- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 22, 2005

An Alexandria company is helping local Catholic churches boost weekly donations through automatic bank account and credit card deductions.

The process is the same as any automated bill payment: The company, Faith Direct, works with parishioners’ banks so that a predetermined amount is automatically deducted from their accounts or credit cards each month. Contributions are itemized on parishioners’ monthly statements.

For parishioners, direct-deposit contributions mean no more scrambling for the checkbook on the way out the door to Mass.

For priests, they provide a predictable stream of income.

“This makes giving more of a planned event. What happens with some people, they don’t really think that much about it — they might put money in the basket, they might not,” said Monsignor John Enzler, Archdiocese of Washington vicar general for planning and development.

Since Thanksgiving, when Father Enzler implemented Faith Direct at the Shrine of the Most Blessed Sacrament in Northwest, 107 of the parish’s 3,000 households have enrolled, resulting in more than $3,000 in electronic fund transfers each week.

Seven or eight more parishes plan to join the program in the spring, and by 2008 or 2009, Father Enzler predicts at least half of the diocese’s 141 parishes will be relying on direct deposit for their weekly offerings.

But while electronic giving may just now be catching on locally, the idea is nothing new.

Phill Martin, director of education at the National Association of Church Business Administration, said he used electronic fund transfers as a church administrator at a Texas Baptist church nearly 10 years ago.

“We’re seeing more and more vendors out there who are now providing that service,” Mr. Martin said. “Basically it’s just churches following the trend of how we all do money.”

The Bible encourages Christians to donate 10 percent of their annual income as a tithe.

“There are 350,000 churches in the country, many of them are very small and they don’t have a lot of expertise there,” said Matt Whitaker, president of Smart Payment Solutions Inc. in Arlington. “They could all benefit.”

In May 2003, Mr. Whitaker’s company started marketing a program that provides churches with a Web site allowing parishioners to select the amount and frequency of deposits. Churches pay 35 cents per transaction in addition to a monthly fee.

Though Mr. Whitaker initially marketed to Catholic parishes, the company has attracted Presbyterian and Baptist customers, he said.

Faith Direct administers its program on behalf of the church, including direct-mail marketing to parishioners’ homes. Churches are charged a yearly fee — varying from $6 to $9 according to the size of the parish — for each household that signs up. The company guarantees an increase in contributions by the end of one year or it refunds the money.

“The bottom line is the sooner that people engage in this type of giving, the better off [everyone will] be,” said Faith Direct President Brian Walsh, who started the company in 2003 and is Catholic. “Some experts say it might be seven to 10 years before checkbooks may be extinct.”

According to Susan Gibbs, spokeswoman for the Archdiocese of Washington, weekly contributions have been rising at area parishes.

The archdiocese just completed a $185 million capital campaign, the highest-grossing Catholic capital campaign per capita, she said.

Parishes are employing Faith Direct for convenience and predictability, Father Enzler said.

“Every family goes away a couple of weeks of the year, we have snow, things can happen where all of a sudden, people miss service. In most cases, you do not recover [the contributions from] those Sundays,” he said.

Households enrolled in Faith Direct increase their giving by an average of 27 percent, said Mr. Walsh, who created the direct-mail marketing campaign for the Pope John Paul II Cultural Center in the District.

Contributors can make additional gifts on church holidays or to support community programs.

Mr. Walsh said he expects Faith Direct, which is used in seven dioceses across the country, to be used in 100 churches nationwide by the end of 2006. While the company’s clients are all Catholic, Mr. Walsh said he would be receptive to doing business with other churches.

However, direct-deposit programs have sparked some controversy within the theological community.

“There is among the church some who feel that doing this is negative because it doesn’t allow the person to participate in giving as a part of worship,” Mr. Martin said.

In response, many vendors provide electronic givers with personalized cards to place in offering plates.

The bottom line, Father Enzler said, is that the church stays ahead of the curve.

“There’s a sea change taking place in the way people do business. As time goes on, we better be ready for it or we’re going to find ourselves behind the eight ball.”

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