Electronic giving vs. the offering plate

Electronic giving vs. the offering plate


For many churches, it’s the dreaded “summer slump” that makes electronic giving so attractive.

When 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 Minnetonka, Minn.

“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 manual posting.

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 in-house paperwork.

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.

Stripling, 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 Administration.

Changing ways

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 that concern.

“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 better.”

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 members.

“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 increases giving.”

Future shock

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