Giving in a Paperless Society

May 1st, 2009
This article is featured in the Money (May/June/July 2009) issue of Circuit Rider
Image © Melinda Nagy |

When I was twelve years old, my parents gave me an AM transistor radio for Christmas. I used to fall asleep at night listening to the play by play announcer for the new expansion baseball team, the Kansas City Royals. Today, my family owns more electronic gadgets than I can keep track of. We've got iPods and Mp3 players, computers, wireless modems, cell phones, and GPS devices, all making me feel a bit like a dinosaur. Thank heavens that I can turn to my teenage children to help me understand how modern electronics work.

The church also tends to run a bit behind when it comes to technology. Because our budgets are stretched so thin and we don't want to offend people, we in the church business tend to be slow to introduce new ideas or change our procedures. Maybe that is one of the reasons that we have been in decline for a number of years. If the church cannot relate to the technology of the younger generations, how will we ever relate to them in worship?

Think about it: some young adults have never written a check, but regularly make transactions online. Others, no matter what their age, are doing everything electronically so that they can collect airline miles or other perks from their card. Every other organization is reaching out to people in this way, and the church is missing a big opportunity if we shrink back in fear.

At Woods Chapel United Methodist Church, we have worked very hard to keep up with the changing culture. We know that if we cannot win and empower the next generation, eventually we will all just grow old together, waking up one day and wondering where all the young people went. One of the ways that we stay up with the changing culture is through electronic giving and paperless transactions. I remember the very first time we invited people to give by electronic funds transfer (EFT). Many in the congregation had done business electronically for years in their home and professional lives, but we had never given them the opportunity to do so at church.

Our introduction was low key. A paragraph explaining the procedure on pledge cards in our annual pledge drive and a note in the newsletter introduced the concept. I was nervous, but to my surprise, no one became upset. In fact, many of our members welcomed the opportunity to give in this way. The process was easy to get started and the people were glad to have one less check to write. For many, it is also helpful to have someone that they can talk with about how it all works. Our Associate Pastor of Finance and Administration is always available to answer any questions that people have about electronic giving. Embraced by many in the congregation, electronic giving has grown to over 25% of our annual budget.

A number of our members and constituents who have not opted for EFT still give electronically. Some go to the church's web site, where we have also made it possible to give electronically. Others go through their bank's online banking service to give.

Members are so used to paying for things electronically that we have incorporated this opportunity into our main programs. Anytime there is a fee to pay for a women's retreat, Upward Basketball, or any of our programs, the person signing up can make their registration payment on line. Purchases from the church bookstore can also be paid for electronically. The beauty of these transactions is that people can make them at home, after the church office is closed or while they are eating dessert after dinner, or even when they are out of town.

Benefits of Electronic Giving

The church likes to teach that giving to God should be regular and it should be first. Electronic giving allows this to happen. Giving by EFT is scheduled for a particular day of the month and is set for a specified amount. The person giving the gift never has to worry about whether or not they remembered to write the check, or if they spent the money that they had planned to give to God's work. Even when they are on vacation, they can rest assured that their commitment is being kept faithfully.

Many have also mentioned that giving in this manner seems more private to them. No one is ever looking over their shoulder while they write a check. They also like giving their gifts in secret and being able to check their record of giving online without calling to discuss it with a staff person.

Online giving via the web site has the benefit of spontaneity. When someone's heart is moved to give, they no longer have to wait for the Sunday morning offering plate to make its way around. Members can fire up the computer and make a gift, anytime of the day or night.

Paperless transactions also make record keeping more smooth and annual statements of giving more accurate. Electronic transactions benefit the church in other ways that just making the cash flow more predictable. Going paperless cuts handling time and costs and saves the church money because fewer staff people are needed to make the transactions and keep the records.

Leaps of Faith in Electronic Giving

We still have a long way to go with paperless giving and keeping up with cultural changes at Woods Chapel. Many people in our community have allowed their debt to get out of control so we are reluctant to encourage giving by credit cards, but many still insist on having the option to make their gifts in this manner.

I fear the appearance of ATM-style giving kiosks in the foyer, but we have investigated them online and are exploring the issues related to that leap of faith. Although these machines do not dispense money, and can be programmed to accept only debit and not credit cards (to avoid contributing to anyone's credit card debt), many in our church are concerned about having them on the property. They feel that this might make us feel too commercial and too much like the money changers were back in business. One idea that we are looking at would put the kiosk in the bookstore. It could be used for store transactions first, and then later, gradually become available for debit card giving as people became comfortable with its presence in the church. For the time being, the offering plate still circulates around the sanctuary on Sunday mornings.

If you have been nervous about inviting your people to give electronically, don't be. It never hurts to ask. People want to support their church and they are becoming more and more used to the electronic world. What seemed so strange just a few years ago has become an integral part of our culture. Create a flyer on electronic giving and place it in your brochure rack. Write an article about it in your newsletter. Start your electronic program small, give simple and clear explanations, and set the example yourself.

If you do not have someone at your church that can help you facilitate a program like this, speak to one of the other churches in your area. Any church that is doing business electronically is probably more than willing to spend some time helping you get started. After all, we are all in this Kingdom thing together.

As more and more people begin to sign up to give in this way, your pastor and church leaders will be able to relax. Summer worries about finances will be replaced by the joy of ministry. You may actually be able to sit down at the ice cream social, fire up the old transistor radio and remember the good old days.


Jeff Brinkman is an ordained elder in the Missouri Conference. He has served the Woods Chapel United Methodist Church in Lee's Summit for 15 years. This article originally appeared in Circuit Rider magazine. 

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