Direct Donations

When a Georgia pastor created a ‘tithing ATM’ for his church, giving increased—as did the ethical questions.

Paying your tithes may never be the same again. Although churches have long accepted credit and debit cards as part of the tithing process, one pastor is pioneering a new way of supporting the storehouse beyond the traditional offering plate.

In 2005, Marty Baker, lead pastor of Stevens Creek Church in Augusta, Ga., created the Secure Give system for his local church. Based around an ATM-like machine called a "giving kiosk," Secure Give allows users to give tithes, offerings or other donations with a single swipe of a credit or debit card. Each kiosk can be freestanding, complete with a black pedestal topped with a computer touch screen, numeric keypad and magnetic-strip reader, or it can be a tabletop unit. When a user completes a "transaction," data is immediately sent to a church's central computer system and the donor can receive both an e-mail confirmation and a printed receipt.

The idea for the system was birthed when a churchgoer approached Baker during a building drive. The man wanted to use his debit card to donate money rather than write a check. That prompted Baker to notice how fewer people—especially from the younger generation—were carrying cash in their wallets. He then delved into studying the electronic payment business. With the help of a computer programmer who attends Stevens Creek, Baker designed his machine and an ATM company built the prototype to place in the Stevens Creek lobby.

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Three years later, Baker, along with his wife, Patty, have introduced Secure Give to more than 30 churches, hospital foundations, universities, museums, ballet theatres and other organizations. Their products can be found in church lobbies of all denominations and locations, from Rochester, N.Y., to San Jose, Calif., to Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.

"People in general have been very receptive to the kiosks," Baker says. "Some were a little intimidated at first, but the system is very user-friendly. They are excited to have different options in which they can donate to their church."

If It Works at Home ...

The 1,100-member Stevens Creek uses three giving kiosks, though the church certainly hasn't discontinued "traditional" giving. Many of those who use the system place their receipts in the regular offering basket.

"The Bible talks about bringing your offerings to the church, and [Stevens Creek attendees] like the feeling of dropping their offering in the plate," Patty Baker adds. "We also believe that your offering is part of worship, so that's how they participate."

Worshipers from other churches apparently feel the same. In Hilton Head, S.C., Central Church installed a giving kiosk a year ago and has heard nary a complaint.

"We bought it to see how it would work in our church," says administrative pastor Aaron Thielemier. "So many of our attendees are on the edge of technology, and like most of the younger generation, they simply don't carry cash. But just because they don't carry cash doesn't mean they don't have a heart for giving. [The kiosk] keeps the concept of giving in front of them, and it is always available. ... My grandmother asks, 'Why do you have an ATM in your lobby?' But that's a good thing. It's a great icebreaker and if they need assistance, we're here to give it."

Of course, the kiosk idea isn't always an instant hit. "It's been a challenge to get people to use it," says Troy McCoy, administrative pastor at Calvary Christian Center in Ormond Beach, Fla. "Before we acquired [the Secure Give system] we had tithe envelopes with space to write your credit card number, so we are trying to change that mentality."

For those still uneasy about swiping a card for their tithe, their reluctance at using the system is understandable. This is, after all, about more than just installing an ATM in a church lobby. For starters, there is the obvious case of good motives meeting bad execution. A churchgoer who's unwise with money, for example, now has the opportunity to grow deeper in debt by tithing with a credit card.

Baker factored this in, which is why the Secure Give system can be set up for churches that use debit cards only. In fact, that's often to a church's advantage. If a church chooses to be debit only, the transaction fees are minimal. On the other hand, if a congregation accepts credit cards, a 2 to 3 percent fee (on average) is discounted from the contribution.

"When a contributor donates $1,000 with a credit card," Baker offers as an example, "it costs the church around $20 to process the gift. When a contributor donates $1,000 with a debit card using his PIN number, it costs the church 75 cents." He points out that most churches offer some sort of financial management class, and "if the people are taught about biblical finances, then using a credit card for gas, groceries—or giving—is not a problem."

It's also less of a dilemma than some may think for the churches open to electronic giving. "This may make some people cringe," Baker says, "but in reality electronic gifts do not require as much administrative work on the local church. There is a portion of every tithe dollar that goes to administration, whether it is collected by traditional means or from a giving kiosk. As a pastor, I want to keep as much money as possible in ministry."

So far, he seems to have succeeded within his own church. Last year, Stevens Creek took in more than $200,000 through the kiosks. It expects that to increase this year to at least $250,000. In February of this year, another church using the Secure Give system received $2,500 by using one kiosk. The following month it added two more and giving jumped to $16,500 through the kiosks alone.

Safe, Sound and Heaven-bent

Besides potentially affecting giving, Secure Give also adds a level of security. Stevens Creek experienced this firsthand in November 2005.

"The collection from a Sunday's offering was deposited at the local bank on Monday," Baker recalls. "Tuesday the local branch transferred the deposit to their home office via a courier. The courier was robbed. Our office staff had to call 116 families and ask them to stop payment on their check and to close their bank account. It was announced that day, 'If you donated at the giving kiosk, your gifts were secure.'"

In addition, many prefer the perks that come along with using the cards. "Some use their American Express to get SkyMiles," says Terry Taylor, whose Family Church of West Monroe, La., has had a kiosk for nearly two years. "Convenience is the main thing, and there just aren't many disadvantages. If I had to think of a negative, I guess it would be that perhaps there is that lost moment when couples would pray over their offering as they placed it in the offering."

Fundamentalists would add that there is a deeper moral dilemma of contributing to the diluting of a sacred act of worship. It's bad enough some churches accept credit cards, they argue. Baker is quick to point out, however, that there is a difference between using credit cards to purchase products at a church's bookstore and to make a tithe or offering.

"Secure Give focuses on donations and not products," he says. "A person would receive a product from their swipe of the card at the bookstore. When they swipe a card at the kiosk, they are laying up treasures in heaven."

Baker, an ordained bishop in the Church of God (Cleveland, Tenn.), acknowledges the doubters. But he also believes the church's culture will see a dramatic shift as more cards begin to replace cash. The next few years, he says, "could be comparable to another upheaval centuries ago, when offerings of grain and animals were replaced with what was then the newfangled medium of money. ... I'll bet that caused a stir too."

Cameron Fisher is from Cleveland, Tenn., where he works with Church of God Communications as an editor, writer and Internet ministry coordinator.

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