Come in! Come in!

"If you are a dreamer, come in. If you are a dreamer, a wisher, a liar, a Hope-er, a Pray-er, a Magic Bean buyer; if you're a pretender, come sit by my fire. For we have some flax-golden tales to spin. Come in! Come in!" -- Shel Silverstein

Monday, April 09, 2012


"Darn!" said one of our daughters, "I forgot my checkbook."

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."

I cringed.

"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!"

I grinned.

"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.)


RevRita said...

I wonder the same thing. Have you asked your pastor? I asked mine and the bookkeeper said it was too hard to keep track of who gave what on their pledges from the info the bank gave you. Bank: Deposit Smith $50. Of course, no memo line that says "Pledge," or "Flowers" or "ECW Luncheon," so maybe the bookkeeper has a point. But, then again, maybe the bank has an answer, but I don't think the bookkeeper asked.

As for credit card debt - maybe the church should only accept debit cards or direct withdrawal. Surely, there is a way around that guilt trip. Or, maybe the church could just trust the parishioner to handle his or her own finances. Does the church worry that a parishioner will consume too much sugar and therefore doesn't encourage goodies at coffee hour? I wonder.

IT said...

At our parish, we have the option to do online withdrawals rather than checks, and we exercise that option (this relieves us of the weekly hunt for the checkbook, for one thing!) Others still use the envelopes, so both systems are present.

Of course, if you pay online, you are not seen dropping an envelope in the plate. Some people may frown. It's not their business, of course, but I wonder if the envelope tradition maintains because people want to be SEEN to be giving, by their fellow pew-sitters?

Of course, some people aren't comfortable with "on line" so you have to have the option for analogue. And, people may have a special gift, or visitors may want to drop something in the plate, so passing it isn't going to go away.

I see no difference in how anyone is treated by the parish.

Muthah+ said...

I never treated pledgers differently from those who didn't mainly because I generally didn't know who pledged and who didn't. I don't remember things like that. I always asked my Stewarship chair to note if there was a big change in someone's giving patterns because it often signified something was going on in the family. But I never followed the giving patterns in the parish.

I do think that we need to find better ways to contribute--online, Paypal, whatever.

Anonymous said...

I once heard a clergyman admit as much in a sermon. He was giving an example of a needed attitude adjustment that he realized he needed to have. Interestingly enough, my family was often overlooked by him . . and we did used to give cash because the church did not provide envelopes. I asked the church admin. person about that and the response was pretty dismal. Your daughter does understand some painful truths about church donations.

Hutch said...

i would love to be able to automatically pay my "bill" to church with a credit card or by paypal - how easy is that! And most usually I have gotten a tally every so often with thank you written across it - which really doesn't feel like thank you but more like rote. I have liked having a pastor who would occassionally say, the candles cost --- this month, thanks for paying for those. Or, you gave --- to the food pantry this month - we fed this many families. I think as an instituition we need to find a way that works for everyone - and why do we need those envelopes? What a waste of money.

Matthew said...

Many churches do now take money online (and use can use a debit card so there is no debt). But, I do think pledgers get treated differently. And, I think the envelopes relate to guilt. I remember when I stopped using envelopes and started paying online instead. I would feel so guilty week after week as the plate was passed around and week after week I sit next to the same people who NEVER saw me put any money into the plate ever (and yet I was on the Vestry) and so I felt guilty. Its dumb I know. And its not just pledgers who get treated differently. The amount you give makes a difference. My former former rector never wanted to know and he instructed the treasurer to never tell him who gives what. The next rector wanted to know and insisted on knowing who pledged what amount. And I think that can poison the church if you give into it and they give huge sums of money.

Matthew said...

This post has nothing to do with the topic at hand but it has been making the rounds on various blogs, etc. Therefore, I thought you might want to know about it and was not sure how else to tell you though I suppose I could have emailed you directly. Feel free not to post this if you don't want. I mainly wanted you to see this video. Its long (an hour) and probably covers the same ground that has been covered endlessly before for decades. However, I was impressed with the first 15 minutes of the video in the way that he framed the debate and in personal terms. And how articulate he is for a 21 year old. Honestly, I dont think I knew that much about any topic when I was 21.

parodie said...

I am a "young priest" and I have tried, unsuccessfully, to convince my parish council that we should allow people to donate by automatic withdrawl (credit cards etc). My older parish council thought it was unsettling and unfitting for church: first because they simply don't trust any of this "electronic banking stuff" (all deposits should be made face to face with a teller, etc) and secondly because they can't imagine people not putting their money in the plate every single Sunday.

I absolutely think there is a generation gap. I don't really know how to fix it and, to be honest, on this issue I simply gave up. Not worth the fight. Maybe someone else will come along and encourage them to change; maybe those who are less frightened of the modern world will eventually become the parish council.

Elaine C. said...

Churches are beginning to set up links to paypal and other electronic pay services online. I believe the diocese I am in helps with the set-up costs for doing it. Pledging helps the church leadership plan for the year, but since only the treasurer and bookkeeper know who pledges -- it doesn't make any difference in how folks are treated. Now a few folks may try to flaunt their giving -- but you know what the bible says about that. (I'm not going in to detail about the angry letter written to my bishop by a person because I didn't show enough gratitude for the gift.) I make sure a thank you letter from me goes out to the pledgers (a mail-merge without $ amount) -- I write and sign it, but don't do the mechanics it -- so I don't keep track of to whom the letters are sent. We also have other forms and letters for every non-anonymous gift received. The bookkeeper sends out giving statements to everyone -- quarterly -- including end of the year -- in time for people's taxes. And of course, clergy only work on two hours on Sunday.

Kirkepiscatoid said...

I almost exclusively bank online these days. But I still write a check for church. The only reason I don't just direct deposit it from church is I believe it's important for people to see money coming up the aisle, brought to the altar, and have the priest lift the plate up. I think the SCLM needs to think of how we could symbolically acknowledge online banked gifts in the offertory, because it irks my hide to have to write a stupid check when all my other bills are online. I think we have an important piece of the liturgy that should not disappear, but we've outgrown the methodology. The symbolism still needs to be there, I think.

I use as my example the lavabo bowl. My understanding is that comes from the days when the offertory wasn't just money but crops, meat, and live chickens. The priest needed a bit of a hand washing after that. We kept it in the liturgy for a good reason, I think. What to do?

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Muthah - as a good Anglo-Catholic, I was carefully taught that I was not to know what anyone pledged and made sure everyone knew it so that it wouldn't be PERCEIVED that I was playing favorites based on pledges.

That being said, it doesn't take a rocket scientists to make a pretty good guess not only on who pledged but whose pledge was among the top 10 based on the way the Wardens, Vestry and Treasurer acted around some people. Sigh.

the parson said...

With only a nod to my obsessive side, a good envelope system and regular statements of giving are important parts of fiscal responsibility and sound auditing procedures. Good auditors check the sum of cash deposited against the amount of cash reported to be given in envelopes. That is one reason why loose cash in the collection plate is not always a good idea. Additionally, those who give can check that their contributions are being recorded properly.

With a nod to your daughter and her concern with deductions, it is not wise to rely solely upon canceled checks to document one's giving. The annual statement of giving has more clout because it should not contain any amounts written on checks for other than charitable purposes.

One might well question whether well meaning Christians should be concerned about issues of charitable deductions when considering their gifts to churches and other worthy institutions, but, the truth is that one is enabled to give more to churches and other charities by virtue of the deduction so the choice is fairly clear -- pay it to the IRS, or give it to charitable and religious purposes!

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

RevRita - sounds like the bookkeeper at your church really doesn't want to do it, is all. What difference does it make if someone gives beyond their pledge for flowers or ECW luncheon? Besides, that wouldn't go into the automatic check withdrawal. That would be an online credit card payment and - here's the thing - someone in the church office would have to note that. Well, they do already, don't they?

I haven't had the conversation with my rector, but you can bet I will. I'll give him time to take a breath after Easter, but definitely before Pentecost. It will probably take two years before the change is instituted, but y'all are giving me great talking - and rebuttal - points.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

IT - I agree: I think both options ought to be available. The Very Big conversation about 5 years ago was whether or not to "go green" with the Church newsletter and only have it available online. That's not even a discussion anymore. Even most dioceses and the church at the national/international level have very limited print copies. We have just decided to go "mostly green" with The Caucus quarterly publication of Ruach. It will be interesting to see how many members choose to have their newsletter in print form.

Which is all to say that we are in transition, I think. I'm thinking that, five years from now, we'll all look back on this conversation and wonder what the Big Deal was.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Hutch - I think we hold onto things like those envelopes b/c we're afraid, if we get rid of them, what other non-essential will we begin to cut? And, so much of what the church does is, in fact, seen as non essential to every day life.

I think it's fear.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Matthew - I hate to admit it, but I agree with you - that large pledgers - or, people who are assumed to be large pledgers - ARE treated differently than everyone else.

There was one person in my last congregation who obviously had a more than comfortable lifestyle who was also chair of Outreach. She and I disagreed sharply on the theology of Outreach. I had one. She didn't.

She complained to the Vestry. We talked about it. One of the Vestry members mused, "I don't know why she's even in a leadership position in the church. She doesn't pledge."

The room grew absolutely quiet. Doesn't pledge? Should we even allow that? Do we need to have a policy about that, many wondered?

Finally - after many, many MONTHS - the Sr. and Jr. Warden talked with her about why she didn't pledge- which turned out, of course, to be a referendum against me - but they kept her on and she began to pledge to the church. How much, someone on the Vestry asked. $280, it was reported. A year? someone else asked. The Wardens didn't flinch. Yes, but she's still a member even though she has sharp disagreements with the rector.

I understand she was voted on the Vestry the minute I left and is now one of the Wardens. I'm thinking her pledge didn't increase substantially, either.

Should it have?

Ah, the church.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Parodie - I honestly don't know how young, active, enthusiastic clergy stand the church sometime. I know those kinds of discussions wore me down, even when I was in my 50s.

I understand completely not having the discussion any further but I will say that I think it is highly symbolic of a deeper, more theological, ecclesiological issue. If the church isn't growing, it's because of attitudes about the church like this. Of course, in any event, the ordained leaders will be blamed for the decline of the church - and, bishops will stand by, either agreeing or nodding their heads in silent approval - but the truth of the matter is that, if we can't change hearts and minds about things like envelopes and checks and online banking which carry with it certain assumptions about the church, how are we going to change anything else and bring about the church the Spirit is calling into being?

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Elaine - Sigh. I hear you, my sister. I was frequently lectured sternly by an 80 something member of the Vestry b/c I didn't thank "volunteers" enough. Mind you, I tripped over myself saying thank you to everyone - including the acolytes - and, once a year, having an "appreciation Sunday" for all the various ministry groups in the church, but, apparently, that wasn't enough.

And then, I realized why. She was thinking of what people were doing in the church as "volunteering" while I was thinking of it as "ministry".

A long talk ensued. She did not - would not - could not - hear me. She thought I should spend however long it took every Monday writing out thank you notes.

I mean, what else did I have to do?

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Kirke - I agree with the symbolism of the Offertory plate - bringing all our gifts of time, talent and treasure, along with the bread and wine, to the table. I'm challenged by how we might acknowledge the contributions done by online banking. Whatever it is, SOMETHING needs to be done to acknowledge the change. It's important to do both.

My first thought is that we keep a large bowl of small crosses at the back of the church that those who do online banking can pick up and toss in the Offertory Plate while others are dropping coins and bills and checks and envelopes into it.

And, so what if others - non-pledgers, slackers and otherwise stingy people - just pick up a cross and put it in without putting in money? The symbolism is there and it's powerful.

And, if something like this is ever adapted, it will be interesting to see what "rationale" we develop around it. I've never heard the one about chickens and livestock as the reason for washing the priests hands. That's a good one. More plausible than the one I usually hear from the altar guild which is that it symbolizes when Pilot washed his hands before sending Jesus to his death.

I always thought it was because Anglicans have impeccable manners and wash before dinner. LOL.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Parson - With all due respect, isn't an online banking statement more - if not just as - reliable as envelopes and checks? Credit card statements and automatic withdrawal are all part of good, sound, fiscal practices in every other institution. Why not the church as well?

I'm not saying either/or. I am saying, in good Anglican fashion both/and. I really think time will change this practice - as it has so many other practices in the church.

And, yes: I think the choice is clear. It's the IRS or charitable giving. Why not give to the church?

Anonymous said...

At my church you can give on line via pay pal, directed deposits, or credit card. On line giving is preferred according to our church treasurer. I give via the old fashion envelop in order that my children can see the gift. I do not allow them to look in the envelop, however. I give via envelop because I want them to follow the example. The treasurer is not too happy with my giving preferance and has told me that I could just put a dollar in the envelop for the children to see and pay on line for the pledge.
Our rector does send out thank you letters. She also notes on the letters whether your pledge increased and how much you do in service via different committees. The thank you note is fine. But telling me whether my pledge has increased and the amount of service I do for the church is a bit disturbing to me. I do not know why it bothers me but it does.

the parson said...

A quick follow-up to my note about the importance of annual statements of giving.

From where I sit the issue is not method of transmittal of gifts to the church -- online, credit card, direct withdrawal, all are fine. I am a tad concerned about loose cash. Plain envelopes can be provided in the narthex for folk to use for gifts of cash, on which they can write their name. Credit is given to the donor and tracking for auditors is established.

Most importantly, whatever method one uses for transmitting one's gift, canceled checks, credit card statements and/or banking statements may not be sufficient to qualify your gifts as donations. People write checks to churches for reasons other than donations, and not all checks are deductible. Annual statements of giving should detail only qualifying donations and are accepted by the IRS more readily than are, say, canceled checks. The burden is on the church to provide the statements, but the burden is on the donor to prove that monies given are, in fact, donations.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Here's the one absolutely certain thing: The IRS is SUCH a pain.

Stephanie Ivy said...

My church does strictly offering plate. I think there is a generation gap and it's tough -- I think a lot of folks who are older might resist online offerings. But I'd love it; not just for tax purposes, but because I rarely get to an ATM. I feel bad putting in less than usual sometimes, because I'm just out of cash. I'd love to see an online option. Maybe I'll suggest it once I'm done bringing our website into this decade...

MarkBrunson said...

And, in your experience, do 'pledgers' really get treated differently than non-pledgers?


Not only that, in my experience, priests tend to extend personal interaction to their parishioners in direct proportion to the giving.

That is, perhaps, understandable, but not laudable. I find it far more disturbing to see the poor way in which we train our priests to deal with individuals - withdrawal, depression, the social ineptitude of asperger's . . . all are either ignored or simply answered with "I'm not a psychological counselor!" You may not be - that doesn't excuse you from being a spiritual counselor in a psychological crisis. I can tell you all of this from a personal perspective . . . but not just personal experience.

There is far too much of corporation in training priests. Even Fr. Jay delivered a sermon about this guy who went for baptism and kept withdrawing, time after time, and the point of the sermon was that sometimes people just can't commit to (i.e. they fail) community. I asked him, as it was an example from life, if anyone had asked why he withdrew again and again. No. I asked if there wasn't as much commitment for the community, which represents God's Love, to the individual - if there isn't a reasonable expectation of reciprocity. He admitted it was an interesting question he hadn't explored. I've yet to hear anymore about it.

Community and individual are equally important. Equally. It was Caiaphas who argued the needs of the many, remember.

Sara said...

Our church recently started offering an online payment option for pledges and flowers, which I'm grateful for. However, we will keep using our envelopes and putting our pledge in the plate, for the simple reason that we want our children to see us giving to the church and to physically involve them in this ritual (the oldest likes to put the envelope in the plate - the youngest is too young to take her turn yet). Both of us remember seeing our parents giving to the church and learning from that the importance of giving. Online payments just don't offer the opportunity to teach our children by our example.

I remember once peaking at my mother's check and being so impressed by how large the sum seemed. I doubt clicking away on a website offers the same power to inspire my own children.

Brother David said...

The Cathedral of Hope United Church of Christ in Dallas, TX, USA has an ATM machine in the narthex. You can make cash withdrawals and even make transfers from your account to the church.

Anonymous said...

Since giving is an act of worship, there is something to be said for putting an envelope in the collection plate as part of the common worship of the congregation. Also, relying only on your checks for a record of contributions is no longer sufficient for the IRS if the amount of giving exceeds a specific amount (don't remember the exact amount).

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

MarkB - Your words make me so sad. I know it happens but I want to deny it happens. My daughter says she is treated differently now that she pledges.

I see the difference in the way some bishops treat laity and clergy. If you can "help" them - even through the currency of "influence" and "connections" you are invited to all the "smart parties" at the episcopal manse.

I think we started getting in trouble when we started substituting "marketing" for "evangelism".

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Sara - My parents were also big on making sure we children gave part of our allowance money to the church.

There has got to be another way to teach children while still allowing the church to move with her people into the new age.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Brother David - Why am I repulsed by that? It's the logical next step, I suppose but I find it offensive.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Anonymous - please leave your name the next time. I don't disagree with your position. I'm just not sure what it is, exactly, that is that "something to be said" for putting an envelope into a collection plate - or, whether it has much relevance any more for post-modern worshipers.

Bateau Master said...

I am absent minded about checks and cash .... both are often absent from my being.

Well that's no good.

Therefore, through credit union bill pay I send a check to the Church every two weeks. They have a negotiable instrument and I can worry about matching socks on Sunday mornings (doesn't always happen). Now if the church had an electronic system (I don't know how they would set it up), the transfer would be by electrons rather than a paper check sent by the credit union.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

You know, I think automatic withdrawals - whether by paper or electronic transfers - are one of the best things invented for people like us who rarely carry checks or cash.

I really wish more churches/dioceses would do that.

Angela said...

Who needs credit for $20 a week? I understand the tax thing (meaning I realize it exists) but if money is so tight that you need a tax break on 20 bucks, why give at all?

Maybe this is a Catholic thing? When I drop that money in the plate, I never think of it again. We get the annual statements but they go right into the trash.

While I do think it would be convenient to have some sort of automatic withdrawal or paypal situation, I think it would be weird to treat tithing like just another one of your bills you have to pay.

2 Cor 9:7

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Angela - While I appreciate your spirituality of money, I think we have to make room for lots of people who may be more....pragmatic...about money and faith.

Believe me, if most priests could get 1/4 of most congregations to give $20 per week, they'd think it a bit of a miracle.