When the pandemic started and the Terryville Congregational Church, UCC (CT) began worshiping online, Pastor Rev. Zachary Mabe realized that not everyone would be able to attend, and that keeping folks aware of the latest church happenings would be a problem. Many in their congregation do not have computers or smartphones, or at least they don’t use them. That means that they would not see the church emails, or any of the Facebook Live or YouTube events. They would still get a paper newsletter, but news would be stale by the time they arrived in mailboxes.
Mabe knew they needed to figure out a way to get the word out to people, and to ensure that both tech savvy and non-tech savvy people were aware of the same information. He remembered that his previous church in North Carolina used an automated phone system that left messages for people informing them about everything going on at the church – potluck dinners, funeral service info, reminders about fundraisers, etc. He had kept himself on the list even after 5 years and was receiving regular voicemails, so he gave them a call seeking some advice.
“Soccer teams, schools, and towns are using these automated phone systems, so I thought we could too,” said Mabe. “It is definitely worth it if you want to get the message out to people. A once-a-month newsletter is not enough.”
The North Carolina church told Mabe which phone system they used but cautioned that they had been using it for years. They knew that technology had improved, more competitors had entered the market, and the prices had dropped since they installed their system, so they advised him to search the internet for similar companies. He did, and then found and researched several automated calling companies, including OneCallNow (the one used by his old church), AutomatedCalls, and DialMyCalls. He chose DialMyCalls voice broadcasting service for several reasons, including ease-of-use, pricing options, and it was web-based. In addition, the company offered a 10% discount for non-profits.
Mabe is not suggesting everyone use this service, as it depends on specific needs of your church, but he has some advice about what to look for, what questions to ask, and what to pay for an automated phone broadcasting system.
- Monthly Fees vs Pay-as-You-Go: Fees tend to be similar, but some offer unlimited voicemails for a lump sum while others offer purchasing credits. Mabe found that the monthly fee was somewhat expensive (approximate $90/month for his number of contacts), so he chose the credit-buying plan. With his plan, there are no monthly fees; he simply buys credits and uses them as needed.
Although credits can be used for calls, texts, and emails, he usually just chooses voice messages. The Terryville church has about 300+ phone numbers, and Mabe tries to keep the voicemails under 30 seconds to make the plan last. He spent $200 on 250 credits, which gave him about 10 phone calls to his 300 contacts.(According to the DialMyCalls website, current pricing for credits is:1 Credit = 1 30-Second Call to 1 Number or 1 Text Message.)
- Ease of Use: According to the company website, the system he uses takes just three steps to start using:
- Import your contacts from an existing list or add them as you go. Organize your contacts into groups and modify information in a snap.
- Quickly and easily create a new broadcast to send to all your contacts at once - send everyone a voice broadcast, SMS text message and/or email broadcast.
- See how your broadcast does, with stats on delivered/undelivered for text messages and calls answered for voice broadcasts.
Mabe just calls from his house, using a special 800 number with a passcode, records his message, listens to it back and then sends it out. He can log in from any computer and click through the screens to make sure the settings are correct, then clicks send and out goes his voice to 300 people.
- Software Installation vs Cloud-Based: The system they use is 100% web-based, so no software or hardware is needed. During this pandemic time of closed buildings, being able to access the voice messaging system remotely from anywhere was an important feature.
- List Upload: As part of the initial system setup, one must upload phone numbers into the system, via spreadsheet. This was the biggest challenge to the church. The system didn’t accept the sheet as formatted, so they had to spend 3-4 hours correcting and reformatting the info. But once that was done, it was all set.
The church sends a new voicemail about every 3 weeks. “I wanted folks to know that we are there for them, and that they should let us know if there was anything we could do to help’” said Mabe. “In fact, we make sure we relay that message in every one of our calls.”
In addition to letting people know that the building was closed, the church made sure people realized that their ministries, Bible studies, Confirmation classes, fundraisers, outreach activities, and worship service continued, whether through Facebook Live, Zoom, or conference calls. Many had assumed everything stopped when the building closed. They also let people know they could get help in connecting via internet.
“Many folks assumed they wouldn’t be able to connect, so I wanted them to understand it’s easy if you have a computer and internet connection, and someone over the phone to walk them through it.”
The voicemail program has been well received because the messages get out to everyone equally. Most everyone has some kind of phone, landline or cell, and it does leave a voicemail if not picked up.
“A lot of people called in, or told relatives to email me, to say it was great being kept in the loop. They let me know that just hearing my voice – even though it was recorded – was comforting,” he said.
“I have a feeling we will use the phone system even more, for reminders, maybe upgrading to the unlimited package,” said Mabe. “It did cost us some money, but it wasn’t unreasonable to get our message out.”