Within the last 18 months we switched to a Cloud Based Phone System at Church. One of the most over-looked pieces of technology at a church is the phone system, and in this article I will detail how I implemented a cloud based phone system at my church. Sometimes these systems are also called cloud phone services, virtual phone services, or internet based phone systems.

Background

cloud based phone system meridian norstar

Our church had purchased a second hand Meridian Norstar phone system some years ago, probably around 2002. That system still worked pretty well in 2015 when I started there. However, when we began a new building in 2017 that system became a liability. The wall that housed the main “brain” to the phone system was going to have to be removed. That meant running new phone cables everywhere and re-configuring that system. In other words, we would be spending a few thousand dollars! So, we decided to take the opportunity to look for a newer system since we had to spend a sizable amount of money anyway.

What is a Cloud Based Phone System at Church

cloud phone 8x8

A cloud based phone system at church does not have a local “brain” installed on site at your location. Instead they use space on a server in the cloud to handle that function. Each user either logs into their phone account through software, or through a phone plugged into an internet connection. When someone calls your organization’s phone number, their signal goes to the cloud server. The cloud server routes it according to certain rules you have setup previously. In our case it goes to our receptionist. Then in our case, that person can transfer the incoming call to the appropriate end user. That transfer takes place on their device and seamlessly transfers the call to the other user’s account (either a phone or another connection type). In function it feels exactly like an on-site system. In reality everything is routed over the internet. So, the main drawback is that you have to have a decent internet connection, and it has to be reliable.

Why I chose a Cloud Based Phone System at Church

To start, I did the usual research, calling some full-service phone system installers and my own internet research. I had to get some information ready in order to get quotes. Next, I described the total amount of users that I had, the call routing tree, and how often each person used their phone.

For example, I knew that I needed 10 “users” or phone lines. In terms of a routing tree, we wanted the main line to ring at the receptionist, then after a time (if they cannot answer) move to the financial assistant, and then to voicemail. We needed individual extensions for each of the other users (8 of them). Finally, we decided that our receptionist and financial assistant needed unlimited minutes since they deal with phone calls frequently. The other eight extensions only used their phones when someone called the church looking for them. These eight people mostly used their personal cell phones when making ministry calls.

Ironically both the installers and my own research told me that the cloud based systems would be the cheapest. Additionally they all said I would love the flexibility that the cloud based system at church would give my users. And I would, but I was only beginning to understand that.

Choosing a Provider for a Cloud Based Phone System at Church

We are a church that had 10 full-time employees at the time of implementing the new phone system (since then, the number of employees has grown). So I looked around at several cloud based phone system providers, such as: RingCentral, Nextiva, 8×8, and VirtualPBX. Different providers have different price structures, so I obtained a detailed quote from each company that was geared toward my situation so that I could compare apples to apples. At first glance it appeared that 8×8 was definitely the cheapest.

I starting calling the other companies to see if they could lower their prices and compete with 8×8. Oddly, they all tried to sell me on the better features they provided instead of the price. Most of those features were geared toward sales departments and I really didn’t need them at that time. They all said the same thing, 8×8 was going to be the cheapest because they didn’t match the others in extra features. The big thing for me is that 8×8 only charged $7.99/month (at the time) per line if it was “metered” – only 250 min/month of outgoing calls on that line. At the time, the other two unlimited lines cost $18.99/month. I also wanted a fax number, which cost $9.99/month. And the charge for the incoming number was $4.99/month. So, including the communications taxes (which I still don’t get why a tax-exempt organization would have to pay), we pay a grand total of $231.43/month for the phone system. That amount was actually about the same as the 4 phone lines and one fax line that we had at the time from Charter. So, I was sold on 8×8 for my particular use-case.

Set-up of the Cloud Based Phone System at Church

After going through the church process of purchasing, the system arrived. We had purchased two Polycom VVX 401 phones, and 6 Polycom VVX 301 phones. The 401 series are the fancier ones, that we let our two assistants use since they are the ones dealing with most of the phone calls. We use the 301 series as extensions for users who wanted physical phones on their desk. The physical phones come pre-configured and just require you to enter a code once at setup. Then they are ready to go. But what about the other remaining 4 phone lines? Those users (including me) installed the 8×8 app on our smart phones, and the app acts as our office phone. This is a feature that I personally love.

Why do I love it? My car battery died last Monday morning. I took the car to a battery and tire service shop. While waiting in the lobby at the service place I was doing some work on my phone. My phone rang with the specific ringtone that I have assigned to the 8×8 app, and I answered a work call, just as if I was in the office at work. That person never knew I was in a service shop with my car. They called the church and spoke to our receptionist who forwarded them to me (just Iike normal) and she transferred the call to my cell phone. I also have the ability to set my 8×8 app to not accept calls. So, if I’m busy I can set it to go straight to voicemail. For me, this has been one of the greatest features of a cloud based phone system at church.

One Network issue of Cloud Based Phone System at Church

You must open up certain ports and protocols on your LAN in order to use a cloud based phone system. Your local data network carries all of your voice calls with a cloud based system. So you need to do some on-site network setup. I am the network administrator on site, so I was able to do this myself. You may have to coordinate with your IT department, or call in a consultant to make the changes depending on your organization’s size and your level of network knowledge.

One Year Later with a Cloud Based Phone System

I have honestly have no major complaints about the phone system. This has been a great shock to me. In my experience the system has been very stable, and we have experienced few dropped calls or poor quality calls (I get a complaint every month or two about one “instance” that never seems to happen again, but I just ignore those). The physical phones seem to work well, just like the users wanted. Our receptionist has begun to use a headset connected to her Polycom 401 in order to have more freedom to use the computer while talking on the phone. She likes to log into the phone system on her computer. That way she can see (through the app on her mac) which users are marked as available. We have trained our team to change their availability so that she can say, “They are busy right now but I can let you leave them a message” instead of them thinking they will get a real person and get voicemail instead.

Our cloud based phone system meets our church’s needs.

If you enjoyed this post about practical technology in the local church, you might also enjoy my post about using captive portal for wifi at your church, and this one about showing lyrics in live worship videos.

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