Five considerations for migrating your church or non-profit organization to Linux

Minister and Linux administrator Don Parris shares advice from his experiences with migrating churches to Linux.

Churches will face different considerations, depending on their growth stages and financial situation. Small churches running Windows and MS Office are in the best situation to migrate. The larger the church, the more complex and costly a migration becomes. Even so, a church may discover that migrating may still cost less than upgrading.

1. Financial stewardship is one consideration. As recipients of donated funds, churches have to make the best use of funding they can. Even though all churches are, by definition, non-profit organizations, and therefore eligible for hefty discounts offered by proprietary software vendors, many churches are not 501©(3) (a tax designation given to qualified charitable organizations) and hence not qualified in the eyes of the vendor.

We're not a 501©(3) church, and therefore find it makes more sense to deploy Linux. The money we save can be used to help develop our computer training ministry further, or feed hungry families. Churches with a heavy reliance on one operating system might wait until their next upgrade cycle. At that point they should investigate thoroughly which platform makes the most sense.

2. Security and stability present another issue. Churches require at least the same level of security and stability offered by other systems. They hold a lot of sensitive information about people and their families, counseling records and so forth. If someone raided our database and discovered my wife's birthdate, I'd be in trouble! Linux offers superb security, although the administrator better keep a tight ship.

3. Churches should consider their current software situation as well. As stated above, small churches could migrate to Linux easily. Churches that run proprietary church management software will need to consider how to get their data from the old application to the new one. I'm guessing that most vendors offer the ability to export data to plain text files. A church can then upload the text file into one of the open source databases, such as MySQL or PostGreSQL. In my experience, it makes no sense whatsoever to lock yourself into a proprietary system.

The open standards supported by Linux and most Linux applications may also give churches reason to migrate. For instance, Internet Explorer doesn't handle HTML/CSS as well as it should. OpenOffice.org can open MS Office files, while MS Office cannot open OpenOffice.org files. I recently ran into a single mother running Star Office 5.2 on Windows. She didn't know she could save files in MS Office format.

4. Timing is an important factor. Do you migrate all at once, or gradually? Churches need not migrate all at once. They can take the gradual path. This helps to develop in-house experience and confidence among some users, who then turn around and help the others. Of course, you may have a special application that requires your current OS. In that case, the gradual approach makes sense. Also, Linux's ability to work with Windows makes it ideal for creating a heterogeneous environment.

5. Churches should look within their congregations for folks with the technical skills to play the administrator's role. The office staff will not need much (if any) training to migrate. On the other hand, you will need some patience and discipline to learn Linux administration. In most cases, even that is not too difficult -- simply a matter of editing some text files. Look, if I can go from not knowing how to turn on a computer to installing and configuring Linux, I think anyone should be able to use it.

Linux is an excellent choice for the new church plant. The now-infamous study for which Microsoft paid (which underlies its "Get the Facts" campaign) states explicitly that new businesses would benefit tremendously from starting out with Linux. That holds true for churches as well. For a minimal investment, the church gets a robust, stable, secure operating system with a plethora of application software to boot.


Don Parris is an ordained minister and an advanced, mostly self-taught user of Windows and Linux. He is the author of "Penguin in the pew" and is presently developing the CHurch ADministration DataBase (CHADDB) using MySQL and PHP under SuSE Linux. He is also looking for application developers to work on some church management and Bible study software for Linux.

Read more about "Penguin in the pew" in this article.

Do you have a tip on migration and integration? Send it to the editors, and we'll return the favor by sending you a book on Linux administration.

This was first published in June 2004
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