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The pulpit and the Pentium: how West Angeles Church of God in Christ uses technology to save dollars and souls.

WHEN MOST CHURCHGOERS THINK OF SYMBOLS of divinity, a minister holding a laptop doesn't usually come to mind. But the sight of Pentium-packing preachers may soon be the norm. As some memberships expand into the thousands, churches are developing businesses and increasing their involvement in community development. Church leaders are relying on computers to help ensure that their business and community work saves dollars as well as souls.

If you didn't think the gospel could be spread over cyberspace, think again. The information superhighway may be coming to a parish near you. Just the thought might make more traditional-minded parishioners cringe, but the truth is, it's already happening. The largest churches in the country are the most likely places for acolytes and gigabytes to come together. Bishop Charles E. Blake, the pastor of West Angeles Church of God in Christ in Los Angeles, has aggressively moved to incorporate the use of technology in his church. Since 1991, West Angeles has invested nearly $300,000 in computer hardware, software and network systems.

Blake says the investment in cutting-edge technology allows his staff to serve the West Angeles congregation with optimal productivity and efficiency. He felt the choice was simple: Either try the technology, or be overwhelmed by the needs of the nearly 15,000-member congregation and the church's numerous business and community development ventures. "It's poor stewardship not to utilize every form of assistance available in doing the Lord's work," Blake explains. "It's like insisting on riding an oxcart when air-planes are available."

Some West Angeles parishioners have misgivings about having so much of their offerings spent on computers. But Donald Gridiron Jr., the church's chief financial officer and computer systems manager, says the system is needed to service the needs of the congregation.

Last summer, Gridiron and Sam Taylor Jr., West Angeles' computer systems supervisor, upgraded the church's Novell Network file server from a 386 microprocessor (CPU) to a powerful Pentium system at 60 megahertz. The random access memory (RAM) and CPUs of most of the desktop computers in the system were also upgraded. Now, 110 full- and part-time staffers operate a sophisticated system of 50 desktop and 15 laptop computers that rivals systems at some midsize companies.

Of course, in many ways, West Angeles is a midsize company. In 1994, the church reported a record $8.1 million in total revenues. The congregation's tithes and offerings accounted for more than $5.4 million of that amount. But church auxiliary groups, the church bookstore and tuition and fees from the West Angeles Christian Academy also made healthy contributions. In addition, West Angeles owns more than $14 million worth of land and other buildings that it is jointly developing and managing with the West Angeles Community Development Corp. And the church also owns West A Ventures Inc., an independently operated property management firm that provides jobs in the surrounding community of Crenshaw. The record-keeping for all this community outreach is done on the West Angeles computer system.

Since 1991, West Angeles has grown from 8,000 members to nearly 15,000, making it one of the fastest growing churches in the U.S. Many in the congregation are middle class, and there's also an affluent segment, which includes celebrities such as Magic Johnson and his wife Cookie, choreographer Debbie Allen and her husband Norm Nixon, the former NBA star, actor Denzel Washington and Los Angeles Police Chief Willie Williams. Meeting both their needs and the needs of the poorest in the community is no easy feat. The computer system makes that task easier.

Bishop Blake recalls how difficult it was to keep accurate records for tax and business purposes when he assumed leadership of the church 26 years ago. Back then, the church used Flexowriter typewriters/word processors. Using such equipment now is unthinkable. "With close to 15,000 members, the typewriter has become virtually obsolete," says Blake.

The church uses a powerful software package, Integrated Church Management System (ICMS), to handle most of its record-keeping. ICMS enabled the accounting department to prepare and mail out more than 50,000 quarterly and year-end statements to members and visitors who contributed to West Angeles in 1994. In addition, another program, Solomon III, generates more than 400 checks each month to pay the church's bills.

The computer system also stores files on each church member. These files contain a short biography, records of church contributions, membership in auxiliaries or church committees and a brief history of consultations with ministers. The built-in fax/modem in Bishop Blake's IBM Think Pad laptop allows him easy access to church records from anywhere in the world.

Instead of trying to remember the personal experiences of the entire congregation, Bishop Blake can familiarize himself with the needs of a specific member in minutes simply by calling up the file. And he doesn't have to be physically in the office. The Bishop says this type of flexibility "allows me and the ministerial staff to better serve each individual in our congregation."

Bishop Blake also prepares his sermons on the computer. Using a software program called PC Bible, he can do a computer search for the Bible verses he needs, then integrate them into the sermon he composes on the church's WordPerfect word processing program. Since PC Bible contains four versions of the scriptures, a concordance, a Bible dictionary, maps of the Holy Lands from various biblical time periods and a number of Bible references, the Bishop can retrieve biblical information much faster than he would by going to hardcover references.

"A new sermon typically took 15 to 20 hours to prepare," says Blake. "Using PC Bible, it now takes 10 to 15 hours."

Many others are benefiting from the church's computer system. Children attending the West Angeles Christian Academy (pre-kindergarten through eighth grade) use educational software on the computers and conduct research. Anyone studying for an associate's degree at West Angeles Bible College can also use the church's computers. The church runs The West Angeles Literacy Empowerment Team, the largest literacy program in Los Angeles. About 90 certified teachers use the church's computers to teach programs that include computer applications and clerical training, English as a second language and business and critical skills in preparation for employment. And important records from the church's community counseling center are also kept on computer.

There are financial benefits to the computer system as well. The church has spent $300,000 on its current system, but it expects to save much more than that over time. Like Bishop Blake, key staff members can use a modem to access files from anywhere. Untold dollars are saved every year because being absent no longer means being unproductive. Employees can now complete important work from home. Using e-mail has reduced paper use for internal memos, and sending and receiving faxes via computer has cut the cost of fax paper.

The church saves thousands of dollars producing its own annual reports, letterhead, Bible lesson manuals, church bulletins and other documents. Jeani Ruff, the church desktop publishing expert, estimates it would cost West Angeles $3,500 a week to have each of its weekly bulletins produced by outside sources.

The West Angeles staff also saves an average of $30,000 in consulting fees each year because they have the expertise and computer hardware to do the job themselves. For the church's annual business meeting, church members prepared a multimedia presentation featuring pictures and the architectural designs of West Angeles' planned 5,500-seat facility.

But before churches plunge into purchasing a high-tech system, Sam Taylor, the church's computer systems supervisor, cautions that all the savings and conveniences do not come without a price. West Angeles spends as much as an additional $35,000 on computer training each year. Without a highly trained staff, the technology is useless. Taylor also says that you must always be prepared to upgrade, which can cost thousands of dollars.

The existing computer system and discussions about future advancements, such as establishing Internet connections and videoconferencing for the surrounding community, may be trying the patience of some parishioners. A source who requested anonymity revealed that there are some who resent Bishop Blake's progressive style. They reason that a church is not a corporation; some even perceive West Angeles' large investment in technology as a form of showboating.

"The Bishop is trying to appease the Hollywood sinners," said the source.

Most parishioners, however, feel the positives of the system outweigh any negatives. Many in the congregation see the church's quarterly statements, for example, as a real plus.

"I love the quarterly statements. It's a tremendous benefit to have those records available to back up my tax forms," says Annette Robbins. Robbins also points out that if there are mistakes, "now they're corrected more quickly. We don't have to wait until the year ends."

Homebound parishioners say the increased mailings are helpful in keeping them up-to-date. And if you miss a particularly inspiring service, you can now catch it on videotape.

Bishop Blake maintains that in order for a church to be the best available resource for its membership, it should purchase a computer system that can meet the congregation's current needs and that has the capability to grow as the church grows. "Keep in mind," says Blake, "that technology can serve as a means to a spiritual end."


Sam Taylor, the computer systems supervisor at West Angeles Church of God in Christ, says most churches with memberships in the thousands require computerized systems for organization and record-keeping. Keeping track of parishioners' addresses, phone numbers, occupations, interests, birth dates and contributions is nearly impossible without one.

These are his suggestions for ministers considering purchasing a system:

1. Brainstorm with pastors and church managers to determine what you want the computer system to do.

2. Talk to a computer systems professional to determine what is possible and what isn't.

3. Remember that your needs will change over time. Purchase systems that are more advanced than what you need now. Don't try to make do with cheaper, less powerful systems.

4. Purchase brand-name equipment. It is generally more reliable and comes with a service warranty.

5. Arrange basic computer training for everyone on the software applications they will be using.

6. Plan to hire an in-house computer systems expert to keep your system upgraded and your consultant costs low.

Call the following organizations for the phone number of the chapter in your area that can assist you further: Black Data Processing Associates phone: 202-775-4301; Independent Computer Consultants Association phone: 800-774-4222.

For those who are more ambitious, the following books can help:

* Building Local Area Networks (third edition) by Patrick H. Corrigan; M&T Books, $39.95 phone: 800-488-5233.

* LAN Operating Systems by Rita Lewis; New Riders Publishing, $39.95 phone: 800-428-5331.

* Handbook of LAN Technology (second edition) edited by Paul J. Fortier, Intertext Publications/McGraw-Hill, $74.50 phone: 800-722-4726.

* MacWorld Networking Bible (second edition) by Dave Kosiur and Joel M. Synder; IDG Books Worldwide Inc., $29.95 phone: 800-434-3422.


* Integrated Church Management System by Omega C.G. Ltd., Lombard, Ill. phone: 800-443-3481.

* Solomon III by Solomon Software, Finlay, Ohio. phone: 800-879-0444.

* PC Bible by Biblesoft, Seattle, Wash. phone: 800-877-0778.
COPYRIGHT 1995 Earl G. Graves Publishing Co., Inc.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
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Author:Scott, Matthew S.
Publication:Black Enterprise
Date:Jun 1, 1995
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