Software for Effective Ministry
As hybrid and remote working becomes more commonplace, what are the best software options for church staff teams and volunteers to work effectively?
In March 2020, at the start of the first lockdown, my challenge was to get FIEC’s staff ready to work from home.
I rushed out to buy laptops, cameras, microphones and anything else we would need to work remotely, and quickly discovered these were flying off the shelves at the same rate as toilet paper from the supermarkets. I hunted around various stores to get hold of any laptop I could find and configure it to work for FIEC staff.
A year and a half later we find ourselves even more dependent on technology for work collaboration; whilst in our personal lives, online meetings have become the norm.
“What would have been a phone call is now likely to be a video call and I expect to see this form of communication being used far more widely when people are out and about, not just stuck at home or in a fixed location.” - BBC, Ben Wood, chief analyst at CCS Insight.
Remote working is on the rise around the world but the ‘Zoom Boom’ phenomena doesn’t adequately reflect the complexities and challenges of this new trend. In a policy brief on remote working, the International Labour Organisation (ILO) estimated that 557 million people worked from home during the second quarter of 2020, which is 17.4% of the global labour force.
It’s believed that working from home, or hybrid working, will become a common phenomenon. This is indicated by YouGov and CIPD research, which predicts a significant shift in employers’ attitude to the ‘work from home’ culture.
The report also highlights the critical role of technology in this hybrid-working environment. This has come with challenges for employees in getting up to speed with the rapid advances in technology. It also comes at an added cost to employers. As employers and managers of groups of volunteers, many small churches or mission organisations can find themselves facing the same challenges.
In my opinion, churches and mission organisations can benefit from this change by adopting technologies that can facilitate ministry and work collaboration. For example:
- Using cloud-based services and technologies to help with managing data in line with GDPR requirements.
- Managing teams of church volunteers.
- Giving workers and volunteers remote access to ministry resources.
And all of this in a secure environment.
Below, I will compare the cost savings available for non-profits, like churches, on three mainstream software platforms. My hope is that you can use this comparison to analyse your IT requirements and identify the most suitable tech solution for your needs, as a small church or mission organisation.
- Microsoft 365 (previously as Office 365).
- Google Workspace (previously known as G Suite).
- Apple iWork.
These platforms are different in many ways and tailored to specific audiences. Each has its own style and comes with very different offers. Each of us is likely to have our own preference, either because it’s what we’re used to, or because of what we need it for, or because we have a loyalty to a particular brand.
As a non-profit organisation or a church, the cost can be the primary focus for deciding the right fit. Therefore, I will mainly focus on the non-profit elements of the platforms above, which church leadership teams can use to effectively facilitate work and ministry collaboration.
Before we look into each of the products, let's go through the possible requirements for any church.
- Send and receive emails - without a custom web domain.
- Work with a word processor, spreadsheets, and presentations.
- Video/voice conferencing.
- Send and receive emails with shared calendars - attached to a custom web domain.
- Use online cloud storage with file sharing and collaboration.
- Corporate communication tools, including messaging.
- Admin interface with advanced features for compliance and security, such as two-factor authentication.
I have mentioned ‘video/voice conferencing’ under the basic category. A year and a half ago this may have been an advanced feature, but now it has become an essential requirement.
Windows is the most recognised software platform around the world. I remember the excitement back in the day when I got my first refurbished PC with Windows 95. Compared to today's Windows 10 (or the soon to be unleashed Windows 11) it was very basic.
Microsoft 365 has the advantages of familiarity and the legacy of Microsoft Office. This is why I decided to discuss Microsoft before the rest: it has set a benchmark, especially when it comes to off the shelf solutions.
If your church work requires just the basic work scenario mentioned above then I would suggest purchasing a lifetime licence for MS office, assuming your machine comes with a pre-installed Windows 10 Home or personal licence. However, you would need to pay extra for video conferencing such as Zoom, Webex, or Microsoft Teams (which will be built into the upcoming Windows 11 without any added cost).
The advanced requirements mentioned above are mainly targeted towards teams/work collaborations in any organisation.
Once registered and set up as a non-profit, you can access either of the following licences, using your web domain (your church’s website address), for free:
- Business Basic (Free for 300 users) Described as: “Best for businesses that need professional email, cloud file storage, and online meetings & chat. Desktop versions of Office apps like Excel, Word, and PowerPoint are not included.” This licence gives access to Microsoft Office apps through web browsers like Google Chrome, Firefox, Microsoft Edge, or Safari rather than app installations of Excel, Word and PowerPoint.
- Business Premium (Free for 10 users) Described as: “Best for businesses that need all the apps and services included in Business Standard plus advanced cyber threat protection and device management”. The Microsoft Office applications can be installed on Windows or Mac laptops/computers. This gives you access to the best of Microsoft apps and even a Microsoft P1 license (part of the business premium) for their Azure administrative portal to manage security policies, mobile device management, and much more. If you have a small team at church then you can benefit from the most advanced features of Microsoft 365 by using this licence. Setting it up requires someone with IT skills. Upgrading from Windows Home Edition to Windows Business or Pro is also recommended.
Google is a household name. The power of Google as a search engine is undeniable. Similar to Microsoft 365, Google Workspace offers various apps (ie. Gmail, Drive, Meet, Calendar) but not a comprehensive work collaboration solution, especially if you are looking to keep your costs down as a small church.
If your needs fit within the basic work scenario, and you have a Windows laptop or a Macbook, Google Workspace might work for you. However, unless you invest in a Chromebook to use Google Workspace, compatibility issues are likely to arise from working in a cross-platform environment. That is expected to change with Windows 11 later this year.
Similar to Microsoft, Google Workspace offers discounted rates for non-profits. Free Unlimited users have access to:
- Professional email addresses at your church’s domain.
- 100 participant video meetings.
- 30GB cloud storage per user.
- Security and management controls.
- Standard support.
Apple devices are known for their uniqueness and added security, but this comes with an extra cost.
In my opinion, iWork and Microsoft 365 cannot be compared on a like-for-like basis, as iWork is subscription-free. You buy the apps by buying the device, whether you are a business, a non-profit, or a personal user.
However, the compatibility of iWork collaboration tools depends on the iOS version you are using. If you are thinking of investing in a Macbook primarily for church use, then it is worth considering who you will be collaborating with. If you will be collaborating with others using Windows or a Chromebook, you are likely to face challenges with compatibility.
iWork meets all the scenarios of the basic category but is lacking when it comes to custom domain (using your church web domain to define your email address). This is expected to change later in autumn 2021. This will be a step towards becoming suitable for corporate use for the devices with iOS 15 or later.
Compliance and Security
Once you’ve got up and running with your platform, you will need to consider how you keep your church’s information safe. The increased reliance on technology, brought about by the pandemic, has brought with it a proliferation of online scams and hackers.
We are now much more used to scanning unknown QR codes and having apps on our phones track our movements. This means we are now less wary about what we download to our phones or who we give our personal information out to.
Cybersecurity is now a game of hide and seek with our personal information. Having ineffective cybersecurity is like keeping the front door open and expecting our possessions to still be there when we get home. It’s annoying for us when our machines ask for timely or untimely updates, however, the reality is that the majority of these are efforts to close the gaps in our already open front door.
It’s always a good idea to think about the risks involved in losing information from your PC to a hacker in an unknown space. My suggestion is, whichever platform you select, make the best use of cloud data storage. As a minimum-security protection measure, use the option of two-factor authentication and data encryption. These two measures together help to prevent unauthorised access and use of your data. Our three contenders all provide good security against any cyber-attack until a new threat is discovered.
There is still a big question related to the cost of the hardware. This could be a decisive factor for you and your church in selecting the right software platform. Including the fact that “in the post-pandemic world, especially in the advanced economies, the hybrid work model will become a norm.” ResearchFDI, Bruce Takefman,
Ultimately, it’s a matter of personal choice as a church, or as an individual, as to which platform you select.
Any one of them can help you with building work collaboration for your church leadership team and volunteer groups. Microsoft 365 is the most flexible as it comes with desktop apps that work across different platforms.
All three platforms provide good cybersecurity, but it is important to tailor it to your needs and to stay vigilant - above all with data compliance. There are pros and cons with all platforms but look at it this way; there are freebies to enjoy for churches, as non-profits, across all three platforms.
Excepted charity status (update November 2023)
If you are a small church or a church plant that wants to benefit from Microsoft and Google’s generosity, it may appear that you don’t qualify without a unique charity number. In other words, it looks like they want you to be a registered charity to benefit.
If you find yourself in this situation, then the solution for your church can be the ‘excepted’ status which gives your church an exception from being a fully registered charity till 31 March 2031 by virtue of your FIEC affiliation.
According to the Charity Commission, an ‘excepted’ status means that “they don’t have to register or submit annual returns. Apart from that, the Charity Commission regulates them just like registered charities and can use any of its powers if it needs to”
FIEC is recognised by the Charity Commission as; “wholly or mainly for public religious worship linked to any of the following bodies (which includes FIEC) are excepted if their income is £100,000 or less”.
The condition of annual income of 100k or less gives churches that are affiliated to FIEC this “excepted status”.
In summary, if you are an FIEC-affiliated church, with an annual income of £100K or less then; you have an ‘excepted’ status with the Charity Commission and an ‘exempt’ status with HMRC.
Now the question arises whether the two big software giants accept or entertain the ‘excepted’ and ‘exempt’ statuses. The answer is yes!
Both Microsoft and Google accept under Nonprofit Eligibility criteria as ‘HMRC exempt charities or churches’.
Next time you find yourself in this type of situation and have to pick a category for your church, select the option "HMRC Charitable Status".
Do bear in mind that Excepted Status is a temporary benefit for churches. On 31 March, 2031 this benefit will be withdrawn and all churches will have to register with the Charity Commission.
You can find out more about this via Edward Connor Solicitors. But for now – make use of this discounted software.