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If you’ve had a church going for any length of time, you’ve likely heard of Planning Center as one of the options for your church management system. It’s easy to use and lets you pay for only what you need. As you grow, your plan grows as well as how much you pay for it.

Out of the box, Planning Center offers a lot of great features. From scheduling volunteers and giving to managing small groups and creating mailing lists. But like most churches, you’re always looking for ways to do more with less. That’s why finding ways to automate tasks with Planning Center is a great way to get things done with less people and without forgetting to follow up or skipping a step.

This Ultimate Guide to Planning Center Automation is a collection of some of my favorite automation steps that I’ve personally built or researched along my church’s own Planning Center journey. We used to use RockRMS before moving to Planning Center so our processes and system could be easier to use by more people. I share that narrative and how we got to Planning Center in this article.

At the heart of it all, I sincerely just want to help you reach more people for Jesus. Nothing more, nothing less.

Importance of Automation

Sometimes when people hear the world “automation” being passed around, they immediately think of being too impersonal or outsourcing too much. As a church, we’re dealing with people. People have emotions, and people have silent expectations.

On the emotional side, people want to feel connected and valued. On the expectation side, if you say you’re going to do something, they have a silent expectation you’ll follow through.

With automation in place, our goal is always to meet both of those objectives. By ensuring no follow-up falls through the cracks, people continue to feel valued and important. And with a system in place to handle the hand off of tasks, requests and processes, it creates more time for you to engage with people one-on-one.

Why Automate?

The next question you might be asking yourself is, “Why should I automate something in Planning Center?” I come from an operations background where I see a lot of moving parts of our church. Here are a few reasons why automation can be beneficial:

  1. Save time on less important tasks that can be automated
  2. Reduce the likelihood of human error and mistakes
  3. Free up your time for more creative tasks
  4. Improve communication and collaboration between team members

Hopefully it goes without saying that no one would allow anything to fall through the cracks intentionally, but we are human and sometimes we do forget things occasionally.

Prerequisites

As with anything done well, there are a couple of prerequisites needed for you to take advantage of all the automation ideas below.

Planning Center API

The Planning Center’s API, which stands for Automatic Programmable Interface, is a way for outside systems to connect to Planning Center and get the information you need to essentially “do something” with. You don’t have to be a software developer to understand how to use the API. You just need to know how to setup a piece of it so it can be used later in some of the automation tasks.

I wrote a pretty popular article called How to Connect to Planning Center API with Zapier that’s referenced regularly. Give it a read and follow its steps so you can get your Planning Center API setup correctly.

Zapier

Zapier is an automation tool that allows you to connect two or more systems that aren’t normally connected by default. From a programmer’s standpoint, it connects these systems with various API calls. For the majority of those who aren’t programmers, Zapier essentially lets random systems talk to each other.

Some of the automation mentioned below requires a Zapier account to connect systems with Planning Center or Mailchimp. You will need at least the Starter plan, which is available here and includes a 14-day free trial.

Planning Center Workflows

Planning Center Workflows was a much-needed addition to Planning Center several years ago, and ever since, the team has been steadily adding more bells and whistles. A workflow allows you to create “cards” for each task that needs someone to perform a piece of work. This work could be to send an email, update a person’s connection status, send a postcard, or anything in between.

For a good chunk of these “recipes” or how-to’s, I’ll be using workflows to move cards along their journey. Each card requires a person to do something, but I’m optimizing the flow so that automation handles the boring tasks and a person handles the tasks that need human interaction.

Administrator Access

Many of these integrations require you to have administrator access to most of the modules in Planning Center. If you don’t have that access, either request it from someone who does have that much access or create a new “system” user in Planning Center and give that account administrator access to all the modules. For example, you can create an account called System User and give it the email address “support@churchname.com” so one one would likely use it for themselves.

Mailchimp

When you first purchased Planning Center, you should have also created a Mailchimp account. It’s the recommended approach to sending large amounts of emails with Planning Center. If you didn’t create an account already, click here. You will need to have the “Standard” plan for these automations to work successfully. The standard plan allows the use of “journeys” in Mailchimp.

Automation Guide

Now that we have the prerequisites out of the way, let’s jump into the fun stuff — automation.

As I walk through each of these recipes with you, I’d encourage you to take it in strides. Sometimes implementing a lot of changes at once can be too much to handle or keep up with. And if something breaks, it’s difficult to figure out what exactly broke if you changed too many things at once. So do what’s appropriate for your church and the pace of change it can handle.

Recipe #1 – Planning Center Form + Workflow

Every church has new visitors that attend a weekend service, and one of the best ways to get them plugged in is to fill out a “get connected” form. We’ll use this form to collect the necessary information and kickstart a workflow.

Create the Initial Workflow

  1. Go to PlanningCenter.com and click Login
  2. In the top-left hand corner, click on Home and click on People
  3. Click on the Workflow tab
  4. Click New Workflow
  5. Give the workflow a name, i.e. Men’s Ministry
  6. Click Create Workflow

Repeat this process of creating a new workflow and naming them Women’s Ministry, Small Groups and Volunteers.

Leave these workflows alone for now. We’ll come back to them shortly.

Create the Form

  1. Click on the Forms tab
  2. Click on New Form
  3. Click on the Edit next to “Untitled Form” and give your form a name, i.e. New Connection Form, and click Save
  4. Drag the necessary text, phone number and other fields into the form to collect the demographic information you need
  5. Under the Workflow Fields section of the fields, drag the drop-down field to your form
  6. For the Question, type in something like: What area of the church are you most interested in?
  7. For the options, type in ones like: Men’s Ministry, Women’s Ministry, Small Groups and Volunteers.
  8. Next to each drop-down option, you have the option to select a workflow to kick off based on the selection. Select the workflow you created earlier that corresponds to the name of the option, i.e. Men’s Ministry -> Men’s Ministry

Your form is now complete.

Complete the Workflows

For each workflow you created earlier, you now need to add “steps” to tell people what to do next.

  1. From the People module, click on the Workflow tab
  2. Click on one of the workflows created earlier, i.e. Small Groups
  3. Click on Add a Step
  4. Name the first step, i.e. Call Newcomer
  5. Change the default assignee to the person who should make the phone call for Small Groups
  6. If you want to wait 2-3 days before this step is due, set the expected response time to 2 or 3 days
  7. Click Create Step
  8. Repeat this process if an additional step is needed such as “Follow Up with Newcomer” and auto snooze to 7-14 days (1-2 weeks)

With this workflow created, copy the same process for the other workflows created for this New Connection Form.

Now you can let this automation ensure there’s proper follow-up with each newcomer at church. The default person assigned also gets an email when a new workflow card is assigned to them to follow-up with a newcomer. This helpful guide from Planning Center will also show you how to actually use the workflow card to perform the follow-up, whether it’s an email, text or phone call.

Recipe #2 – Planning Center Form + Automated Email

When sending an automated email from Planning Center, there are essentially two different approaches to take. First, it can be the same email every time, regardless of what options were selected. Or, it could be a different email based on the options selected. These two approaches will be outlined below.

Approach 1: Same Email, Every Time

  1. Go to PlanningCenter.com and click Login
  2. In the top-left hand corner, click on Home and click on People
  3. Click on the Forms tab
  4. Go to the form you want to add an email to
  5. Click on the Automations tab
  6. Under the Suggested automations heading, select the drop-down beneath “Send an email” and click on “Manage templates…”
  7. Click on New Template
  8. Write the email subject and body that you’d like to send for this form
  9. Click on Save
  10. Click on the template that you just created
  11. Click Save

The automation is now setup. You’ll see the email template selected under the “Send an email” heading. If it wasn’t selected automatically, select it again and click Add automation next to it.

Approach 2: Different Email Based on Selection

This second approach is more involved because it’s leveraging Planning Center, Mailchimp and Zapier. Once it’s setup though, you’ll be amazed at how easy it is to follow-up with any of your ministries, teams and newcomers.

Create A Journey In Mailchimp

From a laptop, follow these steps:

  1. Go to mailchimp.com and login
  2. Click on Automations in the left-hand menu
  3. Click on All Journeys
  4. Click on Build from scratch
  5. Add a name to the journey and click Start Building
  6. Click Choose A Starting Point
  7. Click Tag Added
  8. Type in a name for a tag, such as New Mens Ministry. If it’s a new tag, you will have the option to: Create a new Tag “New Mens Ministry”
  9. Click Save Starting Point
  10. Beneath the box “Contact Tagged New Mens Ministry”, click the plus button to add another step
  11. Under Actions, click Send email
  12. In the email template that pops up:
    • Click Edit next to To & From to adjust the to/from for your email
    • Click Edit next to Subject to pick an appropriate subject
    • Leave the Schedule as is
    • In the bottom portion, click Select a Template
    • Follow Mailchimp’s article for Design an Email with the New Builder
    • Once the email template is created, click Close
  13. Click the plus button to add another step
  14. Under Actions, click Tag/Untag
  15. Select your new tag under the Tag dropdown
  16. Under the Action dropdown, click Remove
  17. Click Save
  18. Click Turn On in the top-left to let it start running

Now to recap, here’s what we just did. A customer journey is one of Mailchimp’s ways to automate emails. When a person is tagged as New Mens Ministry, your email template for someone interested in Men’s Ministry will be sent to them (typically within 15 minutes). After the email is sent, the tag will be removed so that the email is sent multiple times.

Here’s an example of one I did for someone interested in Life Groups (or Small Groups) at our church.

Customer Journey in Mailchimp

Automate the Email with Zapier

Now that Mailchimp is setup to send the email, let’s setup Zapier to be on the lookout for new workflow cards in Planning Center. Zapier is one of my favorite automation tools. It lets you create “zaps” that contain automation tasks between different apps, such as Planning Center and Mailchimp. For this example, the zap we create will contain 3 tasks, and the free plan allows you to run 100 tasks per month.

To get started, follow these 3 steps:

  1. Login to Zapier.com with your account
  2. Click on Zaps on the left-hand side
  3. Click on Create Zap

For this setup, we’ll be using Planning Center to “trigger” the zap and perform the additional steps (or actions) with Mailchimp.

  1. Search for Planning Center in the “trigger” window and click on it
  2. Select “New Workflow Card” for Trigger Event
  3. Click Continue
Setup Trigger in Zapier for Workflow Card

Since this is the first time you’re using Planning Center with Zapier, you will need to connect your Planning Center account to Zapier.

Setup Planning Center account in Zapier

Once connected, select Continue and choose the Workflow in Planning Center to trigger Zapier with. In this example, I’m using Life Groups, which are our version of small groups. If someone chooses they want more information about Life Groups on our Get Connected form, it will create a new workflow card in the Life Groups workflow.

Setup trigger for Workflow Card

After you click Continue, you will have the opportunity to Test Trigger. It’s important you already have a workflow card in Planning Center to test with, otherwise your zap may not work correctly. You can go back to Planning Center and create one manually if necessary.

Click Test Trigger and make sure a Workflow Card is selected before clicking Continue.

Test trigger for Workflow Card

The next step for this zap is to select the Action. This box will show automatically. Select the Filter on the right-hand side.

The filter option allows you to filter our which workflow cards actually get an automatic email. You may or may not need to filter anything out, but I wanted to include it in case you need this feature.

For us, we only want to send these automated emails to those who indicated on the form they want more information about Life Groups. Here’s a copy of our filter for this example:

Setup Filter for Workflow Card in Zapier

Once the filter is created, click Continue. Depending on your filter and test workflow card, the filter may or may not “pass” for this. It’s ok if it doesn’t pass. As long as you have the filter created correctly.

Let’s add the final action (task) in this zap for the app Mailchimp. It will be similar to Planning Center above, except we’ll select a different app and different action event.

Setup Mailchimp in Zapier

After you click Continue, you will need to connect your Mailchimp account to Zapier just like you did for Planning Center. Each time you connect an account, there are different steps to take depending on the app so just follow what Zapier is asking you to do to grant access.

Once your Mailchimp account is created, you’ll set up the action by clicking

  1. The audience in Mailchimp
  2. The tag you created in the Mailchimp section previously
  3. The email address from the workflow card. (NOTE: Since our example uses a Planning Center form to collect information, the workflow card “field” is called Submitted Primary Email)
Setup action for Mailchimp in Zapier

Click Continue

Click the option to Test Action

The test action is the final step before turning on your zap. Since these are pre-built integrations between Mailchimp and Planning Center, the testing should be successful. If you hit any errors or issues though, please put them in the comments below so I can help you troubleshoot further. Zapier allows you to automate easily but can be tricky sometimes.

With the test successful, you can now click on the option to turn “On” the zap. This will be a toggle switch in the top-right hand corner.

Recipe #3 – Multiple Mailing Lists

Depending on the size of your church, you may have multiple mailing lists or just a single one. We actually use two mailing lists – one for people who are regular attenders/members and one for conferences and events. Breaking it out this way allows people to hear about upcoming conferences without getting the weekly update emails.

To create a list in Planning Center, you will create a People list and sync it with Mailchimp. The team at Planning Center have already documented this process so I encourage you to follow their steps.

When you have two or more lists that are synced with Mailchimp, how do you prevent a person from unsubscribing from your whole church when they only wanted to stop receiving one type of email? Good question 🙂

Introducing Preferences Center in Mailchimp. The preferences are a way to indicate which lists a person wants to subscribe to and which they don’t. When setup correctly, you give greater control to your email recipient without losing them from your entire list.

  1. Follow this guide to creating a preferences center in Mailchimp. Remember that the “preferences” used are what the person will actually see when they subscribe/unsubscribe.
  2. Once logged in to Mailchimp, click on Automations in the left-hand menu
  3. Click on All Journeys
  4. Click on Build from scratch
  5. Add a name to the journey and click Start Building
  6. Click Choose A Starting Point
  7. In the pop-up window, select Contact Activity
  8. Click on Leaves audience group
  9. In the drop-down, click on the first group from the preference center you want to start with
  10. Click Save Starting Point
  11. Click Add a journey point
  12. Click Tag/Untag
  13. Select the appropriate tag you want to remove (it should be named the same thing as the list in Planning Center)
  14. Under Action, select Remove
  15. Click Continue in the top-right
  16. Click Turn On in the top-right

That’s it! This will automatically remove an email subscriber from the preference they unchecked in the Preferences Center. Repeat this process for each of your items in the Preferences Center.

Recipe #4 – Count Active People in Planning Center

This was a fun “ah ha” for us because we’re always trying to understand who is actively participating in our church. This blog article I wrote recently uses multiple data points to determine a person’s “engagement” and based on that, saves the current number each day to a Google Sheet.

Here’s the article:

Recipe #5 – Church Membership Form + Workflow

Planning Center introduced their forms a few years back. And like workflows, they steadily increase the different features available on the forms.

If you’re like our church though, the current iteration of the forms doesn’t give you all the bells and whistles you need. Especially when you have a little more complex form like church membership. That’s why we started building out forms in Formsite and integrating the results with Planning Center.

In this recipe, you don’t actually need an account with Formsite to follow this automation guide. This approach will work with almost any forms software you choose – Google Forms, Formsite, Gravity Forms, etc. Here’s a list of some of the forms from Zapier.

Forms Options in Zapier

NOTE: I’m going to assume you’ve already created your form in Formsite, Gravity Forms, etc. before proceeding. If you haven’t, pause this receipt and go create that form first. You’ll also need to submit a test form as well so there are results to use in Zapier.

Since I explained more about how Zapier works in Receipt #2, I’m going to jump right in to creating the triggers and actions for this recipe.

  1. Login to Zapier.com with your account
  2. Click on Zaps on the left-hand side
  3. Click on Create Zap

For this setup, we’ll be using Formsite to “trigger” the zap and perform the additional steps (or actions) with Planning Center. If you’re not using Formsite, select the appropriate forms software you’re using.

  1. Search for Formsite in the trigger window and click on it
  2. Select “New Form Result” for Trigger Event
  3. Click Continue
  4. In the next Action, search for Formatter by Zapier and click on it
  5. Select “Numbers” for Event and click Continue
  6. For the Input, select the field from your form that has the phone number in it along with these additional options:
    • To Format: 55558001212 (No Symbols, National)
    • Phone Number Country Code: United States
    • Validate Phone Number? Yes
  7. Click Continue
  8. Click Test Action (as long as you have a valid test form submitted with the phone number, it should test successfully)
  9. Click Continue
  10. Add another action
  11. In the next Action, search for Formatter by Zapier and click on it
  12. Select “Text” for Event and click Continue
  13. For Transform, select “Trim Whitespace”
  14. For the Input, select the field from your form that has the first name in it
  15. Click Continue
  16. Click Test Action
  17. Click Continue
  18. Add another action
  19. In the next Action, search for Formatter by Zapier and click on it
  20. Select “Text” for Event and click Continue
  21. For Transform, select “Trim Whitespace”
  22. For the Input, select the field from your form that has the last name in it
  23. Click Continue
  24. Click Test Action
  25. Click Continue

Now we’re at the part of the zap where we have all of our information gathered from the form, and it’s time to begin sending information to Planning Center. Before we do that, we need to create a workflow in Planning Center to receive the New Member “cards” or tasks.

  1. Go to PlanningCenter.com and click Login
  2. In the top-left hand corner, click on Home and click on People
  3. Click on the Workflow tab
  4. Click New Workflow
  5. Give the workflow a name, i.e. New Members
  6. Click Create Workflow

In the URL of the web page where the workflow was created, there’s a unique number in it. It will look something like this: https://people.planningcenteronline.com/workflows/358839/

Take note of that unique number as we’ll need to use it to finish out the zap.

Back in Zapier…

  1. Add another action
  2. In the next Action, search for Webhooks by Zapier and click on it
  3. Select “Custom Request” for Event and click Continue
  4. Under “Method”, select Get
  5. In the URL, paste this: https://api.planningcenteronline.com/people/v2/people?where[search_name_or_email]=[first-name-from-form]&where[search_name]=[last-name-from-form]&where[search_name_or_email_or_phone_number]=[phone-number-from-form]

NOTE: Each of the bolded placeholders in the step above are actually the “outputs” from the actions you created for the new member’s first name, last name and phone number. As you copy and paste the above URL, you will be able to replace the bolded text with the output you created from the appropriate “action” step in the zap.

  1. In the “Basic Auth” field, paste in the application-id and secret as outlined in this article I wrote and referenced earlier.
  2. Click Continue
  3. Click Test Action

The “test action” should result in data with a person’s name in it and other details as long as the test form you submitted earlier actually used a real person’s name/email that existed in Planning Center.

  1. Add another action
  2. In the next Action, search for Webhooks by Zapier and click on it
  3. Select “Custom Request” for Event and click Continue
  4. Under “Method”, select Post
  5. In the URL, paste this: https://api.planningcenteronline.com/people/v2/workflows/344085/cards

In the above URL, replace the number towards the end with the unique number you took note of earlier. This unique number represents the New Member workflow in Planning Center you created a few minutes ago.

In the “Data” field, paste in this block of information:

{"data":
   {"attributes": { "person_id":"[data-id]"}}
}

As before, you’ll want to replace the text in bold with an output from a previous zap. This time though, you’re looking for the data from the “Webhooks by Zapier” zap and a specific output that looks like this:

  1. Once that’s selected, you’ll paste in the same content for the “Basic Auth” field as before.
  2. Change Data Pass-Through to “False”
  3. Click Continue
  4. Click Test Action

This test action could be problematic for some because Planning Center if very particular in how the text is “sent” from Zapier. If you get stumped on this, add a comment below so I can help you figure it out. If the test action is successful, you’ll see a new card created in the New Member workflow in Planning Center with the person’s name and email address.

And that’s it!

Conclusion

I hope this automation guide was helpful and got your wheels turning on more opportunities to automate more tasks at your church. There are a few more recipes I still want to add so check back often and see what else has been included.

And if you have any questions or need help, drop me a line in the comments. I’d love to help you.

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