When it comes to giving, churchgoers increasingly are asking for options beyond dropping a check or cash in the plate.
Choices have expanded to include swiping a debit or credit card on PIN-protected, ATM-like kiosks in a church lobby, giving electronically by logging in to a church website and even pressing mobile phone buttons to make an offering.
Houses of worship seem to fall into three camps in online giving. There are those that have no interest in it or are so small they don't see the need. There are those that are comfortable accepting donations with everything but credit cards. Finally, some accept donations via everything from a piggy bank to a smart phone.
Change has come slowly with churches, says Tim Whitehorn, founder and CEO of ServiceU in Memphis, Tenn., a company that designs software solutions for churches. That shouldn't be surprising, he says, since churches are typically followers, not leaders, when it comes to adopting technology. But in the past few years, electronic giving is starting to take off, he adds.
"We're now out of the early adopter stage," Whitehorn says. "Most churches are starting to take a serious look at this."
Why it's growing
The potential benefits for churches are clear: Recurring online payments -- payments set up to transfer funds from bank accounts or charged to credit cards -- help even out cash flow for weeks when attendance is down, and reflect a reality that people are carrying far less cash and using fewer checks. The 2010 Federal Reserve Payments Study found electronic payments (those made with cards and by Automated Clearing House) now exceed three-quarters of all noncash payments, while payments by check are now less than one-quarter.
Givers get convenience, sometimes miles and rewards, and a receipt. That last one is important since it gives you proof of your donation to give the IRS for tax deduction purposes.
Still, it's far from mainstream. The 2010 "View From the Pew" survey, conducted by Christianity Today International and Maximum Generosity, found that just more than a third of the 1,029 church members who responded had used a credit or debit card to give to the church in 2010. The unscientific survey polled Christian households identified through both organizations' e-newsletter subscriber lists.
Reluctant to embrace plastic
With many U.S. consumers struggling with credit card debt, some churches are hesitant to allow credit card giving.
First Baptist Church Joelton in Joelton, Tenn., is among them. The church, with average weekly worship attendance of about 800, allows gifts by debit card, but not credit card. Tennessee ranks third in the nation in per capita bankruptcy filings.
"We do not want to encourage people to go into debt. But people, especially young people, want to have the option to give electronically," says Danny Davidson, First Baptist's minister of education/administration. The church also makes available a 13-week video course on getting out of debt.
Some churches are asking for debit-only options in light of the economic downturn. Whitehorn says that option is available on the kiosks they offer, and the company is investigating offering debit-only for online giving as well. "The recession is making organizations a little more sensitive to that topic," he says.
Web-savvy larger churches have seen demand soar for electronic services. Friends Church in Yorba Linda, Calif., which averages 4,000 congregants each week, started accepting online giving in 2006. It has seen its online giving increase from 5 percent in 2006 to 45 percent today, a spokeswoman said.
At Seacoast Church, which has 14 campuses in the Carolinas and Georgia and 11,000 people attending on any given weekend, electronic giving has jumped from 5 percent of total donations to 22 percent over five years, says Glenn Wood, church administrator.
"We talk a lot about giving responsibly and budgeting," Wood says. "We also have people who want to collect the air miles. What we have said is, 'You are welcome to give via credit card. We ask that if you do, you pay it off on a monthly basis, so we do not, in essence, finance your giving to the church.'"
It's not just Christian congregations that are accepting credit cards. A growing number of Jewish synagogues offer the option as well for temple dues and other funds. For example, Congregation Rodeph Sholom in Bridgeport, Conn., began offering the option this year for dues, programs and donations. It's convenient for members and helps the synagogue regulate cash flow, says Cantor Jason H. Green.
Many churches offer classes on responsible spending. Willow Creek Church, in South Barrington, Ill., which does not accept credit cards, offers courses such as "How Families Can Cope in Tough Financial Times," workshops and one-on-one counseling through its Good Sense Ministry.
Personal finance is a significant issue for churches, says Matt Branaugh, director of editorial for Christianity Today International and a church finances blogger.
"A lot of churches recognize the debt issues a lot of people face. There's a sense from church leaders that they need to meaningfully offer resources and classes that help people with their financial management," he says. Some that offer online giving feel even more responsibility to offer that, Branaugh says.
Electronic giving offers a spontaneity that can benefit churches. Think Haiti. Donations of more than $32 million mounted quickly when people were encouraged to text $10 to the Red Cross after last year's earthquake.
Mobile phone options can help churches if there's been a local natural disaster and the pastor asks for a special donation.
"Instead of sitting in the pew with no cash or checks, they could pull out their phone, go to the church website, and click right there on their mobile phone and give," Whitehorn says.
"The mobile component continues to grow," Whitehorn says. "Younger members aren't writing checks. They're either carrying plastic or they're carrying their phone. When churches look to the future on how people are going to give, they need to take into account the mobile component."
Last fall, ServiceU expanded its online giving. Until that point, you had to be at a computer with a browser. Now they offer a mobile version so that people with BlackBerries, Androids or iPhones, for instance, can make a payment with their phone. The church's software system recognizes what kind of mobile device is being used and generates the form appropriate for that device.
"The organization doesn't have to think of the complexities of offering mobile giving. We do that for them," Whitehorn says.
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