Throughout history, churches have collected some form of data, but these days, increased electronic collection of personal information concerns many Americans.
According to Pew Research, most Americans believe the potential risks of data collection outweigh the benefits. They are concerned about how their data is used and they fear the collection and use of their personal information is out of their control.
Because of these concerns and the likelihood of additional legislation regarding privacy, your church may need to examine its data-protection and data-collection policies.
Personal data, and how is it used
Personal data collection is the process of gathering as little as a person’s contact information. More often, it includes gathering and tracking detailed biographical and behavioral information, including race/ethnicity, sex, birthdays, anniversary dates, educational background, employment, memberships, giving preferences, health issues, shopping preferences and hobbies as well as social media preferences and engagement.
That data is then measured, organized and used to determine demographic patterns, typically for promotion and marketing, to solicit financial gifts and to personalize services.
Traditionally, churches have used data for the distribution of newsletters, for giving statements and other church-related information.
In many cases, data also can be used to:
- Determine the needs of church members and the community at large.
- Develop ideas for sermons.
- Decide whether a certain type of class or program will benefit your congregation.
- Personalize communication.
- Define missions and activities that are more likely to be well-received by your church or community.
For example, if 60% of your congregation is especially athletic, conducting a walkathon or marathon might be a great way to raise money for the next mission trip. If you have a large percentage of crafters, a holiday craft fair might be a hit. If you have lots of foodies, you may want to invite food trucks to your end-of-week VBS event.
How data is collected
Basic personal data is often collected when new members, guests or event attendees provide the church with contact information. Community data is available to the public in government and demographic reports. Other information can be obtained through surveys and assessments or by purchasing it from third-party sellers.
You very likely have a wealth of personal data at your fingertips. For example, your church probably records financial data regarding donors: how much is given, in what form and by what means.
If your church has a Facebook business page, you can see how many people have viewed your page in the past week. You also can see a breakdown of the age, gender and locations of the people who visited your page, and you can monitor which posts receive the most attention.
Almost every church software program or social media platform includes analytic tools that can help grow your church.
Mass email providers, such as Mailchimp, can tell you how many people opened your email and how many clicked on a link within the email. Even Excel and basic word-processing programs allow you to sort lists by categories such as those who receive print mail and those who receive digital.
How to keep data safe
Personal data is and will continue to be collected; the issue is whether your church is effectively using and protecting it.
As you develop privacy guidelines, consider these questions:
- What categories of data are you collecting? (Names, contact information, biographical data, hobbies, health conditions, visual images, etc.)
- What information should be off-limits? How can you ensure it stays that way?
- How is personal information being collected? (Employee documents, guest and membership cards, website forms, social media analytics, event registrations, etc.)
- Do you have the appropriate consent for each of the various collections? Do people have opt-in or opt-out options regarding data collection?
- Is the data used appropriately? (A donor who submits information is not necessarily giving permission to use that information in a marketing campaign. A volunteer who submits information for a background check is not necessarily giving permission to receive text announcements.)
- Does the church limit access to personal information? (The fewer people, the better.)
- Is the information shared? If so, what is being shared with whom? (Consider prayer lists that are included on social media, in phone chains, in emails or text messages.)
- How does the church protect personal data from being hacked, stolen, or misused? (Create strong, unique passwords. Keep software updated. Have sufficient firewalls and virus protection on all your computers.)
- How will the church respond if someone requests a copy of all their personal information?
- How will the church respond if there is a breach in security?
- Is your data current? (To keep information relevant, periodically remove information on deceased members or those who now attend elsewhere.)
- How will you dispose of unused/unnecessary data? (Deletions of electronic data can usually be recovered; rewriting cannot. Paper files with personal information should be burned or shredded.)
Personal data is too valuable to ignore because it helps you get to know the people in your pews and community. Determine what data will best help your ministry and what you will do with it.
Find it, track it and use it to benefit your ministry, but remember, each piece of data represents a person who is entrusting you with maintaining their privacy.
Tricia K. Brown is a writer, editor, keynote speaker and Bible teacher. In addition to being a wife and mother of four sons, she is the sole proprietor of The Girls Get Together, where she and her team provide women's event programs for churches and other organizations. Her latest book, A Year of Yearning: A 12-Month Devotional to Help You Study God's Word More, is available from Amazon.