We all love free stuff. I especially love Free and Open Source Software (FOSS) and during the 2000’s ran an entire missions organization off of FOSS. I don’t run quite as much FOSS today as it can be a lot tricker for me to scale and keep costs down for churches, but I do still love free software solutions.
Today I want to point out some of the most mature free Church Management Systems (ChMS) available to your church.
Best for churches with dedicated IT teams
Rock is a darling among church IT professionals. It is full-featured and completely open source. This means you can accommodate any ministry need with Rock. The issue is that it does take some IT expertise and experience to manage and customize Rock. Similarly, for it to be free, you need to host it yourself, which can be done on annual Azure donations, but will incur some form of cost either in the form of outsourcing or HR.
It bears mentioning that most of the churches I’ve worked with that are using Rock are very large or mega churches. I haven’t seen it very often in the average to large space (90~1,000 members), that’s likely due to lacking resources and hosting being expensive. For example, my company charges $100 to $250 to manage Rock RMS hosted on your church’s annual Azure credit donation which might be a higher cost and less of an ROI than a completely SaaS ChMS.
Best for church plants
Planning Center is not “free” per se, but it does have an unlimited free member database feature and a very low free usage tier for each of their addon features. This really sets it apart as a great ChMS for church plants and many average sized churches as even at a few hundred members it will provide a very good return on investment. It’s also very quick to implement.
There are a lot of things I love about Planning Center, but I do think it starts to provide diminishing returns as a church grows. It can also start to get expensive if you are heavy into things like small groups which expand, lots of volunteers, or end up with a massive children’s ministry. That being said, those are great problems to have and Planning Center will continue to scale up to even the largest churches, I would definitely scrutinize the ROI past the 2,000 in weekly attendance mark.
Best for hosting on LAMP
To be honest, ChurchCRM doesn’t really excel at anything. I really want to love it, especially given my background as a Linux admin because I can see how this ChMS would be able to be hosted on $5~$10 Linux virtual machines. The features are all there, it’s just clunky, doesn’t integrate all that well with other software, and is not nearly as solid of a time and resource investment as other options.
Keep in mind that, like Rock RMS, the average church won’t have in-house talent to manage ChurchCRM and will need to outsource management. That would most likely eliminate savings altogether which makes ChurchCRM even harder to recommend above the other options on this list. Still, it’s a commendable project that continues to improve and I’d argue is far better than not having a ChMS at all.
Best for low/no-code and measuring discipleship indications
While there are already churches that have taken advantage of using Microsoft Dynamics to cover their ChMS needs, I expect more to take advantage of it in the future given it does not have the same hosting costs or maintenance challenges we’ve discussed with self-hosted solutions like Rock RMS or ChurchCRM because it’s a hosted platform. It can also be rapidly customized and integrated with other SaaS solutions because it is part of the Microsoft Power Platform. Want to whip up a chatbot this afternoon that you can ask if someone attended small group last week? Piece of cake with Power Platform!
You can think of Dynamics and Power Platform a bit like Microsoft Access only completely internet based, completely tied into your Microsoft 365 account, and without all the old Access annoyances. Every church is eligible for several Power Platform donations, the most pertinent is 5 free licenses for Microsoft Dynamics. You can get those Dynamics licenses, and 10 licenses for Power Apps, through a Microsoft Cloud Service Provider (like Geekout Technologies 😉).
The Most Important Factor
As my grandad used to say “free isn’t always cheap.” The most important factor in your choice of ChMS, even before cost, should be whether or not it supports your discipleship efforts. You don’t just want a membership management system… your software shouldn’t act like your church is just a club… gross… your church is on a mission to grow disciples! It needs to support and help you drive your unique ministry calling forward and a certain amount of investment to do that is worthwhile.