The ATM in the Church Lobby

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Is that an ATM in the church lobby? Credit and debit card swipe machines in churches may startle some of the pious, but such kiosks, already present in some houses of worship, might become even more commonplace now that a new IRS regulation is in effect.

Beginning with gifts given in 2007, the IRS will demand documentation for charitable contributions under $250. Once, all one needed was a diary entry to vouch for such donations. Specially designed ATMs at church will help document such spur-of-the-moment cash gifts, as well as planned giving. Also as a result of the new IRS rule, credit card donations and tithing are likely to increase too because such electronic fund transfers leave a paper trail.

Large urban churches have been accepting credit cards for several years, tapping into the Generation P (for Plastic) aversion to carrying cash. Pastors like to tell jokes about parishioners collecting Frequent Flier points on the way to heaven. A recent Dallas Morning News poll found that 55% of 200 local churches accept credit and/or debit cards.

Automatic checking account withdrawals are used by some churches, and more recently, ATM-like kiosks are now available in many church corridors and lobbies, where parishioners can swipe a card and receive a printed receipt, which they can either save for the IRS or plunk into the collection basket with a flourish, so pew mates will know they're not spiritual freeloaders.

The card-swipe kiosks were a brainchild of Dr. Marty Baker, pastor of Stevens Creek Community Church in Augusta, Georgia. They were so successful in his own church that he now markets the devices privately and has placed them in 35 congregations across the U.S. "People don't carry cash," he says, noting that total income from contributions has increased 18% since the first kiosk was installed in 2005. Coins and paper money now account for less than 5% of that total.

Touch screen technology doesn't suit everyone, of course. Administrators of the majestic Cathedral of St. Joseph in Baton Rouge, a presence on the Mississippi River bank since 1792, considered installing kiosks The Roman Catholic cathedral attracts many visitors, but the doors are often open when no employees are there, says Mark Blanchard, Stewardship Director for the diocese. "Many people do want to make donations," he said.

But the kiosk received a thumbs down. "The Cathedral is more of a historical church and the current rector is not too anxious to incorporate ATMs," said a diocese staff member. "We are all aware that it will probably happen in the future, but for now, we are not interested in participating."

When the evangelical website — which boasts more than 12,000 pastors as readers — reported on the phenomenon, the story received 4,300 hits and generated highly emotional responses. "How would you feel if someone in your church was giving and giving on credit and you later find they have to declare bankruptcy," said one from Eric. "I guess it wouldn't matter because you're not your brother's keeper — huh?" To deal with that problem, many churches now accept only debit cards.

Yet Editor Todd Rhoades precits that electronic giving will inevitably grow. "I often hear people say that the only check they still write each month is to the church," he says. "It seems that everything else has gone electronic; the church will follow."