If Ministry Computers Crashed, Would Your Data Be There?

Create a backup plan for church records

You’ve done your best to safeguard your church from physical threats such as fires, water damage, and vandalism. But many ministries never consider the possibility of losing important data if a hard drive crashes or a computer is stolen. By performing frequent data backups, you can save your ministry from losses that can be costly in terms of time, effort, money, and even privacy.

These days, data backups are increasingly important because ministries store more digital files than ever. Fortunately, because of increasing backup options and decreasing costs, establishing a backup system is easier than ever.

Lay the Groundwork

When forming a plan for backing up data, it’s important to decide which files are critical to ministry operations and which ones are less important. If a natural disaster destroyed all the ministry’s computers, which files would you need to restore first in order to get ministry operations back to normal? These should be first on the list of files to back up—files related to accounting, payroll, worship services, and other critical functions.

It also helps to know where ministry employees save critical files. Are the files located on employee computers’ hard drives or a networked server? Do employees use laptops or desktop computers? Do they keep ministry data on their mobile devices? Centralizing the most important files in a handful of folders (for example, the My Documents folder or a file server) can make the backup process easier.

The more space your recovery files take up, the more it will cost to back them up. With this in mind, employees should avoid saving personal files in folders that will be backed up.

Know the Options

There are two main types of data backups: physical backups and cloud-based systems.

Physical backups can be performed using devices such as flash drives, SD cards, data tapes, and external hard drives. Files are copied to the device, which should be stored offsite. It’s crucial to choose a safe, secure place to store backup devices—a place that is unlikely to be affected if the church is struck by a disaster.  It may be helpful to use a software program to assist in the backup process. Macs come pre-loaded with Apple’s Time Machine backup software; there are hundreds of backup programs for PC users to buy or download.

Cloud-based systems such as Carbonite, Dropbox, Google Drive, and Microsoft SkyDrive use the Internet to upload files to offsite locations (the “cloud”) for storage. Many cloud providers offer a limited amount free storage, with more space available for a monthly or annual fee. You can decide whether to back up your entire system or just certain files. Most services automatically update files on the cloud each time you save a new version. Cloud systems are especially convenient for ministries that use laptops or mobile devices and access files from multiple locations. For example, if a music minister keeps a text file of the song titles he uses during worship services, he could access the file on his smartphone, add new songs to the list, and save the updated list to the cloud for later use at the church.

Understand the Limitations

All backup systems have their limitations. Physical backups have many of the same drawbacks that computers and servers have: they can fail just as easily as a computer’s onboard hard drive, they can be stolen, they can be damaged by natural disasters, and files can become corrupt.

Cloud-based systems depend on high-speed Internet connections, which are not always available, despite becoming far more common in recent years. Many services “throttle down” transfer speeds when transferring large amounts of data, making data upload and recovery a relatively long process.

Data security is an important issue. Ministries often store personal and financial information, so it’s crucial to keep files private. Think about the sensitivity of the information you store and where you store it, whether on a physical device or a cloud-based system. Data encryption can help keep information secure if a storage device is lost or stolen. Be sure to research any outside company’s security measures before trusting it with your data.

Use Multiple Layers

The best way to make sure your plan works is to use multiple layers of backup.

“It’s the old adage: Don’t put all your eggs into one basket,” says Chris Harvey, assistant vice president of network architecture at Brotherhood Mutual.

For example, it may be a good idea to use a combination of both physical and cloud-based backups. If you choose to use a cloud-based system for day-to-day backups, consider making periodic backups to an external hard drive. If you have reservations about cloud security and opt for physical backups, make copies to multiple devices in case one fails.

Test Your Backup

Ministries should also test the backup files from time to time to make sure the system is working properly. This step ensures the data is usable and can act as a “disaster drill” to remind you how to restore your data in the event of a disaster. A full restore is ideal, but if that’s not feasible, consider restoring at least a few files on a quarterly basis.

Keep Your Software Discs

We have addressed how to back up individual files, such as budget spreadsheets or worship slideshows. But what about the programs that run these files, like Adobe Photoshop, or an operating system like Windows? Be sure to keep the installation discs for these products, so that you can re-install if you need to.

In today’s digital age, virtually every record a ministry keeps is stored on a computer. If technology breaks down, data backups can help get your ministry back up and running as quickly as possible.