Parishes Embrace Digital Tools to Survive and Thrive Under Coronavirus Lockdown

Catholic innovation in online giving and communications over the past decade has made sure that dioceses, parishes, schools and ministries have the financial lifelines they need.

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AUBURN, N.Y. — “This has 100% changed us as a church.”

The coronavirus pandemic’s sudden shutdown of Sunday Masses and public gatherings has sent Catholic parishes across the country scrambling. At St. Mary’s Church in Auburn, New York, parochial vicar Father Justin Miller told the Register his pastor and a team of volunteers have been juggling a huge number of tasks to get their parish connected digitally by livestreaming the Rosary and Masses and beefing up their social-media engagement.

But like many other parishes throughout the U.S., St. Mary’s was largely living week to week on Sunday collections and now is faced with the need to make a rapid transition to online giving. The parish bought a Flocknote subscription the day after Masses were suspended in the diocese and has emailed and texted parishioners on their list to consider giving online. Father Miller said a parish letter is going out as soon as possible to ask people to tithe online or enroll in direct giving through EFT (Electronic Funds Transfer). The parish is trying to upgrade its digital presence and has enlisted young adults of the parish to help with existing, but underused, social-media accounts, namely Instagram.

“It’s hard to turn on a dime and all of a sudden throw yourself into this,” he said of the transition to a full digital parish experience. And not all the scrambling has been financial.

“An outreach is underway to call parishioners and pray with them, help meet their needs, and help curb the isolation social distancing can bring,” he said.

From coast to coast in the U.S., dioceses, parishes and schools are now confronting the challenge of how to fully transition to a digital parish experience. Key to surviving and thriving amid these challenges is creating financial lifelines online.

On Thursday, March 26, the national #iGiveCatholic campaign provided a major stopgap solution for online giving for dioceses and their parishes, schools and nonprofit ministries, called #iGiveCatholicTogether. #iGiveCatholic organization retooled its website from its original purpose as the site for Catholic giving on the national day of philanthropy called Giving Tuesday. The updated website provides a page for each diocese and a drop-down menu where people can find the parish, school or nonprofit ministry they want to support. It also has peer-to-peer giving, allowing people to spread the word to friends and family about how they can give directly to each Catholic organization.

“We’re offering them an immediate way that somebody that wants to be able to give to them, and obviously can’t use cash, [can] find them and be a part of their ministry,” Cory Howat, president of #iGiveCatholic said in an interview with the Register about the new initiative.

Howat said #iGiveCatholicTogether gives dioceses, parishes, schools and nonprofit ministries an opportunity to catch their breath and have something in place while they work on permanent digital solutions.

While online giving is a decade old, Howat believed only half of parishes really got on board online giving in any fashion. Those organizations, he said, feel far more prepared to weather the crisis. The parishes that are late to adopt online giving are discovering the innovation curve has sharply shortened.

“Normally, it would have lasted for another 10 years,” he said, but now he expects that the late adopters all would be on board within “the next six months.”


Tools at the Ready

Catholic innovators have been hard at work over the past decade developing an panoply of digital-giving tools — tools which before the coronavirus were perceived as optional and are now essential for parishes, schools and ministries to keep their flocks together, their staff paid and lights on during the coronavirus pandemic.

ParishSoft, a church database management software used by the vast majority of Catholic dioceses and their parishes, has seen a major spike in demand for its online giving and text-to-give tools, which automatically integrates with its other management and accounting products.

“It makes it easier for the parish office,” Paul Knickelbein, general manager for ParishSoft, told the Register. His staff is working 20-hour days to help dioceses and parishes get signed up, because despite the existence of these products for years, “there wasn’t a felt need” in many parishes to make the switch. Many people still kept checkbooks and got out cash to contribute to the Sunday collection, even if they didn’t do that for anything else.

“Now, the felt need became abundantly clear,” he said.

Knickelbein said the data available to them showed that online giving is better for a parish’s financial health and pastoral planning anyway. Online giving makes people “more thoughtful” about giving to their parish. They no longer have to worry about forgetting to bring cash or checks to church, and if they are traveling, or a family is sick and they can’t go to Mass, their gift is still automatically processed. A church can actually budget better on this system.

“It will absolutely help them be in a stronger position on the other side of this,” he said.

Our Sunday Visitor (OSV) is another provider of online giving that saw an increase in demand from parishes and dioceses when the first diocese canceled Sunday Mass; that demand went from a trickle to a torrent.

The organization developed educational materials, marketing materials and webinars to explain online giving to parishes and help them sign up their parishioners. The idea, OSV Chief Marketing Officer Jim Weigert told the Register, was to make the transition as smooth and quickly as possible.

“It’s a pretty easy process, once you get going,” he said. “And for smaller churches, we’ve waived the setup fees and the first 90 days of monthly fees.”

Weigert explained that online giving should be a parish’s digital mainstay. While the text-to-give option is a good tool to catch one-time contributors, Catholic organizations want their supporters to be making recurrent gifts through their online giving portal.

However, he said OSV was also mindful that some parishioners would not be able to make the transition to online giving and that it was important they had a solution. They also designed for parishes customer reply envelopes with pre-paid postage, so people can send their check or cash for the collection that way.

“We want people to know that now more than ever it’s important to support your local church,” he said.

But sending cash and checks in the mail is not as secure as online giving during a pandemic. One parish volunteer (who asked that he not be named due to his parish and diocesan guidelines on speaking with the media) told the Register that thieves have hit their mailbox because they know people are mailing in donations. The parish has made an appeal for people to give online, but it has been slow. Still, he said the uptick in online giving has seen more money coming in the collection overall than before the coronavirus struck.


Robust Web Tools Needed

For all online tools, dioceses are well-positioned to negotiate stronger rates with the technology providers for their parishes and schools than if these organizations tried individually. And even so, many of them come with trial periods so they can set them up in the first place.

“We were trying to remove as many barriers as possible,” OSV’s Weigert said.

However, key to these online-giving portals is a diocese, parish, school, or nonprofit ministry having a strong web portal in the first place and mechanisms to get the word out quickly so people can sign up for online giving.

eCatholic senior evangelist Joe Garcia told the Register the company has seen the biggest demand for their digital products in their entire history.

“Saying we’re slammed might be an understatement right now,” he said. Customer support has been working “all day, every day” to help guide dioceses and parishes through what they need to do to weather the crisis.

The eCatholic team has also been busy helping dioceses get all their parishes set up with eCatholic websites and livestreaming capability. The arrangement not only gives a better rate for parishes, but it also allows the bishop to send direct messages to all his flock that get posted on parish websites. Before the coronavirus hit, eCatholic had worked with the Diocese of Pittsburgh and the Archdiocese of Los Angeles to get this set up.

eCatholic has an online giving portal called “eCatholic Payments that integrates with its website services and helps people stay on a parish website. However, they also have the flexibility to allow other online-giving portals and services to be integrated with the website.

“It’s not a business for us,” he said. “It’s a true ministry.”

Garcia said all eCatholic products are designed to be intuitive for any parish volunteer, from people who are not at all tech-savvy to people who love to code.

“We put the ease of use, first and foremost,” he said. The ethos is to “focus on your mission, and let us focus on the technology.”


Community First, Finances Second

Getting out the word about online giving isn’t just a communications challenge, but is also a community challenge.

Matthew Warner, CEO and founder of Flocknote, an email-and-text service created with Catholic dioceses and parishes in mind, explained that dioceses and parishes have to understand that people need the Church to feel virtually present in their lives and that the Church is accompanying them through this crisis. The experience of Catholic community has to come first, and the call to help support financially the church community comes second.

“You don’t get the financial part without the community part,” he said.

“A lot of people are anxious, scared and reading a lot of media that aren’t getting them a lot of hope,” Warner said. People need to be reassured “this community has a vision,” experience that community, and then be reminded “we still have costs,” even though Mass and meetings are not taking place.

Warner explained that Flocknote’s text-and-email service provides pastors an opportunity to communicate directly with their flocks whose contact information is in their databases and keep them engaged spiritually as a Christian community.

When it comes to online giving, they can use email or send a text with the link to their online-giving site to sign people up for online giving.

While the coronavirus has brought enormous disruption to Catholic life, Warner said bishops and priests need to realize that there is an opportunity right now for them to connect with their flocks like never before. And in the present crisis, when it comes to adopting these digital tools, they just need to remember the old adage about the right time to plant a tree: Tthe first time is 10 years ago; the next best time is right now.”

“There is a unique opportunity here,” he said. “Your parishioners are more motivated to connect with you than ever before.”

Peter Jesserer Smith is a Register staff writer.