A Pastor's Toolbox

There are many critical and essential aspects to being a church. Most basically, properly administering the ordinances/sacraments of baptism and communion, and having at least one biblically qualified teaching elder/pastor/planter dedicated to faithfully expositing the Word of God and shepherding new members. But this post isn't about those essentials. Today I'm going to be talking about one of the challenges most planters and church plant teams face when starting a new church: the toolbox.

When I say toolbox, I'm talking about things like software, hardware and practical methods for leading a service (and preparing for one) and working with people. When I started working through these issues and researching practical ways to leverage modern day tools available to me to save time and money, which most new churches are very limited on, I realized there isn't any simple one-stop-shop that fits everyone. This isn't going to be a comparison of similar products but rather the ultimate choice I made for each need based off the research I did. So hopefully my picks can help give others options and direction on some of these tough but important choices.

So let's begin!

Study and Sermon Preparation

Study habits vary. Where you are, how long you study for, what extrabiblical resources you use, etcetera. But what tools are helpful to get you these resources conveniently, accessibly, and affordably? As a bivocational church planter, time, cost, and accessibility were important factors. Here's what I went with:

Logos Bible Software - In my opinion Logos Bible Software by Faithlife Corporation is unmatched in their industry. This is the area I've done the most extensive research. There are other good platforms and services out there, but I found Logos to be the most robust, reputable, and (functionally) portable platform available. They have applications for Windows, Mac, Android, iOS, and Kindle Fire. As with most companies, the desktop applications are more functional than their mobile counterparts. However, I have found the mobile applications to be very well done and getting better with time.

Faithlife has an extensive library, as well as various sized and themed library packages available for purchase. They include everything from modern and historical books to lexicons, concordances, maps and more, not to mention all the features and study tools available in the software.

One of the biggest deterrents to Logos for many people used to be cost. I say used to be because recently Faithlife launched a new subscription plan that keeps you up to date on the latest software version and premium features, in addition to offering discounts on resources. I hate having to buy new versions of software I already own... so when this came out I jumped on it.

If you're the type that prefers everything in the cloud, they have you covered there too. Logos Cloud provides an (more limited) online version of the software as well as content that you subscribe to rather than purchase. I don't know much about this so I'm not going to talk about it...

Logos is flexible in the sense that you can buy books one-by-one as you want them or get crazy discounts for buying entire libraries of resources at once. I opted for the latter. I would have never had the money or space to have the theological library I do today. And it's all searchable and all fits in my pocket!

I run Logos on a dual monitor setup in my office on a Macbook Pro, use it on the run or to study in the living room or coffee shop with my iPad, and can pull it up on my Google Pixel at work or on the road. It goes with me everywhere.

Google Slides - The counterpart to my scratchpad (yes I still use paper for some things) and Bible study software is my actual outline that I both write up for preparation and also reference Sunday mornings for preaching. Though Logos also offers a sermon editor that has some pretty neat features, it doesn't work for my simple needs: a slide editor that is also portable and accessible like Google Drive. However, if you are a Power Point user, Logos may also work for you as they can export to that format.

I primarily chose to use Google Slides because I can use it on all of my devices and the latest version of my file is always available. It's also free! Native Google docs don't count against your Drive storage, so essentially you have an entire word processing suite available to you for free, forever.

My setup is simple with Slides. I do an outline, broken up into slides, which helps keep my focus as I preach through my sermon. I don't present the slides to anyone, they're private. I'm the only one that sees it. I just find flipping through slides while I preach an easier way to stay focused and not lose my position on my outline. This combined with being able to edit on the fly, anywhere, online and offline, from all of my devices... well it makes Slides a powerful tool for me. I've used it from the beginning.

I also plan on adapting Slides as we develop more pastors and teachers in our church. Sharing documents with Google is easy. We'll be able to comment on, review, or suggest edits on sermons between other pastors and teachers, which can be a great blessing in fellowship together and also a healthy method for guarding against error in a church.

To give one more plug for Logos though... If they give sermon editor some type of player/viewer on a tablet, I'd use it. It has better categorization and other features that save time but aren't currently worth adding another step to my studies to have to later export and reformat to Drive or PowerPoint.

I'll also mention, Google gives G Suite (or Google Apps - which includes Slides) free to nonprofits and churches. This also gives you free branded email for your entire team... which is pretty cool. The only hiccup is you have to be incorporated as a nonprofit... which I won't get into here... but explain here.

Music/worship

OnSong - Apple sometimes doesn't realize how influential their developers are. I opted for an iPad simply because it's the only way to get OnSong. OnSong is essentially a digital music binder. You can import PDF's, plug in existing music library services like SongSelect, or create your own text files. I opted for text files for functionality with Chromecast (which I'll touch on in a moment) and other helpful features. One of those features, which is one of my favorite, is Flow. Whether playing by yourself or in a band, one of the more common issues with playing is going to the wrong section... was the chorus or bridge next? Are we supposed to play the chorus three times here? ...that's not an issue with Flow. In the song file you write out your song flow by writing the first letter of the section you want to advance to next. "C" for Chorus, "V1" for Verse 1, etcetera. OnSong then puts those sections in your custom order from top to bottom. This not only keeps us from making mistakes while playing but can prevent singers and or musicians from becoming unnecessarily distracted from worship.  

OnSong + Chromecast + PageFlip Firefly -  Did I say "singers" and "musicians"? That must be nice! Here's another struggle for the church planter... often times we start off doing most things ourselves! Yes, I'm a one-man-band and worship leader. Sometimes my daughter plays along with the box drum but most of the time I lead worship myself, with my guitar... while being the "PowerPoint guy". That's why I love OnSong with Chromecast.

Since my song files are text based, OnSong can strip the lyrics only from the current section of the song that I am playing and display them on any device connected to a Chromecast. That means the lyrics follow my lead on the TV without anyone (or me) having to take a lot of work to put slides together and then control it during service. That's a huge plus. And that's why I ditched my Android tablet for an iPad. It was worth it.

The PageFlip Firefly comes into play for controlling the advancement of the sections of the song, hands-free. It's a foot pedal that connects as a bluetooth keyboard to the iPad and works with OnSong to "stomp" through the song sections. It's had some serious issues with connectivity in the past but those bugs have mostly been worked out over the years. I'd say 99% of the time I don't have any problems with it working. 1% of the time I'll have to either power cycle the pedal or close and reopen the application.

Needless to say, this combination of software and hardware has been indispensable for me.

People Management

You can't be a pastor without knowing and caring for the congregation. And for the beginning years where there might only be one pastor... that's a difficult and important role to fill alone. I've found software to be an extremely helpful tool for keeping track and up-to-date with people. In this area there are a lot of choices... but not a lot of great ones. The amount of research I've done with CRM software for churches is right up there with the time I took to get the best Bible study software/library. I will say this: all of them leave something to be desired. One of the most simple aspects I feel a CRM should have is tracking topics, conversations, and events related to people. Nobody does this well because nobody does it well on mobile. Pastors are busy. Bivocational pastors are even busier. The fact that nobody has developed a fast and simple and mobile way to track conversations and events for people is beyond me. Now, I have found software that does... but not well... or simply. I have a lot of things to remember. Adding multiple people requesting prayer, needing help finding a job, asking for information about a message or topic, remembering family members, birthdays, deaths, anniversaries... it goes on and on. I won't venture to say that a pastor should know everything about everybody in his congregation... however, I do like to know as much as I can about everyone and I feel some well designed software would be a huge blessing for many pastors out there to fill this gap. With all that said... here's what I went with:

Planning Center Online - People - I've said it before and I'll say it again: tight budgets! We're not currently financially supported by anyone outside of the church. Many church plants aren't! CRM software can be very expensive. Why do all the big churches get all the cool stuff!? Not anymore. That's why I'm giving big kudos to the PCO folks on this one. PCO People is free. Forever. That's really crazy... but also really smart. It's crazy because I can opt to use this really well designed software to keep track of as many people in my congregation as I want. They will never charge me for it. And it's not limited in any way. That's pretty awesome. With that said, it's also smart because PCO is a suite of software programs that are integrated with the others (Giving, Groups, Registrations, etc.). Each one has it's own pricing package depending on how many people you use it for. So PCO has good reason to hope you'll pay for their other applications since they already have the database of the people in your church. Like I said though, that's optional. But we're not going to talk about those today.

PCO People lets you track all the basics about your people, like birthdays, spouses, family members, important dates, children and their schools, how to reach them and more. You can group people into groups like "member" or "visitor" and put people into households for quick identification of family units. One of my most hopeful features of PCO People is called Workflows. Workflows helps me do some of what I griped about above but hasn't come fully to mobile yet, but you can add people to existing Workflows. Workflows lets you automate predefined steps for any given situation. A common and simple example is adding a new visitor to a workflow that reminds you to call them later. You can make this more complex through automatically adding certain people to certain workflows. Like if women who fit a certain age are added to PCO People, you can automatically have the ladies small group leader reach out to them. You can mix and match Workflows and they are really only limited to your imagination, how advanced and in depth you want them.

Another powerful feature of People (that's still free) are lists. You can create lists by any criteria you want. A certain age range, gender, grouping, involvement in church, or a mix and match of those and more. Like with Workflows, lists can be really powerful and automated and save lots of time (which is like saving money!). This is where those perks of using their other software might come in. For instance, you can make a list of people who haven't been to church for a few weeks or a list of people who volunteer for certain events. These lists can also be set to refresh automatically, pulling in new people who might not have previously fit the criteria of the list parameters. For instance, a list can be made up of every male over 65 years old. When Bob hits his 65th birthday, you don't have to add him manually nor remember to do so.

I recently saw a description of PCO online that categorizes it pretty well, "PCO makes most other CRM software seem like legacy software". While I found a few other well designed options out there... this claim is pretty accurate. PCO folks are coders at heart married to a good design team. Those are two essentials in any digital business today.

Microsoft Connections - Microsoft Connections is a "garage" product by Microsoft that helps fill the gap I described above with tracking people... kind of. It's only on Android and it's not a full release product. Connections tracks your phone calls/contacts and allows you to add notes to each call, organizing them by the most recent. What can be helpful with this is that when a phone call is coming in, your most recent note related to that contact pops up over the call screen (optionally). Alternatively, you can reference a note before following up with a contact, to see what you last spoke about. This is such a huge help for us forgetful type with much to remember. I'm hoping this is developed into a full product and not discontinued at some point... but time will tell. I've had a few issues with it, like reminders never working, and sometimes the little bubble not popping up for a call, but it gets my primary task accomplished: keeping notes on calls and conversations with people. Microsoft, if you're reading this (which you probably aren't... ha ha), fund this project and deploy it! I'm sure it would be a huge success.

Evernote - I'm going to make this one brief. But that's not because it's less important of a tool in my toolbox... it's just too flexible of a tool to write all the ways that I use it. It also fits in multiple categories. Basically, Evernote works as my catch-all notebook for everything from prayer lists to apologetic resources. If I find a great video I find helpful and want to possibly reference later, say, on a the topic of pornography or alcoholism, I send it to Evernote and tag it accordingly. I find a well written paper on Spiritual gifts. Evernote. Good quotes, Scripture references and/or articles for when Mormons and Jehovah's Witness come knocking... you guessed it. Evernote. This helps keep me prepared for many situations I encounter on a daily basis. Being able to search by word, tag and/or notebook helps me find what I need, fast. I don't want to have to defer to a google search in hopes of finding something I liked that I read or saw "that one time"... If I come across something I like or feel I might be able to use later, I throw it in Evernote to find quickly later.  

Well, that's my short list of essential tools. I could write a paper on each product I mentioned... but there's that whole time thing I talked about not having much of... Hopefully this can save you some! Feel free to mention any other resources you use in the comments. I'd love to hear about them!

Popular posts from this blog

Your Kingdom Come

Church Planting in a Small Town

Supreme Court Ruling on Marriage