of a day in a studio, a pastor can record 12 segments at 20 minutes each that can be distributed weekly and used in small group discussions.
  5. Non-English teaching video. I mention this because sound English teaching content is incredibly common on YouTube and around the web. But if you have someone in your church who teaches in Spanish or Korean or Mandarin, these teaching videos could be of great value to the global church. Get creative on how you might be able to use the work your local church is doing to influence the nations online.
  6. Q&A videos. These shorter videos (5–15 min) can be used to answer tough questions, pressing issues, or cultural phenomenon in an easily digestible manner. For some time, the ideal length for these videos was believed to be in the 1–3 minute range; however, most research indicates that well-done videos can easily push into the 5–15 minute range without a major drop-off in viewership.

Do you have questions on church video production that I missed? Or did I overlook a great solution? Please drop a note in the comments! Feel free to comment with your camera equipment (along with purchase links) for those who are looking for alternative setups.

Church Tech | Online Giving Options Go Head-to-Head

This article continues a series on church technology, particularly geared toward small to medium-sized churches. The previous article covered Church Management Software options.


Besides questions about church management software (and included in those questions), the other most common tech question for churches is how to implement online giving. A host of online giving options exist for churches. Let’s compare seven of the popular options to see how they stack up in an even match-up:

a spreadsheet of church giving apps compared
Click image to expand

It’s worth throwing out a caveat here that some church networks or denominations offer giving platforms with more competitive rates than these. So begin your search there before you begin exploring these options further.

Of the above options, Tithe.ly and BlueFire are fascinating standalone platforms. Tithe.ly has an excellent array of helpful features (including an option for donors to cover transaction fees themselves). BlueFire has the best terms for a standalone service as best I can tell. EasyTithe doesn’t seem to bring much to the table given the current options available to churches, but they have a deep history in providing great service. Lifeway’s platform offers some intriguing features such as non-cash donations and coaching, but the monthly fees and transaction fees are incredibly high. Church plants may be drawn to Lifeway’s 6-month free program; however, they will need to find a better long-term option for the life stage of the plant from 6 months until at least year 1 or 2.

Subsplash is an exciting option for churches who are already in the market for an app for their members. After the setup fee (around $1,000) and while paying a monthly subscription fee (between $100–200), churches can take advantage of some of the lowest processing rates available right out of the gate. But what’s truly unique is that Subsplash uses a metric that they refer to as “GrowCurve”, which decreases credit card processing rates as giving volume increases. This model seems far more attractive than the Planning Center model, which increases a monthly fee as the number of givers increases. But the usefulness of Subsplash giving is contingent on whether your church is in the market for a church app–something that can be helpful for push notifications, sermon note distribution, etc. for a middle age and younger congregation. But an app may not make as much sense for an older congregation or a church with a tight budget. It’s worth considering that churches that need and can afford Subsplash could actually hit a break-even point and recoup their monthly app fees through decreased credit card processing rates.

I’m not confident that the monthly fees for Planning Center are justified, especially as their platform is tied to the amount of transactions per month; however, if your church is already committed to their platform, the additional cost may be worth considering, giving you a unified system for every aspect of your church. One unique aspect of PC’s setup is that they integrate with check readers, a handy tool for increasing counting accuracy, speed, and accountability. Breeze may work well for your church if you have not already committed to another church management software.

Two other financial tools are also worth a mention before we go:

  • Quickbooks: This is the gold standard in accounting software. It’s bulky and non-intuitive (pun intended), but a necessary tool for your church’s finances. Subscription costs normally range from $15 to $45 per month, but the best prices for churches are available on TechSoup.
  • The Cash App: The Cash app by Square is an incredibly simple and free tool for transferring cash from individual-to-individual. Whether you’re paying back another staff member for coffee or you’re a small group leader who wants the group to chip in for pizza, this is the app for you.

What’s working well for your church? Let me know in the comments or on social media.

Church Tech | Church Management Software

One of the perennial questions of pastors and church leaders relates to what church management software is best for their church. Church management software is a challenging investment. Many tools try to do too many things in the life of the church–check-ins, donations, slide presentations, group emails, and the list goes on. Usually, the larger they get, the more likely it is that some of the features or the overall service of the platform falters.

My general recommendation is: find the easiest tool that works well in your areas of need, and supplement it with other tech solutions that function better or easier or cheaper. For example, it’s hard to find products that do kid’s check-in and church people management (essentially a CRM for churches) better than the leading church management software packages. But you may discover that there’s a better solution for processing online donations. In this case, it may be advantageous to abandon the church management software donation component (even if you’re forced to pay for it) and use the other giving tool.

Below, I will highlight three common alternatives for church management software in the expensive, middling, and cheap price bands. These would be my go-to recommendations; however, each one of them has serious weaknesses that the church may need to supplement through other resources.

Planning Center ($$$)

Planning Center is the current gold standard for church management software. Their support is impressive and their constant innovation and improvement of their software is evident. Their solutions are designed to scale for various sizes of churches; however, even at the low end, costs may be prohibitive for smaller ministries.

The strongest features of Planning Center are definitely it’s kids check-in tool and service planning interface. The other four paid features (groups, giving, registrations, and resources) are good, but could easily be supplemented with other standalone software components. That said, if you begin scaling out Planning Center, you may discover that you are best served by using their other services in order to consolidate your data.

Pros:

  • Check-ins sets up rapidly
  • Quick response to support issues and extensive software documentation
  • Excellent design
  • Unique approach to service planning

Cons:

  • Doesn’t play well with other software
  • Incredibly pricey

Breeze ($$)

There’s a lot to love about Breeze. Unlike Planning Center, which parcels out various components for set rates and forces you to upgrade if you cross data thresholds, Breeze has a fixed price per month ($50) and allows unlimited data. In short, it’s church management software made simple for simple and small/medium-sized churches. They use a single dashboard to clearly present all their features and an easy to use way.

One of the cool features of Breeze is its API, which stands for “Application Program Interface.” If you’ve got programmers in your church, this will make them drool. APIs are the mouths and ears of software. They allow Breeze to receive and send information to other apps. This sounds boring, but it’s actually really cool. This means that you can create custom forms to input people into your database. Or you can tie giving data into Quickbooks with ease.

Pros:

  • Simple pricing with no data limits
  • Easy and strong API
  • Strong support, including custom training and importing assistance
  • Built for small/medium-sized churches

Cons:

  • No service planning feature
  • You can find cheaper entry level options

Church Trac ($)

Church Trac has some cheap entry level options (starting at $5/month) and is capable of an incredible variety of tasks. While inexpensive, the lower cost is reflected in the user experience and design. In a lot of ways, the look and feel is similar to 2005 web design. It’s garish and complicated. But it is a tool worth considering if your finances are tight.

Pros:

  • Incredibly cheap
  • Broad variety of features

Cons:

  • Poor design quality
  • Doesn’t play well with other software
Features Planning Center Breeze Church Trac
Check-Ins Yes Yes Yes
Giving Records Yes Yes Yes
Online Giving Yes Yes Yes
Text to Give Yes Yes Yes
Group Management Yes No Yes
Event Registration Yes Yes Yes
People Management Yes Yes Yes
Group Texting Yes Yes Yes
Volunteer Management Yes Yes Yes
Facility Management Yes No Yes
Service Planning Yes No No
No Limits on Data No Yes No
Plays Well With Other Software No Yes No

If you can afford it, I would recommend Planning Center for pure quality and robust capabilities. But I would strongly recommend considering Breeze as a cost saver for church plants, revitalizations, or churches with small budgets. Whichever you choose, commit to it and build out your data within it. Plan on a review of your database and usage of the software on an annual basis.

Honorable Mention

Depending on your church’s needs, you may want to look at some of these platforms:

  • FellowshipOne: Their pricing requires a call, and their software is geared toward large churches. If your church is growing beyond 500 or 1,000, FellowshipOne may be a better option to consider.
  • Realm: This looks like an interesting cloud-based platform with a robust array of features. Pricing isn’t publicly listed, but some sites indicate the pricing is between $30–200/month depending on the plan the church selects. Like FellowshipOne, this seems to be designed with large churches in mind. Realm absorbed another popular people management tool called “The City” some time ago.
  • BAND app: This is an app designed to facilitate group communication, whether for a youth soccer league or for a church small group. It’s a helpful tool that may help fill the communications gap for small group leaders, worship leaders, etc. if your church opts to take a more piecemeal approach to church management software.
  • ChurchTeams: This is another full-featured ChMS with loads of features and pricing ranging from $37–197 per month depending on the size of the church. The user interface appears to leave much to be desired.

Didn’t see your favorite ChMS listed? I’d love to see your comments on what’s working well for you. Do you have some additional pros and cons other churches should consider about the solutions I’ve offered above, please post your own pros and cons.

Meaningful Mentorship for Ministry

As I talk with friends and acquaintances who believe that God has gifted them for pastoral ministry but aren’t there yet, I’ve picked up on some common themes. One of the biggest is this: “My church doesn’t have a plan to mentor me toward ministry. Or if they do, I’m not aware of it.” Okay, it’s not usually said that bluntly. But you can frequently elicit this conclusion by asking someone what path they’re being guided down, what kind of pastoral mentorship they’re receiving, what counsel they’re getting on next steps, and what the church’s timeline is for sending them.

Let’s take a step back and look at the less-than-meaningful method of handling up and coming servants in the church and then suggest some correctives.

They give me service for service’s sake

Men and women with a heart for ministry will do anything—yes, anything—if their pastor asks them to do it. I know guys who’ve had their hearts set on ministry and have spent years plunging toilets or teaching kids. Don’t get me wrong, these are awesome ministries. But tossing a dude a service ministry in hopes that he shuts up or learns on his own is an absolute death sentence for future pastors, planters, and missionaries. If the guy is passive, he’ll stay and serve in frustration, waiting on you to clear him for other opportunities. If the guy is hyper-passionate, he’ll quickly burn out or blow you off and move on to another ministry. Either situation isn’t great for developing next generation leaders in your church.

Instead, give those next generation leaders a variety of opportunities as they are faithful and willing. Let them try their hand at greeting, teaching, technology, nursery, counseling, music, or administration. You’ll never understand the impact of this question: “What areas could you use opportunities to develop your gifts?” Try asking one of the young leaders in your church that question this week. They’ll appreciate it far more than you can imagine.

They don’t give me much/any feedback

Once someone passionate for ministry gets assigned to serve, they get little, if any, feedback from their pastors. They serve in silence. The only feedback they get is if something didn’t turn out well. Good feedback from church leaders is one of the most effective ways for a person to nail down aspects of calling and gifting. By not giving feedback, pastors avoid offering the next generation the clarity that they desperately desire regarding God’s will for their lives.

Take time to give feedback to young leaders. No, this doesn’t always mean that you have to sit in their class or visit their small group. Just start by asking questions of those who serve alongside them or those who sit under their teaching. Collect what you hear and talk it over with him or her. It’s really not super hard. A teachable servant of the church will soak up the feedback and be open to critique. Be cautious about forming internal opinions about the young leader without discussing critiques and giving them clear ways to improve. If they’re consistently dropping the ball and you think they need to put ministry ambitions on hold (or reshape those ambitions in some way), clearly tell them as much. They’ll thank you for it later.

Pairing the idea of feedback with the previous idea of meaningful service, I’d recommend using a two-year leadership development plan. Let a young leader serve in a number of general ways in the church for a year with basic feedback and accountability. Then evaluate their fitness for Gospel ministry. If it makes sense, then do a year of directed and intense service with more robust feedback and follow-up. The goal at the end of the second year is to launch that leader into pastoral ministry. With intentional planning like this, it won’t take long for the word to get out and you won’t know what to do with all the men and women looking for an opportunity for meaningful mentorship for ministry.

They gave me a book to read

Among many evangelical churches in the US, head training is one of the things we do well. We have great books. We attend great conferences. We have great seminaries. It’s all great knowledge at arm’s length. So when a young guy seems to have a passion to plant churches, he’s often given a book (or a stack of them). Sometimes a pastor will meet with him and discuss theology. But who is talking with him about spiritual formation, calling, gifting, and ministerial challenges? Who’s prodding him about his sin struggles and spiritual disciplines?

Assign an elder to meet weekly or bi-weekly with next generation leaders. Use a programmatic tool to guide discussions to ensure that you’re equipping young leaders on a broad scale of topics and issues.

They told me to move and attend seminary

Sometimes I wonder if churches understand what they’re doing when they tell a young leader to leave and go to seminary. Often this advice demonstrates that the church leadership frankly doesn’t know with a young, aspiring leader. It essentially says that the church’s role in a leader’s development ends where seminary begins. Here are some of the bad results of this advice:

  • Young leaders leave their spiritual community, with plenty of potentially ruinous spiritual effects. The doctrinal and spiritual mooring of a local church can be helpful to young leaders as they weigh what they learn in seminary.
  • Young leaders lack the locale to practice the hands-on aspects of ministry. Enough said.
  • Young leaders lose a sense of sending and arrive at a sense of searching. Sending is when a church has your back. Searching is when you’re trying to find your own way. Sending is awesome. Searching sucks. Send your next-up leaders. Don’t leave them searching.
  • Young leaders are driven to non-relational networking to find pastoral ministry opportunities. Most of the ministry roles worth having are not the ones you find with a resume. They’re ones that are either forged through planting/revitalizing or initiated by others who know you well.
  • Young leaders make poor decisions about where to attend seminary. When telling a guy to go to seminary is a “check-out” move by a church, guys often make dumb decisions about where to go. What many guys don’t realize is that seminaries set them up to serve in and be heard by particular audiences or denominations. Stay involved in the process and visit a seminary or two with your young leaders. Make helpful recommendations based on what you know of them.

If your default is to tell a guy to pack his things, consider changing to more of an apprentice model. Can he take hybrid or online courses? Can he commute? Is there any possible way he can get a theological education while undergoing spiritual formation and pastoral training in your church? If you feel willing to train a next generation leader but lack the resources or ability, try asking about other churches in the area that do this well and forging a partnership with them. Do your utmost to retain the God-given task of pastoral training within the local assembly.

Someday, by God’s grace, I hope I can start meeting with more next generation leaders who can tell me: “One of my pastors and I meet weekly for accountability and discussing pastoral responsibilities, and I’m on a two-year track to be sent to revitalize a church in a nearby city.”

Gideon: Freedom from Fear of Man

I love the biblical story of Gideon. And I think it’s because I identify so well with the man. So many people I know possess special gifts for leadership.  Gideon did not have anything of the sort.  Gideon was just a regular guy.  I am not one of the classic “type A” personalities that most people look to in a leader.  I am not a “driver.”  I am full of fears and concerns for myself and others.  I am often far too concerned about what others will think and fear acting alone.  I am a Gideon.

Me at Gideon's stream, where God pared back his army to an unthinkable low.
Me at Gideon’s stream, where God pared back his army to an unthinkable low.

At the beginning of Gideon’s story, we find him hiding in a winepress threshing wheat.  This would have given Gideon a place to hide from the Midianites.  His fear drove him into hiding.  He was not the sort of guy who would have naturally confronted an enemy no matter whether the odds were in his favor or not.  I fear confrontation and avoid it like the plague.  In order to do what God wanted, Gideon had to learn to trust God.  Thankfully God was merciful to Gideon and helped him start small.  The test of overthrowing the statue of Baal in the village helped Gideon to learn to stand for what was right.  God has done the same for me.  Instead of throwing me at millions of Midianites, he gives me small challenges that I’ve learned to overcome prior to taking on the big challenges in my life.  Ultimately God has given me strength to overcome each milestone.

Here are a few applications that I’ve drawn from the life of Gideon:

  • Fear of man stems from a lack of trust in God.
    • Retain a sense of inability and rely solely on God’s grace for the task at hand.
    • Rely on God for confidence in the face of skepticism.
    • Rely on God for gifting in the face of inadequacy.
    • Rely on God for courage in the face of timidity.
  • Fear of man results in a failure to act.
    • Meet small challenges first.
    • Don’t keep asking questions when God is calling you to follow him.
    • Learn to rely on God by expanding your faith in him little by little.
    • Find a core group of friends who can help me meet these challenges, but do not place your faith in them.
  • Fear of man can be overcompensated.
    • When God gives you success and respect, don’t squander it on yourself.
    • When God gives you success and respect, invest in discipling your successors.

Ultimately, Christ alone stands as the supreme example of one who served without succumbing to fear of man or any sort of overreaction in the opposite direction. In his final hours he stood silent as accused, trusting the sovereign love of the Father. And he stands in my place as victor over this fear that I still, Gideon-like, do battle against.

From Boys to Men: Discipleship for Maturity

For some reason, the pre-teen and early teen years are some of the most important years of a person’s life. These are the years when critical decisions are made that will affect the trajectory of one’s life. And it was in these years that this quirky rail of a homeschooled teenager learned some important lessons about discipleship from two of my Sunday School teachers. I’d like to share these lessons as a tribute to these two childhood heroes of mine.

Discipleship doesn’t mean having all the answers.

I think a lot of us fear engaging others in discipleship relationships because we see that we’re still a work in progress. We see our flaws and our lack of knowledge as a hinderance to effective discipleship. But the two men that had an amazing formative impact in my life would be the first to admit that they didn’t have all the answers either. In fact, it was when we discussed tough theology or wrestled through difficult applications and they admitted the complexity that I was driven back to the Word and to deeper study on my own. Sometimes knowing the right questions to ask is better than knowing the right answers to those questions.

Discipleship doesn’t require someone amazing.

The funny thing about my childhood mentors is that they came from the two segments of the church population that are often the most marginalized and under-utilized: the singles and the divorced. Rather than seeing themselves as exceptions to God’s plan and placing themselves on the bench, these men stepped up and used their gifts anyways. As I’m writing this, I can’t help but think of the army of men and women who are sitting by watching the next generation of the church be mentored by the world, making excuses because they aren’t that hip. But making disciples isn’t a task reserved for the cool and the popular — making disciples is the mandate for *every* believer. And maybe that’s why the sidelined Christians do such a good job at it. Your impact as a discipler will always be disproportionate to who you think you are.
It is quite possible that you feel like you’re one of those sidelined groups in the church. Maybe you’re an older saint who doesn’t feel wanted in the lives of the young and progressive in the congregation. It’s easy to make the assumption that they don’t want you to disciple them and then just check-out. But, guess what, they *really do* desire your investment in their lives! No, they don’t want you to try to make them into little clones, and they aren’t looking for a list of preferences; they want someone to adopt them and grow with them.

Discipleship isn’t about following a program.

Here’s what discipleship looked like for me: cutting the church lawn in the dead of summer, watching thousands of Southwest Airlines 737’s landing at BWI airport, going on homeschooler field trips to historical sites, and gathering before church on Sundays to pray and talk about the Bible. None of this involved a book with pictures and blanks to fill in. None of this happened because someone at the top told them to do this. It happened because a couple guys had a vision and compassion for the next generation of the church. Sometimes our desire for programs and paperwork simply crowd out the real work of discipleship. I want to encourage you to put down the curriculum and pick up someone on your way to church. Stop waiting for administrative guidance and take some guys on a journey that will lead them to Jesus.

Discipleship doesn’t involve accepting the status quo.

Discipleship will break up your routines. If you’re just a Sunday-show-up-and-leave kind of Christian, discipleship is going to make you bend and break. It will demand that you arrange a morning coffee, invest your Saturdays, or turn Sundays into days of all-out ministry. The status quo is all about staying in your comfort zone and catering to your own needs; discipleship is all about breaking out of your comfort zone and ministering to the needs of others. Start small and build from there. Target a opening in your schedule and use it to make the maximum difference.

Discipleship isn’t neat and clean.

If there’s one thing I learned from being discipled by these two men is that discipleship will always cost you something. Maybe it’s the cost of a plane ticket or just a meal. Maybe it’s the time to visit a teen and his family at home. Maybe it’s the physical exertion that it takes to mow the church lawn or get rid of the leaves at a widow’s home alongside your disciple. I don’t know exactly what discipleship will look like for you, but here’s an idea: when you think of discipleship, think of Jesus. Think of guys trudging across the countryside, rowing across a sea in the middle of a storm, or starving hungry trying to figure out where to eat their next meal. This is where the real work of discipleship happens. Discipleship won’t happen as long as we remain in the pristine corridors of our churches or in the comforts of our homes. Discipleship will cost you something.
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Dedicated to Mr. Dave and Mr. Walt — selfless men with an incalculable eternal impact.