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Common Church IT Mistakes, Part 1

May 21, 2014

© 2014 by Nick B. Nicholaou, all rights reserved
President, Ministry Business Services, Inc.
Reprinted from Christian Computing Magazine

I’ve had the privilege of serving The Church as an IT consultant and strategist for many years. In that role I’ve seen a wide spectrum of how churches approach IT and, as you’d imagine, I’ve seen patterns of good and of not-so-good approaches. In this series I will cover some of the most common mistakes churches make in this vital area that impacts church ministry.

One of the most common mistakes churches make is grouping together all of the technology disciplines into one “IT Department” and placing someone who is strong in any one of the technology disciplines over all technology for the church. While that can work, there are some typical deficiencies we see in the area of infrastructure if led by someone other than an infrastructure person.

The Three Disciplines of Church Technology
Really, there are three different technology knowledge and skill disciplines in most churches, and they are often all thought of as IT (Information Technology). That’s probably because they all rely heavily on computer technology to do what they each do, and so the assumption is that those involved in each discipline are equally capable of serving in any of the three areas. But each uses different skills and tools. Those three disciplines are web and graphics design, audio/ video, and data infrastructure.

  • Web and Graphics Design. The good folks at Wikipedia describe this discipline as “the art of communication, stylizing, and problem-solving through the use of type, space and image.” People who excel in this area are usually articulate communicators, and are very artistic. They use applications to draw, design, and do layout. They are often good project managers because of the timelines and project complexities involved in their work, but are usually not highly skilled in AV or data infrastructure (the design and connecting of systems to ensure appropriate data flow at all levels). In a recent conversation, Jonathan Smith (Faith Ministries, Lafayette) said social media is often combined with web and graphics design or data infrastructure because people in those disciplines use social medial tools, but observes that it is often a poor fit and is best treated as its own department.
  • Audio/ Video. AV people are also creative communicators. They specialize in cameras, projector systems, soundboards and systems, and storyboarding. Also good project managers, they can plan the AV elements of a production from start to finish and make certain all is ready at showtime. The computers used to render videos require a lot of resources, and are often more powerful than some servers! But, like web and graphics, they are usually not highly skilled in the other IT disciplines (web and graphics or data infrastructure).
  • Data Infrastructure. Infrastructure people are more like engineers than creative types, and are often not great communicators. Their personality tends to drive them towards analysis and engineering of systems, and their focus is to ensure appropriate throughput of data, whether that data is graphics, video, or data files (like spreadsheets). They tend to focus more on system designs, specs, and configurations, and are often not highly skilled in web and graphics or AV.

Which is Best to Oversee IT?
I’m an infrastructure guy, so my perspective may be a bit biased. But here’s what I see at many churches.

  • When non-infrastructure people oversee IT, often the strategy doesn’t support the needs of the entire church staff very well. The two reasons are usually because of non-enterprise hardware specs (meaning that the hardware chosen is usually not what corporations would consider appropriate) and an inadequate understanding of infrastructure engineering and strategy.
  • Because the infrastructure discipline is the basis for all data transfer needs, it is usually the best selection to lead the technology needs of the church. But two areas that are usually lacking are relationship and trust of leadership (due to communication styles) and an over-restrictive approach to policies. The result of over-restrictive policies is often that church staff will find ways to work around any restrictions in place.

How Do We Overcome?
In large churches these could each be separate departments. If the church’s technology department is managed as one department, though, there are some things that can be done to improve it regardless of who is leading it.

  • If the department is led by a non-infrastructure person, I recommend having a good and trusted infrastructure person in the department, or having a relationship with a good and trusted infrastructure consultancy. The infrastructure perspective is essential to having a system that works well for all staff.
  • If the department is led by an infrastructure person, that person needs to spend time getting to know the needs of the other two disciplines and making certain their needs are considered in the system design. They should also spend time with other church staff members and get to know their needs, and they need a champion at the leadership level.

Communication is Key
Many in data infrastructure struggle with communication. Jason Powell (Granger Community Church, South Bend), though himself a skilled communicator, says it is helpful to have a great communication skills mentor. In Granger’s case, their IT Department is part of the Communications Department.

David Brown (Capital Christian Center, Sacramento) agrees that communication is the key. “The chasm between vision and reality can be filled with jagged rocks. There has to be a bridge-builder who can communicate effectively in both worlds. The tech world can be too black-and-white or binary to communicate effectively to leadership. Being able to navigate necessary IT restrictions, while meeting the goals of leadership, will produce an outcome in which both sides are pleased.”

Who Is The Customer?
A closely related topic is identifying who the department’s customer is. The department must get to know the needs of their customers, which includes all of the users of the system. Designing the system as though making a profit based on the experience of those customers is essential for survival will help ensure the system is reliable, capable, full-featured, and devoid of unnecessary roadblocks that would cause dissatisfaction.

For-profit business departments don’t usually consider this to the extent church technology departments do. Corporate IT is able to dictate to its user community what is and what is not an acceptable use of the system; violators are terminated, plain and simple. Churches don’t operate that way, so building a good customer-driven strategy is the best approach.

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