Should Your Church Move to Google Apps?

© 2013 by Nick B. Nicholaou, all rights reserved
President, Ministry Business Services, Inc.
Reprinted from Christian Computing Magazine 

A common discussion these days is whether a move to Google Apps makes sense. Is it a good option compared to Microsoft Office?

Why is this an Issue?

There are four driving forces among church team members wanting their organizations to adopt Google Apps:

  • Cost.  The cost of Google Apps is free, so from that perspective it can make a lot of sense.  But Google has changed their pricing policy for religious nonprofits a few times; I think the end of the story on using Google Apps in a church has not yet been written.  As of this writing (February, 2013) Google is willing to donate the use of Google Apps to nonprofit organizations with the following restrictions:
    • Less than 3000 users,
    • Registered and recognized 501(c)(3)— searchable in the IRS database; Google does not recognize the equivalence the IRS gives to churches,
    • Does not discriminate on any unlawful basis with regards to, among other issues:
      • Religion,
      • Sex,
      • Gender identity or expression, or
      • Sexual orientation

Many churches do discriminate in those areas, though one could argue that doing so is not unlawful because of certain Supreme Court decisions.  However, federal law and the U.S. Department of Labor do not give churches an exemption regarding those sexual discrimination issues.  Churches who have been transparent with Google regarding them have been denied the free use of Google Apps.

  • Familiarity.  Many younger computer users and home computer users use some of the features of Google Apps, and are thus familiar with them and want to continue using what they are familiar with.
  • Easy Sharing of Docs and Calendars.  The perception that this is a benefit that Google Apps provides that is not available to network users of Microsoft Office apps is not correct if the church’s computer network is fully used.
  • Availability.  One of the reasons some push towards Google Apps is their need to connect to email, calendars, contacts, etc when they are away from the church property.  That is also easily done in Microsoft’s solution.  If it’s not working, it is usually either because of email server configuration settings or poor Internet connectivity at the church; both easily overcome.

Further Legal Implications
While talking with some prominent nonprofit attorneys I asked if signing contracts stating a church does not discriminate in those areas mentioned above could damage its ability to defend itself in a lawsuit.  They said a sharp plaintiff attorney could try to introduce such signed contracts as evidence the church lies about how it conducts itself.  They also said that if they were defending the church, they would try to get the contracts removed from consideration since they are not specific to the case at hand, but there’s no way to predict that outcome.

 Another issue raised by the attorneys was about the likely lost confidentiality of the contents of the emails and docs created in Google Apps.  They stated that Google is not as secure an environment as private servers can be, and the possibility exists that Google could mine the content for Google’s purposes.

Google vs Microsoft Pricing
Microsoft allows churches to qualify for their charity licensing program.  The one-time cost for the items that compete with Google Apps are:

  • Exchange Server:  $158
  • Exchange Client Access Licenses:  $3 per mailbox
  • Microsoft Office Standard 2011 (Mac) or 2013 (Windows):  $50 per computer

If a church wanted these solutions without the IT cost associated with supporting them, there are many who can host them— which would minimize those costs.

Based on Google’s requirements and the demands of integrity, many churches cannot qualify for a free version of Google Apps.  If it’s not free, the cost is $5 per month per user, or $60 per user per year.  That’s already more in one year than the cost of Microsoft Office’s one-time fee!  So what is the further reason for considering Google Apps?  Outsourced IT.

Now outsourced IT is something I agree with.  However, consider whether what Google delivers as outsourced IT is what you’re willing to accept.

  • Unscheduled and unannounced downtime.  Google aims for 99.9% uptime as their standard.  That also means an average of nearly nine hours of unscheduled and unannounced downtime per year.  As an IT services and support provider, I think our clients would fire us if their system was down that much.
  • Who ya gonna call?  When Google is down, there’s no one to call.  At most there will be an announcement on a website or via social media.

I think Google Apps is a solution that is not right for The Church.  Her mission is time-sensitive and integrity-rich.  Many of her internal communications are content-sensitive, and she is the target of many who want to stop her dead in her tracks.  It’s helpful there are secure private solutions, like those provided by Microsoft, readily and inexpensively available.

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