The Penguin Driven Church Office

by Don Parris

Every church faces challenges. Ours is growth. Thanks to a donation of 19 computers, we now have more computers than church members. Like church members who simply keep the pews warm, some of these machines need refurbishing. Several do work rather nicely, however. So when I tell you that one of our most active church members is a friendly little penguin who manages our church's data, I'm being quite honest. We call him Saint Tux.

Considering Linux

Why should churches let penguins into the Pastor's study? That's a fair question. We considered our options rather carefully. Cost, choice, freedom, ease of use and ability to customize the software were our main issues. We had the connections to obtain software from a large proprietary corporation. Unfortunately, because we're not a 501(c)(3) organization, we didn't get any consideration. We have paperwork from the government that confirms our non-profit status--meaning everyone still gets their tax deductions--but some companies won't touch us because we lack that status.

That situation led us to consider other options, because we cannot afford to pay full price for proprietary software. On top of that basic purchase price, we'd have to pay additional money to obtain church management software. The good news is that our $80 Linux distribution will be able to handle our church data for years to come. If 1,500 people show up one Sunday morning and join our ministry, I can manage all of that data, whether they arrive next Sunday or a year from now.

Aside from cost, choice was another major factor. Choice is important, and not only the choice of which desktop to use. I'm thankful to be able to choose which printing system, text editor, office suite and Web browser we use.

Freedom was another factor in our decision. None of us are programmers, but we know that free software can be redistributed in order to help others. Richard Stallman, the founder of the GNU project, may be an atheist, but his view of software has close theological parallels to Christian theology. Proprietary software limits my ability to help my neighbor, one of the cornerstone of the Christian faith.

An encounter I had with a pastor and one of his deacons left me with the distinct impression, although I did not know for sure, that they might be using proprietary software without the proper licenses. The deacon stated that he had a copy of the software he could bring in for me. It could have been a perfectly legitimate copy, or it could have been a personal copy that he would be giving to the church in violation of those famous End User License Agreements. This possibility raised a few questions: Are churches and other religious groups using proprietary software without the proper licenses? Is this being done with or without the knowledge and consent of the leadership? I'm a preacher, not an attorney. This issue raises a moral question that churches need to consider. Church leaders would consider a person who walks out of a bookstore with a book they haven't paid for to be a thief. Using proprietary software without a license is the same thing--stealing.

The penalties for violating copyright are far more costly than the price of the software in question. Even settling out of court is costly. Church leaders should do everything within their power to ensure that all software is in compliance with the law. If a church cannot afford proprietary software, it really needs to consider open-source software. The reply that "everyone uses that other software" is no excuse, especially because current open-source products are highly compatible with proprietary products.

Given the conversations I've had with others about Linux, a lot of people seem to think you have be a rocket scientist or a masochist to use Linux. That is simply untrue. In addition to recent studies demonstrating that Linux is no more difficult to use than are other operating systems, my personal experience is that anyone who can read and follow instructions can use Linux.

Because most of the graphical interface is so similar to Windows, I'm puzzled that people would think Linux is more difficult. On the contrary, Linux actually tends to be more intuitive in many respects. Multiple desktops allow me to organize my work. I can roll up a window instead of minimizing it, which often is more efficient. Heck, even the command line offers ease of use. If you discover a typo, you simply backspace to the error and edit it instead of the whole line.

Everything about Linux is customizable. I may not be the most experienced system administrator, but at least I know I can reconfigure my kernel if I need to do so. I don't have to understand every part of the system right now--I can pick it up as I go.

How We Use Linux

We use Linux for general use, mostly as a desktop workstation. We use (OOo) and Mozilla for Web browsing and e-mail. We are developing our own church management system, using MySQL and PHP. For the time being, we manage our data on a spreadsheet. But, we're looking to the future, when we'll have a need to move our data into a real database. offers some serious advantages over other office suites. We can connect directly to a variety of database servers to retrieve our data into Calc, the spreadsheet feature, or Writer. If we want, we then can export that data to Adobe Acrobat's PDF format. Data storage is not a big deal these days, but my Writer documents are a good bit smaller than their proprietary equivalents.

Mozilla's Web browser offers tabbed browsing. Ever since I experienced Quarterdeck Mosaic, I have prayed for tabbed browsing. Mozilla and its variants offer it; probably most Linux browsers offer tabbed browsing, I'm not sure. You can check your e-mail and newsgroups with the e-mail client. You even can build your Web site using the Composer. That's great for users who don't know much about HTML.

I mentioned that we're developing our own church management system. Look, I'm not a programmer, which is why I'm learning as I go. Info Central is one available application, but we've chosen to do it ourselves. Again, multiple factors are involved in this decision. None is more important, however, than the learning experience.

Because we are in the midst of launching a computer training program, we need to be able to teach skills to which people otherwise may not have access. At some point in the future, we'll be able to offer database administration and development classes. And the skills students learn will be usable across various platforms. This leads us to the next phase of our ministry--education.

The KDE desktop offers some educational tools that we can use to help young people or even our members. Using KEduca, we can develop a Bible trivia quiz for our members or test preparation lessons for school students. We can offer typing classes or teach geometry, foreign language vocabulary and even astronomy. Scilab offers stuff that only a high-school calculus student could love.

Linux includes numerous games. Our church could run tournaments for chess, backgammon, Scrabble and several card games--all over a small network. These are only some of the nifty things a little church like ours can accomplish using $80 worth of software. That's right, we spent $80 for all of this. That's stewardship.

Getting Help

Just as the faithful turn to the scriptures to help them solve life's problems, so too, Linux users have helpful resources available to them. Man and info pages offer help with commands. How-tos offer the more conventional step-by-step instructions for particular tasks. SuSE and most other distributions include additional help documents specific to their distribution.

If you cannot solve your problem that way, there's always the e-mail lists, news groups and Web site bulletin boards. Linux support sites, such as LinuxCare, offer commercial support. Linux Support Services offers free assistance. Additionally, the commercial vendors offer technical support and usually include some sort of Web support as well.

Migration Strategies

Is it right to let a penguin into your organization? Only your organization can answer that. For us, it was a matter of me deciding we would use Linux. For most church leaders, though, it won't be that easy. Many have church boards to answer to, an office staff that will get stuck with the end result and that special someone who objects to everything but singing "Amazing Grace". Therefore, time will be spent hashing out the reasons for making a change--or, for newer churches--starting out with Linux. I hope the reasons for using Linux are now clear.

So what about the reasons for changing? The reasons commonly given for using proprietary software often reveal more about our biases than about the facts. I've taken the liberty of helping you reason through some of the arguments you'll hear in favor of your current legacy system.

The old "Everyone uses Brand X" argument doesn't hold water. I already have said that open-source software is highly compatible with many proprietary products. The notion that legacy software is easier to use than current open-source products is not always true. Installing my HP 970Cse duplexing printer was much easier with Linux than with the proprietary system it replaced.

Many people tell me what they've heard about Linux, often quoting some IT expert from their workplace. The problem is that these IT experts may or may not have used Linux. They may be answering from the perspective of their companies. They simply may think that your users are too dumb to use Linux--an insult to your intelligence. Effectively, many get what they ask for, an opinion. That opinion may not apply to your situation.

Consider this. I know IT experts who don't know much about Linux. Meanwhile, I've been using it since 2000. They know only what they've read about Linux. One guy has a copy that he hasn't installed yet. When I discuss certain network services, he's lost. These are well educated, very experienced people. They simply don't know Linux well enough to make a claim about it. Hence, their opinion cannot be taken as an in-depth analysis for using Linux in our church.

If you're going to ask an IT expert to help you make a decision about Linux, make sure he or she has at least some experience with Linux. That expert's thorough understanding of your situation will affect the final analysis. The expert needs to have an understanding of your current skill set, your attitudes toward change and your current hardware and software situation.

Churches can launch a computer ministry, effectively creating a group of members who undertake to learn Linux over a specified period of time. The group members could use their own computers or a single computer dedicated to this mission. This group also could work with other churches in a combined effort and then lead your church through the migration process.

To aid you in presenting your case, you should demonstrate Linux for the folks who will be using your system. Invite the local Linux Users Group (LUG) to show off Linux for you. Alternatively, many distributions offer evaluation CDs that don't have to be installed to run. If nothing else, designate a team to get a boxed distribution and play with it on a single computer. They can run the demonstration for the others.

I think the demonstration is going to be important for the doubting Thomases in your midst. People need to see the differences and similarities between Linux and whatever operating system they currently use. You even could set up a single system that everyone can play with for a few weeks. Your more adventurous types may not need that, but the timid folks will appreciate it.

When it comes to data, churches need to consider their options carefully. A new church with no significant data is an ideal candidate. A small church using a legacy operating system and legacy office software could migrate easily in short order. Larger churches, with a lot of data stored in a proprietary application, need to consider a gradual migration.

Although most applications do allow you to export your data to a standard text format, some may require specialized tools. Even though you may feel trapped in your current environment, all is not lost. Simply deploy Linux on a limited number of PCs in your office until you develop the ability to migrate all your data to one of the databases included in Linux. Again, you've got options.

Once you export your data to a standard text format, such as the tab-separated values format, many Linux applications can work with your data. You can set up tables in MySQL to match the columns in your files. Then, simply load the data into the database with a simple command, and you're back up and running. Well, there is more to it than that. But at least you get the general idea, and that it it's fairly simple and straightforward to accomplish.

There is one more option for using Linux in your organization: running Linux with other operating systems, such as Windows or OS X. Linux plays well with other systems. Many businesses are using the mixed or hybrid approach to prevent getting trapped with software that they don't want. That way, you can run your legacy software while taking advantage of the many powerful features Linux offers.

Think Saint Tux Can Help Your Church?

So now you know about the penguin in our church. If you're interested in adding a penguin to your staff, a great place to start is our own ministry, Matheteuo (that's math-eh-tew-oh) Christian Fellowship. We have a page dedicated to helping churches discover Linux (see Resources) and a full page to help you find essential open-source resources on the Web.

Don Parris pastors Matheteuo Christian Fellowship in Charlotte, NC. When he's not busy preaching, teaching and praying, he's tinkering with Linux, Apache, MySQL and PHP. He can be reached through the church Web site.

Load Disqus comments