Welcome back to Monday Morning Church. Today’s guest is Tommy Prater, who is joining us from Church on the Rock in St. Peters, Missouri. Tommy, it’s great to have you.
It’s great to be here. Thank you, Courtney.
Tommy has been the IT Director at Church on the Rock for nearly 11 years now. Is that right, Tommy?
That is correct. Yes, ma’am.
And 11 years in the church IT world, I imagine you’ve seen quite a bit of change.
It’s been substantial change in the last 11 years.
So would you go back and share the path you took to get to your current position?
You know, my journey, it started when I was real young. I felt a call into ministry. My granddad was my pastor growing up, and I was just always in church. Well, at the same time, I always like computers. So back then, technology was nothing what it is today. But as I grew, I thought, well, I really want to use computers, but I still felt that call to the ministry and I was kind of torn between the two. And I remember when I went to bible college, I thought I would never use technology again, at least in the sphere of working on websites and hands on technology. But shortly after I was there, two weeks in, I got hired as the web guy. And then kind of helped propel me to start learning, start hanging around with other IT professionals in ministry. And then when I came to Church on the Rock 11 years ago, I came on, in a sense, it was a lot smaller position where I took care of the website, I took care of some IT functions. But through that time, one of the greatest things that has took me over the last 11 years from a small start to where when we talk about technology, my leadership comes and asked, Tommy, what do you think about this? And we discuss it in meetings as a mentor. And one of those mentors has been my senior pastor investing in me. And I make that point, just because a lot of people may say, well, here’s a job, just go get it done. Where he poured in to me, Tommy, this is not just technology, this is not a tech job, but this is ministry. We’re changing lives. And he believed in me and he invested in me because he saw the potential that I had to grow. And I’m very thankful for that because 11 years ago, to see where I’m at today, without that investment, without the conferences, the books, the things that I probably, if I could use the word in the flesh thought, oh man, do I really have to do that? It stretched me and it caused me to grow. And that way, God could use me more in this position.
Wow. What a great thing to have that encouragement, mentoring, propping out from the senior pastor. Since most churches still don’t have an IT director, would you kind of give an overview of what you do and who you report to?
Sure. Currently, I report to my senior pastor as my direct lead. I oversee pretty much anything with technology in the sense of — let me rephrase it, with IT, in regards to desktop support, whether it be a Mac, a PC, our servers, our network, the back end of our website, making sure that that’s functioning. I oversee any connection point. I work a lot with our creative arts teams, which would encompass like cameras, media, the musicians, the platform. I say I work a lot with them, as you could imagine, technology has grown significantly to where if we’re not working together, we’re going to be missing it because they need resources I provide, but at the same time, I need them. So I oversee those areas. And then I have a team of mainly volunteers that I oversee to help me pull off all of that.
Yeah. Sounds like your position as IT director is a lot about integrating the different parts, different ministries and helping make them happen to the best of their abilities.
Correct. Yeah. I’ve got a lot involvement with different ministries, and I don’t say that in a way of like, yeah, I got my hand and everything. I don’t and I don’t want it to be that way. What I mean by that is it’s a privilege to be able to serve with the different ministries because on the technology standpoint, they may not see something that could help them. And at the same time, I’ll learn something as well. But I could see what they’re doing and offer suggestions of, if we do this, this, and this using technology, that could simplify what you’re doing, save you more time and then allow you to invest that time somewhere else.
So what technology do you depend on and what are you looking for next to make some of those connections you’re talking about or make things flow a little better?
Some of the big pieces of technology that we depend on without getting too technical, we do host servers on site. We’ve got the Microsoft Stack in regards to Microsoft Active Directory. We use Office 365 for email, for the office platform, as far as Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and those tools. We do rely on those. Our church management system is another one that we heavily rely on. We just switched, about a year and a half ago, which has been another project that I’ve spearheaded through this entire time. We moved over to Rock RMS and that has been — the way we launched it is this is now our culture. This is going to be — this isn’t just a program that we’ll use and try to help us. We’re going to use Rock. And this is if we did information about the church, about our congregation, about volunteering, about our ministries, this is where we’re going. We’re moving instead of having two, three, four different systems, we want one core system that can handle all of it. And going forward is we’ve been on that live for about a year and a half and I want to say, we’re probably just tapping the surface of the power that it has. So some next steps that we’re taking is, if I can say this the right way, and it’s really not even just next steps, it’s what we’re doing on a monthly basis is we’re continuing to add. It goes back to that where you’d say, I’m integrating technologies with the ministries, is I meet with different departments. We have time together to where they’ll say, well, we need to do this. Oh yeah, we can do that in Rock. We can put that report together. We can manage what you’re trying to do. And some of the departments, it’s a huge relief because they see, wow, that’s so much easier than me trying to manage it in Excel spreadsheet and try to keep all these list on my computer, and then it takes me forever to try to get through them.
Yeah. So I’m curious, you have Rock RMS, and obviously, like we’ve talked about, you’ve had 11 years as an IT director, so you’ve tried lots of different things, I’m sure. And trying to keep on the forefront. Where do you go to learn more about being a great IT director and to find out about these resources?
That’s a great question. To me, there’s multiple places, but I’ve got about three to four that really ring home. In 2007, I got connected with a group called Church IT Network. And for any IT person in ministry, whether you’re a staff, volunteer, or you just think you want to be an IT person. And I don’t say that laughingly. I’m saying, if you’re involved in IT in any area, whether hardware, software, to online campus, to website development, to church management software. The Church IT Network has been a critical network for me just because there’s things that I don’t know and one of the ways for me to get those is for me to find smarter people and have them around me. And that’s one group. We’re talking tons of people from multiple different churches, all across the country, and there’s probably a good chance that what I’m facing in technology, they’ve already faced it. So I get to learn on, I don’t want to say that it don’t make it sound bad, but just about everyone, I’m going to say the same thing. I get to learn on their mistakes. And the same goes for me. I’m open to say, that failed for me and here’s what failed so that you don’t have to. The other is, with Rock, it’s community driven. So both these groups, Church IT Network and Rock, they both have slack channels that we can get in. And if you have a question, you post it. It’s just like almost instantly, somebody is responding back. Somebody is sharing. I’ve even had that experience where I’ve had a question at midnight, early hours in the morning where I got stuck. I took a chance and posted a question, and they got back to me. And the other thing to me is leadership material. As you’re growing, as you’re coming to manage a team, others around you and you want to develop is you have to stay abreast on good leadership material. You want to read books that may not be specifically in technology, but it helps you, later, grow and know what to look for.
That makes a lot of sense. What would you say are some signs for Executive Pastors to look for that would indicate it’s time to consider a professional IT colleague?
That’s a great question. I know there’s two realms out there, and when I say this is, one is some churches like to have a professional IT on staff, some like to use IT consulting firms. I would say, when you’re ready, the signs for this would be when you see technology growing to a point in your church to where you’re making changes on a regular basis. Meaning, you’ve got new computers coming on, new network stuff, church management software, where you really, instead of calling and saying, I want to schedule that IT firm to come in. And some do this. This is why I want to be real careful saying this because some firms, you just pick the phone up and it’s literally like they’re an extension of your ministry. You want to be careful. But another sign would be, do you want that person to have your culture? And what I mean is, you can hire an IT firm and there are some great ones out there. So I just want to be careful because there’s some I could recommend to anybody that asks me in the church space, but they’re not always going to have your culture. They’re going to have the church culture and the church mindset. Like when we went to Rock, we hired one of the companies to help us with our migration and they are very ministry minded. They think like a ministry. And that’s what makes it so easy to work with them. But in your culture, if you see that there’s some churches and it’s worked out good for us that I have my church’s culture. I see what my pastor’s vision is. I’m behind it 100%. I’m not in this just because, oh, you hired me to fix some computers. I hope that answers the question. That would be the sign for me of, do we want somebody on staff? And also, another sign for an Executive Pastor, if he doesn’t want to be the one that’s contacting the IT firm. Sometimes when you contact the IT firm to say, hey, we have a problem. All they want more technical details, they have more discussions. And not all. Some of them, I think they’ve learned how to work with Executive Pastors or whoever is making that phone call, but somebody that can handle that. There’s times where we brought firms in to help, but I was the middle person between my leadership and that firm. They didn’t go to them directly. Does that make sense?
It does. You’re a bridge.
Yes. Yes. I’m a bridge. That’s a great way to say that is, I’m the bridge between it. So I see what my pastor is wanting to do. I see the culture. I know where we want to go. And also for me, it’s been, I know certain times when, okay, let’s do this. And when I hear, no, it’s not, no, we’re not going to do it. It is it’s not the time for it. And not that I put that on a back burner, but I know I set that back in knowing that you start to learn as an IT professional or, I guess in my position, I should say, you want to work with your leadership and start to learn when they’re ready for it and kind of watch out to see what’s changing in the ministry and how things can happen and adapt to where an IT firm may not see that. You may call them and say, oh, yeah, well, we need this, this and this. And then that’s what they deliver, where I’m here every day and I see the ministry operating, so I’ve got a lens of, wow, we could, hey, there some technology now that we could use in this area, if that makes sense. I hope that kind of answers that question.
Yeah. Yeah. It really does. I think that’ll be helpful for a lot of the XPs listening, who perhaps, have some of those questions already in their mind, to hear it coming from an actual IT professional to decide if it’s time for their church to take that plunge or not. So I want to close out with something that is going to tie into a lot of — you’ve been touching on this the whole time, but could you give some encouragement to other churches as they think about how to blend technology and ministry together?
Sure. The one thing I have learned that’s constant, that’s always going to happen, is change. And I’ve learned not to — that you can’t be afraid of that, but to embrace it and to look at it in a sense of technology, that it gives us another platform, another way to reach more people, and to be encouraged that what we may not have been able to accomplish 10 years ago, technology is now making it possible for us to accomplish that today.
That’s great. Tommy, thank you so much for just sharing your insight, your experience, your expertise, and I have no doubt it’s going to be really helpful for a lot of XPs.