- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 5, 2002

Passing the collection plate is becoming passe. More churches and synagogues are allowing their members to charge their weekly offerings on credit cards and through automatic withdrawal from checking and savings accounts.
Church leaders say electronic giving is more convenient for parishioners because it saves them from last-minute stops at the ATM on Sunday mornings or rustling through their wallets when the collection plate passes their way.
Parishioners are also spared guilt when they don't give because they have overslept or gone on vacation.
Many church leaders say electronic giving doesn't necessarily increase the amount parishioners donate. Instead, the value comes from stabilizing giving, particularly during the summer, when vacations cause donations to dip dramatically.
"This smooths the cash flow into these churches. It makes it much easier for them to budget throughout the year," said Len Thiede, vice president of sales and marketing for Vanco Services LLC, an Eden Prairie, Minn., company that helps churches set up "e-tithing" systems.
Mr. Thiede said he does not know how many churches and synagogues have an electronic-giving system. Nationwide, about 5,000 churches that represent 17 denominations use the Vanco service, which began about five years ago and is believed to be the largest of electronic-tithing companies.
Sixty-seven percent of the parishioners at churches that use the Vanco service give monthly. Twenty percent give weekly, and 13 percent give twice a month.
Parishioners who give monthly donate an average of $2,800 annually. Weekly contributors give $3,800 annually, and twice-monthly contributors give $3,200 every year.
The company charges 25 cents per electronic transfer.
Almost all churches that use the Vanco service collect their electronic donations from checking accounts or savings accounts.
"There has been a great reluctance to use credit cards, primarily because they don't want their members to build debt," Mr. Thiede said.
A Vanco competitor, ParishPay LLC of Long Island, N.Y., started accepting credit card payments this year. ParishPay has offered electronic payment via checking- and savings-account deductions since 2001.
The deductions are made on the fifth day of each month and are transferred into a church account. ParishPay keeps 1 percent of every deduction and charges participating parishioners a monthly $1 account fee.
So far, the company is working primarily with Catholic churches. It will probably expand into other religions soon, company Vice President Andrew Goldberger said.
"Churches everywhere are looking to make it easier for their members to give," he said.
Not everyone has embraced the technology. Some church leaders complain that electronic giving takes the heart out of giving to God.
Tithing should not be considered another expense like a utility bill, said John R. Wilkerson, vice president of business and finance for the Southern Baptist Convention. He said God has often moved him to increase his regular donation to his church.
"God doesn't need the money. He already owns it," Mr. Wilkerson said.
ParishPay's bigger clients include the Archdiocese of Chicago, which serves 2.4 million Catholics in 374 parishes.
The Diocese of San Jose, Calif., which serves roughly 6,000 Catholics in about 50 churches, began using the service several months ago.
"We're in the Silicon Valley-Santa Clara area, and everyone here pays their bills electronically anyway. It's just the way people here think," said Roger Jaroch, executive director of stewardship and development.
Parishioners who use ParishPay aren't left empty-handed when the collection plate is passed around Sunday mornings. The company provides them with special envelopes to drop in the collection plate that indicate they donate electronically.
A spokeswoman for the Archdiocese of Washington said it has not signed up for the ParishPay service, although it has not ruled out using it.
Some banks in the Washington area have expressed interest in allowing their customers to automatically set aside money each month for churches and charities, according to Gretchen P. Wyatt, spokeswoman for the Maryland Bankers Association, a trade group.
Bank of America Corp., the nation's third-largest bank in terms of assets, allows its online customers to arrange for automatic deductions for any church or charity. A spokeswoman said she did not know how many customers use the service to give to churches.

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