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Traditions aside, giving to churches turns electronic


St. Francis de Sales Church in Abingdon doesn't depend entirely on what it gathers in its traditional gold collection plates. Some parishioners now transfer funds to the church electronically from their personal savings and checking accounts.

"It is easier to contribute if you're not seeing the cash," said the Rev. Thomas Lee Phillips, pastor of the 4,400-member Harford County church that last September became the first in the Baltimore Archdiocese to offer electronic debiting.

Since then, St. Louis Parish in Howard County's Clarksville has begun a similar program. The two churches apparently are the only two in the local archdiocese to take up part of their collections electronically, according to an archdiocesan spokesman.

Although there are no figures on how many other churches in Maryland and across the country have similar programs, bank officials expect such methods to catch on -- as they have with insurance and other firms that let clients pay through direct electronic transfers.

"Many nonprofits and churches . . . are beginning to look at the electronic environment to collect donations and regular pledges," said Lisa Dykstra, assistant vice president of First National Bank of Maryland's cash management division.

Last year, the 20,000 financial institutions that participate in the National Automated Clearing House Association network handled $914 million in electronic debit payments of all types, said Linda A. Garvelink, the Virginia-based groups senior director of marketing.

For churches and other nonprofits, there are advantages over more traditional collection methods, Ms. Dykstra said. "It's very efficient because they [churches] get the funds on time and can manage their cash flow," she said. "It's something [they] can control."

For Kristie A. McCarthy, whose family is among 47 households participating at St. Francis, electronic debiting is more convenient than the old methods of contributing to collection plates or stuffing checks in envelopes mailed out by the church.

"I could never find my envelopes," the Belcamp woman said. Using the electronic system, the church gets its money even when she's out of town, she said. "I don't have to worry about it."

Richard Kutchey, a member of the church's finance committee, added that the electronic system "just doesn't forget. I don't have to write checks, which is fabulous to me."

Fitness clubs and insurance companies long have offered electronic debit programs, said Ms. Dykstra, who worked with St. Francis in setting up its program. Recently, for example, Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. started letting consumers pay their bills electronically.

The St. Francis parish first looked into the program in 1993 at a time when the church needed money to help pay off more than $280,000 remaining on a $1.4 million loan for its new building, in addition to routine bills. Michael Crockett, a member of the church's finance committee, suggested electronic debiting to the committee after seeing how successful a similar program was at his fire station.

St. Francis participants sign a form authorizing their banks to withdraw funds from their accounts on a monthly basis. On the 15th day of each month, donations automatically are deducted; they later are noted on parishioners' monthly bank statements.

For the week of Aug. 13, parishioners at St. Francis gave $2,519 through electronic debiting, which helped push the total weekly contributions to $6,858.56. The contributions can be designated for the church's regular, building or charity offerings.

Typically, about 350 families contribute to the church through envelopes, and about 1,100 families give to collection plates, Father Phillips said.

The electronic-giving helps everyone, he said. The church saves money on envelopes and mailing, has a dependable cash flow and spends less time counting the donations.

Comparative data about the similar program at St. Louis Parish in Howard County was not available because the church's associate pastor, the Rev. Jeffrey Dauses, declined to discuss it. The Clarksville church recently touted the program to parishioners in its newsletter, offering monthly or twice-monthly deductions.

The new means of giving comes at a time when Catholic churches, in particular, are looking for ways to encourage financial contributions.

The average Catholic family contributes less to its church than do members of some other denominations, according to a recent survey by Catholic University in Washington. Catholic families contribute an average of $386 each year -- compared, for example, with $1,696 per year for families belonging to Assembly of God churches.

"Ten percent of the congregation gives 90 percent of the money to run the congregation," said Father Phillips, of St. Francis. "It's an unfortunate situation."

The electronic debiting program not only makes giving easier but also allows parishioners to give privately, Father Phillips said.

Still, church and bank officials say the program has its limitations. Some parishioners may shy away from automatic deduction, they say. Still others cling to the ritual of physically dropping money or an envelope in the plate, said Father Phillips.

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