Monday, April 09, 2012
We were getting ready to go to the 11 AM Easter Day Service, and she looked lovely, but I was curious about why this should be a concern.
"I have cash," she explained, "but, hey, do you have a special Easter envelope? I could put my cash in there and then you'll get credit for it."
"Sure," I said, "but why not just put cash in the Offering Plate?"
"Oh, mom!", she exclaimed, like I was some fossil from a kinder, simpler day, "You should never spend money without getting some credit for it."
"Really?", I asked.
"Of course," said our wonderful daughter who is obviously more savvy about money than her mother.
"You know," she continued, "I only have checks anymore for church. It's so annoying. Everything else is either automatic withdrawal or I pay online. I even pay the guy who delivers my take-out order with my credit card. Even taxis in NYC allow you to pay with a credit card."
"The church," she said, "is the only place I go where I actually have to write a check so I have some record for the IRS. You'd be surprised how it adds up."
"Really?", I asked.
"Yes," she continued. "My tax accountant once asked me, 'So, how often do you go to church?' I figured out that it's probably 35-40 times a year, depending on my schedule. So, he asks me, 'And, how much do you put in the collection plate?' Well, it's between $10-20, every time. So, he says, 'Just do the math." And so, I did. That's easily $500-$600 per year."
"Only $500-$600?" asked Ms. Conroy.
"Well, if you don't add in the nice checks I write for Christmas and Easter, which comes to a couple thousand dollars, except I miss out on about $500-$600 for tax purposes. Which," she said as solemnly as a church mouse, "adds up."
"And," she added quite seriously, "When 'they' know how much you contribute to the church, it makes a difference in how 'they' pay attention to you. Of course, it would be nice to have a little 'thank you' note - which they don't do and I totally don't understand - but it does make a difference if you pledge."
"So now, I pledge and get envelopes - which I only use if I forget to bring my checkbook," she pronounced, as if she were revealing one of the Great Secrets of the Universe that she had only recently discovered, "So, even if I forget my silly envelope, I can still keep track of my donations. Because the church doesn't always send out a pledge statement at the end of the year."
"Which," she added, "is pretty silly, when you think about it, Mom. I mean, what other major institution still depends on its constituents to write out checks, or pay with cash and remember to put them into these silly little envelopes, which, oh by the way, must cost them money?"
I couldn't think of one.
"So, you pledge to your church?" I asked, trying not to sound too anxiously hopeful.
"Of course, Mom!", she said, hand on hip, "You think I wasn't listening to all those sermons? You guys in church are worse than NPR Pledge Drives! We get the 'Stewardship Sermons' for WEEKS!"
"It's funny," she mused as she was fishing out a $20 bill to put into my pastel pink envelope with my number marked clearly in the upper right hand corner and 'My Special Easter Offering' written over the watermark of Easter Lilies, "but, when I was a kid, I never heard the word 'Stewardship' except in church. At my institution, we have a 'Stewardship Department' with three full time employees.'
"Really?", I asked.
"Yup," she said, adding, "And, everything is done online - either PayPal or credit card. No boxes of envelopes, that's for sure. So," she asked, very seriously, "Why does the church insist on these envelopes? I mean, it's cute and quaint and all, but, really, what's up with that?"
I couldn't think of an answer.
I know it's not a very pious thought for an Easter Monday, but I find I've been thinking about her question. Why DO we do that, I wonder?
Is there a 'marketing strategy' about envelopes and church people that someone has documented? Or is it just a 'habit' we've gotten into that's now become a 'tradition' which is now the one, not-so-holy, catholic and probably apostolic addiction of Mother Church?
Is this part of the 'youth gap' the church has with the younger generation? Or, is this just something that has more to do with either an economic demographic or location - East/West Coast verses the 'heartland' or an urban/suburban/exurban/rural dynamic?
We do go to great pains to let people know that the church is a 'tax-exempt' organization and that gifts to the church are tax deductible. So, why don't we make it easier for people to both give to the church AND 'get credit' for what they contribute? Why are we playing these silly pious games around money, as if it were a sacred relic or something?
And, do we really treat 'pledgers' differently than non-pledgers? (Cringe!)
Traditionally, Easter Monday is the first day of "Bright Week" in many Catholic and Orthodox countries. Of course, Eastern Orthodox Easter is next Sunday. I'll be in Boston for the Greek Orthodox Great Vigil of Easter and "Bright Week" will begin a week from today.
In many places around the world, there will be 'egg rolling' contests and pastors will be visiting neighborhoods and blessing homes, sprinkling everything and everyone with with great silver pots of Holy Water and a sprig of fresh greenery.
It's also tradition, in some places, to play pranks and jokes on each other - especially the pastor - to commemorate the fact Jesus played a trick on the Devil and stole death away from him by opening the Gates of Hell and giving the gift of Life Eternal.
Perhaps today is a good day to consider the games and tricks we play with ourselves and others about money and spirituality and the church.
So, here's a few questions for you on this bright and beautiful Easter Monday on Rehoboth Bay: Is there a good reason for the church to continue to use checks and envelopes? Do you get a 'thank you' note' when you pledge or give a gift to the church?
Would you find it easier to be able to pay by automatic withdrawal or credit card or online? What, then, would we do with the ritual of the Offering Plates? Are you at all concerned about contributing to the credit card debt problem, or being part of even the possibility of incurring interest costs?
And, in your experience, do 'pledgers' really get treated differently than non-pledgers?
(Cringes and walks back into the kitchen in search of some yummy leftovers.)