Notes from study leave, pt. 3: small group management software

I’ve been thinking about ways to improve administration of Sunday school, and I’ve been dreaming of software that would allow me to track attendance and visitors, get reports from teachers online or via email, allow parents/guardians to see what Sunday school classes have been doing, etc.

I started out looking at Sunday school management software, but it all seems to be focused on merely tracking attendance and providing Bible lesson plans. Blah. Then I began to realize that my Sunday school classes are really more like small groups than traditional Sunday school classes. (When I say “small groups,” I don’t mean the usual Unitarian Universalist interpretation of small groups:– closed groups with the goal of deep intimate sharing. What I mean by small groups has more in common with evangelical Christian small groups:– open, welcoming groups with leaders who are actively encouraged to expand the group; groups which aim to bring persons towards a Unitarian Universalist way of life through learning and doing; groups which aim to encourage leadership growth in both current leaders and participants.)

So I began to look at some of the software packages that help churches manage growth-oriented small groups.

A typical software package

A typical example of such software is ChurchTeams Web-based small group software. ChurchTeams software is Web-based, that is, it’s hosted on their servers. You provide a link to this service through your Web site.

ChurchTeams allows visitors and guests to browse through small groups on your Web site — you can browse by interest topic, meeting location, etc. Guests can sign up for a small group online.

Small group leaders can manage their small group online. They can write meeting summaries (ChurchTeams claims their easy-to-use software gets over 80% weekly return rate on meeting reports). They can update member information in the online database; when they do so, the ChurchTeams software sends an email notification of this new information to a church administrator, who can then input the information into the main congregational database. Small group leaders can also make sure group participants get email notification such as meeting reminders, and copies of meeting reports. If I think about Sunday school teachers and youth advisors as small group leaders, I would think about sending email reminders to parents about Sunday school class, and then sending out meeting reports so the parents can know what went on in Sunday school.

ChurchTeams software also supports children’s check-in kiosks — you know, those things megachurches use where you check in your child at a terminal that takes your photo and prints out a security label that matches the child with the parent/guardian. ChurchTeams also allows teachers to text parents, so that if your kid melts down in the middle of the megachurch worship service where there are 3,000 people in attendance, you get a text telling you to come down right away. Not really a feature I’d need to use very much, but it would be a neat feature to have for our nursery staff.

This sounds like a real topnotch premium product, right? And it comes with a topnotch price, too. For a database of 151-500 people, the annual subscription is $400 plus a one time startup fee of 6-month subscription. That would be $600 for the first year — which is way too much for me to want to pay out of our small religious education budget, considering the limited number of functions I would actually use. Having said that, if my congregation were truly committed to growth through small groups, I could probably convince people that this would be an excellent investment for the whole congregation. But since my church is following a classic mainline Protestant model of church growth — advertising, putting people on committees, doing satisfaction surveys, etc. — I don’t think I’m going to convince anyone else to spring for this big an annual fee.

Other packages

Of course there are lots of basically equivalent products out there. I looked at ConnectionPower, which apparently offers similar functionality in their Web-based church management software, butI couldn’t easily find pricing information on their Web site, so I don’t know how competitive they are. CongregationBuilder appears to have fewer features than ChurchTeams (no online reports, less flexibility about contacting members, etc.); it’s also a lot less expensive — about $240 a year for our size congregation — but the lack of online reporting just wouldn’t make it worth my while.

I also looked at a non-Web-based software package, Excellerate church management software. You buy this software package and install it on your own server — it’s not hosted on their server. Small group leaders (or Sunday school teachers) can still do online reports, though — they simply log in remotely to the server you set up, through a link you place on your congregation’s Web site. Excellerate does show some nice graphing functions that allow you to track growth (or decline) in your small groups. Like most of this type of software, “Excellerate small group software can track all of your group details including meeting attendance, topics, comments, number of visitors, and much more”; all of which would of course be incredibly useful for a Sunday school. This database is priced by the number of records you’d use, so for our Sunday school we’d probably pay about $295 — that’s a one time fee, though, not an annual subscription fee as for the Web-based software.

Downsides and problems

The big drawback to using any of theses software packages is that I’d basically have to set up my own database running parallel to the main congregational database. I’m a big believer in nonproliferation of databases; more than one database means that you’re not sharing information the way you should be doing (although the ChurchTeams software does get around this problem by automatically sending that email update to the congregational administrator for inclusion in the main database).

In the past, I’ve run separate databases for my Sunday school programs, and of course I had much better data for my own use, and I also could get exactly the kinds of reports and analysis that I needed. But I finally realized that maintaining my own database for Sunday school meant that I was crippling the overall efforts of the congregation. Perhaps someday I can convince my congregation to switch to a more aggressive data-driven and results-oriented approach to growth; and if I do that, I’ll immediately try to talk the rest of the leadership into using one of these software packages to track small groups (and then of course I’d start using the same software package to pump up my Sunday school programs). Until such a day, however, I’ll be sticking with the same old mainline Protestant approaches to congregational growth and Sunday school management.

One possible litmus test for “UU culture”

Wisconsin governor Scott Walker is in the middle of an attempt to cut the state budget, and at the moment he’s focusing on passage of a bill that will end collective bargaining for state employees. This action sparked protests and a Democratic walkout, and for four days now state workers and their supporters have basically taken over the Rotunda of the state capitol building.

As a Unitarian Universalist, I am fascinated by our religious response to this event. For anyone with a union connection, the events in Wisconsin will be seen as a watershed event — indeed, if Scott Walker’s bill passes, what’s happening in Wisconsin could be as important to union supporters as last year’s anti-immigration legislation in Arizona was to those working on immigration reform. But Unitarian Universalists have been basically ignoring what’s going on in Wisconsin; aside from a blog post by Patrick Murfin, I have seen no UU response.

It will be interesting to see how this develops. When Arizona passed anti-immigration legislation, Unitarian Universalists were furious, and a number went and got arrested in protests. However, Unitarian Universalists generally do not show much support when it comes to unions and worker’s rights. If Scott Walker’s bill passes (as it is likely to do), I do not think we will see a massive upwelling of support among Unitarian Universalists for collective bargaining rights.

This, I believe, reveals something about what Chris Walton and UU World magazine have been terming “Unitarian Universalist culture”. While Unitarian Universalists have a strong tendency to support politically liberal causes, they do not support all politically liberal causes equally, and unionism is one cause that gets little or limited support. Because of this, I predict that we will not be seeing prophetic statements from the president of the Unitarian Universalist Association condemning Scott Walker; I also predict that the Standing on the Side Of Love campaign will not start including love for union workers the way it included love for immigrants in the wake of Arizona.

I’m fascinated by the way Unitarian Universalists pick and choose among politically liberal causes, and I’d love to hear your thoughts on why this might be so. Specifically, why don’t we support unionism (with the exception of Cesar Chavez’s farmworkers union, but then maybe that was more about immigrants than about unions)? Is it because our strong strain of individualism is repelled by collective bargaining? Is it because so many of us are members of the managerial class that we tend to distrust unions? Or what? Maybe this will help better define what “UU culture” really is.