Reprinted from The Record, Northern New Jersey

RAMSEY, N.J., Dec. 19 -- Some say it started as an irreverent joke. Suppose that when you went to church, instead of reaching into your pocket for the offering, you swiped your credit card through a slot at the door and paid your tithe via Visa or MasterCard?

Credit cards are not involved, but a two-year-old program allows Lutherans to have their weekly church offering automatically deducted from their bank accounts and deposited in the church coffers.

The program called Simply Giving is the only denomination-wide program of its kind and is marketed by Lutheran Brotherhood, a Minneapolis-based organization that provides insurance coverage and other financial services for Lutherans.

"The obvious benefit is that you have a steady income that you can count on year-round," said the Rev. Carol Brighton of Redeemer Lutheran Church in Ramsey. Her congregation became one of the nearly 3,000 nationwide to join the plan two years ago. In 2001, she said, about one-third of the congregation's offerings will be received electronically.

Though the bills arrive in church mailboxes on predictable, unvarying schedules, church income can fluctuate wildly during the year. Clergy dread the "summer slump" when vacationing members aren't in church with their weekly offering envelopes, and they pray for the "year-end blessing," hoping that members will bring their weekly pledges up to date by the close of the year.

The electronic transfer of funds eliminates some of the fluctuation and reduces the possibility that givers would fudge on their pledged amount when personal expenses soar, say at Christmastime. It also means the weekly offerings will be there if bad weather closes roads and keeps members from church on Sunday.

The program also can be used to provide gifts to other Lutheran institutions such as schools and hospitals, said Royce McEwen, the Lutheran Brotherhood vice president in charge of Simply Giving. He said about 100 agencies other than congregations have signed on since the program began.

At Calvary Lutheran Church in Allendale, parents who have children enrolled in the church's nursery school can use the program to pay tuition electronically, said the Rev. Bruce Bassett, pastor of the church.

Those involved in the electronic offering say they have found nearly no drawbacks. A church gets regular accounting, either via e- mail or a monthly printed report, when funds are transferred, McEwen said.

"I had one person say it felt odd not putting an envelope on the offering plate," said the Rev. Mark Rossman of the Church of Our Savior in Pompton Plains.

Some wonder whether neighbors in the pews would think that a member isn't contributing if they fail to put an envelope in the plate each week. For churchgoers who feel that way, the Simply Giving program provides small stickers to put on the empty offering envelopes. Those who tally the offerings know envelopes with stickers are empty and needn't be counted.

"It simplifies peoples lives," said the Rev. Al Acer of Reformation Lutheran Church in West Long Branch, which gets about 30 percent of its offerings electronically.

He said many people increase the amount they give when they sign up for the automated offering. For Acer, the program also underscores the theme of giving "the first fruits" to God instead of donating as an afterthought to family budgeting.

A recent survey of 500 congregations showed more than half felt the program had improved their church's financial position.

"This is the way people pay a lot of their other obligations," said Brighton, the Ramsey pastor.

Lutheran Brotherhood contracts with Vanco Services Inc., a company specializing in electronic transfer of funds, to handle the transactions. The program doesn't cost congregations or contributors anything, as Lutheran Brotherhood pays for the electronic fund transfers and the reports sent by e-mail or regular mail to participating churches.

Churches want their members in the pews as much as they need their offerings in the plates, and one pastor worried that the program could hurt church attendance, said McEwen. But he said that hasn't happened.

"People don't go to church just to turn in their offering," he said.

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