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Posted January 12, 2006

A Success Story from the World of Cyber-Space well worth repeating

Parish giving goes electronic

By Jerry Filteau
Catholic News Service

WASHINGTON (CNS) -- As Americans move increasingly to an electronic economy, Catholic parishes are finding that many of their members prefer making their regular parish offerings by credit card or electronic cash transfer.

W. Brian Walsh, founder and president of Faith Direct, said that typically about one-fifth of envelope holders sign up for electronic giving within the first year after a parish offers that option.

Faith Direct, based in Alexandria, Va., is one of several U.S. firms that help churchgoers do a better job of stewardship by committing themselves to an automatic monthly bank account deduction or credit card charge for support of their church.

"Most people are accustomed to monthly charges" for financial transactions ranging from mortgages and car payments to utility bills and credit card bills, Walsh said.

Walsh is so certain parishes will see a substantial increase in income that he guarantees a refund of his service fee if the parish does not show an offertory increase that exceeds the fee.

In a telephone interview he told Catholic News Service that in parishes which have had the Faith Direct program for the past year the increase in giving among those who enroll in the program has been 30 percent, and that has meant an average increase in overall parish income of 8 percent.

It allows parishioners to plan their giving with "a greater sense of reflection" and provides their parishes with "more resources to operate their programs," he said.

"I think it's a great idea," said Villanova University economics professor Charles E. Zech when he was asked about electronic giving.

Zech, who specializes in research on the economics of religious organizations and has written several books on church giving patterns, said his research shows that "37 percent of regular Mass-attending Catholics base their contribution each week on what is in their checkbook that week."

"Being a good steward is hard," he said.

"Getting people to commit up front" through a regular automatically deducted amount throughout the year helps them give what they really want to give but often fail to reach "because they lack discipline," he said.

Zech said he serves as a consultant to ParishPay, a New York-based firm that offers a similar program to Catholic parishes. "I'm excited about it. It's the way to go," he said.

At a recent meeting in Providence, R.I., Walsh gave a presentation on the Faith Direct program to more than 150 clergy and lay leaders from more than 60 parishes across the Providence Diocese.

"Faith Direct serves as the complete back office for the parish, so that parish staff does not have to face additional work through this process," he said.

In addition to a monthly electronic transfer for the regular Sunday collections, parishioners using Faith Direct can designate funds for annual special collections such as those for Latin America and Catholic communications and for special occasions such as Christmas and Easter when many Catholics give a larger donation than usual. If the parish has a capital campaign or other fundraising drive, a parishioner can specify a monthly contribution for that as well.

Faith Direct charges $7 per year per parish household for parishes with 2,000 or more households. For smaller parishes, the fee per household increases, up to $12 a year per household for parishes with 500 to 999 households.

Walsh said the fee covers a range of services from marketing the plan to providing full security for electronic transactions to supplying the parish with itemized statements of all contributions. No parish could do that on its own without hiring a full-time person trained in accounting, electronic security and other areas, he said.

He said about 60 percent of parishioners who enroll in electronic giving choose to use a credit card and about 40 percent opt for a monthly electronic withdrawal from a bank account. While electronic withdrawals are generally free, the parishes must pick up the fees charged by credit card companies, which he said range from about 2.5 percent to 3.25 percent.

Proponents of automatic giving argue that almost everybody misses Mass at the home parish at least a couple of times a year because of snowstorms, illness, vacation or other reasons, and automatic giving assures a continuity of giving on those occasions.

Zech dismissed arguments that with automatic giving people might feel their church obligation fulfilled without going to Sunday Mass. That concern "has things backwards," he said, because for most Catholics parish support "is such a small part" of why they go to Mass. They don't go in order to give, but rather give when they go, he said.

For those who think of placing an offering in the basket as part of the act of worship, Faith Direct and ParishPay provide offertory cards that people can put in the basket. Zech said offerings by electronic transfer represent just another step in the evolution of offertory giving, from animals or fruits of the harvest to cash, then to checks and now to electronic payments.