A high-tech power to track members

On any given Sunday, about 5,000 kids come into the children's ministry at Prestonwood Baptist Church in Plano, Texas.

Families form lines and check in at 32 kiosks spread among the church's six entrances, swiping “Quick Passes” at the self-service machines. Parents register the kids for classes, then a kiosk spits out sticky name badges for both parent and child with identifying information: child's and parent's names, classroom and any food allergies.

About a dozen of the kiosks have volunteers standing by to help families who have forgotten their digitized cards.

Badges in hand, parents walk their kids to one of 85 classrooms for a Bible-focused story hour, playtime or worship before they themselves head off for services in Prestonwood's main sanctuary.

“This was essential to us,” Prestonwood executive pastor Mike Buster said of the technology to ensure children's safety. “Volunteers are at every entrance making sure everyone has a badge.”

Prestonwood relies on special computer software designed for churches to keep track of who is where – not just which children should go home with which parents.

Beyond keeping kids safe, congregants get a virtual town square where they can go online to request counseling on a variety of spiritual and personal matters or sign up their children for Bible study or sports leagues.

Buster said the software helps church leaders retain a sort of intimacy among the 27,000-member congregation.

“We want to make Prestonwood not feel like a big church but a small town,” he said.

To build its ecclesiastical nerve center, the church turned to Fellowship Technologies.

The Irving, Texas, firm grew out of tech efforts at a church in Grapevine, Texas, in 2004 and has bloomed into a data and software company catering to 870 churches in 46 states and eight countries.

Using the Internet, Fellowship Tech helps churches digitize operations just like a secular business would – from wristbands for children in day care (think hospitals) to tracking which members stop attending (try dropping your cable service) to monitoring tithing levels (just as the American Cancer Society might contact someone who stopped giving). of Edmond, Okla., is another Fellowship Technologies customer.

The church ministers to 19,000 people through 12 campuses and the Internet. With such a far-flung congregation, it's vital to keep track of new members by archiving the cards they fill out detailing interests and contact information.

“It keeps people from slipping through the cracks,” said Suzy Crisswell, systems administrator for the 12-year-old church. “They will get a phone call, saying … ‘Thanks for visiting.' It makes people feel important and wanted.”

For users, Fellowship Tech's software helps lessen the perception that members often become anonymous in megachurches.

“Big churches can do big things,” points out Jeff Pelletier, the company's vice president for sales and marketing. Churches “can use technology to care for you even better.”

What would become Fellowship Tech got its start in 1999, when Fellowship Church developed a program to meet its own technology needs.

By 2003, the church decided to spin off the program and called on then-member Jeff Hook, a former executive at Farmers Branch, Texas-based i2 Technologies Inc., to help.

Raising $2.5 million from outside investors, he became the newly minted company's chief executive.

Churches have long had some administrative functions; in the past, they could be handled by ledgers and contribution statements, said Phill Martin, deputy CEO of the National Association of Church Business Administration in Richardson, Texas.

But in the 52 years since his organization's founding, Martin said, churches have had to become more businesslike.