Thursday, August 11, 2016

Should Churches and Ministries Embrace the Cloud?

My latest article is now live at

To embrace the cloud, or not to embrace the cloud, that is the question. Pardon the Shakespearean paraphrase, but there are a lot of questions swirling around churches and ministries as they consider using cloud services for everything from email and file services to Active Directory. There is also a disconnect between what the IT team says is best for the ministry and what church leadership thinks in terms of utilizing cloud-based services.

Cloud-based services offer many benefits over hosting your own services, but you’ll want to make sure you are using a reputable vender. It is important to look at the SLA, or Service Level Agreement, to ensure that your provider will keep their services running so your ministry effectiveness isn’t impacted. When you host your own email and/or file servers you have much more control over downtime because you probably have physical access to the server and the people running those servers. When you host in the cloud you may not have direct access to the servers so you are dependent on your provider to resolve any issues that create downtime.

Using a reputable host like Microsoft or Google will ensure reliability, but there are other companies that provide cloud based services for just about everything, and you want to make sure a provider’s reliability won’t negatively impact your ministry.

One of the biggest benefits of using cloud-based services is that they take a huge support load off the IT team. No longer are they responsible for maintaining and patching servers. If the servers are on your site then you may also have cooling, power or data issues to consider as well. What happens when the cooling units fail? Do you have sufficient battery backup or a generator for power outages? What happens when your Internet connectivity goes down? Moving to the cloud avoids all these issues as cloud-based services are hosted in large, commercial data centers where power, air conditioning, and data reliability are taken care of for you.

Cloud services can also play a huge role in your disaster recovery and backup strategies. Remember that disaster recovery and backups are not the same thing. Backups are for recovering data, while disaster recovery refers to how much time is necessary to get your services (like email, files, ChMS, etc.) back into operation after a disaster. By placing these services in the cloud you can enhance these strategies. If a natural disaster wipes out your on-site datacenter what would you do? In the church world think of what happens if a significant tornado or hurricane or earthquake (hopefully not all three at once!) hits your area on a Saturday night. Do you have a way to notify your congregation about your plans for Sunday morning? How fast can you get your email and ChMS back up and running?

By placing services like your email and ChMS in the cloud, the responsibility of keeping things running falls to your provider. A cloud-based provider will more than likely have your data spread out across servers and datacenters in multiple geographic locations. The same is true for your backups: they are no longer located on your site and you no longer have to relocate backup tapes to ensure your backups are spread out geographically. Most cloud vendors can also provide more backup space then many churches or ministries would be able to afford on their own. This means when the natural disaster hits your area, your services continue to operate. How many churches or ministries are able to provide geographic and hardware redundancy on their own? And if they are able, is it good stewardship of those funds?

By now you may be thinking to yourself that the cloud sounds too good to be true. “You mean I can place my data, my email, my files, my ChMS, my whatever in the cloud and not have to worry about natural disasters, power outages, cooling equipment failures and maintenance, internet outages, security patches, backups and disaster recovery all while saving the IT team a lot of time, effort, and money? Sign me up!” Hold on, not so fast.

Whether to move your ministry to the cloud may not be so obvious. While there are obvious benefits, there are also a few challenges. Many in the IT profession believe it is their job to protect the data and ensure it is kept safe. This is why I do not believe this is an IT decision, but rather a church leadership decision. The IT team should make recommendations based on their knowledge and experience, but the data belongs to the church, and the church leadership should decide how to keep that data safe, including how and where it is stored. For some that may mean moving to the cloud, for others, they may feel more comfortable keeping their data on-site and managing it locally.

There is also the challenge of the IT team. IT folks don’t like to give up control, and moving data and services to the cloud means they will be giving up some control. I strongly believe the benefits to embracing the cloud far outweigh any negatives, including any control IT might lose. For some IT professionals, especially those who have come out of the corporate world, this can be particularly difficult, but it’s one of the many ways ministry IT varies from corporate IT.

As an IT staff member in a ministry I view my primary objective to be constantly working myself out of a job. My goal is to equip and empower those I support for greater ministry effectiveness. I have no desire to attempt self-preservation by keeping data or services tightly locked up in my control to ensure the long-term security of my job. That level of selfishness only benefits the IT person, not the ministry. Most ministries run lean, so there is always plenty for the IT team to do. The more I empower others and work myself out of some jobs, the more I can focus my time on other areas that may require a specific technology skillset.

Every ministry has to decide where to spend their money. I would much rather use technology— including embracing the cloud—to save money so they can hire additional ministry staff as opposed to hiring additional technology staff to manage technology that could be moved to the cloud. Again, these are leadership decisions, but this is often where the IT team and church leadership may not see eye-to-eye.

So, should your church or ministry embrace the cloud? I think so—provided the IT team and church leadership have worked together to understand the issues and implement the cloud in a way that empowers the ministry for greater effectiveness.