Tithing Goes Digital: Parishes Adapt to Cashless Society

U.S. churches are starting to adapt to Europe’s reality, where the faithful carry cards or their mobile phones but not cash.

(photo: Faith Direct Twitter)

OMAHA, Neb. — At St. Barnabas Catholic Church in Omaha, the widow’s mite is finally going digital. After research and planning, the parish is rolling out brochures and bulletin notices about the new forms of electronic giving that will allow them to support the parish and adapt to an increasingly cashless society.

“The younger folks don’t carry cash,” remarked Father Jason Catania, the pastor of St. Barnabas. Even people in their 40s and 50s, Generation X, hardly use checks, like their parents’ generation, he added — unless it is a Sunday. “That’s the one time a week you do it.”

With an eye on the future of parish stewardship, the Catholic priest went to a presentation by the Omaha Development Institute, which emphasized the modern realities of parish giving and stewardship. Father Catania and his parish council agreed: They had to make the change, and after some research, settled on We Share  — one of the many eGiving platforms that are now available tha5 allow parishioners to give by app, online, text or even kiosk.

“The goal is to get every single one of the parishioners to enroll with a recurring gift,” he said of St. Barnabas’s 70 registered parish families.

“That way they can give whether they’re in church or not on a given Sunday,” he said, adding it would help the parish council budget and plan its priorities for growth.

Churches in Europe are already adapting to the reality that “cashless” is king. In Sweden, where 80% of transactions take place with cards and apps and not cash, churches have incorporated giving “kiosks” at the front of churches. And modern technology has made this a cost-effective option: Today’s “kiosk” is just a contactless card reader plugged into a tablet or smartphone.

The Church of England has already made the transition to embrace the cashless society and is also prepared for the “walletless” society — where people pay with phones, not plastic credit cards — by placing handheld, contactless card readers in parishes. The Church of England piloted cashless, contactless payments in 40 Anglican churches last year and is rolling out these “tap-and-go” donations in its 16,000 churches and cathedrals throughout 2018.

The Catholic Church in England has been dipping its toes into the water, as well. The Diocese of Westminister has several parishes using a text-to-donate option.

Catholic Churches in France have also been making the transition, innovating in the process. St. Francois de Molitor in Paris put together “cashless baskets” — a contactless card reader with preset options embedded in a wicker collection basket — for people to pass around during the offertory. France24 reported it took no longer than cash contributions: Parishioners select from the preset amounts, tap the card and pass the basket.


Financial Transformation

Cashless transactions have become commonplace in the U.S., and thanks to Venmo, ApplePay and Google Pay, especially among the younger generation of millennials and the rising Generation Z, who are starting to ditch plastic credit cards for paying with their phones.

Father Peter Finney III, pastor of St. Rita’s Catholic Church in New Orleans, told the Register that his parish offers Venmo as an option to parishioners and visitors who come to church and prefer to give that way. But he does not push it for his flock. Rather, the pastor invites parishioners to make giving part of their stewardship and set up their donations online. When it comes time for the offertory, he said, they put in a card that says: “I give online.”

“We’ve seen individuals increase their giving and become more thoughtful about it,” he said. His parish uses e-giving through the ParishSoft church management database.

But Father Finney said “periodic engagement” with parishioners is key to confident giving toward parish stewardship, showing maximum transparency and accountability in the use of parish resources. Approximately four times a year, he engages with parishioners about their vocation of parish stewardship, shows them where their money is going in parish bills and ministries, and invites them to have a voice in the kind of community they aspire to be with their giving.

Father Finney said this comprehensive approach has helped the parish’s transformation: Two years ago, he said, they started in a sinkhole, but have now emerged and seen a 53% increase in collections. There are multiple reasons for that, he said, “but e-giving is one of them.”


Resistance to Change  

Cory Howat, executive director of the Catholic Foundation, told the Register that parishes are starting to respond to the “complex landscape” of the increasing cashless society.

However, Howat reported, many pastors express a “real resistance” to having their people give with credit cards in church or anywhere near the worship space. A giving kiosk for people to swipe their credit cards to give is “almost nonexistent in parishes.”

“As clergy have shared with me, credit-card kiosks give off the idea of ‘money-changing tables’ in the temple,” he said. “This stigma stands even if the kiosk had an additional way of engaging parishioners, such as ministry sign-up, sharing prayer intentions, etc.”

Howat said the idea of collection baskets that have built-in card readers connected to the church’s Wi-Fi is intriguing. But many parishes on board with electronic giving instead are “migrating to online giving and not wrestling with credit-card interactions in person.”

Howat said he suspected that many in church leadership view credit cards as “too transactional” and take the view that “online giving is done in the safety of your home” and does not involve “a direct ask of the individual/family.”


Theology of the Offertory

But the challenge of cashless giving may also be a challenge of theology — and what place it has in the liturgy. The question is already being explored by other Christian churches, including those with a Eucharistic theology.

Pastor Heath Curtis of Trinity Lutheran in Worden, Illinois, a parish in the Lutheran Missouri Synod, explained in an August 2018 interview with Issues, etc. talk radio, that from the Western Church’s ancient beginnings, the offertory is related to the Eucharist, and its position in the middle of Mass, between the Liturgy of the Word and the Liturgy of the Eucharist, is deliberate. He explained the people would bring up their gifts of bread and wine to the priest, as well as the first fruits of their labor, which they offered up to God for the support of the church. These first fruits enabled the priest to offer up the bread to the Father, on behalf of the community, that would become Christ in the Eucharist.

“It absolutely matters how people give liturgically,” he said. The Offertory, he said, is not simply a transition point between the Mass of the Catechumens and the Mass of the Faithful, but for the people to “worship the Lord with the sacrifice of their giving.”

Pastor Curtis said churches need to think deliberately about how to maintain that act of worship in giving and respond to the ways in which people are giving.

He said churches should instill in parishioners the idea of “first-fruits giving,” he said — setting aside a tithe or budgeting a dedicated portion of their income to the Lord before their money goes to anything else, whether that is every week or just once a month. People who give automatically this way, can then put in the basket a token or card saying they gave online.

“My main concern is that people keep the liturgical connection to giving,” he said.


Eliminating the Summer Slump

According to the Diocese of Arlington, Virginia, approximately 60 out of 70 parishes have some form of e-giving. More than 50 parishes have opted to use FaithDirect.

Robert Mueller, executive director of the office of development, told the Register that approximately 30% of the diocesan offertory comes through e-giving, and many parishes now have 50% of their offerings through e-giving.

Father Hathaway, pastor of St. Mary’s Basilica in downtown Alexandria, Virginia, told the Register that online giving has become vital for parish planning. Currently only 30% still give in the traditional way.

E-giving, he said, has eliminated the summer financial slump in the parish, the time when parishioners are traveling, on vacation or, for whatever reason, are not physically present in church to give. But summer is when the parish finances are under the most stress.

“That is when our bills are the highest, thanks to air conditioning,” he said.

Besides that, he said, e-giving has allowed the parish to eliminate the administrative costs and paper-envelope costs involved in cash giving. The priest said the parish spent $18,000 a year on parish envelopes alone: $18 per stack multiplied by 1,000 families. Those costs are eliminated, as well as paying people to do data entry for envelopes, or the end-of-year statements.


A Cashless Leap Ahead

E-giving in a cashless society may provide parishes a way to leap ahead with tools that previously were out of reach because they lacked the staff or donor-tracking and cultivation mechanisms, explained The Catholic Foundation’s Cory Howat.

“Cashless giving then opens up new doors of opportunity,” he said. 

Howat pointed out the #iGiveCatholic campaign, which takes place online on “Giving Tuesday,” showed a 40% increase rate of acquiring new donors for parishes, schools and ministries — entities that reached people whom they wouldn’t have reached through regular mailings and who found it easier to give online.

Online giving has seen a steady climb, but he said “parishes still far underoffer cashless-giving options compared to secular organizations,” he said. But removing the barriers to giving that come with not having wallets of cash is just a first step for pastors in inviting Catholics toward greater stewardship of parishes.

“Now the key to giving in the Church is to make sure to share the impact of a gift and gratitude for that same gift increase,” he said. “Regardless of the method of giving, we still need to touch their hearts.”

Peter Jesserer Smith is a Register staff writer.