Church giving turns digital
To keep up with the times, houses of worship offer electronic payment options.
The earliest worshippers brought their gifts to the altar from the tangible fruits of their labor – be it crops, sheep, or cattle. Coins came later, then paper money, followed by checks. Now, as society moves toward an era of "digital money," houses of worship are scurrying to keep pace with the times.Skip to next paragraph
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The collection plate won't disappear any time soon, but many churches have begun offering electronic-giving options, including automatic deductions from bank accounts and payment by credit or debit card. A few are even experimenting with a "giving kiosk" in the lobby.
This shift away from just dropping cash into the weekly collection got an extra nudge this year from the Internal Revenue Service, which is mandating receipts for charitable tax deductions.
For houses of worship, the main impetus toward electronic giving has been to respond to churchgoers' changing lifestyles. But churches themselves are benefiting from the regularized giving and the often increased contributions that come with expanded giving options.
In today's era of plastic, fewer and fewer people, particularly in younger generations, are carrying cash or checkbooks. Some live by their debit cards.
"A lot of people, like me, are moving to 'paperless cash,' " says Nate Gibson, chief financial officer at Ginghamsburg (United Methodist) Church in Tipp City, Ohio. "It's a way to be of service to our people who prefer that method of payment." And he wouldn't be surprised, he adds, "if 20 years from now we had tap-swipe cards on the offering basket."
Electronic funds transfer (EFT) has been offered by churches for several years, allowing members to automatically debit their checking or savings account weekly, twice a month, or monthly. Then an electronic-payment firm handles the transactions for a church.
Vanco Services in Minnetonka, Minn., began serving churches in 1997, and now has more than 8,500 in 29 denominations in its program. "In a normal week, we have 40 to 50 churches signing up," says Len Theide, Vanco's vice president for corporate sales.
Both churches and churchgoers are pleased with the way automated giving strengthens stewardship, he says. Not only does it bring in donations on a consistent basis, even when people are on vacation or business travel, but it also can help the faithful fulfill annual pledges, a sometimes-challenging task for families with children or unplanned expenses.
"One woman in my own church told me that after seven years, this was the first year they'd made their pledge – after signing up for electronic debit," he says.
Religious institutions can also see a significant increase in donations. According to Msgr. Francis Kelley of Sacred Heart Parish in Roslindale, Mass., signing on to the program of ParishPay (a firm serving Catholic parishes) increased contributions by 75 percent from the parishioners who switched to electronic giving.
Some churches have begun offering credit- and debit-card payments. But use of credit cards has stirred controversy, given the country's massive credit-card debt.