This story appeared on the AP national wire and ran on Page A10 of The Washington Post.

February 12, 2003, Wednesday, BC cycle
‘E-tithing’ catching on in some denominations, helps churches keep revenue steady

BYLINE: By BOBBY ROSS JR., Associated Press Writer

SECTION: Domestic News

LENGTH: 866 words

DATELINE: NASHVILLE, Tenn.

For Sally Hanneman, church giving has gone high-tech.

The 47-year-old physical therapist used to scramble to write a check as the collection plate approached on Sunday mornings. Not anymore – now she contributes through an automatic withdrawal from her bank account.

“It just makes life a lot easier,” said Hanneman, a member of St. John’s Lutheran Church in Nashville.

In an era when an estimated 60 percent of Americans get their paychecks through direct deposit and half of U.S. households pay at least one bill electronically, some religious leaders see “e-tithing” as a logical step.

It works like this: Members fill out a form providing a bank or savings account number and the amount they want the church to withdraw weekly, semi-monthly or monthly.

“It’s just keeping up with what’s available at this point and time technologically,” said the Rev. Michael T. Kontogiorgis, assistant chancellor of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America.

Others, who disapprove of e-tithing, say it sells out the idea of consciously making a gift to God.

“It’s a way to be out of sight, out of mind,” said Jack Wilkerson, the Southern Baptist Convention’s vice president for business and finance. “Mainline denominations are using it today because … they’re looking for any way to prop up sagging giving.”

From the United Methodist Church to major Roman Catholic dioceses, several large religious denominations are testing the method, some even allowing members to give by credit card.

Part of the idea is to reduce fluctuations in giving from week to week.

“People want to live up to their commitment to stewardship, but they miss church for a variety of reasons, whether it be a vacation in the summertime or snowbirds going South in the wintertime,” said Len Thiede, vice president of sales and marketing for Vanco Services.

The Eden Prairie, Minn., company processes electronic funds transfers for churches in 18 denominations. Its clients include Thrivent Financial Services for Lutherans, a Minneapolis financial services organization that manages the denomination’s “Simply Giving” program.

More than 5,000 Lutheran churches and schools accept electronic contributions through the program, which started in 1998.

The company charges 25 cents per transaction, but Thiede calls that a bargain.

“It’s so inexpensive that if a member would have missed one Sunday during the year, it’s more than enough to cover the cost of it for the whole year,” he said.

Advocates acknowledge that they have no real evidence that e-tithing increases overall giving.

“It’s all anecdotal,” Thiede said. “The congregations tell us it definitely does.”

The United Methodist Church which reported a dip in its national funds in 2002, is banking on it. The denomination’s General Council on Finance and Administration reached a deal with Vanco to make the program available to its 35,000 churches starting in January.

However, it’s a voluntary program and not all Methodists support it.

“We can electronically take out our phone bills and our insurance premiums and all sorts of stuff, but giving is something different,” said the Rev. Terry Little, treasurer for the United Methodist Church’s Tennessee conference. “That’s something that needs to be done consciously.”

At most congregations that offer e-tithing, only about 10 percent to 20 percent of members participate – although advocates say those numbers will rise as Americans become more familiar with the concept.

The Rev. Larry Richardson, pastor of Christ Lutheran Church in Nashville, takes care of his car payment, his mortgage – and his tithe – automatically. But only about of the dozen of the 135 families at his church do the same.

“I think it’s a matter of personal preference,” Richardson said. “We have some people that do like to physically place something in the offering plate. I understand that.”

To ease that concern, companies that provide e-tithing services typically mail participants receipts or cards that they can place in the collection basket.

“This also helps to demonstrate to other members that electronic giving is something that’s going on,” said Joe Mohen, founder of New York-based ParishPay, which allows parishioners to make donations by credit and debit cards and electronic fund transfers.

Mohen, a Roman Catholic, founded ParishPay in June 2001. Formerly the CEO of election.com – which conducts elections on the Internet – he said the idea came when he realized that because of his frequent traveling, he had given little to his home church.

ParishPay signed contracts recently with the Archdiocese of Chicago and the Diocese of San Jose, Calif., making its services available to 1,000 churches with 2.9 million parishioners. The company also started a pilot program with about 20 of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America’s 520 parishes.

Mohen predicts rapid growth in e-tithing over the next year. Too many church leaders have recognize that weekly giving dips when it rains or snows, he said.

“You just can’t operate a church that way,” he said. “What we’re leading here is a major paradigm shift. It’s not a question of if, it’s a matter of how fast.”

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