Category Archives: Church administration

One CRM to rule them all

I don’t agree with Unitarian Universalist blogger and minister Tom Schade on his call for a common UUA-wide CRM (customer relationship management) tool on practical grounds.

In short, I think it isn’t any real kind of reorganization, but rather he conflates a tool with a creative and productive culture, and so would disappoint those hoping for a meaningful solution to our lack of evangelization. Such a CRM would necessarily disappoint some people who might want to use it, and it’s implementation will take vast resources of time and money that would likely be used more productively in local activity.

That’s the short version of my objection. I worried that I have written for too long and too much. I may add another post if it is needed.

The suggestion that technology is itself an organizational change misunderstands the relationship between technology and its user. The old saying “use the right tool for the job” implies you know what the job is, and I think Unitarian Universalists have too little practical experience with evangelism to make adequate use of this or any tool. A vision comes before planning, which comes before provisioning. (And, besides, if one’s going to claim that this was the most important changing polity-tool in a hundred years, other more radical but simple technologies, like the mimeograph or telephone would make a better case.)

I’m concerned that there will be fond interest, born out of desperation, and that the investment of thought, labor and money that might be better used building skills or developing an evangelism strategy will be frittered away in an experiment which would bear nothing like its promises in a few years’ time. (Programatically, the UUA seems a shadow of itself ten or twenty years ago.) The promises will then changed to fit the new reality, but the bills will keep coming at the old rate. And the feeling that the UUA is in a death spiral increases.

I’m glad to see some commentators at Tom’s blog mention privacy. Securing the amount of data his idea suggests takes professional help, and such a CRM will certainly be white-labeled. No complaint there, if you trust the expertise of your suppliers. But we are talking about literally thousands of data users and suppliers… Pretty easy to make an error in permissions or judgment. And more than that: consider privileged information, say between pastor and parishioner, or among staff. Or on a pledge committee. Would you want everything on a common, cloud-based, UUA-managed CRM. I wouldn’t; I bet  many others wouldn’t either, which invites a database fragmentation within a congregation. That limits its utility. And that’s not even considering that personal privacy concerns of people who never signed up for a religious community that collects such a large volume of data centrally.

And how many UUA-member congregations have to not participate — after all, guessing by the UUA ChurchMgmtSoftware mailing list  traffic, many already have their own CRM and others way simply be suspicious of the quality of service — before its utility as an association-wide tool is compromized? But say your congregation has opted it: what do you get?  The creation of CRM suggests use cases which conditions what kind of information is gathered, by whom, and how often and to what detail. There’s no such thing as a one-size-fits-all solution, which means that a common CRM is going to fit much better for some congregations than others. And I suspect the use-case in mind will be large congregations rather than small ones. Meaning that the small congregations, the ones least likely to adopt their own CRM, would be the ones least well served by a common UUA CRM.  Once you’re in, you’re locked in, and that changes the power relationship between congregations and the UUA.  Central databases are meant to be used for coordinated efforts. What’s to keep a development officer for the Friends of the UUA (or what-have-you) from running reports on your big donors for central development purposes? Is that really wrong? But is that really what a congregation agrees to?

And I haven’t gotten to the polity considerations, service quality, ongoing cost (including staff time in Boston and at home) or real or perceived overreach.

So we have a good, well-intentioned thought that needs the clear eye of review. Plainly, though, there are so many other programmatic and policy changes that would do more good with fewer resources that I think there’s little to debate.

Watching Unincorporated Nonprofit Association Act, 2014 edition

I’ve written before how state adoption of the Revised Uniform Unincorporated Nonprofit Association Act — look; RUUNA, a UU acronym with no Unitarian Universalist reference — can make church organization easier and polity more organic, rather than always borrowing the idiom of corporations or trusts.

It is being considered this year/session in two states: South Carolina (S 552) and Oklahoma (HB 1996).

(Links are to the Sunlight Foundation’s Open States project. I work for the Sunlight Foundation, but these opinions are mine alone.)

The free and open-source tools I use the most (that non-Linux users can also use)

After the call for tools, what can you get today?

Free software, as defined by the Free Software Foundation — their office is halfway between old 25 and new 24 — is

means software that respects users’ freedom and community. Roughly, it means that the users have the freedom to run, copy, distribute, study, change and improve the software. Thus, “free software” is a matter of liberty, not price. To understand the concept, you should think of “free” as in “free speech,” not as in “free beer”.

Open-source software is software which has code you can review; no hidden “black box” blobs. These aren’t the same thing, even though one often defends the other, and one kind of software is often the other. (But some defenders of one camp will also pick apart the other with a zeal that might be called religious. We won’t be getting into that here.)

In any case, both free and open-source software (together, FOSS) have defined meanings and a set of defined obligations though a family of licenses, the ramifications of which are not particularly clear to newcomers, thus I am suspicious when a non-software project is described as “free and open source” as fuzzy branding and jargon.

Here are the tools.

  • Firefox. Yes, the browser. You may be using it already, and it has developer tools and add-ons (not necessarily FOSS) I use. 
  • LibreOffice. Word processing, spreadsheet, presentation (a la Power Point) and other tools. Makes PDFs natively. I use it daily at work and home. A fork (offhoot project) of; the development community seems to have sided with it.
  • VLC Media Player. Plays just about anything you can throw at it, including streams and converts between formats.
  • Inkscape. A vector graphics editor, analogous to Adobe Illustrator. It’s what I’ve used to make the flaming nectarine, the double rings and other oddments.
  • KeePassX. Password creator and manager. Can’t live without it.
  • Brackets. An HTML editor, in rapid development. I’ve not created any sites with it — I don’t write sites from scratch anymore — but I have been noodling with it, and looks promising. A proper review when I use it more.

What’s needed across platforms? (Please comment if you know one that’s cross-platform and free and open-source.)

  • PDF reader (though there’s a plugin for Firefox)
  • a good low-distraction text editor (like iA for Mac; I use UberWriter)
  • FTP client (though there’s a plugin for Firefox) Filezilla, see comments.
  • color themer (can use certain web services)
  • photo manager
  • score editor (for that new hymnal)

Observations from the Unitarian Universalist website scan

Some notes from my quick survey of Unitarian Universalist websites. This speak to the broad middle in quality; I’ll be writing about the really amazing ones and some deeply problematic habits another time.

  • Unitarian Universalists sites make little use of web fonts, which is unfortunate as Google makes many families available free of charge. (This blog uses two.) Noteworthy exceptions:
  • And yet much too much Papyrus.
  • Congregation size (or influential pastor) is no guarantee of a high-quality site; some very small congregations punch above their weight (or some other sports metaphor.)
  • Unitarian Universalist sites are prone to be wordy — a shocker, right? — and many seem to value long lists of service and newsletter archives. On the front page. Why?
  • Many sites are not suited for mobile devices; I’ll keep harping on that one.
  • Lots of sites independently designed, I’m guessing locally; most of these are reasonably well designed.
  • There was an obvious shared effort in collaborative web development in past; will try to track down the initiators.
  • The “off center cross” appears on three Unitarian Universalist sites, all of Universalist origin:
  • Also, more use of the 2005 “flytrap chalice” than I would have guessed.
  • Lots of Weebly sites. Also some ones, but fewer Google sites that I would have anticipated. All, at a basic level, are free of charge.
  • Saw some Drupal installs — which will power the new site — even for churches too small to make the best use of it. Surely hobbiest interest; been there myself — and turned back.
  • Installation photos seem to be a thing as a front page image.
  • Massachusetts sites tend to feature the prominant meeting-house photo, and also tend to be better designed overall. Those areas with fewer Unitarian Universalists, in my impression, have poorer sites overall. That deserves a rescan.
  • Bookmark this resource for better print publications

    A couple of years ago I ordered a book called Typography for Lawyers in order to improve the quality of office communications. And it really helped, until I misplaced it. (I’m sure I’ll find it which behind a bookcase one day.)


    Today I saw this tweet which pointed me to Practical Typography, an abridged version of the book, now as an online publication. This is a wonderful development.

    So now I would like you to do two things

    1. Read the section “Typography in ten minutes.”
    2. And give some money to the author. (He recommends $5–$10, so I’ll give $7.50.) It may be the best money you spend all day.

    I’ll be referring to this book (and what I do with it) in coming weeks.

    Making sense of the last UUA Board meeting

    The news about the recent Unitarian Universalist Association Board of Trustees meeting, in UUWorld online magazine (“Consultant to aid impasse between UUA board, administration“) deserves plenty of attention. And you are welcome to leave comments here.

    I’m left wondering if the board is micromanaging, if the higher reaches of the management team is incompetent, or (what I think the real issue is) that the Association is governed by a corporate management style that is unsuitable to our policy, tradition and culture. And perhaps even good sense: if you’re given to self-punishment let me recommend you read the Board packets from the last several years. It’s impossible to think anyone not on the Board would have the time or stamina to be able to follow the process, and its product looks more like generating more process than say, new congregations, building loans, print or online publications, a new hymnal, religion education materials, etc. etc. etc. And need I remind anyone that the President is as much an elected official as the Moderator?

    Performance metrics, however well-loved in the nonprofit sector today, can lead staff to “work to the test” and (at their worst) can become a kind of performance art which steer the work of the Association staff away from practical work.

    Unlike Unitarian Universalist minister and blogger Tom Schade, I think the $100,000 the board reserved for a consultant is a valid point of discussion. (I agree about the high dudgeon, though.) $100,000 is unlikely to go very far in the world of organizational management consulting; and perhaps no do more than a few elections to change the dynamics in the board and administration. Do the remaining staff members, already with constrained budgets, wonder how seriously their work is taken? If I was one of the ten staff members who lost their jobs in the last round of layoffs the idea, that $100,000 worth of consulting would be a bitter bit of news. Congregational leaders, themselves under tight budgets, are asked to make the “fair share” to the Annual Program Fund, and I would wonder if it was being well used.

    In short, the UUA acts like the kind of legacy organization or corporation that persons my age and younger than I mock. (TPS reports anyone?) Losing the old headquarters building and the new regional structure — belt-tightening dressed as progress — will lessen long-cultivated emotional warmth to the UUA. This latest performance will convince “the next generation” (younger than me) that the best place to lead, to serve and to share resource may well be some place different than the current structures of the Unitarian Universalist Association. If you don’t like what you see, vote with your feet and support new ways.

    Churches are slow

    An office-mate — for those who don’t know, I’ve worked for the past decade in the non-profit field, not in churches — pointed out a New York Times article about how hard it is to make congregations green. (“Solar Panels Rare Amid the Steeples” by Kath Galbraith. But what lept out was the management issue, not the technology.

    Experts say that churches, like other houses of worship, face particular challenges in going green because of unusual architecture and an often slow decision-making culture.

    One of the biggest barriers to going green may be the way churches are run. With many volunteers involved, meetings can be sporadic and budgeting processes slow, according to Ms. Moorhead. “Churches aren’t running on the same kind of cash-flow model as a business,” she said.

    So when I saw the fun and quirky promotional video for the tea-positive, London-based “church for atheists” The Sunday Assembly, what lept out was the goal to help others extend their work “as soon as possible…” (1:08) I almost fell out of my chair. God bless ‘em (or something like that.)

    It’s Lent: the time when Christian churches put the focus on slowing down and reflecting. But I wonder when the speed-up-and-finish-the-job season will come; I have to think glacial behavior scares off good, patience-tested people.

    An old order of service at the old church

    A little Google-noodling lead me to this order of service from Universalist National Memorial Church in 1939. Yes, the service is on one leaf — very different than the norm (in most any church) today. Indeed,

    • an outline pasted in the hymnal
    • hymns and readings on the hynmboards, and
    • announcements from the lectern would produce a similar outcome.

    The difference is what the congregants then expected to receive, which is (I suspect) why today’s order of service idiom is essentially the same, bun only more elaborated. Add color, pictures, the full content of hymns today, say, … but is the printed bulletin any more useful or helpful to newcomers, who surely rely on it more than the old hands.

    Nineteenth century “new media” social networks: thoughts for Universalist history

    I found an article as a link (and example) of the author’s use of plain text to compose complex (in his case, academic) documents. I’m being drawn to this practice as a way to improve my productivity. (I now often use UberWriter, a GUI frontend application to pandoc, but will also use pandoc on the command line directly.)

    But that’s not what inspires this post. That example of academic history is about role of personal relationships to build trust in the water cure. There’s something about nineteenth century American fringe movements — like mesmerism, abolitionism and women’s rights — that makes me wonder if there are lessons for Universalist history. And I hadn’t considered personal repute so clearly. (Family ties were, and still are, key in historic Southern Universalist churches.)

    A thought.