This week we are featuring a series of articles by Pastor Jamie Hart on using technology in ministry. 

By Jamie Hart 

Cloud Computing?

I’m a Microsoft guy for many reasons—not the least of which is the fact that, as a software instructor (I’m bi-vocational), the MS Office applications help me pay the bills! But when it comes to cloud computing, Microsoft is playing catch-up. Their cloud version of Office was just released earlier this month, where Google Docs has been around since 2006. Being curious about the cloud computing craze, I recently took a pretty drastic step. I abandoned MS Outlook and moved over to Google Apps. That was over a month ago and I can now say that the move has put me on cloud nine! 

In case you don’t know, Google Apps is Google’s collection of web-based office tools and is, in my opinion, the epitome of cloud computing. With Google Apps you can manage your e-mail, calendar, and contacts, and even create office documents with an online word processor, spreadsheet program, and presentation program. It also allows for Site creation similar to MS Sharepoint. With Google Sites, you can create document libraries, discussion pages, and project task pages, among others. 

Cloud computing itself has a number of benefits and drawbacks. However, an exhaustive discussion of cloud computing is not the scope of this post, and I would suggest reading some of the helpful articles online. You can also e-mail me with any questions and I’ll do my best to help! 

After operating with Google Apps for several weeks, here is my quick review. Let’s hit the positives first. 

Positives

Cost

Microsoft applications and operating systems are expensive, and server hardware could easily cost thousands of dollars. If a church purchased MS Office 2007 for each client, plus exchange server, plus SharePoint and SharePoint Server, plus a server capable machine . . . we are talking an incredible amount of money! This is simply outside the budget of most churches. Google Apps (Standard Edition) is FREE. That’s right, I said FREE. The only cost for us was purchasing a domain name ($65 for two years, if memory serves me correctly). With the Standard Edition, you get 50 users, and each user gets 7.5G of space for e-mails and a little over a Gig for documents. You will get access to mail, calendars, contacts, documents, and sites. All for free. Hard to beat. 

Accessibility

By far one of the biggest benefits has been the ability to access my files from almost anywhere. I forwarded all my normal church e-mails to my Google Apps site and, using Google Email Uploader, I moved all my old Outlook e-mails over as well. This also moved all my contacts! I used Google Calendar Sync to upload all my appointments from Outlook to Google Calendar, which also keeps them both up to date. So now if I’m at home and need to make a change to my calendar, I simply log on to our Google Apps site and make and appointment. In fact, if I happen to be browsing the new toys at Best Buy and get a call changing an appointment, I simply meander over to the laptops, access the Internet, and make the change (for example . . . not that I’ve actually done this . . . well . . . maybe). You get the idea! Incredible accessibility. 

But it goes beyond just e-mails and calendars. With Syncplicity (another free website) I can keep my Google Docs and the documents on my laptop in sync. You know, for those times when that great sermon illustration comes to mind, but you are at home and your laptop is at the office. Just log on, find the document, and make the change. The next day when you get back the office and open the document locally, presto—it’s updated! This also gives me two secure, online backups. It’s a beautiful thing. 

Collaboration

Sharing calendars and files with Google Apps is easy. Simply type in the username of the person’s calendar you want to see, and there is it! That easy. Share documents with just a few clicks as well. Documents can be shared internally and with anyone else. You can set people to be viewers (read only) or collaborators (editing access). And Google Docs automatically keeps a revision history to “undo” any unwanted changes someone has made to a document. 

Using Google Sites, you are also able to create document libraries. Google now allows you to post almost any file type to the libraries. So share Word files and PowerPoint files and PDFs—all organized in an easy-to-access library. 

The accessibility has the potential of greatly improving collaboration with a mostly volunteer team. In other words, my Properties Team leader is one of my deacons, and he doesn’t have an office here at the church. We can collaborate on files, share calendars, and even set up chat meetings. All we need is access to the Internet. 

Searching

Another one of the biggest benefits for me has been the searching capabilities. Searching for e-mails and files that contain specific words can take lots of time in the Microsoft world. But with Google Apps, that process is very quick. This should come as no surprise. It’s Google, after all! But I’ve been impressed with the speed of searching for documents and e-mails. 

That’s the positive. Some areas need improving. 

Improvements Needed

Google Docs

Though the applications are great for light document creation, they are nowhere near as powerful as MS Office. Google Spreadsheets can do formulas, but forget pivot tables and pivot charts . . . or Goal Seek . . . or a lot of other functions. The Google word processor will allow you build a sermon, but forget about adding captions or using the incredible bibliography functions in Word. And to be honest, I was most disappointed with the presentations software. It’s okay, but nowhere near as powerful as PowertPoint. On the plus side, Google is constantly making improvements, and these apps will only get better. But for now, it’s just not the same. 

Tasks

Another big disappointment for me was the tasks. I use Outlook tasks every day and really enjoy the ability to drag an e-mail over my tasks button to create a new one. Though the same thing can be accomplished in Google Apps (More Actions button), you don’t have all the options you do in Outlook. The tasks function in Google Apps is pretty basic. It needs improving. 

Conclusion

While Google Apps is not perfect, the positives outweigh the negatives. And for a small church, it could be an effective solution for managing the ministry with staff and volunteers. Setting up was a little technical and may require some assistance if you are not familiar with managing a domain. (In those cases, send me an e-mail and, given the time, I’d be willing to help.) I’m not quite ready to jump off the Microsoft bandwagon yet, but I’m enjoying the ride over at Google! There’s room if you would like to hop on! Jamie Hart is the pastor of Cornerstone Baptist Church in Elkhart, Ind., and is an MCAS certified software instructor.