The Rev. Alex Garncarz has preached into the camera lens lately and tended his flock over the internet. He looks forward to returning to the pulpit and facing full pews.
But live-streaming services from Zion United Church of Christ in Peru has had an unexpected benefit. Garncarz launched an online giving program to facilitate tithing during the novel coronavirus pandemic and participation rocketed to 30%. Garncarz hasn’t been able to pass the collection plate but offerings are coming in, anyway.
“Our financial situation isn’t bad at all,” Garncarz said, noting that tithes are coming in from past and inactive members, too. “We’ve stepped up our efforts online – we’ve got people viewing us on YouTube – and people are supporting us electronically and with checks in the mail. We’re doing OK so far.”
Not all churches offer electronic tithing. Those that do report it’s a steadier form of income than in-person donations. Cold and flu season, winter snows and summer vacations can make the collection plate lighter whereas direct withdrawals tend to stream in heedless of germs and weather.
While not all pastors interviewed were as happy with their finances as Garncarz is with his, some acknowledged they’d pushed for online tithing and the otherwise-unwelcome pandemic has helped advanced that goal.
At Faith Church (formerly Faith Assembly of God) in Peru, contributions have fallen because some members have lost their jobs, taken pay cuts or otherwise been adversely affected by the pandemic. (It isn’t just them. Nationally, 65% of churches surveyed in April reported a decline in offerings, according to the National Association of Evangelicals).
Nevertheless, Pastor Steve Adamson confirmed that the method of giving has swung noticeably toward e-tithing.
“Giving is still down,” Adamson cautioned, “but as far as how people are giving I would say it’s gone from 25-30% (electronically) to 50-60%.”
Cameron Graper wasted no time encouraging digital sign-ups once COVID-19 hit. Graper is lead pastor of Ax Church La Salle and already had a large volume of online donors, due mainly to the relative youth of his flock. Younger worshippers are more likely to do their banking online and, by extension, more likely to tithe online.
“Before the coronavirus about 50% of our givers gave online,” Graper said. “When we hit the outbreak, we reached out immediately to our congregants to switch over how they give.”
How much has the e-tithing grown since? It’s too soon to say. Graper said he’ll need another four to six weeks to pinpoint the growth, but he anticipates a big bump.
“This has been a great push for our churches to get more tech-savvy,” Graper said.
Others aren’t close to 50% e-tithing, but nonetheless have made notable strides.
At the La Salle Catholic Parishes, the Very Rev. Paul Carlson reported 50 new online signups since the pandemic. That represents just 4% of La Salle’s 1,152 families, but Carlson termed it a “sharp” increase after years of nominal enrollment. Fifty was a figure that turned Carlson’s head.
“La Salle is still very much a cash and check town,” Carlson said. “Each parish has its own personality. I think in a small way that kind of filters into the way they like to give.”
Coronavirus spurred Pastor Jeremy Lueck into launch online giving at Oglesby Union Church. Enrollment hasn’t exploded the way it did at Zion UCC, for example, but Lueck is pleased with the early returns.
“The online portion is new and participation is probably 5-10%,” Lueck said. “Some people are using it, but our older members are still using envelopes and putting them in the mail.”
Monsignor Richard Soseman, pastor of the Peru Catholic Parishes, also is enjoying a slow buildup in online giving despite long resistance. Online giving has risen at all his three churches, most notably at St. Joseph Church where about a third participate.
That’s an impressive figure when one considers that online giving had, years ago, simply failed at Peru’s other churches. Soseman’s predecessors tried it at St. Valentine and St. Mary churches but gave up after near-zero participation.
While he’d like to see more digital tithing, many parishioners have kept the parish afloat by sending donation envelopes in via U.S. Mail.
One pastor said he hasn’t seen a boost yet in online giving, but said he’s richer for having tried to build it up.
Brett Todd is pastor at Grace United Methodist Church in La Salle and he sent out letters nudging members to keep in mind church finances even though the doors are locked. That included inviting people (but not insisting) to give online.
“It’s a lot of work – I’m not a real techie with this stuff – but we’re being forced to by the pandemic,” Todd said.
While the digital enrollment hasn’t budged – online giving is flat – Todd was taken aback by the contributions that poured in by U.S. Mail. People are spiritually hungry and Todd’s outreach hit a nerve, even if the needle on his online signups hasn’t moved much.
“It’s really quite fascinating to watch this whole thing,” he said. “We’re finding out what churches should have been doing all along.”