Running a small-group ministry can be a chaotic business. Though having interactive small groups can be a critical step in helping people grow in their faith, it's often difficult to gauge how the groups are doing and keep up with what's going on. They tend to run autonomously, often with materials that change every few months, and with members who may not attend consistently. The result: headaches galore.
That's where small-group Web sites can help. Even if your groups are split into many different silos, with leaders who like to run their own ships, the tools we found are designed to cut through the clutter of trying to manage an entire ministry. Without all the extra features that a churchwide management system might entail, and without the complexity of a custom-made database, it's possible to run small groups much more smoothly, and see a tangible change in how the groups are run. In fact, we've never seen such a focused, highly useful batch of software tools to help in ministry. These programs really do help you make sure people get connected—and stay connected.
Groopik (groopik.com) is a new Web-based program that is part MySpace (for social interaction), part communication tool (for communicating to leaders and group members), and part group organizer. Its core feature is a simple, streamlined approach to managing your groups—or "groops," as Groopik calls them (and, yes, that odd spelling does get old after a while).
After creating an account, you can add members, assign the leaders, monitor attendance and even assign tasks to leaders, such as "pick up the books from church." If that's all Groopik did, it would seem like a simple add-on to the NSpire church management suite, or something you create yourself in FileMaker. The best features in Groopik are actually in the My Groopik tab, where small-group members can post messages to one another and discuss lessons, which is quite useful.
The Web interface and features in Groopik all seem like "version 1.0" in that they are presented without much fuss and are not terribly deep. There's no interactive online chat where two members who are logged into the system can talk in real time, and there's very little graphical flair. But the simplicity in Groopik means you may start relying on it for things such as knowing when groups are meeting and discussing the progress in each group.
Church Teams (churchteams.com) is one of the more established small-group management programs around. It has incorporated the feedback of over 200 churches to become the bread-and-butter system for larger ministries with many facets to their small-group approach. For example, Church Teams has online videos that can teach people all about the program—something that a smaller church would likely do in person with just a handful of leaders.
The main interface for Church Teams uses a "kitchen sink" system where most of the features are listed as hyperlinks. This can be a help and a hindrance. It's easy to find curriculum, reports and the e-mail addresses for other leaders. However, it can be daunting when you just need to start a quick group and plug in the members to get the ball rolling.
The main strength of the Web-based system is that it enables you to keep track of each group. There are reminders for leaders to submit attendance records, reports that show a great level of detail for materials and group members, and a feature that let's you send an e-mail within Church Teams to another member or leader. Still, none of the communication features are interactive or live like they are in MySpace.com. Church Teams has more features than Groopik, but the interface needs work. Right now, since it is just text, it is sometimes hard to figure out where to go or what to do.
Church Community Builder
All ministries struggle to stay on top of the activities in a church, and Church Community Builder (CBC) goes further than most to help you deal with this. Instead of just providing the core functions of managing groups, tracking members and posting information, CBC (churchcommunitybuilder.com) lets small groups run their own Web sites as a way to communicate. This means CBC has more depth than other tools and can help promote more interaction in your small-group ministry.
A few extras make it even more compelling, such as the ability to have multiple levels of authority in each group, such as assistants and leaders. It also has an attendance-tracking system that helps leaders see how many meetings members have attended, which days they missed and their attendance percentage.
This level of detail is housed in a relatively pleasing Web interface with links along the side of the screen and color schemes that make the program easier to use. Of course, with more complexity comes some frustration in learning the tool and the powerful options available. Groopik does a better job of splitting features into broad categories that run along the top of the screen, and because it has fewer features, seems easier to use—especially for those new to the system.
Overall, Web-based tools are easier to access, which means small-group leaders might actually use them and communicate about what is happening in your ministry. Each of the tools in this roundup offer a good set of features to keep you on pace and keep your groups from spinning their wheels. We think Groopik is the easiest to use and offers a good blend of management and communication features.
John Brandon writes for several publications, including PC Magazine and Laptop. His favorite devotional site on the Web is tmdevotionals.com.
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