Managing church giving in an age of electronic money

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Pre-authorized payment systems can help church finances significantly, say giving experts. Image: Destiary/Shutterstock and Jane Thornton

When St. Mark’s Anglican Church, in St. John’s, Nfld., first set up a system for receiving regular pre-authorized payments electronically from its parishioners’ bank accounts in the late 1990s, only 13 opted for it.

Two decades later, that number has grown to about 180—and it’s clear the move has saved the parish a lot of financial stress, says the Rev. Robert Cooke, priest-in-charge at St. Mark’s.

“It made a world of difference for us in terms of financial planning, budgeting, even just getting through the year without having to go into our line of credit,” he says. “This radically changed everything for us.”

For many congregations, the growth in recent years of electronic payment has meant an at-times bewildering array of new ways of accepting donations. But responding effectively to changing times, say some specialists in church giving, is less about trying to keep up with technology for its own sake, and more about remembering a few key things—including the importance of enabling and encouraging pre-authorized payments.

Setting up a system for pre-authorized payments makes it easy for parishioners to give even when they can’t make it to church, says Susan Graham-Walker, stewardship ministry associate at the Anglican Church of Canada’s national office and manager of congregational giving and stewardship for the United Church of Canada. There are a number of options for arranging these payments, she says, including the pre-authorized remittance (PAR) program first set up by the United Church, but now available to churches in other denominations; arrangements that congregations can make directly with their banks; and a monthly donation feature available through CanadaHelps, a registered charity that provides ways for churches and other charities to accept payments online.

Arrangements like these can be especially effective when combined with a physical element, such as the “stewardship token” used in some churches, says Paul Nazareth, vice-president for education and development at the Canadian Association of Gift Planners, a non-profit for professional fundraisers, and a former vice-president of CanadaHelps. Instead of putting an envelope with cash or cheque into the collection plate, congregation members who donate through pre-authorized payment place a token in the plate when it comes around. That way, Nazareth says, they’re still able to take part in the physical act of putting something in. This helps ease the anxiety they might feel about seeming not to have given anything to the church, he says, and it can also be a fun, “hands-on” activity for teaching children about stewardship.

“Basically, it just says, ‘I’m giving, but I don’t have something I can put in the plate right now,’ ” he says. “The thing is, people still want to participate in that stewardship exercise, half because they don’t want to get the ‘stink-eye’ from everybody in the pew, and the other half, actually, is because of children.”

Parishioners, however, will also sometimes want to make one-time donations apart from their weekly giving. That’s one reason, Nazareth says, why it can be useful to churches to make other forms of electronic giving available. Churches may be missing out on potential givings, he says, if they don’t arrange to put a “Donate Now” button on their website, for example.

However, he cautions, congregations should not expect that merely adopting a fashionable new payment technology will dramatically boost donations.

“Quite a number of churches now are trying to bring in the Tithe.ly, the Pushpay, that are focused on text-to-give because they think, ‘If we get [text-to-give]…young people are going to give in droves,’ ” he says. “If you think you’re going to change the culture [of giving] overnight, you’re vastly mistaken.”

Tithe.ly is a U.S.-based company that specializes in providing digital giving solutions for churches; Pushpay, a New Zealand firm, develops mobile giving applications for churches and non-profits.

Church leaders should also keep in mind, Graham-Walker says, that different congregations may have different levels of comfort with electronic payments—there’s no one-size-fits-all solution.

“There are congregations across the country where people are still putting money—cash—in an envelope, and that’s the way they give. That’s not going to really change. But in congregations where there is an influx of [new] people…we need to provide methods that are appropriate to them, and that make sense in the current world.”

When the Anglican Journal posted a question on its Facebook page earlier this year asking its followers what they thought about the idea of using debit machines in churches, answers ranged from “LOVE IT” to “Absolutely not!” Comments also revealed a range of experiences across parishes; some shared their findings and musings about new software applications such as text-to-give, or contactless payment devices; others lamented what they saw as a reluctance on the part of their fellow parishioners to embrace new technology.

“By the time we get around to considering having a debit machine, it’ll only be because the government had actually done away with paper money,” one commenter wrote.

St. Mark’s made national headlines in October 2017 after it installed a wireless debit machine. The move drew some controversy on social media, but Cooke says the negative tweeting and commenting about the device seemed to originate from outside the congregation. The idea of installing the terminal was suggested by parishioners, and the congregation has had only good things to say about it, he says.

There was also some misconception when the story came out, Cooke says, with critics apparently assuming the device is passed around the pews during the offering; in fact, it’s kept in the office for people who want to make a donation but don’t have cash, or who want to purchase tickets for parish events.

“For us, it was the next logical step in electronic giving,” he says.

Setting up ways of paying by mobile phone might make sense in churches with a lot of young congregants, since they’re especially unlikely to carry cash with them, Graham-Walker says. In some churches, practices have sprung up to allow these donors to take part in the physical act of the offerings process even though they don’t touch the plate.

“These people punch their donation in, and when the plate is being taken up to the altar, they hold their hand up with their phone on to kind of indicate, you know, ‘I’m in.’ That’s kind of a fun and informal thing, but they’re participating in their own way in the ritual that for many of us has meaning—that we are giving of ourselves back to the mission of the church,” she says.

One church to have tried text-to-give—donating with a few keystrokes on a mobile phone’s text messaging service—is St. George Maple Ridge in Maple Ridge, B.C. The church’s rector, the Rev. David Edgerton, says the parish wanted to broaden its options for the growing number of congregants who don’t carry cash, and put it in place earlier this year through Breeze ChMS, a U.S. company that specializes in church management software.

So far, relatively few St. George’s parishioners have used the text-to-give system for donations, Edgerton says—the majority of giving is in the form of cheque, cash and pre-authorized debit—but it was very easy to set up, and has proven useful also for purchases at the church, which runs a small bookshop and sells coffee as a fundraiser.

“We found that there were people who said, ‘Well, I’d like to buy a bag of coffee, but I don’t have any cash.’ So this was the solution,” he says.

For managing electronic giving generally, Graham-Walker says she advises congregations—many of which may be getting sales pitches from various potential providers—to at least consider CanadaHelps, which, she says, has expanded its range of offerings in recent years.

According to Payments Canada, a non-profit that operates systems for the clearing and settlement of payments, cash use in this country has declined by 20% since 2011, and the trend is likely to continue. Taking the place of paper money have been credit and debit cards, plus a slew of up-and-coming electronic methods that include mobile-phone payment and payment through social media, a 2017 Payments Canada study reported.

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Tali Folkins
Tali Folkins has worked as a staff reporter for the Law Times and the New Brunswick Telegraph-Journal. His writing has appeared in The Globe and Mail and The United Church Observer.

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