When Rev. Stuart Pike of the Greater Parish of Gaspé tacked a note on an Ecunet electronic bulletin board, asking if anyone had experience with automatic withdrawals for church donations, he got not a single reply.
But today, just 18 months later, Anglican parishes across Canada are eagerly embracing the ways of banks and utility companies and offering parishioners the option of electronic tithing.
Several parishes, such as the Church of the Epiphany in Gloucester, near Ottawa, have arranged to have their banks debit parishioners’ accounts and credit churches’ accounts, while the Diocese of Niagara has set up its own system for its parishes.
The national office of the church has also launched a pilot project in three dioceses, Athabasca, Ottawa and Toronto, to test what banks call pre-authorized remittances.
“It’s a 1990s way of sharing the financial blessings with others,” said Rev. Pat Johnston of the Church of the Epiphany, which has been using All-Year-Round giving for about a year.
Parishioners who use the system sign a form authorizing the church to debit their bank accounts by a specific amount every month. The parish pays its bank a flat monthly fee of $25 for the service.
But as some parishioners feel uncomfortable just passing the collection plate on when it comes their way, they are given envelopes with an All-Year-Round box to tick. At present, some 20 per cent of the parish uses AYR giving, which accounts for about 30 per cent of their income.
Ms. Johnston said the system helped budget planning and smoothed out church income over the year. But she harboured no illusions about it as a means of increasing financial contributions significantly. “It is just another way of giving,” she said.
Even so, Rev. David Fletcher in the Parish of Lantz, near Halifax, is eager to explore the possibilities of electronic tithing. The two-point parish averages about 160 people in the winter. But about half the members go away at some point between Easter and Thanksgiving creating cash flow problems.
To pay its bills on time, the parish runs an overdraft. The interest charges are about $900 a year. “Even if we could knock that down to a quarter of that it would help,” Mr. Fletcher said.
The Church of the Incarnation in Oakville, Ont., has used the pre-authorized payment system, which the Diocese of Niagara established over two years ago. About 50 parishes have adopted the system, which the diocese offers free of charge.
Incarnation is a young parish, with about 90 families, 20 per cent of them using electronic tithing.
Rev. Andrew Absil said the system really helps with budgeting. “We know that on the 15th of every month,” he said, “a certain amount of money will be going into the account.” But the parish is not the only beneficiary of the system. It is convenient for parishioners, too, particularly those who pay other bills with automatic withdrawals.
That church contributions show up beside mortgage, car, telephone and utility payments is an indirect benefit of the system, said Gail Holland, co-ordinator of the national church’s Anglican Appeal and organizer of the pilot project at the national office. When parishioners receive their monthly bank statements, they see how their contribution to the church compares with household expenses, which helps to put it into perspective.
The national church decided not to reinvent the wheel, Ms. Holland said, and opted to use a pre-authorized payment system established by the United Church of Canada 20 years ago. It costs parishioners 50 cents a month and is now used by United, Presbyterian and Lutheran parishes across Canada.
St. Thomas Church in Fort McMurray, Alta., in the Diocese of Athabasca has about 100 members and has been using the system since June 1997.
“It was a pilot project for the pilot project,” said Archdeacon. David Ashdown.
Response to the pilot project has been good, said Rob Saffrey, Toronto’s director of finance, and Canon Michael Iveson, director of administration for Ottawa.
Within a month of the project being publicized, more than 30 parishes in Toronto and about 20 in Ottawa asked for more information. Susan Edwards is a Toronto freelance writer.