For most of his life, Frank Robert was like many churchgoers who came of age in the United States in the 20th century: It was routine to drop a check or a few bills in the collection plate every Sunday.
But it was always nerve-racking to scrounge up cash or find the checkbook on his way out the door to the pews.
So the 59-year-old financial educator made a decision more and more American churchgoers and church officials have been making over the past decade and a half: He switched to electronic giving.
“Now that I’m giving online, things are calmer at the house on Sunday mornings," said Robert, a member of the lay finance council at St. Paul’s United Methodist Church in Sykesville. “And when you think about it, giving online is really just a way for churches to keep up with the culture.”
Nearly two centuries after passing a collection plate during worship services became common in American churches, attitudes toward the familiar tradition are changing.
“Tithing is my family’s top financial priority, and for years and years, I sat down and wrote a check every month. Now we pay it along with the electric bill. It’s where this culture is at.”— Rev. Bill Thomas
A 2017 national survey by GivePlus, a financial management company that works with faith-based organizations, found that 62% of regular churchgoers say they’d rather tithe or otherwise contribute by way of computer, smartphone, tablet or card reader than the collection plate. For those between 25 and 34 years of age, it was 75%.
Older churchgoers have been slower to embrace the practice, but their interest is closing the gap: 62% of respondents from 45 to 54 said they’d rather give electronically, and 58% from 66 to 74 agreed.
The Rev. Bill Thomas, pastor of Hereford Faith and Light Church in Baltimore County, said his congregation has offered electronic giving options for about a decade. Although post-World War II baby boomers have been “the hardest sell” ― “they’re used to writing a check [and] putting their gift in a pledge envelope,” he said ― they now make up about half his members who’ve gone online.
Thomas, 67, is one of them.
“Tithing is my family’s top financial priority, and for years and years, I sat down and wrote a check every month," he says. “Now we pay it along with the electric bill. It’s where this culture is at.”
Behavior still lags behind changing attitudes.
Only about 20% of Thomas’ 200 or so congregants give online, a typical figure for churches that offer the option. And only about a third of the nearly 350,000 Christian churches in the United States do.
Many congregations are still too small to afford the relatively modest startup costs and transaction fees associated with hiring one of the growing number of third-party providers churches use.
Paul Eichelberger, the treasurer and chief financial officer of the Baltimore-Washington Conference of the United Methodist Church, says about two-thirds of the Methodist churches in the U.S., for example, attract fewer than 100 attendees each Sunday.
That makes it harder to provide the electronic transfer capabilities, mobile apps, text giving platforms and e-kiosks that firms such as e-Zekiel, Tithe.ly and PushPay can furnish, typically charging in the neighborhood of $10 per month and 1% to 2.75% per transaction for their services.
The Rev. Michael White said those that can make the switch should.
White, pastor of Church of the Nativity, a Roman Catholic parish in Timonium, co-authored a book released in September called “ChurchMoney: Rebuilding the Way We Fund Our Mission.”
One of his book’s themes: Of all the threats facing American churches today, the most critical is their need for money.
As crass as that might sound, White said, no church can carry out its larger mission without sufficient funding. And at a time when church attendance is in sharp decline, several denominations are dealing with the fallout from scandals, and older congregations are struggling just to maintain their buildings, it’s foolish to leave unnecessary barriers to giving in place.
After all, he said, a number of studies show that churches that offer online giving enjoy a revenue boost of more than 25%, on average.
“People don’t carry cash or checks, but they do bring their smartphones to church," White said. "The phone is practically the new wallet. If people can give by sending a text, they’re far more likely to participate and help fund the missions we all believe in.”
Nativity’s 4,000 parishioners can tithe or donate by credit card, e-check, electronic funds transfer and even at electronic kiosks in the lobby.
About 60% of the parish’s offertory transactions come electronically, and 52% of its members give online, the top figures in the Archdiocese of Baltimore.
White points out that the trend also helps church leaders “get out of the business of collecting, bagging, storing, counting and depositing checks,” all of which detract from their mission work.
“Electronic giving isn’t the next generation of giving,” wrote White and his co-author, Nativity pastoral associate Tom Corcoran, in ChurchMoney, still a top 20 seller in the church administration and church stewardship categories on Amazon.com. “It’s the new normal.”
In some ways, the trend’s benefits are logistical.
Church leaders across denominations complain that a growing number of weekend activities, including children’s sports, has stepped up competition for congregants’ time on Sundays, adding to the perennial challenges of illness and inclement weather.
According to ChurchMoney, even those who call themselves regular attendees are absent from their home church more than 30% of the time.
The increasingly popular option of setting up weekly, biweekly or monthly electronic donations can offset those losses, and it has the added advantage of helping donors stick to a budget and helping to regularize cash flow for church business managers.
About a third of the 620 churches in the United Methodists’ Baltimore-Washington Conference offer the option, and Eichelberger said that has helped them deal with a longstanding trend — giving measurably flattens between May and August and as much as doubles as the end-of-year holidays approach.
“That can be a real hindrance to church operations, especially during the summer months,” he said. “E-giving is a chance to get ahead of that.”
For all its benefits, the online trend still faces obstacles.
For some, the act of putting something in a collection plate or basket still feels essential to a worship service. For others, it’s a chance to set an example for younger churchgoers or, some admit, just to make a public show of their faith.
It’s for them that many churches now offer cards a worshiper can drop in, allowing even electronic donors to take part in the physical tradition.
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In the meantime, advocates of electronic giving advise even churches that have adopted it to continue to pitch the idea to those in the pews.
White said he mentions the options frequently during services.
Robert, the Sykesville churchgoer, is an official with the Mid-Atlantic United Methodist Foundation, a nonprofit that counsels congregations on stewardship and investment, in addition to his lay duties.
He helped devise a program in 2017 in which St. Paul’s church leaders spoke from the pulpit about e-giving programs for five straight Sundays.
The goal was to win 40 converts in the church, which averages about 200 attendees per Sunday. They netted 39.
The changes boosted offertory giving by about 20%.
“It’s about bringing 21st-century business practices into the church,” Robert said. “We want to thrive, not just survive.”