Church Content Management: Open Source vs. Proprietary

Over in the Geeks and God forums an interesting conversation has come up around the difference between open source content management for churches and closed proprietary systems. This conversation got interesting when Chadwick Meyer and Brad Hill, who are behind two of the proprietary systems, joined in on the conversation. With so many choices in the content management system market for churches and ministries this is a question many churches are going to ask. So, let's take a look at a few things that matter and make a difference.

For the record, I'm an open source junkie (if you didn't already know). But, I don't use everything open source (I've paid for many applications) and I don't think the right solution for churches is necessarily an open source one. The best solution for church is usually the most cost effective solution that meets or exceeds the needs of the ministry.

Support, Service, and Support

Churches need support and quality service. No matter what the solution is these are two of the most important things. This service needs to be able to hold the leaders in a ministries hand on occasion and lead them through a change in the way they operate.

In the open source community support has often come through forums, online chat, and finding the right people in the right community. This won't cut it for churches just like it didn't cut it for the business world. Did open source Linux take the business world by storm? Not until there were support companies like Redhat to fill in the gap of service and support.

The service and support angle is one that the companies behind proprietary systems have often excelled at. This is an area I would love to see open source solutions for churches learn to excel in as well.

Cost Effective

There are two parts to being cost effective. First, there is being effective. Only making it halfway isn't being effective so the needs (not wants and desires) need to be met in an effective manner. The second element is cost. This is a reasonable cost to get an effective system.

Open source solutions have often excelled at providing effective technical solutions. For instance, drupal has had online groups for sometimes but Gutensite still doesn't offer them. I would love to see proprietary solutions have a better pulse on the needs of ministries in providing more effective solutions.

So, what does it take to be effective? This is a rather large question and one I'll try to start addressing in a follow-up post. To try and put it simply, it's meeting the needs ministries have in providing and managing their web presence.

The more difficult element to judge is the cost you put to that. The cost comparison over on Gutensite is a good place to start. According to their pricing scheme it reflects a $3,500 average setup charge and $840 a year in hosting and support costs. Their comparison is to a system where you roll your own solution with they suggest costs $25,000 to start-up and $2,000 a year in continued hosting and support. This is fairly inexpensive for roll your own solution and I'd suggest that it would actually be higher than this.

But, the solution that is not part of this comparison is using an open source platform like Drupal of Joomla. At this point I don't have any cost numbers to put to this sort of solution but I would expect them to be in the ballpark of a proprietary system like Gutensite and quite possibly less if less support is needed.

This is a difficult subject to navigate and one I plan to spend several posts attempting to navigate.

Hit the nail on the head

I think the biggest thing, as you mentioned, for churches is support and service. I am slowly becoming a fan of open source, mainly because I heard it on Geeks&God and thought "I'll check it out". But when I started mentioning an open source system to our staff; the brakes all locked up. Part of it was familiarity with certain purchased programs. Another part was a sense that something that's 'free' is slightly untrustworthy. But the biggest part was the support and service. "If something happens how are we going to get it fixed? Are the IT people who know a lot about these programs? Could we call a tech support line if something happens?" I think until open source really answers this (and I know you can go to the forums but even that is something new for many church staffs) then churches will stay with the proprietary software.

Thoughts on a support option

I'm curious what kind of support you envision needing. What would it look like if you could have it?

This has been the main

This has been the main sticking point for me, too. I help maintain the website for a church of 60 people. I am learning Drupal and would like to get away from the ugly proprietary website we are using, but I'm in the military and will probably be leaving the area in a couple of years.

Who would apply security updates? Who would troubleshoot problems? Who would add new features?

With a proprietary system with support, someone could just call tech support or open a ticket.

Would your church pay for support?

If support were available to take care of those things would your church pay for it on a per item basis? Would they be interested in a support plan? What would put their mind at ease and provide what they need?


I'm a fan of options, but I think in some cases, bundling everything together keeps the decision making process simple. Most people need support, unless they have their own tech staff (rare unless you are a mega church). But if you itemize all the costs and make people choose what they want to pay for, you are likely to make one person in the committee voice an objection for some reason. But if it's all or nothing, it's easier for people to decide to do the right thing. Also, a support contract (or included support) seems like a better option, because it's available when you need it. And you don't have to be paralyzed to wonder, is it worth paying the support guy to help me this time? You just do it. I think you really need to compare the costs, with the cost of your staff's time (or of hiring a tech guy on staff). It may seem crazy to pay $50/mo for support, but honestly, that's peanuts. Barely amounts to a weeks' worth of wages in an operations budget. Honestly people need to have a bigger picture, and not get so paranoid about saving every penny. It wastes money in the long run, because you waste time trying to do things the "cheapest" way every time. You have to figure out what something is worth to you, and then do it. Don't always be wondering, is there some better option out there for me... that's like asking, is there a prettier girl I should have married. Sure there is, but you already made your choice, and it was a good choice, so move on :)

No Support Required

The solution I would like to see for a church is where no support is required. Where they get their website setup and they don't really need support until they have to upgrade.

If a CMS is setup well they won't need a web guy to lay out a site. A church secretary can input the information and it just works.

This isn't always the case and sometimes organizations need support. I would like to see no support required be the majority case.

You'll find that I am not for looking for the cheapest solution. When I look at solutions like the open source ones it's not the price that catches my eye. It's the quality of the solution for their needs. I don't think churches should look for a 'prettier' girl. But, they should be looking for the solution that meets their needs and not settle for just anyone.

OpenSource Service

why would support and service be contrary to an opensource solution? The idea would be to hire a web development co. who develops using an OS framework. So, you still get the service you need and expect, and also the flexibility of changing the service if it degrades.

The web development company is also more prone to excel in support because it knows that you could go elsewhere, this keeps them in check. If however, you use a customized solution with them, you are locked into their system, and whatever support they decide to give you in two or three years from now.

Look, I mean no disrespect to the closed system companies, they mean well, and are probably very decent companies. But I also lived through the dot com bust... what guarantees that they will be around to support your custom website?

I agree

Oh, I agree with you completely. That's why I'm suggesting we move to a more OS. We have a highly knowledgeable congregation; most are IT guys or firmware engineers (I don't know what that though...I'm a pastor with a theater major who loves technology). But it's still difficult to convince the staff and indeed some of the council that this is the way to go. I simply think that they find some sort of comfort in proprietary or just what they are used to. We're using Joomla right now for website (a CMS) but it still took me and my tech elder 2 years to convince them that it was worthy to change to Drupal. So it's not just proprietary stuff. And ofcourse even a light suggestion that we may look in to Open Source Apps for email; docs; powerpoint; even graphic design; drew great resistance. I think that part of it is that they don't realize how polished and usable many of the OS apps are.
As for support and service, we would probably be willing to pay for a yearly service fee. After all, we do have a server in house (not our web server thankfully, have a techy elder who handles that!) but we hired an IT guy to keep and manage all our computers (4 office staff members; 5 professional staff members) and the server.


yea, you're probably right that many churches would lean towards a proprietary option, because it is branded and feels more secure. Looks like you had a lot of convincing to do on your end.

Not an honest comparison

Every CMS, (proprietary or OS) is going to share many of the same disadvantages which a custom solution should not suffer from (frameworks vs. targeted applications). Comparing Gutensite to another CMS would be a much more honest comparison.

I'll get around to that

At this point I don't really want to do a comparison of any proprietary system to an open sourced system or anyone else. If/when I do a comparison I want it to be a fair one. I'd need to dig into Gutensite more before I compare it.

One big advantage Gutensite has is the service and support. As a former support guy myself I can really appreciate this side of things and the advantage it brings.

Another Perspective

I've been thinking about this discussion as well, and it's funny to be the representative of "the man" in this conversation, because usually open source is associated with the david figure against the goliath big software companies. But we are anything but that, which I understand is part of the concern about small proprietary solutions. Anyways, it's just jumbles up my perceptions a bit.

But I had a couple thoughts I hope are helpful.

I understand there is an aura of coolness around open source, but I think it only some of it is deserved. I've already stated (on the other blog) some of it's disadvantages, but I think there are a couple other points we developers and tech minded people need to remember. Most people are not like us. And when it comes to open source, there is a certain "rawness" to everything, which some of us probably don't even notice, but which is often distracting or outright insurmountable to the average joe. Why do you think more people don't use Linux as their operating system? It's not accessible. And all the open source CMS's that I've played with, from a cursory glance at least (which is more than most people will give it) are raw. They are not easy to maintain, so the client will definitely need a developer (not to mention designer). Plus the interfaces are really clunky, and they don't look to be improving much over the past 4 years I've kept an eye on them. Why? Because developers can't see the forest because of the trees (I'm guilty of this myself). We are geeks, and we think it works great. We love options, and configurations, and settings, because it empowers us. But most people are overwhelmed and don't know where to start or how to do the most basic things (Joomla makes my heart stop). This is a particular concern of mine, because our own CMS instills its own share of stage fright to new users. And this is our next major project to undertake in the next couple months, to make it pretty and both easy and fun to use. We want our software to be as beautiful and easy to use as Apple's. They are a great model for user interfaces. But I just don't see open-source projects taking the time they need to make the interface useable to average people. And the difference is, while our interface may need some work, even now, we are available to help people use it, and accomplish whatever they need. So really our motivation to make it so easy anyone can use it, is partly just so that people need less and less support. If it's so easy, they won't need us and we'll reduce our own workload and hopefully make some money one of these days.

Along those lines, I want to point out that we are still tweaking our business plan ever so slightly and coming up with new ideas and implementing old ideas. If "budget" is important to clients, we offer a couple options. First of all, if they don't want to pay $70/mo, we have a CMS + Hosting only solution for $25/mo (currently with the working name "Look Ma No Hands"). Basically they get the same functionality but they don't get any CMS support (they will still get support for hosting & email related issues). That's good for churches with a geek on staff that can figure the CMS out (it really is easy), and then act as the local support for the staff.

Secondly we are putting together a very nice library of free designs and hybrid designs. The free designs ( are very professional, and they allow quite a bit of customized content. Most importantly though, they will provide a client with a great website, without the overhead startup costs. So when churches, who regularly tell us that they are on a tight budget, don't want to spend the money required to do quality custom design work, that's fine, they can use a free template. And it will work wonderfully for them. We have a lot of people already using these templates and no one would ever be the wiser, especially since we have so few clients, the chances are small that someone would see the site of the other people using the same template. So essentially there are no setup costs, and then just the monthly costs for hosting (and CMS support if they want it). You can't beat that, anywhere. And we have several more free skins in the works, and I'm sure we'll add a lot more in coming months/years.

The hybrid design library is where we store design ideas that were rejected by one client or another, which we feel are excellent designs that deserve their place in the sun [insert pearls before swine :) joke]. They allow a client to instantly see something they love, and then just pay for a couple hours of customization to make it their own. This effectively saves them half of the setup costs. Or at least that was the idea. But up until now, due to some confusion internally, we've been installing these as free templates, and so they have only been paying for one or two hours of custom design as the entire setup fee (without paying for the normal setup costs). But I think as we continue to add hybrids, we may start charging people for the installs, like we originally planned (for now though, we are eating the costs because we want more free templates for everyone to use). Still this allows them to cut the startup costs in half, and still have a say in how their site looks and functions. In fact, any template can also be customized to a client's heart's content, if they want to pay for the customization, so there can be a wide variety of design options for everyone.


I'm going to blog about usability in the near future so I'll try to keep this brief. Usability for many systems (whether proprietary or open source) is an issue right now. So many options are created by geeks with their concerns in mind that usability can be an issue. What makes it more difficult is that the developers can unlearn what they already know so they will never see products with the eyes of someone who has to learn this stuff. There are definite ways to improve usability. For example, during the current drupal design cycle, drupal way put through formal usability testing at a usability testing lab. Lots was learned and hopefully we will see change in drupal 7 because of this effort. More to follow in some future blog posts.

Money and design are difficult areas for churches. Many churches have the money but don't see the web as an important place to put resources so they don't see it as a place worth putting their money. Some, really don't have much money. But, I have seen churches of just a few hundred people get quality websites and pay for them. I think this has a lot to do with priorities.

A church budget shouldn't just be the giving from the members on a Sunday morning. It is the resources of that community of Christ followers.

Another Open Source Option

Web-Empowered Church is a content management system that is typo3 that has been modified to suit an online ministry. If interested you can check it out here:
I am in process of installing and utilizing it for my church. So far it is awesome script. As for support, you could probably hire someone in the community to help you out for far less than some of these proprietary systems although I probably a bit ahead of most and usually figure out any problems I run up against on my own. But like I said, you can get help or support easily for less than you most likely would spend otherwise. I think it is using God's money wisely!