Just as many of us were hoping that the Covid-19 pandemic was about to pass into history, along came a new strain. Rather than a break from the heavy stresses of the disease, health services around the world suddenly found themselves dealing with a new version of the infection that spread its wings far more rapidly than was comprehended previously. And who knows what other strains may be lurking around the corner?
Churches and other places of worship have continued to stream live on-line services and upload recordings of the same on to platforms such as the popular YouTube facility.
Back in the spring of 2020, when the pandemic really hit hard, many of us did not expect it to last more than a few months. That was almost a year ago, yet it is psychologically seeming like a whole lot longer.
During this period, many businesses and organisations have been obliged to close and we have witnessed many having to, sadly, close their doors permanently, due to the resulting loss of income.
Churches and other places of worship have also suffered loss of income and are having to discover innovative ways to make up their shortfall.
Consequently, here at the MEN (Maintenance and Equipment News for Churches and Schools) office we asked Eric Thorn to jot down his thoughts on looking afresh at finances for churches and places of worship. This feature is what he came up with.
Most of England, and parts of the remainder of the United Kingdom, are experiencing living in H.M. Government’s designated Tier 4 (Four) at the time of writing. But whatever Tier and restrictions you happen to be in, my understanding is that churches and, indeed, all manner of places of worship, irrespective of denomination, creed, or religion, are experiencing a common downside brought about by the Covid-19 pandemic.
Not surprisingly, perhaps, that common denominator is a substantial drop in income. With churches being closed for services, no collection plates or bags have been passed around for the freewill offerings from worshippers. For many, especially the smaller chapels, this is quite possibly their only source of income.
The general media have reported, and will continue to report, the winding up of household name businesses and hospitality chains. They rarely publicise closures of smaller businesses and places of worship. Although I do not personally know of any worship venues closing due to financial restraints brought about by the pandemic, I suspect that, regrettably, there may well be a few.
Before the advent of the Coronavirus pandemic, it is thought that most congregational giving was through the time-honoured way of passing the hat round. Some establishments sport an Alms box near the exit from the Nave or worship area. With worship venues having to close temporarily, and official advice being that people of all persuasions should stay at home, there has been a resulting shortage of actual worshippers to place their offering gifts and tithes in any collecting plate or Alms box. For some, the shortfall of hard cash income has been marginally less than it may otherwise have been, due to parishioners submitting their contributions by either banker’s order or electronic bank transfer.
Electronic funds transfer
In this (hopefully) post advent of the Coronavirus pandemic, many worship venues have found themselves rethinking the world of congregational giving. For some, the time has come to end their love of historically acclaimed well-handled wooden plates and fabric bags. Indeed, I have heard it suggested that these, along with Alms boxes and similar furniture, ought to be relegated to the depths of Room 101. Chinese Whispers allegedly maintain that such money-collecting wares have no place in the environment of twenty-first century worshippers.
That is only hearsay, of course. Nevertheless, the Nave or worship area of some of the greater churches might earn increased appreciation following a clearance of newly classified unnecessary fittings. And a new look at electronic funds transfer possibilities.
Due to the worldwide pandemic, refer to the year 2020 as the worst ever if you wish. But for many churches it revolutionised their use of contemporary digital technology. Some reported that they had learned an important lesson, i.e., that such technology has become an essential ministry tool. To encourage congregational members to worship at home, popular programs such as Zoom, Teams and YouTube ensured an amazing growth in online ministry that could be described as unprecedented as the Covid-19 virus and its ancillary strains.
Whether places of worship have adopted a total online approach to their services, or in person congregations, or a mix of both, the traditional format of giving Alms is rapidly being shelved for modern practices. At the same time, it cannot be denied that various fashionable donation schemes have slowly been creeping in over recent years.
Faithlife LLC, formerly known as Logos Bible Software, a Christian media company based in the United States, have reported (www.faithlife.com) that eighty percent of people do not carry cheque books, seventy-five percent of people carry less than $50 USA (£36 UK approximately, depending upon current exchange rate) in cash whereas fifty percent rarely carry any hard cash. However, fifty percent of all people apparently prefer digital payment methods for all their financial transactions.
As Faithlife LLC is an American organisation, I assume that their research undertaking refers to individuals in the United States. However, I also suspect that the conclusions of their research could easily be closely mirrored here in the United Kingdom. Bear in mind, for instance, the phenomenal growth of credit and store cards in recent years boosted by an increasing number of traders not accepting cheques.
In the realms of commerce, Electronic Funds Transfer (EFT) has seemingly become standard. For many years, employers have increasingly adopted paying their employees and other accounts, notably invoices, by Banker’s Automated Clearing Services (BACS). BACS payments are used for bank transfers within the UK, including direct debits, and this system has been on track for some fifty years.
Like BACS, Faster Payments (FP) are available for bank-to-bank transfers within the UK. It has been in use for about twelve years and is most suited to small sums. As the name indicates, this is a quicker way to move money between bank accounts. For peace of mind, a Faster Payments transfer is often completed within a few minutes.
Most banks and building societies do not charge for either BACS or FP transfers. Nevertheless, my understanding is that each finance house may levy nominal charges at their discretion.
Long before the birth of electronic funds transfer, Standing Orders were a common method of an instruction to a bank by an account holder to make regular fixed payments to a particular person or organisation. This system is still available, and, in fact, I still have a Standing Order for a monthly payment to be made to a commercial business. I set this up many years ago.
Direct Debit (DD) has virtually taken over from Standing Orders and, as mentioned above, these are usually processed through the BACS system.
There are two other schemes for processing electronic funds transfer. The first, introduced in 1984, is the Clearing House Automated Payment System (CHAPS). This procedure is for transferring funds within the United Kingdom, but as it is generally quite costly to process, it is best used for the transfer of large amounts, say £10,000 (ten thousand pounds sterling) or more.
At the time of writing, I am reliably advised that the average charge for a transfer by CHAPS is £25 (twenty-five pounds sterling).
The second method is the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication (SWIFT). This system allows banks and building societies to transmit financial data securely. It is particularly suitable for international money transfers as it is a network of financial institutions working as a team to ensure that transactions are credited to the correct account.
At the time of writing, I am dependably informed that, as with CHAPS the typical fee for a transfer by SWIFT is £25 (twenty-five pounds sterling), although this could be higher dependent upon circumstances prevailing at the actual moment of transfer.
So, let us peek at some finance schemes genuinely adopted by churches of various persuasions, that can easily be adapted by others.
I asked some of my acquaintances about the methods used by their respective places of worship to administer their receipts of freewill offerings. These ranged from a so-called house church, where the congregation meet in lounges, either in a rota of their own homes or consistently at the residence of their minister, to medium sized chapels through to larger church buildings.
Each of these individuals, without exception, reported that until recently they effectively relied on the traditional passing round of a plate or bag for contributions of hard cash. A few members had voluntarily requested bank account details so that they could make their donation in the form of a regular bank transfer which, as we noted above, is operated via the BACS system. All this was before the appearance of Covid-19 and subsequent lockdowns.
Introduced by H.M. Government, the pandemic lockdowns (and we cannot rule out the possibility of further lockdowns in the future) brought about the temporary closures of places of worship of all persuasions, schools, and many other establishments. This led to a completely new thinking concerning the way forward. It soon transpired that the so-called new normal for freewill donations, both right now and for the future, is the favoured method of bank transfer.
A modicum of supporters indicated that they prefer to pay their tithes through Standing Order. An even smaller number reported that they make their contributions by cheques, generally posted to the Honorary Treasurer.
However, coming second to bank transfer, a substantial number of responders stated quite categorically that they genuinely preferred to donate their Alms using credit or debit cards. All of these lovely people added that, despite their preference, their respective venues did not, as far as they were aware, have facilities for accepting plastic card payments.
Not surprisingly, this prompted me to enquire of several places of worship as to why they were not able to accept card payments.
The overwhelming response was that their understanding from their individual banks was that the cost of setting up a card payment scheme, allied to the high per centage of commission charges, proved rather prohibitive.
On the other hand, a few churches informed me that, yes, they did accept card payments. Each of these used a system from iZettle.
iZettle produce a hand-held mobile card reader for the affordable cost of £29 and charge a modest 1.75% transaction fee. At these prices (correct at the time of writing), plus no monthly retainer fees, acceptance of credit and debit cards is now a genuine reality for all places of worship.
It must be linked to an iPhone, iPad or Android phone connected to the Internet. Check this out at Card reader – take card & contactless payments iZettle UK (www.izettle.com/gb).
Every place of worship should adopt at the very least an annual budget. Such budget should anticipate future expenditure and include any debtors that must be reimbursed.
Not only should a budget carefully include anticipated expenditure; it should also include anticipated income. If the difference is a negative figure, then a programme of fundraising is probably called for. Everything from appealing to parishioners to dig deeper into their pockets to holding events which, due to lockdown, may well mean initiating online projects such as raffles.
Places of worship are classed as charities. As such, do not neglect the importance of Gift Aid, enabling the Treasurer to reclaim from H. M. Government any Income Tax paid by standard rate tax payers. Full details from: Tax relief when you donate to a charity: Gift Aid – GOV.UK (www.gov.uk).
Eric A. Thorn