Is your church IT ready for a data disaster? More and more churches, especially in my part of the country, are developing plans to deal with natural disasters. We have seen extensive disruption from fires, floods, and hurricanes. So, churches are double checking insurance coverage, and making plans for what to do in the event of significant property damage or if they are displaced on a short term or long term basis. A data disaster can certainly be part of a more substantial incident like a hurricane, flood or fire. However, data disasters can also happen entirely out of the blue and when no other property is impacted.
Church IT 101: What is a Data Disaster?
I am using the term data disaster to refer to anything that compromises the computer data for your church. That data can include membership databases, financial records, digital archives, employee information, even worship and sermon planning materials. The compromise of your data can mean partial or complete data loss or that data becoming available to hackers or others who should not have access.
Church IT: Examples of Data Disasters
Data disasters come in several forms and spring from any number of causes. Storm, water, or fire damage can destroy physical computers and their data with them. Computers can also sometimes malfunction leading to data loss. There are also many cyber threats that can breach and destroy data. Some of these are targeted attacks, and others are lurking on the web, in email attachments, and even on removable USB drives. Viruses, ransomware, and even targeted cyber attacks can erase, encrypt, or even steal your files and private information. Even something as simple as a staff member of volunteer leaving the church and failing to leave behind critical passwords can leave a church without access to its essential information.
During my first couple of years at the Rio Texas Media Center, I was encouraged to assist churches in any way I could in the event of data disasters. Some of the things I assisted with were:
- Salvaging hard drives from broken computers.
- Soldering a broken USB thumb drive that housed essential data.
- Helping a church regain access to a server after an I.T. volunteer left.
- Assisting a church in regaining control over their website domain.
- Consulting a congregation whose WordPress website was hacked.
While you can’t avoid natural disasters, equipment failures, or even every possible nefarious actor, you can prevent a data disaster. Since incidents like the ones I have mentioned are growing more and more frequent and our dependency on data is becoming more and more critical, churches should be taking basic steps to protect themselves.
Church IT: How to Protect Your Data
How you protect your data depends on several factors including the size of your church, the type of data you need to protect, your current I.T. infrastructure, and of course your budget. For simplicity, I am going to break down my recommendations into the categories of large churches, medium churches, and small churches. I am not going to specify exact sizes for each category because size is never as simple as a number.
Are you connected to a small church? Scroll down for five tips.
Church IT: Solutions for Large Churches
Since it is now 2019, large churches with large staffs and a high data dependency should hire a professional. While there are some highly qualified individuals that can be added to a staff, I highly recommend working with a managed services firm. While you won’t have someone on site, many providers offer 24/7 access to help when you need it. They can also monitor your systems remotely at all times in case there is an issue. Most of their work can be done remotely, and they can always come out if there is something they need to do in-person. My favorite part about working with a managed services firm is that they can afford to have experts on staff that keep up with the latest trends and cyber threats. They will attend to your anti-virus and anti-malware software, and ensure that your firewall is keeping threats out. They will also help you create a backup system that will allow you to quickly restore your system even if the worst happens.
Church IT: Solutions for Medium Churches
Churches with smaller staffs and more limited data dependency will need to decide whether to lean towards a larger church model or that of a smaller one. Many medium churches would still be better off hiring a managed services firm. However, some firms have limitations on how many computers and organization needs to have to make it worth their while to offer a contract. That doesn’t mean you can’t still outsource. Some smaller, independent I.T. businesses can provide similar services on a smaller scale. Just do your research. An independent I.T. contractor or firm should have several references that you can contact to be sure you are getting what you need.
Church IT: Solutions for Small Churches
Small churches may face some of the biggest challenges when it comes to preparing for a data disaster. When I refer to a small church, I am simply referring to any church that may have, at most, one or two employees. It could also refer to a slightly larger church that is facing some financial struggles and simply can’t afford to hire anyone to help with I.T.. I have witnessed churches where every last bit of data lives on the pastor’s laptop with absolutely no backup or, everything resides on one PC in the church office, again with no backup. In the event of a theft, fire, flood, equipment failure, virus, malware, or ransomware, the church would lose everything. Even worse, there is often nothing in place to protect the computer from even the simplest virus. Sometimes there are already virus or malware on the machine like ticking data time bombs.
Unfortunately, some of these churches don’t even know where to start. They may not even realize they have a problem and can’t even begin to think about doing something about it. My first suggestion is to get some help. If there is any way, you can afford it, at least have someone from a reputable IT firm come out and take a look at what you have and make some basic suggestions. If you can’t do that, get creative. I would recommend checking with some larger churches in your area to see if any of them would be willing to lend some I.T. expertise.
If getting help is not possible, here are a few tips that will, at least, give your data a little more security and maybe save you after a data disaster.
1. Move Everything to the Cloud
If you can’t get your data safe and secure locally, keep it all somewhere else. For basic word processing and spreadsheets, Google Docs is a free option. You can take everything you have and convert it to Google Documents and store it safely on Google’s servers. Just be sure to use strong passwords and take advantage of Google’s two-step verification so your account will be extra secure. If you would rather work with your own software (like Word, Excel, etc.), Dropbox is an excellent option. Set up correctly, Dropbox will keep copies of your files both on your computer and on their secure servers. They have free options and, if you need more space, their pro plans start at $100 a year. For specialized applications, like membership software, there are now low-cost cloud solutions that live on the provider’s servers and are accessed through a standard web browser.
2. Use a Backup Service
There are also affordable options for keeping your computers backed up. Carbonite, CrashPlan, and Backblaze are three examples of services that will continually back up the data on your computers and store it on their systems. These services start at $50 per computer per year. That is not a lot to pay to save you from a data disaster.
3. Make a Backup Locally
Portable external hard drives are cheaper than ever. You can use the software built into your computer to make periodic backups. There is an important thing to remember here. If you store your backup drive in the same place as your computer, it might not help you. If something happens to the computer, it may also happen to the backup drive. There are several ways to deal with this. Some users let it do backups in the background throughout the day and then take it home every night. Others bring it in once a week, back up everything, and then take it back home. Of course, if you use a laptop and it goes home with you every day, it might be smart to leave the backup drive at the office.
None of these church IT DIY solutions is perfect. In the event of a disaster, you will probably need some help restoring everything and getting back up and running. But, at least your data will be safe.
So, is your church IT ready for a data disaster? Do you have any other tips? Share below in the comments.
This is a very timely blog, Will. A disaster recovery (DR) plan is something all churches big and small should have. Part of that DR plan should also include an annual test and update to the plan to ensure that it is always current. Other areas of growing concern are phishing and social engineering attacks targeting churches. Every church should also have some sort of ongoing security awareness training in place, as well.