2. Management/Administration: 3. Finances

In this post will address that part of the Church’s finances which involves monies donated. At this point I am not concerned with questions of accounting or the outlay of funds. In the past we have referred to this inward flow of resources as stewardship, tithes, or offerings.[1]Traditionally these gifts were brought to the Church and physically offered during a divine service as an act of worship. Today, however, the direct link between the giver and the Church has been broken by the introduction of certain technologies. As we continue to deploy more modern devices and methods the gap between the giver, faith, and the Church is widening. The main reason given for using these technologies is to provide the members with a more pleasant and satisfying experience by making it increasingly easy for them to give. These new methods include mailed-in, direct deposit (EFT), on line, credit card, and, more recently, crowdsourced donations.

All of this is in keeping with the basic operating principles of the North American social imaginary (see posts starting Dec. 27, 2017). Our commercial mind-set, our fascination and faith in with what we think are harmless technologies, and our desire for constant progress help explain why the use of these devices seems to be growing in the Church. Perhaps it is this familiarity and trust that makes it possible to introduced these deploy these devices in the Church without much consideration of the potential damage these structures might cause. So, by way of, at least, initiating that discussion, let me look at 1) types of available technology, 2) reasons for, meanings of, and dangers inherent in these devices, and 3) the real problem and its solution.

1) Types of Available Financial Technology

One of the first steps in this direction was the use of regular mail, sometimes in combination with special dated offering envelopes, to send money to the Church. One company, for example, Church Budget Envelope & Mailing “offers boxed sets of all Sunday, special collection or monthly collection offering envelopes for the entire year… Each set of envelopes are numbered and dated…  [and] may be numbered with your current system’s numbers[2]It certainly seems plausible to suggest that this envelope system did increase the regularity of giving and thus increase the amount given, although there is little evidence to support this. However, the practice did indeed begin the process of decoupling giving and worship and encouraging the use of ever more convenient methods.

Today “60% are willing to give to their church digitally.”[3]Some of this takes place by setting up regular automatic withdrawals form the giver’s bank account which are then transferred (EFT)[4]directly to the parish account. This certainly is convenient for the parishioners and once it is setup, they never have to give it another thought and so the act of giving fades into the background. Another “digital” means of giving is the so-called “online donation.” According to Capterra a software consulting company, two-thirds of non-profit agencies surveyed, were accepting online donations. They recommend implementing this technology because

Giving your members the option of donating online or on the go is a huge benefit to your church—the more available and simpler you make the giving process, the more donations you will get. This is because when you accept donations online, you give your busy and impulsive donors the speed and simplicity they need, you make it possible for them to set up recurring donations, and also your church can start to build relationships with the younger generation of donors, as younger people are more likely to donate online.[5]

A link “donation tools” on the Caperra page takes you to a list (with descriptions and links) of 159 Donation Management programs. One example is “easyTithe”[6]which claims it is being used by over 15,000 Churches, including a number of Orthodox parishes.[7]In many cases this online giving involves the use of a credit card. According to Caperra ‘49% of all church giving transactions are made with a card.” This option is seen to be so attractive that some have suggested installing credit card readers in the Church. That way you can give simply by swiping the card. In a more recent variation on this idea online giving can now be tied into the purchases you make at other retailers. For example, one parish in Pennsylvania recently offered its members a new way to contribute.

Holy Apostles is now part of the Amazon Associates program. Next time you’d like to make a purchase from Amazon.com, first go to the church website and click on the Amazon link on the right side of the page. A percentage of everything you order during that session will be credited to our account. The amount we receive is based on how many items are ordered and shipped each month. If 1-6 items are shipped, we get 4% of the purchase price, and, if 7-30 items are shipped, we get 6%. From 31-110 items we earn 6.5%. Make a habit of going to the church website first every time you want to make an Amazon purchase and consider maximizing the amount, we earn by buying a Giant gift card and using it to buy Amazon gift cards![8]

This allows the member to seamlessly contribute a percentage of the purchases they were already going to make on Amazon to the parish. While this may be convenient, it does mean that the Church Website is actually advertising for Amazon. In other words, the Church is now working for Amazon, is yet another member of its marketing network, which, of course, Amazon recognizes and is willing to pay for. In addition, through this association the Church is actually affirming and encouraging the materialistic tendencies of its members by giving them aa readily available justification for their purchases, after all, the more they buy the more money comes to the Church. Since their extravagance will now trigger fewer and less intense pangs of conscious they will, as is Amazon’s sole intention, buy even more. At the same time, this practice fundamentally changes the meaning of Christian stewardship, that is, the money that comes to the Church is no longer a conscious, deliberate expression of faith, but rather a mindless, painless, and un-reflected byproduct of our own greed.

Now, if you don’t really want an obvious Amazon presence on your parish website you can participate in a similar arrangement by joining Amazon Smile. To do this you need to at smile.amazon.com (instead of amazon.com) where you are able to choose a charity (your parish). Once it is set up and you make purchases at the “smile”site Amazon “will donate 0.5% of the purchase price from your eligible AmazonSmile purchases. The purchase price is the amount paid for the item minus any rebates and excluding shipping & handling, gift-wrapping fees, taxes, or service charges.”[9]This amounts to an “amazing” five cents on the purchase of a $10 book. So, you would have to spend relatively large amounts in order to gain a significant donation. A purchase of $500, for example, would bring a donation $25. Given the very limited benefit and the danger of using this scheme to justify an already existing materialistic habit, might it not be more in line with the Church’s understanding of giving for the individual to forego (sacrifice) buying the book(s), etc. and giving the whole $10 or $500 to the Church. Once again, it is obvious that this is a marketing ploy offered by Amazon under the guise of philanthropy for the sole purpose of increasing its own profit. It would seem, then, that some Orthodox faithful are in danger of being used by Amazon.

Another form of this indirect giving is called “Shop with Scripts”[10]that enables you “buy gift cards for your everyday purchases such as retail stores, gas stations, restaurants, hotels, airlines and more — and our church earns money on every purchase.”[11]Obviously the level of convenience is growing, but so is the physical, personal, and spiritual gap between the act of giving and its intended context, the Church.

One final note on firms offering financial help to the Church. Not everything that comes into a parish is considered tithes and offerings. There is, for example, on the occasion of a major building project the need to raise significant sums over and above the regular giving. These are often referred to as “Capital Fund Campaigns.” These efforts “require coordination and cooperation from the organization and community. Without the support of board members, staff, and individuals within the area, a capital campaign has little to no chance of succeeding.”[12]  Managing these multi-year projects is no easy feat and for that reason many parishes turn to expert fundraisers. Once again, there are all manner of companies offering help, software, or both. Here is just a small sampling: Jeffrey Byrne and Associates,[13]Averill Fundraising Solutions,[14]Aly Sterling Philanthropy,[15]Donor Search, [16]and Double the Donation.[17]These firms use a combination of the above-mentioned technologies as well as seminars and advertising to research and target a specific group of potential donors. This appeal can range way beyond the limit of local parish membership and included what some now call crowd sourcing.[18]

Most of the opportunities for online giving referred to above are offered with an appeal to the notion that online giving may increase overall donations. Some have claimed that “Churches that accept tithing online increase overall donations by 32%.”[19]But even if giving could be increased using these technologies, we still have to ask at what it will cost the Church to realize the hoped-for increase. None of the services mentioned above are free. They all involve fees which can include the software package itself, start-up costs, fees on every transaction, as well as monthly and/or yearly membership fees.[20]So, some of that increased giving will be used to pay for these services. One firm, WebServes, concluded that “While software does pose challenges to its users, most of the research respondents agreed that Fundraising software has mostly had a positive impact on their fundraising activities…”[21].

2) Reasons, Meanings, and Dangers

So, what are the messages that come with the use online giving, credit card readers, and the like for stewardship in the Church? What are the consequences of using these devices? How do these practices change our understanding of giving, tithing? In general, it seems to me that the uncritical use of these technologies’ distances Church giving from its natural ecclesial context, trivializes it by eliminating its sacred, faith-related, sacrificial, and physical presence aspects, and redefines it in terms commerce.

Christian stewardship has always been a part of the Church’s liturgical context. As we know from Scripture and Tradition

The paying of the tithe was first and foremost an act of worship, not merely a duty. When it comes to finances, we often tend to think in secular, rather than religious concepts. We owe our moneyto the bank, the credit card company, or the IRS. God, on the other hand, gets the spiritual stuff—or at least it often plays out that way. The perspective of the Mosaic Covenant was much more holistic when it came to such matters. Rather than a nagging debt to be settled over and over again, year after year, the payment of the tithe was seen to be a privilege—an act of worship, a reasonable sacrifice, a giving back to God of a portion of that which He has given to His people.[22]

This liturgical context presupposes a close relationship between giving and the sacred, one’s faith, willingness to sacrifice, and be physically present in the temple. Removing the sacred aspect trivializes giving reducing it to just one of our many common financial transactions. On a daily basis we use EFT and credit cards, etc. to pay for a bewildering array of products. We second naturedly swipe our cards to buy gasoline, food, books, etc.  But, doesn’t reflexively(?) using these same technologies to give to the Church open us to the danger of obscuring the fact that tithing is a fundamentally different act than casually buying a book. Tithing is, after all, a command, a requirement, not an option, of our faith. So, if giving to the Church is identified, at least by association, with all those common commercial transactions, then in what sense is it still an expression of my faith, something done in response to a commandment. Moreover, the Scriptures speak, not only of skimming off some of our surplus, but giving from our substance, that is sacrificing for the Christ and His Church. Of course, a real sacrifice might be uncomfortable even painful. Why, then, do we keep promoting technologies that make things more convenient, painless for us? That certainly does not seem to fit in with Jesus talk of giving away coats, taking a cross, the narrow way, etc. Perhaps we do it because sacrifice is rarely part of our everyday experience, almost never a consideration in our ordinary commercial transactions. The distancing effect of these technologies is also apparent in the fact that they obviate the need for physical presence at the place of worship. You can now give, without even going to Church. But, in an age of declining attendance, do we really want to make it easier for our members to stay away? Biblically, this act of worship, tithing, was to take place in a special, sacred space. In other words, the act of a believer bringing an offering to God presupposes a special place of God’s particular presence. We see this clearly taught in the Old Testament. For example, in Deuteronomy 12:5–6 we read

But you shall seek the place where the Lord your God chooses, out of all your tribes, to put His name for His dwelling place; and there you shall go. There you shall take your burnt offerings, your sacrifices, your tithes, the heave offerings of your hand, your vowed offerings, your freewill offerings, and the firstborn of your herds and flocks.

The Israelites were forbidden from worshiping in any of the places frequented by the non-believing pagans. Instead there was to be a special place chosen by God Himself, which would become the one common place for the solemn rites of the faith. This was first implemented in the moveable Tabernacle in the wilderness and then, after they entered the promised land, it moved successively from Mizpeh, to Shiloh, and then finally, to the Temple in Jerusalem. So, it was to this special place of divine presence that tithes, and offerings were to be brought (Neh 12.44, 13.5, Mal 3.10). That same practice is reflected in Jesus teaching.  In Matthew 5:23-24 he says “Therefore if you bring your gift to the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar, and go your way. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift.” (See also 1 Cor 9.13, 10.18). He also commends the poor woman for bringing an offering, which was truly a sacrifice, to the temple (Mk 12.41–44, Lk 21.1-4).  As might be expected this practice of bringing offerings was continued in the early Church. In Acts 4. 34–35 we read “all who were possessors of lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of the things that were sold and laid them at the apostles’ feet.” Not long after that the practice of a weekly offering brought to the Church was established. In 1 Corinthians 16:1-3 St Paul tells the Corinthians and the Galatians “On the first day of the week let each one of you lay something aside, storing up as he may prosper, that there be no collections when I come.” The reference to Sunday seems to imply the Church as the context for, the sacred space of giving.

So, tithing is an expression of faith, an act of worship tied to the sacred space of our place of worship.  This is being challenged by the use of modern financial technology in the Church. But if we take giving out of that setting that causes it to morph into some sort of payment for services or commodity. Worse yet, allows us to tie donations to our own buying habits, giving recedes even further and is comingled with our already materialistic desires. Finally, if you no longer need to actually go to the Liturgy and worship in order to give your tithe whatever giving you still do will become just another one of your many financial transactions, akin to casually paying for a book or swiping a card to buy gasoline. Still we keep trying ever new technologies in the hope of somehow increasing giving. But this approach seems to assume that the only issue here is the amount of money that eventually lands in the parishes’ coffers. If that is our perspective, then we have adopted a “ends justifies the means” argument and have indeed fallen completely under the spell of commercialism.

3) The Real Problem and its Solution.

Unfortunately, the discussion of digital giving creates the impression that the way to increase donations is simply to make giving easier. But the data do not support this conclusion. On the one hand,  in spite of the interest in digital giving, “the largest donations tend to come by wire transfers and checks, and then by cash, digital wallet, card, and finally third party platforms (in descending order) and that, monetarily speaking, a check is still the least expensive way to give.”[23]\In other words, most giving comes through traditional, non-digital channels. So, the promise of digital giving, with all of its negative effects, does not seem to be as attractive as some have made it out to be. On the other hand, the real problem does not seem to be the technology use in giving but the fact that, in general, they don’t give at all. In spite of this new technology, overall giving to the Church is down. In 2017 “Christians [were] giving at 2.5% of income; during the Great Depression it was 3.3%,” and “37% of regular church attendees and Evangelicals [simply] don’t give [much] money to church.”[24]In light of this, it is evident that the problem is not that giving is overly inconvenient, or that the monetary technologies are not modern enough, but rather that the whole idea of giving-as-worship has been lost. So, the solution to flagging giving is not more and more modern technology, but rather solid and continuous teaching that brings the members back to the basic. How? Teaching, preaching, and highlighting and explaining the time during the service when we receive the tithes and gifts. We recently had an annual parish meeting, during which we were presented with new pledge forms for the next year. To my delight, the person leading that part of the meeting, made it very clear that what we were doing was an expression of our faith. They were starting at the top, getting the commit of parish council members to tithing and enabling them to disseminate the idea throughout the membership.

 

[1]Unfortunately, “Tithers make up only 10-25 percent of a normal congregation.” “The Ultimate List Of Online Giving Statistics,” Non-Profit Source, 2018, accessed June 28, 2018, https://nonprofitssource.com/online-giving-statistics/.

[2]“Church Buget Envelope and Mailing Company,” 2015, accessed January 3, 2019, http://churchbudget.com/cath/products/envelopes/boxed-sets.

[3]“The Ultimate List Of Online Giving Statistics.”

[4]According to the Federal Trade Commission “Electronic banking, also known as electronic fund transfer (EFT), uses computer and electronic technology in place of checks and other paper transactions. EFTs are initiated through devices like cards or codes that let you, or those you authorize, access your account. Many financial institutions use ATM or debit cards and Personal Identification Numbers (PINs) for this purpose. Some use other types of debit cards that require your signature or a scan. For example, some use radio frequency identification (RFID) or other forms of “contactless” technology that scan your information without direct contact with you. The federal Electronic Fund Transfer Act (EFT Act) covers some electronic consumer transactions.’ “Electronic Banking,” Federal Trade Commission, 2012, accessed January 3, 2019, https://www.consumer.ftc.gov/articles/0218-electronic-banking.

[5]“Online Giving for Churches: 5 Donation Tools to Grow Your Contributions,” Capterra, 2018, accessed June 28, 2018, https://blog.capterra.com/online-giving-churches-donation-tools/.

[6]“easyTithe,” Captera, 2019, accessed January 3, 2019, https://www.capterra.com/p/145191/easyTithe/.

[7]As of the end of 2018 at least seven of the fourteen parishes in the Carolina Deanery of the OCA’s Diocese of the South have online giving options shown on their web sites.

[8]https://www.holyapostleschurch.org/news_140204_2.html.

[9]“About AmazonSmile,” Amazon, 2018, accessed January 5, 2019, https://smile.amazon.com.

[10]https://www.shopwithscrip.com/learn-more.

[11]http://www.holyvirgin.net/donate/.

[12]“Capital Campaigns: The Groundbreaking Guide,” Double the Donation, 2018, accessed June 28, 2018, https://doublethedonation.com/capital-campaigns/.

[13]https://fundraisingjba.com

[14]https://averillsolutions.com

[15]https://alysterling.com

[16]https://www.donorsearch.net/capital-campaigns-guide/

[17]https://doublethedonation.com/capital-campaigns/

[18]https://www.gofundme.com

[19]“The Ultimate List Of Online Giving Statistics.”

[20]EasyTithe, for example charges up to $49 a month plus between 2.09% and 3.0% plus $0.39 per transaction. https://www.easytithe.com/pricing.htm

[21]“A Cost-Benefit Analysis of Nonprofit Fundraising Software,”  (2015). http://webserves.org/a-cost-benefit-analysis-of-nonprofit-fundraising-software/.

[22]

[23]Clam Lorenz Usman Ahmed,Understanding the Costs of Charitable Giving(PayPal, 2018), https://publicpolicy.paypal-corp.com/sites/default/files/policy/PayPal-Policy-Paper_Costs-of-Charitable-Giving.pdf.

[24]“The Ultimate List Of Online Giving Statistics.”

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