Electronic giving vs. the offering plate
By Annette Spence
CONGREGATIONS SLOWLY ACCEPT NEW WAYS TO TITHE
For many churches, it’s the dreaded “summer slump” that makes electronic giving so attractive.
parishioners miss one or several Sundays in a row, the offering plate
takes a significant hit, according to church treasurers. Many
parishioners fail to “catch up” on giving for the Sundays they miss,
straining church budgets and stressing church treasurers.
At Cokesbury United Methodist Church in Knoxville District, it’s not only the summer slump that gives the treasurer the willies. It’s also snow days and December givers.
"We had a snow day six years ago, and we never made up that money we lost in the offering plate,” said Mel Stripling, Cokesbury director of operations. “We also have so many givers who give in December, yet September is our biggest time for expenses. So we’re on a shoestring budget while we wait for end-of-year gifts.”
For churches like Cokesbury and an increasing number in the United Methodist Church and other denominations, electronic giving might be a solution as well as the future of church finance.
The General Council on Finance and Administration began endorsing electronic funds transfer through a company named Vanco Services in 2003. Today, 641 of 35,000 total United Methodist churches offer electronic funds transfer through Vanco to their members, according to Brent Smith, assistant general secretary in Nashville, Tenn.
Dubbed UM-EFT for “United Methodist electronic funds transfer,” the program allows parishioners’ contributions to be transferred electronically from checking or savings accounts and deposited directly into church bank accounts on a weekly, bi-weekly, monthly, or one-time basis.
Eleven of 910 total Holston churches now use UM-EFT, although some may use other services. Cokesbury as well as Burks UMC of Chattanooga District use Vanco. Fairview UMC of Maryville District has an “e-giving” program administered by National Church Supply Company, the same company that provides the congregation’s offering envelopes.
Money in the bank
United Methodists have been slow to embrace electronic giving. However, the response from those using it – particularly electronic funds transfer (EFT) – is positive, according to church finance workers.
Vanco Services began providing EFT nine years ago to 10
clients. Lutheran churches were among the first to sign up
in large numbers, said Jan Palmer, marketing representative in
“Everything seems to go by committee in United Methodist churches, so everything seems to take time,” said Palmer, whose company now serves 8,500 churches across nearly 30 denominations. “But we’re getting new ones to sign up every week.”
According to the General Council on Finance and Administration, United Methodists gave $18 million of their local-church contributions through EFT in 2006. By August 2007, the total amount of EFT gifts had already reached the $18 million mark.
"This is the way the younger generation pays
their bills.” Cokesbury’s Stripling said, referring to EFT. “People
simply forget to bring their checks to church.”
Cokesbury began offering EFT in January and now has 20 of 1,200 total givers participating.
“I had one woman tell me, ‘I’m going to love this, because
it’s going to help me budget my offering and not just use what’s
left,’” said Sue Matthews, Cokesbury treasuer.
Fairview also began offering EFT in January, after two “younger
people” began asking why the service wasn’t available. Noah Allen,
church business administrator, is “pleasantly surprised” that 10
percent of total givers – 30 of 300 – have already signed up, providing
$5,000 of consistent income per month. A few parishioners have given
one-time gifts to the building fund through the provided link on
the church Web site.
Parishioners like the convenience of electronic giving, along
with having digital records of their gifts, Allen said. Using EFT
doesn’t provide extra work for Allen, except that Fairview’s financial
software isn’t compatible with the EFT software and does require some
At Cokesbury, Matthews points out that electronic giving reduces
time spent on opening envelopes, counting money, copying checks, and
managing bounced checks. Weekly reports from the EFT company reduces
There are costs associated with EFT: Vanco charges 50 cents for each new authorization entered online and $1.50 for new authorizations entered by Vanco. Each transaction costs 25 cents.
National Church Supply Company charges 20 to 50 cents per donation.
Matthews, and Allen all indicated that a small fee is worthwhile in
exchange for the security of having “money in the bank.”
“People do see the ease of giving (with EFT), and churches see a
better flow of cash,” said Smith of the General Council on Finance and
If there’s a problem that parishioners and
pastors have with EFT, it’s the belief that giving electronically takes
away from the worship experience.
An informal survey, conducted through Holston’s weekly e-mail
newsletter, “Wednesday on the Web,” indicated that a few members share
“Our offering is an act of worship, and our worship is to be
done corporately and in a community environment,” said the Rev. Gregg
Bostick, pastor at Mt. Hermon UMC, Oak Ridge District. “With our
declining numbers, it doesn’t make sense to make it easier for people
to give and not be there.”
Church finance workers acknowledge the concern about worship
experiences. Some try to offer solutions for electronic givers who feel
left out of the traditional offering.
At Fairview, Allen offered to provide a special card for
worshippers to place in the offering plate, indicating they already
gave electronically. “No one has taken us up on it yet,” he said.
At Burks, Financial Secretary Robin Lloyd custom-makes a card
that is placed along with offering envelopes in the pews. The card
reads, “I give electronically” and provides a place for the worshipper
to write his or her name and gift amount.
“The card doesn’t mean anything to me, because I already have
the electronic record,” said Lloyd. “It just makes the giver feel
Lloyd has offered EFT to her congregation for three years, and
currently has 100 of 550 total givers committed to automatic withdrawal
of their tithes from their bank accounts.
She attributes the high number to the ease of signing up for EFT
at Burks. The annual stewardship card provides a one-step opportunity
for signing up and attaching a voided check. Lloyd also reminds members
about electronic giving through the newsletter, and promotes it to new
“Some people can’t grasp that they don’t have to write a check,”
said Lloyd. “But if you want EFT, it’s as easy as can be at Burks.”
“It’s hard to get out of the old way of doing business,” said
John Tate, Holston Conference treasurer. “It’s just a change. Most of
our systems are not yet set up to deal effectively with electronic
transfers. But once it’s set up, I think churches will find that it
There are other ways of giving
electronically besides EFT. Vanco Services offers giving options
through credit cards and debit cards as well as web donations.
Yet, many United Methodists express great concern about these
options in a society where Americans owe about $880 billion on their
credit cards, according to “The Nilson Report,” which studies credit
systems. The publication puts credit-card debt per household at $7,698
in 2006 – up nearly 5 percent from the year before.
“We should not give and then ask for God’s blessings to cover
the bill,” said Glenn Wilson, who reponded to the “Wednesday on the
Web” survey. “That bill comes with a huge interest rate. I’ve
never heard someone pray, ‘God, please meet my needs plus the daily
average interest incurred.’ It doesn’t work that way.”
Wilson is a member of First Marion UMC, Abingdon District.
“I believe that our society today lives on credit to the point
that it is unhealthy,” said the Rev. John Weatherly, retired pastor in
Morristown District. “We would only add to the problem if we start
credit-card giving. We are called to heal, not to destroy.”
Still, many people are realizing that new ways of giving are inevitable.
A Dallas Morning News poll recently found that 55 percent
of the city’s 200 local churches accept credit and/or debit cards. In
some large urban churches outside Holston Conference, ATM-like kiosks
are already available in church lobbies, where parishioners can swipe a
card and receive a printed receipt.
In an e-mail response to the “Wednesday on the Web” survey, the Rev. John Crabtree took that concept a step further:
"I can see a time in 20 or 30 years when the offering plates will have card readers where you can swipe your debit/credit card and make your offering that way,” said the pastor of Strawberry Plains UMC in Morristown District.
For information on UM-EFT, visit http://www.gcfa.org/FS_Elec_funds.html