Interview with Darlene Sarkela: Congregational Administrator at Olympia Unitarian Universalist Congregation & ACS Realm User

We spoke with Darlene Sarkela, Congregational Administrator at Olympia Unitarian Universalist Congregration, located in Olympia, Washington. The church employs one full-time minister and six paid staff members. Located just a few blocks from an inlet of the Pacific Ocean and founded in 1952, Olympia UUC has about 290 members.

In this interview, Sarkela discusses the church’s use of Realm church management software by ACS Technologies, which the church first started using in January 2017.

Can you tell us about yourself?

My name is Darlene Sarkela. I have been the church administrator here for 26 years. I am responsible for database management, church communications, taking care of the building grounds, maintaining the calendars and, of course, technology.

Darlene Sarkela Headshot

Why did your church choose ACS Realm?

We wanted online access for multiple users. We had been using Church Windows Management Software. We looked seriously at ACS Realm because it appeared to be user-friendly and visually appealing. The company has a good reputation and a long history of providing church management software. The sales people were friendly, helpful, and responsive. We wanted a software package that would provide us with many functions, in order to get away from our previous system of using multiple services for our different needs.

Why did you decide to make a change in your software?

We saw that other software being offered on the market had more capabilities. We were looking for better online access and to be able to have our church members log in to their own accounts and see their own information. We wanted to have our site be more accessible.

What has the response been so far from your members?

We haven’t fully launched it to the membership yet because we just started using it in January. We have only had some small groups of people testing it out and there is a learning curve involved with the members. We’re doing what we can to have user guides and small groups to teach people how to use it. The church leadership and our board is getting there. They’re starting out by using it for document sharing.

What other systems did you consider before choosing ACS Realm?

We were also considering Breeze ChMS.

What do you use Realm for? Is there any functionality that it lacks that you wish it had?

Member and visitor data; tracking donations and pledges; online giving; group management and communication; tracking attendance; and administering our online directory. We wish it had a text messaging function. But I would recommend the program overall.

When the church was searching for a management software system, what functionalities were absolutely needed? What were some functionalities that were not necessary, but would have been nice to have?

We needed to have online access with unlimited account log-ins, and we needed to be able integrate online giving. We use Vanco Payment Solutions for our credit card processing and electronic funds processing and one of our main considerations is, because we have such a good relationship with Vanco, we wanted to make sure the new software integrates with it. And it does so very nicely; it’s so easy to use.

The things that would have been nice to have were group management and metrics, which ACS Realm has. There is still some work to be done on the group management product, but they do offer quite a bit for it. In terms of metrics, we wanted to have charts and graphics about how much money was coming in and to be able to track attendance. It’s all easy to see on their dashboard.

What do you like most about ACS Realm?

It is easier to use than our previous software. It has many capabilities and the promise of using all of them, although we just started using is in January and we haven’t discovered all of them yet. ACS is responsive to the needs of its users and they are adding features on a regular basis.

What could be improved about it?

We would like better volunteer management features, such as being more like the Sign-up Genius program that lets you send reminder emails and the like. It could have better email functionality, specifically a “reply all” feature for group emails.

Olympia Unitarian Universalist Congregation Church Sign

How would you rate their customer service? (1 to 5, with 5 being the best). Why did you choose this rating?

I would rate it as a “5.” Their customer support is excellent, with quick and helpful responses.

How well does ACS Realm integrate with other systems?

It has been great with our online giving software, Give+ by Vanco. It is seamless—the online gifts are posted automatically. ACS recently released accounting software as an add-on feature and we tried it. But we found that the reporting features were not as robust as we needed, or at least not yet. They have said they will be adding capabilities to it. We still use Church Windows for Accounting.

Are there other software programs that you would like for it to integrate with, but it does not currently?

I suppose it would be good if it integrated with our mass email provider, VerticalResponse, and with our website calendar.

How was the pricing structured?

They charge a monthly fee based on the size of the church and which software package you use.

What advice do you have for other people looking to acquire new church management software?

Talk to other people in a similar role, just to get that actual user feedback. I know that I talked to other church administrators who were using this product. It was good for us to go with a well-established company with a good reputation.

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