Tithing online: UMCs offering bank drafts, credit card payments to help members give

By Jessica Connor

The collection plate isn’t going anywhere (at least for now), but more and more United Methodist churches in South Carolina are providing a way for their members to tithe online.

Whether they offer electronic bank transfers or credit card payments, UMCs that have introduced online tithing say they are trying to respond to an increasingly online-savvy demographic who cite convenience, practicality, “green” banking and stronger stewardship among their reasons.

“It hasn’t exactly revolutionized the way we do stewardship at Mauldin UMC,” said the Rev. Smoke Kanipe, citing that less than 10 percent of their total family giving units participate. “But each year a few more people sign up.”

Many churches largely support online giving, mainly for the reasons above. Others have mixed feelings, worrying that the ritual of the collection plate will be diminished or that they will not be able to publicly model responsible giving.

Still others think the online processing fees are too high for churches, whose members still tithe with or without an online option.

And for “country churches,” such as Parnassus UMC in Blenheim, online giving options are out of the question.

“While using something like Paypal might be nice, it would be logistically difficult in this area,” said the Rev. Alex Stoops Jr. “Members are using cell phones to communicate and computers now in their homes, but welcoming electronic payment devices into the church I doubt would go over well. In some areas, wireless and even Internet wire service is not possible. … I just got to where I can get a cell signal on my AT&T phone a tenth of a mile from the church, but not in it.”

But for churches that do offer online tithing, the potential of stronger, more committed church giving is significant.

“It’s definitely not the same as placing one’s money in an offering plate, handing over a personal check or even taking the time to mail in a contribution. The loss of an intentional act of giving might prove problematic for some, particularly in a church setting,” said Rev. Ricky Howell, campus minister for Winthrop Wesley Foundation, Rock Hill. “On the other hand, I feel electronic giving also has the potential to make us more responsible – and possibly more biblically aligned – stewards.”

Responsible stewardship

Indeed, that notion of responsible stewardship is a driver for many of the churches that offer an online giving component.

Highland Park UMC, Florence, uses Click & Pledge on their website. The Rev. Michael Henderson said some members use it when they are out of town and want to make sure their offering gets paid. A larger number of members use their bank’s bill pay to send in their tithes and offerings.

“There is a very generous gentleman at Highland Park who told me he has the bank automatically send his tithe every month ‘so he doesn’t have to think about it,’ and even when he is gone away on business or vacation, he knows that his contribution will be there,” Henderson said. “I appreciate that kind of thoughtfulness in his giving. And the church can count on that money being there each month.”

Howell said the “first fruits” concept is also at play here.

“After all, if one elects for an electronic service to automatically draft a certain amount at the beginning of the month (as many of our givers do), one is essentially giving his or her first fruits (even if it’s not a straight 10 percent),” Howell said. “How often do we intend to tithe in the traditional manner right after receiving our paycheck, only to forget or instead use those funds elsewhere, discovering at the end of the month that there’s nothing left?”

The Rev. Bob Howell, senior pastor at Bethany UMC, Summerville, said his church accepts tithes through bank drafts, amounting to about 5 percent of their budget. Other items, such as child development center tuition or fees for sports camps, can all be paid by credit card. He said the church is still unsure about whether to allow tithe-paying by credit card, as credit card fees are 3 percent of the donation.

“The argument goes, ‘Is it good stewardship to spend 3 percent of a person’s tithe just to collect it?’ The counter argument says, ‘But just one or two new tithes would more than cover that expense and after that, we would have more resources for the ministry,’” Howell said.

He said the church is clearly not of one mind right now, but when the church is comfortable with doing this, it will happen.

Easy and practical

Other churches love the fact that online giving is easy for their members and practical for their administrators.

Cheraw Parish, Cheraw, is considering whether to use PayPal or some other online payment service for its members.

“So many that grew up in the churches in my charge are now living other places, and my churches have a lot of history,” said Rev. Redonia Thomas. “Also, it is a convenient way to accept tithes and offerings.”

The Rev. Barrett Alewine, whose church, St. Mark UMC, Greenwood, is exploring the online option, said we need to open as many channels as possible for people to share in God’s work.

“Just as at one time the church began receiving checks rather than cash, we now need to look at other means that are convenient for our members,” Alewine said.

Belin Memorial UMC, Murrells Inlet, accepts contributions electronically, using a service that handles everything from tuition payments for their learning center to contributions from members.

“I do feel that some people find it easier because they can have their contribution drafted right out of their account and not worry with a check,” said Robin Boyer, church administrator.

Advent UMC, Simpsonville, receives a limited amount of online giving. They use Paypal for basketball and other large events, and they auto draft some pledges on the first and 15th of each month. They are exploring whether to do more given the set up costs and high monthly fees. Dave Balduf, church administrator, said proponents cite the ease and convenience of online giving, which he said saves mailing time and postage.

Some churches prefer the easy practicality of electronic giving. For those who do the majority of their own secretarial work, Winthrop’s Howell said, electronic giving can help streamline the process.

“It saves a lot of time having money directly deposited into our account rather than having to fill out deposit slips, drive to the bank, etc.,” he said.

Kanipe said Mauldin UMC’s Finance/Stewardship committees
like online tithing because it makes for a consistent giving pattern over 12 months; they offer an electronic funds transfer option, where members download and complete a form on the website and sign up for monthly or semi-monthly withdrawals.

“Our business administrator says it makes her work easier,” Kanipe said.

Chris Malaska, church administrator at Buncombe Street UMC, Greenville, said about 30 family units have the church draft their bank accounts each month for a pledge; the number grows a little each year as more and more families become comfortable with online banking.

“It keeps the tithing coming in a little bit better in the summer months when not as many people are here,” Malaska said.

But is it ‘too’ private?

But some churches, even those that offer an online giving option, say they are concerned that as more and more people shift to tithing in private, members will not understand the importance of giving.

Henderson said placing gifts in the plate each week models stewardship for the rest of the congregation. A person might give very generously electronically, Henderson said, “Yet when the children and youth who sit near him never see him put anything in the offering plate, they may think that giving is not important.”

For the givers, too, that concept of being seen can be significant. Some churches, such as Buncombe Street, or First UMC in Myrtle Beach, offer online tithers a way to participate in the plate ritual. They printed out little cards for the pews that say “I Gave Online” for them to drop in the collection plate during worship.

“It eases their feeling of self-consciousness about the plate going by,” Malaska of Buncombe Street said.

On the other hand, Winthrop’s Howell said, perhaps people need to worry less about that and more about heeding Jesus’ words at the beginning of Matthew 6.

“Traditional giving sometimes leads to public acclaim (“look how much I put in the plate!”), while electronic giving is a bit more behind the scenes – essentially what Jesus condones in that passage,” Howell said.

Ritual of the plate

Still others mourn the loss of the ritual of the plate. While some argue that the act of going to a computer, pulling out a credit card or check and typing in the numbers is just as physical as placing a check in the plate at worship, others worry that the simplicity of an autodraft that requires little thought can diminish stewardship.

The Rev. Julie Songer Belman, associate pastor at Shandon UMC, Columbia, said she and her husband give through the plate every Sunday.

“It’s important to be present on Sunday morning – to hug, to sing, to engage and to physically offer up your gifts to God – not just your money, but everything because everything comes from God. Not just to ‘phone it in’ by an auto-draft,” Belman said. “It’s a Holy Act each week to write out our tithe check. It’s a constant reminder of where and what our priorities are, and then forces us to rely on God for everything else.”

Henderson thinks it is good to give people as many opportunities and as many ways to give as possible – to make it easy to give. But for him, the acts of writing out a check and then physically placing it in the collection plate mean a lot.

“I like to write out the amount, think about what it is going to do, and I like the act of placing it in the offering plate with the gifts from others and seeing that plate on the altar,” Henderson said. “Something about that ritual speaks to my soul.”

Bottom line

But in the end, does it really matter how the money is given if people ultimately heed God’s call to give? That is the question posed by Winthrop’s Howell, who said we need to focus on faithful stewardship by selflessly and generously responding to the needs of ministries.

“The family that is fed, the child who is taught, the college student who is given a life-changing opportunity to serve God in her community – none of these folks care whether the funds that helped them were placed in an inbox rather than an offering plate,” Howell said.

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