By Kirk Petersen

Maybe a parishioner has asked you about paying his or her pledge on a smartphone. Maybe you saw an ad from a digital pledge processor saying their product can increase your income by some suspiciously precise percentage. Does your church need to take the plunge into digital giving?

The short answer: probably not.

If you want to look into digital giving, there is no shortage of options. Church-oriented payment processors include easyTithe, Pushpay, SecureGive and Tithe.ly. Sophisticated church management platforms like ACS and Servant Keeper also support digital payment. There are secular payment solutions like Vanco and Venmo.

But before you start digging into their websites, know this: Using a digital giving system will add work and cost money, and it only makes sense if your church has enough staff and cash flow to absorb those hits.

The Episcopal Church’s annual Fast Facts publication says that in 2018, there were 6,423 domestic Episcopal parishes and missions. Their median ASA (average Sunday attendance) was 53, meaning half of all churches were that size or smaller.

If that describes your church, stop reading right now. Relax – you’re not missing out. Use your excess administrative bandwidth to start a youth group or some other ministry.

All the payment processors described above are going to charge you some different combination of a flat monthly fee, a per-transaction fee (a flat amount and/or up to 3 percent), a start-up fee, and maybe more. Will digital giving increase your income enough to pay for itself? Maybe. How much cost and effort is “maybe” worth to you?

Payment processors will tell you that their products simplify bookkeeping by flowing a donor’s information directly into whatever database you’re using. Sounds great, but unless you’re going to stop accepting cash and checks, you’re still going to be using your legacy bookkeeping system as well. (Pro tip: Don’t stop accepting cash and checks.)

“Each time you add a new giving method, you add administrative work,” said Natalee Hill, associate for communications and administration at Church of St. Martin-in-the-Fields in Philadelphia. (ASA of about 250, annual plate and pledge income of $700,000.) They accept donations via direct transfer and credit cards through their ACS church management platform.  They lose a bit on each transaction, but she said “it can be worth it when more and more people do not have checks or carry cash, and prefer online methods of payment.”

Church of the Redeemer in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania (ASA 300+, plate and pledge $1.0 million plus) also uses ACS for online giving, according to Ken Garner, director of communications and stewardship. “When a parishioner decides to pay a large pledge in one lump sum in order to get their credit card miles or whatever, we take a hit. We’ve tried to educate people about the fees,” he said. “Still, people just want it, so you have to make it available.”

A recent Christianity Today article was headlined “Tithing Over Text Is Now A Multi-Billion Dollar Industry.” (Actually, no it’s not. A billion-dollar industry has revenues of a billion dollars. Payment companies may process donations adding up to billions, but knock off two zeros for a ballpark estimate of revenues.)

From the CT article:

Last year, Pushpay — a public company traded on the New Zealand Exchange — processed a record $4.2 billion in giving, up 40 percent from the year before. Its clientele includes a majority of the 100 largest US congregations, including some bringing in $140 million a year and staffing more than 500 people.

“These are not just your little mom-and-pop churches,” [company official Troy] Pollock said. “These are enterprise organizations, and the folks running [them] are high-ranking executives.”

If your church is big enough, then yes, there are potential advantages to online giving. If visitors can donate with their smartphones, you may get some spontaneous donations you otherwise would not get. If parishioners set up their pledges so a certain amount is paid every week or every month, that can help ease the typical summer slump in donations. If your church is blessed with a large number of affluent young adults who are used to paying things on their smartphone, it may well be a service worth providing.

There is a form of digital giving that’s easy to use, creates no extra work for the church and has no cost. Most large banks have offered online bill paying services for years, so you can make your pledge payment every month while you’re paying your utility bills. The difference is that the utility will get its money daily through a bank-to-bank transfer. Your church will get a physical check in the mail from the bank, unless the church is using a donation processor or otherwise paying for direct transfer.

If you’re considering anything more sophisticated than online bill paying, start with the knowledge that it will create work and cost money. Then decide how confident you are that it will be worth the cost and effort.

The author has been, at various times, a parish administrator, a finance committee member, and a professional in the financial services industry.

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