March 2017
Parish Finances

Digital Giving: A Practice of Hospitality

I’ve thought a lot about online giving in the past two years. But it wasn’t until very recently that I realized why I feel so strongly about the topic, and why I advocate a somewhat radical approach to getting it up and running.

Full disclosure: I am not an expert on stewardship and fundraising, nor am I a web developer with a comprehensive knowledge of the technical, financial, and security issues involved in offering this option. What I am is an experienced coach of ministers and congregations working to develop digitally literate practices within their faith community cultures.

Working in that mode, I published in the spring of 2015 a “Digital Media for Ministry Brief” about stewardship and giving for Lifelong Faith Journal. That article led to a subsequent ECF webinar, “Digital Giving: Models and Tools.” We had a good turnout that night and a lively discussion, and I’ll reiterate some of the important takeaways later in this article.

More recently, though, I had the chance to team up on another online giving webinar with Carolyn Moomaw Chilton of Grace and Holy Trinity Episcopal Church in Richmond. Carolyn had recently written her own piece on this subject for Building Faith.

An act of hospitality

What I learned from Carolyn is that we should think of digital giving not just as a matter of effective parish administration or as a necessary investment for increasing income but as an act of hospitality, of relationship. As my new colleagues at Teachers College would say, digital literacies are social practices. They’re less about using tools in a savvy way and more about negotiating and enacting community values visibly and collectively.

Offering electronic giving means meeting visitors and members alike where they are. It means giving disciples of Jesus every opportunity to deepen their practice of giving to those in need and stewarding personal resources.

The fact that people are carrying less cash (and writing way fewer checks), or that they want to see more clearly the impact their gift is having, or even that they may want to earn a few frequent flier miles when they give to their church—these are simply givens in our ministry contexts today. These factors contribute to the master “text” of the congregations it is our responsibility to “read”, and they challenge us to “write” creative and responsive policies and practices together.

When we see online giving as an act of hospitality and an incubator of spiritual growth, we gain a new perspective on all our excuses for why we haven’t gotten around to it: the fees, the updated bookkeeping workflows, the fear of learning and trying something new.

There’s plenty of hard work we put off indefinitely when it resembles business practices or simply “keeping up with the times.” But when it comes to our relationships with newcomers and all our people’s relationships with God—well, these challenges tend to be easier for church communities to understand as urgent.

OK, end of sermonette. If I’ve managed to convince you that digital giving is not just “something nice we would offer if we had more office staff” but a pressing ministry priority, let me now try to convince you that it’s easier than you may think to get started or continue growing. Here are some principles to work from:

Start small and build capacity: If your organization has a track record of effectively managing teams of knowledgeable volunteers who evaluate many options and chart a course among them, then you probably already have a good idea of how to proceed. Research the many providers of e-payment solutions, make a list of the features you’re seeking, choose a vendor and begin an implementation strategy, etc.

My experience is that most churches get bogged down in processes like this, and their organizational capital is better spent trying to buck that trend on other (even) more pressing priorities. For them, it might be helpful to think about digital giving as a series of manageable pilot projects. Choose a type of giving (low-fee e-checks, online credit and debit card payments, or in-person card readers and kiosks), gather a small team including the appropriate staff member or vestry officer, and set a deadline for building and testing that giving option.

If you’re really feeling the urgency, get your treasurer and whoever maintains your website together in a room and don’t let them out until they’ve set up one-time and recurring giving via PayPal. The process is easy, the fees are fair, and the vendor is widely popular and trusted.

Think about all kinds of church giving: The ways people have always given to congregations have analogous forms made possible by digital tools. In-person kiosks and “I donated online” tokens represent an update to the collection plate. Recurring online payments are a natural extension of pledge envelopes. Crowdfunding sites like GoFundMe and streamlined text-to-give tools like Kindrid can help you rally support around particular mission projects.

Don’t forget to promote the new opportunity: The other big tip I picked up from Carolyn was how to communicate about new giving options in your community. I strongly encourage you to watch her short description of the rollout of “Gracie,” the giving kiosk at Grace and Holy Trinity. (Yes, they named their giving kiosk.) For all my insistence on the urgency of hospitality, I hope it’s obvious that a little planning and promotion will set your new giving program up for success.

You might be surprised at who takes advantage of your new digital giving options once they’re up and running, and by how much more certain people give when you make it easy for them to do so.

What shouldn’t surprise any minister is the impact that a simple act of hospitality can have on someone longing for a deeper relationship with your community. If we can provide a bit of that for the cost of a card-swipe fee and a couple hours’ worth of fiddling with PayPal buttons, I call that a bargain, not a luxury.

Kyle Matthew Oliver is an Episcopal priest serving at St. Michael's Church in New York City, EdD student in the Communications, Media, and Learning Technologies Design Program at Teachers College, Columbia University, and 2016 ECF Fellow. You can find more here to read blog posts, sermons, and sign-up for his newsletter. Previously he was digital missioner and instructor in the Center for the Ministry of Teaching at Virginia Theological Seminary. His vocational heart still belongs to the e-Formation Learning Community.


  • Gracie,” a video excerpt about the giving kiosk at Grace and Holy Trinity

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This article is part of the March 2017 Vestry Papers issue on Parish Finances