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Changing Your System or Software? What Should You Expect?

June 15, 2005

© 2005 by Nick B. Nicholaou, all rights reserved
President, Ministry Business Services, Inc.
Reprinted from The Clergy Journal’s Faithful Finances

When churches change computer systems or software, they’re often surprised at the enormity of the task.  The time and costs often run over budget, and the transition often leaves a trail of unmet expectations.  With a little understanding of the process and some preplanning, however, these unmet expectations can be minimized and even avoided.

Is there a perfect fit?
Many believe they need to find a system that perfectly meets all of their needs.  Unfortunately, there’s no such system.  A 90%-95% match is as high as they should set their sites.  With that in mind, how can you increase the likelihood that your system will meet your needs?  Do it right; don’t skip any steps in the process.

  1. Brainstorm with your team, listing all of their new system hopes.
  2. Identify which of those needs is the most critical for your ministry.
  3. Research the best software that meets your highest priority need.  Begin by looking in your favorite Christian publications (like this one!).  Next, check with your denomination and any other ministry associations.  Now you’re ready to call some of the churches whose operations you regard highly and ask:
    1. What they use;
    2. If they’re satisfied with how the company takes care of them; and
    3. What they’d do differently if they were making the same decision today that they made when they chose their current software.
    4. Then contact three or four companies who look promising and request full demonstrations of their products (demo disks rarely give enough of an impression on which to base a decision).
  4. Buy hardware that optimizes the software.  (Note that this is always the last step.)

Adjust or Customize?
The system you identify in the above process will probably be a good fit— if no shortcuts are taken along the way.  But still, the best you can hope for is a 90%-95% fit.  So what should you do about that portion of the system that isn’t a perfect fit?  Choose one of the following:

1. Hire a programmer to customize the system, making it perfectly fit your exact needs.  Many ministries choose to follow this route. It is rarely successful, however, because its success depends on the following:

  • You have a comprehensive grasp of your total system needs, both current and future.
  • You have effectively communicated your needs to the programmer.
  • The programmer you hired is capable of efficiently doing all you communicated.

If each of these is true, then your system has a chance for success.  To the extent that any of these is not true, however, to that extent your team will be hindered in building the Kingdom.

2. Challenge your team to adapt the way they do business to the system’s design.  There will always be some unmet needs or differing processes in any computer system.  That’s reality.  The team that does its homework will usually find that the solution they’ve chosen is as close a match as is possible.  The remaining differences need to be adapted to.

Ministries willing to bend a little find system implementation— not painless— but livable and usually successful.  But that means a willingness to change, which reminds me of one of my favorite church jokes:

Q:  How many church members does it take to change a light bulb?
A:  What do you mean, change?

Guidelines for System Success
Following are six relatively simple steps that virtually guarantee success when transitioning from one computer system to another.

  1. Management (the decision-making and vision-giving authority in your ministry) must decide that they are not looking for a quick fix, but rather, a right solution.  They must commit themselves to a process that will likely take a few months just to identify which system is best for your ministry.  That means this process should be scheduled; not done in response to an emergency.
  2. Management must acknowledge that implementation, once begun, will likely take a full year to complete.
  3. Management must communicate their commitment and timeline expectations clearly to the entire ministry team.  This will eliminate unrealistic expectations at all levels within your team.
  4. Management should assign a trusted team member the responsibility of coordinating the brainstorming, research, and implementation.  The authority given to that person must match their responsibility and be fully supported by management.
  5. Include a solid training plan in the implementation plan to teach the staff how to effectively use the new system.
  6. Every step along the way, inform the entire team of the project’s progress.

Many system implementations go beyond what anyone thought they would cost.  Worse than that, the time they take to complete usually goes beyond what anyone expected.  By following these guidelines, your ministry can transition to a new system that meets nearly all expectations.  It will likely boost team morale and empower your team in their Kingdom-building efforts.

The best part will be that, following these guidelines, you may get to hear those richly rewarding words: “Well done, good and faithful steward.”

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