Archive for January, 2007

Computer Security

Written by Nick B. Nicholaou on . Posted in Articles

© 2006 by Nick B. Nicholaou, all rights reserved
President, Ministry Business Services, Inc.
Reprinted from Leadership Handbooks of Practical Theology

It’s not a matter of if a computer will crash, but when.  Thus it’s important to protect computer systems from problems that will arise.

Viruses, Spyware, and Worse!
In our Internet-connected world we are constantly under attack by programs written to wreck our day.  These programs can install themselves when we visit websites, look at graphic files (like pictures), or open unsolicited email.

These attacks come in the form of viruses (malicious programs that do nothing more than crash computers), trojans (programs that let others take over your computer and use it for their purposes, turning it into a “zombie”), and spyware (programs that try to collect personal information— like credit card numbers and passwords— for someone else’s gain).  And there’s a new kid on the block called a rootkit that does these in an undetectable way!

It is extremely important to run software on Internet-connected computers to protect them from these hazards.  This software should always be running, and should be checking its manufacturer’s website daily for updates to help it identify new hazards.  We recommend to most of our clients McAfee’s anti-virus software (www.mcafee.com) and LavaSoft’s Ad-Aware anti-spyware software (www.lavasoft.com).

Electrical Problems

Electrical current irregularities cause the second greatest number of system problems.  Churches can protect themselves from impure and unstable electricity in different ways, depending on the setup.

  • Desktop computers.  If the computer is a standalone system or a network workstation, we recommend using a high-quality surge protector.  Surge protectors vary widely in effectiveness and cost.  It’s important that the unit have at least a two-year warranty and carry Underwriters Laboratory’s listings UL 1449 listed (high level of surge suppression) and UL 497A ( for modem and communication protection if those are used).
  • Network servers.  If computers are networked, each network server (computers that serve all of the connected workstations) should have an uninterruptable power supply (UPS) for maximum electrical protection.  The UPS should be online (always operating) rather than on standby (waiting for a problem to occur); be rated at 600,000 to 1,200,000 volt-amps; switch on in less than 2 milliseconds; be able to shut the system down without an operator; include surge protection, brown-out protection, and noise filtering; have a battery life long enough to shut the server down in an orderly manner when the power fails, and have at least a two-year warranty.  We recommend American Power Conversion Smart UPSs (www.apc.com).

User Error
People make mistakes, so it is good to provide security against human error too.  We recommend four strategies:

  • Limiting access.  Allowing only those approved to use the computer to do so eliminates many problems.  Computers should be password protected so that only those who know the password can access their files, and the passwords should be difficult to guess.
  • Training.  Often the most neglected computer system component, training in the efficient use of programs and safe methods for Internet use saves downtime and increases user productivity.
  • Data backup.  It’s best to regularly back up computer data onto CDs, DVDs, or tape media.
    • Standalone computers.  We recommend a minimum of two sets of backup media that are rotated.
    • Network servers.  Churches with networks should back up their entire servers to tape each weeknight.  Servers can be programmed to do this overnight automatically.
    • Offsite storage / rotation.  To protect against larger disasters, we recommend that a copy of the backup be taken to a different location.  Network backups should rotate a tape off-site weekly, standalone computers should do this periodically too.  Some churches may even want to consider backing up their database over the Internet nightly.
  • Hard drive images.  We recommend using software to take a full picture of workstation hard drives when originally configured.  This is a great way to “reset” a system that has become problematic.
    • Standalone computers.  Check with your computer manufacturer to see if they included this feature on the system you purchased.  If not, and if you’re running a version of Microsoft Windows® XP, it includes a utility that allows you to go back to a recent configuration that you believe was good.
    • Network workstations.  We recommend using Zenworks (www.zenworks.com) to image systems and manage their updates.

When churches follow these guidelines, data will be there when they need it, and at minimal cost.

Pastoral Use of Email, Instant Messages, & Text Messages

Written by Nick B. Nicholaou on . Posted in Articles

© 2006 by Nick B. Nicholaou, all rights reserved
President, Ministry Business Services, Inc.
Reprinted from The Clergy Journal

A pastor’s time is one of his or her most valuable resources.  Because it is finite (even pastors only get twenty-four hours in their day), it is important to choose a communication strategy that helps balance the demands of email, instant messages, and text messages with the demands of personal time with God, family, staff, and message preparation.

Some Context
Many pastors try to take steps to protect their family time.  Some of these include not answering the phone during meal time or family time, small breaks and vacations away from the demands of church ministry with their family, and taking sabbaticals.

These are wise methods that help protect the time a pastor needs for personal and family time.  They also communicate to the family their importance, and to the congregation the importance of balancing work and personal time.

This discipline of balance is also important in digital communications.

There will occasionally be members of the congregation or church board that don’t understand this important discipline.  A good teaching is Jesus’ example!  He regularly pulled away from the crowd for time with those closest to him, his disciples.  He also prioritized personal time during which he could pray and hear God’s voice.

Email
Email has flattened organizational communication.  Because it provides easy access to anyone in the organization, it often means those in leadership receive emails that are more appropriately sent to other team members, requiring re-direction of those emails.  That re-directing process takes time.  Left uncontrolled, a pastor can easily lose their days to this and other digital communication processes.  Most pastors today have at least one email account.  Many manage the re-direction of emails by having two email addresses: one for the public, and one for staff and those with whom he or she works closely.  The public address is usually screened by a secretary or administrative assistant who does the re-directing— including re-directing some emails to the pastor’s hidden address.

This makes the pastor appropriately available to those on his or her team while also being appropriately available to the congregation and community.  And it allows the pastor to focus on that which needs his or her attention.

Instant Messages
Instant message (IM) access can be very disruptive.  Yet there are some whom the pastor wants to have instant access.  Team members who directly report to the pastor and some close relationships in church leadership are good candidates for this higher level of access.  These are trusted individuals who understand the demands of the pastor’s time.

One innovative pastor uses IM to begin his day in a virtual pastoral staff meeting!  By agreeing to be available for a brief time every day, this allows his staff to ask quick questions they need answered or to set up meetings with him they need to have.  It also helps give him a sense of what is happening in the church and among the team in a very time-efficient way.  It efficiently increases everyone’s productivity.

Text Messages
Cellular text messages can be received almost anywhere, making them a disruption factor that is much higher than email or IM.  It is unlikely that a pastor would be at a son’s or daughter’s soccer game with a notebook computer connected to the Internet and communicating via email or IM.  But text messages, delivered by cell phones, can interrupt any setting!

Because anyone who knows the pastor’s cellular phone number can send him or her a text message, it is important to protect those numbers!  A pastor should consider:

  1. Turning on the feature that shields his or her cellular number from those they call.  When desired, this setting can usually be over-ridden by preceding a dialed number with “*82”.  (For those I call often, I add this prefix to their entry in my address book.)
  2. Only share cellular phone numbers with family, close friends, and key members of staff and church leadership who will guard the pastor’s time and not abuse this higher level of availability.

Time is always in short supply.  There are few positions where this is felt as strongly as it does by pastors.  By strategizing their digital communication options, pastors can be appropriately available to family, key staff, and key church leaders while also protecting the balance of family and personal time.

Wise Shopping

Written by Nick B. Nicholaou on . Posted in Articles

© 2006 by Nick B. Nicholaou, all rights reserved
President, Ministry Business Services, Inc.
Reprinted from Leadership Handbooks of Practical Theology

In a unique way, we in ministry are stewards of the resources of God’s kingdom.  This demands our best efforts at making every dollar count.  One way church leaders can spend ministry dollars with confidence–especially in the area of computers and technology— is by adopting a carefully formulated purchasing strategy.

Discerning Need vs Want
Because ministry resources are often scarce, the first step in wise shopping is to determine whether the purchase meets a bona fide need or a want.  Buying a “want” isn’t wrong, but should come from excess (discretionary) funds.  How do you know the difference?
$   Never buy on impulse.  Any time someone says an opportunity must be taken now or missed forever, it’s probably better to miss it.  Try to always put time between the opportunity and the purchase, allowing time to decide if the purchase is really necessary.
$   Establish an accountability process.  If you’re part of a larger staff, find someone you can run your ideas by whom you know won’t be inclined to agree with you unless the purchase is truly wise.  If you’re not part of a larger staff, do the same with a friend, a church member, or colleague at another church.

Five Rules of Wise Shopping
Employ the following rules of wise purchasing:

  • Plan ahead.  By planning ahead, you can buy in large quantities which saves money on the cost per item and the amount of time spent shopping.  It also helps you take advantage of seasonal pricing (such as purchasing paint, building supplies, and other spring/summer items in winter when demand is low and you can negotiate a better price).  And it allows you to take your time since you’re not feeling pressured to make a fast purchase.  That means you’ll be able to spend a little more time researching, making sure you’re buying the best product for your church.
  • Buy informed.  When buying something also used by professional tradesmen, ask members of that trade what they would look for if it were their purchase.  For instance, a landscaper can tell you which lawnmower gives the most even cut with the least amount of maintenance, and even where the best buys are.
  • Don’t make church membership or faith the issue.  Some church leaders feel strongly about purchasing from church members or Christians whenever possible.  However, consider the following:
  • We need opportunities to build natural bridges with unbelievers.  What better time to model integrity and earn the right to share the gospel than when we deal with our vendors?
  • If something goes wrong, or if the product is faulty, it may be easier to resolve the issue if the vendor is outside the church.  This helps us avoid building up bitternesses or ill feelings among our flock or staff.
  • If the problem is not cooperatively redeemable, we are told in Scripture not to take our brother to court.  But we are not given this restriction with unbelievers.
  • Get three bids.  Although this rule may sometimes feel like an exercise in futility, it enhances good stewardship.  It also enables us to objectively negotiate a price that is reasonable for both parties.  And don’t be afraid to ask for a lower price or for extras to be thrown in at the same price.  You may be surprised how often you hear, “Yes.”
  • Don’t pay unnecessary sales tax.  Some states exempt churches and other not-for-profit organizations from paying sales tax on purchases.  Check with your state government and ask whether or not your organization should be paying sales tax.  You may be surprised again!

Well done!
Following these simple guidelines will help you maximize the purchasing power of your ministry dollars.  You’ll feel confident that you’re making good purchases, earning the title of Good and Faithful Steward.  And, if the best bid comes from an unbeliever, you may even have an opportunity to bring another into the Kingdom!

Office Furnishings & Layout

Written by Nick B. Nicholaou on . Posted in Articles

© 2006 by Nick B. Nicholaou, all rights reserved
President, Ministry Business Services, Inc.
Reprinted from Leadership Handbooks of Practical Theology

Some church offices are more often a collective progression of necessary solutions than a well-executed plan.  Additional work areas are often carved out of classrooms, basements, and closets as ministries grow, but an efficient office suite is rarely the result.  Churches that analyze and strategize their office needs can come up with some surprising solutions.

Location, Location, Location
Facilities and personnel are the two greatest costs of doing the business of ministry.  To the extent we utilize these key resources at peak efficiency, ministry and programs benefit.  For that reason, we recommend keeping as many staff as possible in office groupings.  If facility realities demand offices in multiple locations, try to group staff by function, such as pastors with their secretaries, and music staff near rehearsal rooms.

Helpful Hint:  There may be some businesses in your area that are downsizing to trim costs, resulting in used-furniture bargains.

Some churches are moving most of their offices offsite, leaving only school and maintenance personnel on the church grounds during the week.  This option has some significant advantages:

  • Leased office space is often more flexible and may cost less than new construction and maintenance.  In areas with low occupancy rates, significant rent reductions can be negotiated, especially for a church.
  • Offsite offices also reduce the number of interruptions by well-meaning members who stop by to chat.  Locating offices offsite can result in dramatic increases in staff productivity.

A Quieter, Gentler Office
While church offices are to be friendly places, work requires a degree of quiet and privacy.

  • Traffic Control.  Try to control the traffic flow of visitors within your church office.  Ideally, visitors coming to the office should enter a reception area with seating, a reception counter, and a simple gate to control office access.
  • Office Layout.  When designing your church’s office layout, the fewer people in one room, the better.  When many people share an office, visitor and phone conversations become distractions.  Modular furniture, while costly, allows more usable workstations in a room.  Modular furniture is a combination of upholstered panels, desk space, drawers, and cabinets, that combine to maximize space and minimize noise. 
  • Effective Lighting.  Studies show that lighting makes a big difference in office morale and productivity.  We recommend plenty of fluorescent lighting with bulbs that have a minimum color rendering index of 92%.

Equipped for Effectiveness

  • Phone System.  VoIP (Voice over Internet Protocol) is the current direction in telephone technology.  While VoIP has some great benefits, there are two things to be cautious about:
  • VoIP should not share the same network cables as computers because VoIP telephones communicate at a fraction of the speed at which computer networks communicate.  If both share the same cable, the slower one will dictate the speed of both, potentially slowing down the computer system significantly.
  • VoIP for internal communications makes great sense.  However, if a church changes their external communications to VoIP it may be surprised to learn just how intermittent the Internet really is!  This is one area that takes serious research before making a decision.
  • Email & Website Browsers.  Today everyone on a church’s staff should be connected to the church’s email system to facilitate the quick and easy communication of the team.  Many on the team may also need access to the Internet for research.  One caution is that many have gotten hurt because of the Internet’s dark side.  Establishing solid protections for the team, such as Covenant Eyes accounts (www.covenanteyes.com) is an important investment in them that could also help save a church’s community reputation.
  • Facsimile (FAX) Machine.  Though FAX technology has not progressed like other communication methods, having a FAX machine is still a necessity.
  • Mailing Equipment.  Labeling systems or computer programs that add the postal bar code to addresses can save significant dollars in postage and speed up delivery.  But postage meters, while convenient, can cost $1,000 or more per year.  We recommend buying postage stamps instead.

Church Databases
Most churches use computers today to automate or simplify many office tasks.  While many programs (like word processors) are fairly easy to choose, some (like church databases) require more research to ensure a good fit.  And because changing databases is also a change in business practices, shortcuts should be avoided.

  • Identify & Prioritize Your Needs.  In what ways do you hope a church database will help you?  The answers will probably fall into categories of member information (addresses, phone numbers, birth dates, anniversaries, contributions and attendance tracking, etc) and accounting (general ledger, check writing, payroll, etc).  After you’ve compiled your list, then prioritize it.
  • Find the Best Software to Meet Your Highest Priority.  If a church decides its highest priority is fund accounting or children’s ministry security / attendance, that will help them objectively identify the right database.  It will also help ensure that all facets of the ministry were examined so that all bases are covered.

If updating a church office increases staff morale and productivity, dollars wisely spent in this area are a good investment in the future of your church’s ministry.