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Wishing for MORE

At Northwoods, we use products from ACS Technologies for our ChMS. Northwoods has used ACS products for many years, and for over two years now, we have been ‘ministry partners’ at a level beyond merely customer-vendor. Our relationship has produced products that not only benefit us as a ministry but also ACS as a company. (This relationship has been solid enough that we’ve even been directed to 3rd party products to solve immediate needs that ACS wasn’t ready to address yet.) You can see the fruit of these efforts in the recent public release of Facility Scheduler. For months we described a user friendly and intuitive product built “under the hood” to be ready for future integration with other systems such as our website and digital signage. Darci Shelly and her team delivered something that simply knocked our socks off! The process wasn’t fast or painless … but our team and ACS’ team have been committed to the goal. The results are proving worth the effort. The ACS team has done an impressive thing beyond the coding or developing: they have sought to really digest and understand the needs of the our ministry. No small task given we often share foggy dreams that change from day to day.

In short, we love our relationship with ACS.

Our common problems

Having attended multiple Church IT RoundTables, it’s obvious to me that Northwoods’ technology challenges aren’t exclusive to our ministry. We church IT guys/gals often think we are dealing with unique issues, but in reality the same problems surface again and again across the country.

ChMS vendors as a whole do a decent job of creating tools to manage and  store data within their systems, but do a fairly poor job of extending that data to “real world tools.”  No church staffer or volunteer functions exclusively within the interface of the ChMS. Vendors must help ministries extend the data housed within their systems to other tools such as digital signage, public websites, intranets, even Microsoft Office.  I will admit this isn’t a small demand—every ministry in the world has its own special list of integration wishes. Nonetheless, smart vendors will find ways to make their products talk to the big players.

For example, almost all of our staff are very comfortable in Microsoft Outlook. That high comfort level leads to a problem: contact information kept in Outlook address books but not updated in ACS. Most of us IT types would rank this among the seven deadly sins. Here are reasons:

1. Multiple staff/volunteer people are doing the same work

2. They’re not equally good at it

3. They make up their own rules about how to do it

4. People in the congregation think their information is current because they told one person

5. It’s not

6. In times of crisis, this could be disastrous

7. In times of accountability, this could make us look foolish

8. As the “computer guys” it’s always going to be our fault

It really boils down to a stewardship issue. If we’re inefficient with our resources, if we work really hard but not really smart, then we’re not honoring God’s provision as well as we could. In fact, our misuse of the tools will create even bigger hurdles to overcome when we turn our attention to other functions such as online giving, event registration, small group management, volunteering, etc., that are dependent upon up-to-date contact profiles. Yes, we could “decree” that all users will use the tools in ACS for communicating. But wouldn’t it be better to let them use the tools with which they’re proficient, comfortable, and effective? Let the technology do the work of syncing Outlook and ACS. That’s what it’s for!

Potential path to a solution?

If we had a system to synchronize our ChMS database and our Exchange Global Address List, we could eliminate the contact information problem as it relates to Outlook (and perhaps other oddball GAL clients like Entourage, gasp). Should this connectivity be built in to the ChMS or at least available as an option? Is the GAL the most appropriate place for this? Will this be two-way with the ability to make change requests from within Outlook?

Do any of the ChMS products out there already offer this level of sophistication? ACS, will you be the first and best? What about other ACS client customers, How can we team up to help ACS help us do ministry better?


  • Reply David Szpunar |

    I could only be happy with Chris’ suggestion if the public folder contacts could be inserted into an email using the address list drop-down selection method (where you click on To: in an email and select the list and then the contact(s)). I still can’t find a way to even do this with shared contacts from another user (where an Admin wants to access her pastor’s contacts this way).

  • Reply Shawn Ross |

    We’re not using Google Apps, and I LOVE the idea of this, but have a few concerns/things I would need addressed:

    1. Does the client look to the user’s Outlook contacts listing, and then use that as the list of “contacts” to check against, or is it the other way around (i.e. ACS-> Outlook)?
    2. What management functionality will this involve? Can I manage it’s behavior at a “global/domain” level, or am I stuck having to configure it for every user’s logon.
    3. Can this tool be used with open standards? i.e. How does it work with Google Apps? How does it work with other e-mail/service providers? If the product is extensible via open standards, this may take some of the burden off of ACS, along with allowing high-ability users/IT people to add functionality.

So, what do you think ?