I am an Elder (lay leadership) at Immanuel Lutheran Church And School, located here in Palatine IL (a suburb of Chicago). In both our church and PK-8th grade school, we have fully embraced both Highrise and Backpack. To this powerful duo, we have added Formstack (formally Formspring), which is a web-based “Forms” resource. Here’s the story...
At our church, we have 13 Elders. Our elders are closely allied with our Pastor in doing ministry and keeping in contact with our members. Each of the Elders are assigned a subset of our membership, to whom they are responsible for keeping in touch, forming relationships and gathering feedback for the leadership. Reaching for such a goal requires an organized approach that fosters continuity, visibility, discipline and self-accountability. In searching for a viable solution, we had many requirements, not the least of which were security, confidentiality, reliability, remote-access, ease-of-use and many functional requirements. We finally stumbled upon the perfect solution; Highrise.
We securely exported our church’s ACS database (a commonly used church database), processed and formatted the data using a custom–designed Excel spreadsheet, and then uploaded the resulting contacts into Highrise. Of critical significance, this spreadsheet allowed us to capture and maintain contact information, including birthdays, anniversaries, email addresses, phone numbers etc, from our church database, and automatically include them in the Highrises’ Background Information frame for each contact! We now have the ability to securely and responsibly maintain and (when appropriate) share our contact conversations. Higrise’s permissions features allow us to control access, limit visibility and protect confidentiality, as context requires.
We have begun using Highrise’s “Tasks” feature to contact members on their birthdays, wedding anniversaries, baptismal anniversaries and on the anniversaries of the death of loved ones. Tasks are also used to schedule periodic “maintenance” contacts or to schedule special follow-up contacts as appropriate. It all works perfectly.
But wait, there’s more! We also are very heavy users of 37signals’ Backpack. Here, our problem was that we had dozens of ministries operating within the church and school. All of them had a need to communicate their missions, goals, resource needs, accomplishments, pictures, how to join in their ministry, etc. Yet few (well, OK one) of them were web-savvy enough to do anything about it. Although we have a Director of Technology on staff, his time is always in very heavy demand. The time required for dozens of ministries to each explain what they want to communicate on our church/school website(s) would be overwhelming. All of these ministries knew what they want to say, but they didn’t have a good, efficient and timely way of saying it.
The answer turned out to be Backpack. We now have dozens of pages, each one of them is literally “owned” by a ministry, a board, or a teacher in our school. It takes only a couple of hours to show them how to use Backpack... even for people who initially tell you that they “don’t do computers.” Many of them report that they have found their “page” empowering. Updates to these ministry pages occur daily, without consuming even a minute of our church’s staff. Each of the ministry Backpack pages, are transparently linked-to and accessed from our church’s main website page. People clicking on these links, scarcely even know that they have left our “normal” web site.
The third part of our church solution-trilogy isn’t a 37signals product. It is called Formstack. Both 37signals and Formstack web-based products have the same look-and-feel. Both share a similar passion in what they do. Both companies are keenly sensitive to the balance between ease-of-use and providing the features/tools needed to deliver a viable solution. Formstack is the perfect answer the question, “How do you easily create an on-line form capability, that allows your web viewers to register, volunteer, request a contact, ask questions, fill out surveys etc?”
Putting it all together
So.... these three products create a formidable solution to the challenge of managing and delivering effective ministry. Highrise, allows you to manage your contacts, conversations, maintain continuity, recognize key events in the lives of your members and schedule regular “member contacts.” Highrise enables you to make sure that your members know that you care about them. Backpack, places the power of ministry into the hands of those who love, care about and actually do their respective ministries. Lastly, Formstack provides the engine for easily and quickly creating and handling on-line forms and surveys. It allows each ministry to view and export their on-line submissions, and automatically (yet optionally) handle confirmation and notification emails.
These three products form a powerful combination that far exceeds the power of any one of them. Here’s an example. A person browsing our normal web site notices a link regarding the Elders. They click on it and they are transparently taken to the Elders’ Backpack page. On that page, they realize that they have a question and then notice our “Engage An Elder” link. They click on it and are immediately taken to our “Engage An Elder” form. They complete the form and submit it. Formstack then sends a confirmation email to the submitter and a second email to the Elders. That member’s assigned Elder goes to the person’s contact in Highrise and then clicks on the “email link” for that member. The Elder composes the response to their question and sends it. Because the email was originated in Highrise, it also sends a BCC (Blind Carbon Copy) of the message back to the Highrise server, who identifies it as an email associated with that contact. Highrise then places the contents of the email into the chronological comment “stream” of that member. Sweet!
Can it get any better? Well yes... it can. Highrise does Tags. That’s how a specific Elder can almost instantly find which of his members are ill, grieving, hospitalized, getting married, have a praise to share, are seeking a job, etc. It’s easy using the “multiple tag” filtering. Contacting people at such critical times of need is a powerful way (and an open window) to form relationships and to ensure that your members know that their church deeply cares about them. Can we do better? Most certainly. Are we perfect? No way, but we are taking major steps forward through Highrise.
Teachers use Backpack to bring parents into the classroom
In addition, we are doing a much better job of communicating with our church members, our prospective members and our school’s families through the power of Backpack. In particular, almost every teacher in our pre-school through 8th grade maintains their own Backpack page. Can you imagine how compelling and attractive it is to the parents of the children in those classes? They can for the first time learn about and even see what is happening in their child’s classes, almost in real time. The teachers not only post pictures, but even videos too, all with a near-zero impact on our technical staff. It’s amazing and we believe it is a competitive advantage in the school marketplace. Ultimately, our goal is that every major ministry and board will own its own Backpack page. We’re not there yet, but we are making great progress. Our Senior Pastor is not only a fantastic Pastor spiritually speaking, but is also a savvy administrator. He recognized the power of these tools in about 10 milliseconds. It was the easiest justification and quickest buy-in to a major process change that I’ve ever experienced! It is indeed a compelling solution.
So that’s a thumbnail sketch of what we are doing at Immanuel. Also, of special note to church leaders... now that we have all of this figured out, we at Immanuel Lutheran are interested in assisting and sharing our experiences with other churches. Indeed, please consider this a zero-cost offer, in the name of advancing the Kingdom. All of us involved with the implementation and use of these tools at Immanuel would welcome your contact and inquiry. We look forward to your comments/response. Interested? Give a call to Michael Marzelli, Director of Technology, at (847) 359-1549, or send Michael an email at: marzelli[at]ilcp[dot]org.
Are you part of a church or other religious organization that uses a 37signals product in an interesting way? Let us know.