Fairly soon in the life of any congregation, it becomes obvious that spreadsheets aren’t sufficient for keeping track of who completed the new member class, whether anyone followed up with last week’s visitors, or who signed up to serve this week. That’s where a church management software (ChMS) comes into play. There’s a wide variety of systems to choose from; each with its own specialties and functions. In this review of Planning Center, my goal is to introduce you to its features and offer a few suggestions as you decide whether this could be the best ChMS fit for your church.
Overview of Planning Center
Planning Center consists of online applications a church can use individually or as a whole for a complete Church Management System (ChMS). Each module integrates with the People module as the central aspect of the overall database. Think of People as the hub and the other modules as the spokes of the wheel.
Planning Center started twelve years ago with the Services app to facilitate coordinating volunteers, schedules, worship music, and other details for weekly services. From there, they’ve created additional apps to handle most functions of a standard church management system. The key function not included in Planning Center is general ledger accounting. While you can maintain giving records within the Giving app, you can’t use Planning Center for accounts payable, payroll, or financial reporting.
Benefits and Features of Planning Center
The People module is included regardless of what other modules you decide to use. In this module, you can record each person’s involvement with the church, order background checks, and track details such as baptism dates.
Within the People module, you can create forms for volunteer signups, becoming a member, collect visitor contact information, prayer requests, and more.
Once you’ve collected information about someone, you’ll want to follow up with them. When Joe provides his information as a first-time guest, you can create a workflow process in People to send him a welcome email, invite him to a welcome luncheon, or see if he’s interested in joining a small group.
Sometimes you need to see a list of everyone who signed up to serve but hasn’t completed volunteer training yet. You can run that report from within the People module. From there, you could send an email to everyone on that report asking them to sign up for the next volunteer training opportunity.
The purpose of this module is to check children and volunteers in for weekly services. For new families, you can enter their household information from a mobile app or desktop computer. Families who already in the system can check in using a phone number or have church staff/volunteers check them in by looking up their name in the system.
3 Types of Check-in stations:
- Manned Station – Staff or volunteers check people in using a mobile device or desktop/laptop computer.
- Self Station – Returning families can check their children in using a phone number or by scanning a barcode from the Church Center app.
- Roster – This check-in station displays a list of children assigned to a specific classroom.
Once checked in, you’ll print a security label for the child’s guardian along with a name tag for the child. For families with multiple children, the guardian receives a single security label for all of the children he/she checked in. This helps your team make sure only the approved guardian picks up that child after service.
For volunteers, you can have them check in upon arrival to the service they’re scheduled for that week. You can also require a clear background check for volunteers before they serve using Planning Center’s People app integration with Checkr.
Additional features include the ability to run attendance reports to see who you may want to follow up with soon. You can also use Check-ins to check people into an event or to check in volunteers.
This app provides donors with multiple options for giving including online, mobile app, text to give, or cash and checks. Donors can also log into Giving to view their donation history, set up recurring giving, or establish a bank transfer.
From an administration standpoint, the Giving dashboard provides a way to see donations for a specific time period, for a particular fund, or other filters. Those involved in recording cash and check donations can enter that information into Giving (they have the option of using a check scanner to reduce data entry). They can also export donation data into a CSV file to upload into the church’s general ledger software as needed.
With Groups, you can create a directory on the church website of groups available for people to join. You can categorize them into various types such as “Bible Study”, “Small Group”, “New Member Class,” etc. Including a detailed description of the group along with information regarding how often it meets, where it meets, and other details will help people choose a group that’s the best fit for them. Someone can sign up for a group on the website, then the group leader will receive a notification about that new signup. Group leaders can also track attendance with Groups. Those with administrative access can run reports to see overall attendance or membership by group.
A big aspect of planning events is how to let people register and, when applicable, pay for an event. In Registrations, you can create an event and set up attendee types (volunteer, attendee, student), pricing, and additional items such as buying a t-shirt.
Participants can go to the church website to register and pay for an event. The event manager can send emails to participants based on attendee type or another category. The event manager can also assign people to groups for an event (by age, table assignment, etc.).
Registrations integrates with Check-ins, so you can quickly check people into the event with the Check-ins app.
When you’re trying to coordinate usage of various rooms within the church facility, maintenance activities, and other efforts, you quickly get to the point where a spreadsheet isn’t sufficient. The Resources app is where you can track activities for each room, maintain an inventory of room resources (tables, chairs, projectors, etc.), and produce a church event calendar.
You can enable the facility manager to approve or reject room and resource requests, establish custom questionnaires for those requesting a room to complete (room setup, catering requested, etc.).
You can share the event calendar on the church website, let people subscribe to the calendar, or post it on a tablet or TV monitor.
1 – The Event Calendar shows the date of this event highlighted in red.
2 – The Details section shows the information you added initially, as well as any pending requests.
3 – The Reservation Block reflects the time and requests made on the previous page.
4 – As people make changes to the event, they will be reflected in the Event Activity section.
5 – Add any files pertaining to this event.
The Services app has two key functions – planning and scheduling.
Within the Services app, you can create a plan for each service that includes the song list, a list of who volunteers for that service, rehearsal times, and more. You can also upload songs you’ll use during worship, translate a chord chart into various keys, and manage the overall song library. Musicians can download chord charts, listen to an audio playlist for the upcoming service, and view the service order.
In addition to planning out which songs you’ll sing next Sunday, you’ll also need to schedule musicians, greeters, ushers, and other volunteers for that service. That’s where the scheduling side of Services comes into play. You can create various teams (greeters, parking lot, childcare, ushers, worship team, and more), invite people to sign up for a specific week, schedule volunteers for a set rotation (every other weekend), and receive confirmations from volunteers. Volunteers can block out dates when they won’t be available, confirm or reject serving on a particular date, and receive communication from the team leader about an upcoming service.
With Music Stand, your worship leader can create a custom songbook and share it with the worship team. This can include notes within the sheet music, arranging pages, and links to audio files. Once the setlist for a service is ready, your worship team can turn pages on a mobile device by swiping, scrolling, or stepping on a foot pedal. To use Music Stand, your church would also have to use the Services app.
Workflow and Usability of Planning Center
Planning Center is fairly straightforward, although with any new application there is a learning curve to getting started. Assuming your church already has a church database, the first step would be to import the names and contact information from that database into Planning Center’s People application. Since the People module is free, start here and get everyone imported into People before you move forward with other applications.
The user interface is faitly intuitive. Regardless, to take full advantage of Planning Center’s functionality, you’ll want to watch the Planning Center University videos for each application you decide to use. Investing the effort to set up each application well from the start will make it easier for everyone to use the system. This is a great time to think through your processes including children’s check-in, small group sign up, event registrations, and guest follow-up. Document how you want those processes to work (even if that’s different from how it works today), then watch the corresponding application’s video to learn how to set up those workflows in Planning Center.
Another usability factor involves what other systems Planning Center integrates with already. Here you can view all of Planning Center’s current integrations. This includes items such as MailChimp, various online giving platforms, applications for worship leaders, and more.
User Satisfaction and Comments
Planning Center has an overall 4.5 out of 5-star rating at Capterra. Most users like how well the various applications integrate with each other and the usability of the tool. The complaints tend to be mild and center around a lack of quick innovation and needing to look deeper into the system to learn about each feature since there are so many.
I’ve been in church music ministry for over 14 years now. I’ve tried and evaluated several pieces of software over the years. I always came away with the sense that software packages certainly worked for someone, but I would have to change several things to fit into most of them. That was until I found Planning Center. During my first contact with the product, I was thinking, “Who has been spying on me and conspiring to make my work simpler?” – Kevin M., Worship Pastor
Planning Center has a large library of videos to help you see how the apps work and for training purposes. Here is an overview video of the whole system.
Planning Center provides a few ways to receive education and assistance. You can check their FAQ page, watch detailed training videos from Planning Center University, read a user guide, contact their support team, or join the Planning Center Slack community. They state that their typical response time is within an hour during regular business hours. They also provide some weekend support as well.
Planning Center is 100% online, so it doesn’t matter whether you have Windows, Mac, or both at your church. Their mobile apps are available on iOS and Android. The Check-in app works with Dymo, Zebra, Brother, and Citizen label printers.
Pricing is where Planning Center can be a bit confusing. The pricing is per application and based on volume for that application. Your church could use only People (which is free) and Check-ins for 150 “Daily Check-ins” if that’s all you need for now. That flexibility is what makes it complicated if you choose to use most or all of the Planning Center applications. Fortunately, they provide preset plans based on church size to help you choose the best fit. You can start with the plan for a “Medium Church”, then deselect one application and change the volume for another application. Pricing can range from free to nearly $1,200 per month, depending on volume and how many applications your church decides to use.
Planning Center offers a free 30-day trial for each application and the People app is always free. They don’t require any contracts, they do not charge a setup fee, and you have the option to cancel at any time.
Planning Center provides church leaders with the option to use (and pay for) only the functionality they need as well as a comprehensive church management software solution. While it doesn’t include general ledger accounting functionality, that’s something your church can maintain within software that’s specifically designed for that capability. With any new tool, the key is to decide what your church needs the tool to do, document your processes and workflows, then invest the time in training and initial setup so you can best use the software’s functionality. Planning Center is an excellent option in the wide array of ChMS tools and worth checking out.