Churches Weigh the Credit Card Question

Leaders wrestle with payment option for online giving.

Bryce Collman spent years as an executive in the electronic payment processing business. He saw an opportunity at the end of 2009 to start a company that offers churches lower rates for processing credit and debit card transactions, and he was eager to spread the word.

But visits to church leaders to tout his money-saving method produced several surprising responses. “As we talked with organizations, churches specifically told us, ‘No credit,'” Collman recalls. “A Dallas-area church did not want to put their members at risk of creating debt in order to support the church. They were adamant about it.” He responded by developing an option for online giving that he says will reject a credit card if someone tries to use one.

Churches who have adopted online giving generally say it steadies their weekly giving patterns, since someone can still tithe regardless of whether they’re sitting in church on Sunday. As online giving grows more popular—one-third in the “2010 View from the Pew” survey say they regularly give online—Collman says he expects more churches to look into the debit-only option from his Texas-based Ardent Giving Solutions

The reason: church leaders likely hear horror stories about credit card debt through personal finance ministries like Financial Peace and Crown Financial, but still want the benefits of online giving, forcing them to wrestle with this question: Are credit cards appropriate for tithing?

For some, the answer already is yes. Aside from more predictable weekly giving patterns, “we are fast moving to a cashless society,” says Glenn Wood, church administrator for Seacoast Church, where 10,500 people attend each week at 13 campuses in the Southeast. “We need to adapt along with that.” And many people treat a credit card like a tool, making purchases to collect points, and then paying off the balances each month so that no interest accrues. Some enjoy cashing in those points for things like airline miles to help with missions trips, leaders say.

At Seacoast, more than 20 percent of its total giving this year has come from electronic giving, up from just 5 percent in 2005. At Faith Promise Church in Knoxville, Tennessee, about 40 percent of the weekly collections from 3,600 people come electronically, says Aaron Goin, finance director.

Wood and others point out that some congregants bounce checks or possess insufficient funds for electronic bill payments, or they tithe with cash or check, only to rack up thousands in debt while shopping. Wood says his church tells its givers to pay off balances each month; it also offers stewardship and personal finance classes to teach sound money practices, regardless the payment preference.

Preventing congregants from using credit cards would legislate how people can or can’t give, Wood says.

“I don’t think we want to become a nanny church,” says John Gordon, executive pastor of the Wayside Church in San Antonio. Many churches use credit cards for staff members to cover monthly business expenses, Gordon adds. “If you’re going to take the stance of absolutely no credit cards, if you have these other venues, are you going to be consistent across the board?” he asks.

Others see things differently, though. While overall credit card debt has fallen slightly in 2010, the average American still carries nearly $4,600 in balances, according to an August report from TransUnion, a credit bureau. Personal finance ministries urge people to avoid credit card use; in Proverbs, followers learn they should “honor the Lord with your wealth, with the firstfruits of all your crops,” (Proverbs 3:9-10, NIV). Paul’s instruction to “let no debt remain outstanding,” (Romans 13:8, NIV) suggests a “no debt” position.

That makes the use of credit cards through online giving appear contradictory, says Mark Brockman, administrative pastor of Crestwood Baptist Church in Kentucky. “We are discouraging debt and we do not want to put anyone in a situation where a contribution to the church might contribute to their debt,” he says.

ServiceU, a company offering online giving and event registration to churches and businesses since 2002, has never been asked about a debit-only option, says Tim Whitehorn, its president and chief executive. He anticipates the question with credit cards will come up more, though, especially as giving through mobile devices gains traction. The goal for businesses like his is to offer multiple solutions. “We don’t push our clients one way or the other,” he says.

Flexible choices may prove to be the middle ground. Drew Wilborn, associate pastor of business at the Antioch Church in Dallas, where 10 percent of giving comes electronically, says he expects most churches will wind up catering to supporters of both traditional and electronic methods. “A wise church will know both types of members are part of the congregation,” he says.

Copyright © December 2010 by the author or Christianity Today.
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Matthew Branaugh is an attorney, and the business owner for Church Law & Tax.

This content is designed to provide accurate and authoritative information in regard to the subject matter covered. It is sold with the understanding that the publisher is not engaged in rendering legal, accounting, or other professional service. If legal advice or other expert assistance is required, the services of a competent professional person should be sought. "From a Declaration of Principles jointly adopted by a Committee of the American Bar Association and a Committee of Publishers and Associations." Due to the nature of the U.S. legal system, laws and regulations constantly change. The editors encourage readers to carefully search the site for all content related to the topic of interest and consult qualified local counsel to verify the status of specific statutes, laws, regulations, and precedential court holdings.

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