Electronic offertory: Clear benefits for parishioners and parishes

By Scot Landry

Do you remember what it was like before computers? Before email? Before cell phones?

While these technological advances have only been around for 10 to 20 years, it is hard for many of us that rely on them to remember clearly how we got things done before we had these tools. They have revolutionized the way we communicate and share information.

A similar evolution is taking place in the way Catholics support their parishes. Someday it is likely Catholics will look back at the era of placing envelopes, checks or cash into a weekly collection basket the same way that most of us look now at utilizing a typewriter to compose a letter.

In my household, most of our payments now are done electronically and completed monthly. My wife and I do this for convenience and for easier budgeting and record keeping. Nationally, statistics bear out that more than half of all payments are made electronically, either through online bill pay, credit cards, or EFTs (electronic fund transfers directly from your checking or savings account). Yet, until recently, our parish did not have an option to contribute to them electronically.

About 20 percent of parishes in the Archdiocese of Boston are now receiving a large number of electronic contributions. I’m convinced that there are parishioners in all of our parishes who would benefit from having this as an option. And there are clearly many benefits for parishes that adopt this new method of support.

Electronic contributions are an evolution of the way Catholics have practiced stewardship over the centuries. Stewardship involves the recognition that our blessings come ultimately from God and that God calls us to share these blessings with those in need, often through the Church.

Roughly about 50 years ago, the concept of weekly offertory envelopes took hold because most working Catholics were paid weekly they managed their finances on a week-to-week basis. This is not generally true today. Most companies pay employees either one or two times per month and many households plan their expenses monthly or even annually, driven by mortgage payments, car payments, utility bills, or large annual (or semi-annual) bills like taxes and tuition. Many Catholics also report that they definitely carry less cash than they did 10 years ago, instead relying on credit cards, debit cards and more frequent trips to the ATM for daily expenses.

So, the concept of electronic offertory is an attempt to update the way we encourage church support. It integrates church support into the way many Catholics are managing their finances and allocating their resources — with a piece reserved to share with others and give back to God.

For parishioners, electronic offertory can be much more convenient, allowing us to demonstrate a consistent commitment to our parishes, and enabling us to be reflective, not reflexive, in our support of the Church. Let me illustrate this last point. Prior to signing up for envelopes, I put cash in the offertory collection. If I intended to give $10 in the offertory collection but in my pocket I only had a $1 and a $20 bill, I faced a tough (“reflexive”) choice about which bill to give. With offertory envelopes, I typically now write out checks for the first and second collections on Sunday morning before heading to Church. But what if our family travels? Because Americans travel more than they used to, the offertory collection experiences a lot of variability. As many families know, it is tough to make longer-term plans if you don’t know how much income you can expect in a given week. With electronic offertory, parishioners typically commit to a level of support to their parish on a monthly basis for the year. This then becomes a “reflective” decision.

For parishes, the benefits of electronic offertory are many. The major benefit is that parish income is more consistent because parishioners make a monetary commitment to the parish. In a lot of cases, parish income goes up because parishioners continue to support the parish even when they aren’t there because of illness, travel, or weather. It also simplifies the work required to keep accurate records of donations and provide annual contribution statements to each parishioner (now required by the IRS to take deductions).

How does electronic offertory work? Most service providers allow parishioners to sign up online, via telephone or on a printed form to be mailed or faxed in. Typically around the 5th of a month, the monthly contribution is securely charged to the parishioner’s credit card or securely debited from the parishioner’s bank account via an electronic funds transfer. The providers email parishioners a few days prior to the date to alert them to the upcoming charge and allow them to increase the amount, decrease it or “skip a payment” if necessary. Each of the providers offer an option for parishioners to still “place something in the offertory basket,” typically a card or envelope that indicates you’ve given electronically or a card in which the parishioner can include a prayer to be brought up with the offertory.

Catholics, young and old, across the country are adopting electronic offertory at a rapid pace. It has worked to help parishes and parishioners in the suburbs and the inner-cities. Might it work well for you and your parish?

Parishes can learn more about Electronic Giving at the Fall Fundraising Forum on November 19. For more information, call 617-779-3704.

Scot Landry is Secretary for Institutional Advancement at the Archdiocese of Boston.

This article was published in The Pilot on November 13, 2009.

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