Church collection plates may go empty as electronic giving rises

ARLINGTON, Virginia Sun Jan 23, 2011 9:06am EST

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ARLINGTON, Virginia (Reuters) - Brie Hall felt awkward the first few times she passed the collection basket at her Catholic church without tossing in a donation envelope.

But it is more convenient to give her gift to God by direct debit from her checking account.

The tradition of passing the church plate might become a relic of the past, as a majority of Americans pay bills electronically and move away from using cash or writing checks.

Despite concerns about commercializing something so personal, electronic giving to churches is growing.

"You just kind of get over it ... because you know you've donated," said Hall, a communications manager for the Catholic Archdiocese of Washington, D.C.

At the Shrine of the Most Blessed Sacrament in Washington, about half of the 1,600 congregants who give regular donations do so electronically, up from 20 percent four years ago.

"For some people, they'll never change," said its pastor, Monsignor John Enzler. "Other people find it's a wonderful way to do their giving."

Along with Catholic dioceses, religious organizations such as the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America have approved electronic giving as an option for their members.

Each church can decide whether to adopt the practice, available from electronic payment processing companies since the late 1990s.

Church staff are often the toughest sell, said Vijay Jeste, product manager for electronic giving for Our Sunday Visitor, a Huntington, Indiana-based maker of donation envelopes for Catholic churches, which started offering electronic payment processing in 2009.

Reluctance to pay a fee to process collections melts away as parishes "realize that this is the way to go," Jeste said.

"This is not an option they can put off for too long," he said.

OBJECTIONS

Some church leaders object to electronic giving because they do not want parishioners piling more debt onto overloaded credit cards. Others say it interferes with the ritual of making a tangible sacrifice during the service.

"Their concern is that giving is not reduced to the act of paying a bill," said Bill Townes, vice president of convention finance for the executive committee of the Southern Baptist Convention.

The Convention does not have an official position on electronic giving and does not track it among its 45,000 member churches, Townes said.

The Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America learned the value of online donations when it made an appeal last year for victims of Haiti's earthquake, said Theo Nicolakis, its director of information technology and Internet ministries.

The archdiocese found almost 4 percent of its online visitors do not attend religious service, and about 28 percent of visitors are not even Greek Orthodox.

"We're technically reaching people who we would never reach," Nicolakis said.

The Greek Orthodox Archdiocese, an early adopter of online giving, allows donations via Facebook and cell phone texts.

"If we don't provide an easy way to give, they're going to give elsewhere," Nicolakis said.

While electronic giving has grown in popularity at Enzler's Catholic church in Washington, which signed up with payment company Faith Direct in 2006, only a quarter of the archdiocese's 140 churches have followed suit.

But last February's epic snowstorm in the Washington area converted some disbelievers, Enzler said. With many churchgoers trapped at home, he estimates the archdiocese lost about $1.4 million -- about $10,000 per church.

Parishioners miss an average of 10 services a year at their home parish, said W. Brian Walsh, founder of the Alexandria, Virginia-based Faith Direct.

Direct debit and credit card payments mean more consistent giving, according to electronic payment companies, which estimate collections increase 10 percent to 30 percent.

Since 2003, Walsh has made contracts with nearly 300 churches in 45 Catholic dioceses nationwide.

For an average parish with 1,500 families, Faith Direct charges an annual fee of about $7,800. Other companies charge a percentage of the total collection.

(Editing by Ellen Wulfhorst and Jerry Norton)

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