Time to "Pass" on the Plate

It’s a common experience. You’re at the check-out, items totalled, credit or debit card at the ready; and then comes “the ask.” “Would you like to make a donation to support ... ?” 

Last week I read the results of a recent survey done by Ipsos Reid. Of those surveyed,  44 per cent felt pressured to give when asked for a donation at the checkout, and most – 62 per cent – oppose stores asking for donations in this way. Many feel inconvenienced, embarrassed or even angry when asked.

 It got me thinking about our common custom of passing the offering plate; particularly when viewed from the perspective of those who are having a new, or first, experience of church.

A recent conversation was quite instructive. This young man, a new worshipper, had not a clue about this curious ritual. “What’s with the money plate?” “What’s it for?” “Why do they do it that way?” The questions were easily answered. (By the way, he had absolutely no idea that his offerings to the church were tax deductible!)” “Really?” “How would I ever know that,” he asked incredulously? Precisely! How would he know that unless someone had made the effort to inform him? 

Some of our congregations have taken a pass on “passing the plate!” Offerings are still received. Typically an offering receptacle is placed in a prominent location near the entrance to the nave and people are able to provide their offerings as they arrive on a Sunday morning.  The gifts are then presented, as is usual, during the offertory.

I think it’s a good practice.  “Plate passing” might have worked in a day when our churches were filled with folks who had a common, lifelong experience of the church and supported that life through the physical provision of a weekly offering. It makes little sense, however, for a church that’s seriously trying to welcome newcomers and where folks are now able - and encouraged - to make their offerings through a variety of mechanisms, including via pre-authorized remittance!

Here’s one last insight from the Ipsos Reid survey. Two-thirds of respondents said that it is not clear what, if any, contribution the retailer itself makes to the charity. Many respondents said they would be more likely to donate if they knew this information. Hmmm. 

Many of our churchly practices assume that worshippers have a common understanding of this whole business of offerings and the use of money. We can’t make those assumptions anymore.  We need to jettison the unexplained, in-house code language and review our practices. We need to ensure that clear written information is readily accessible to newcomers and that it is regularly re-enforced verbally for the benefit of all, whether we are passing the plate or not.

Many of our churches will have a steady stream of new or occasional worshippers joining us in the coming Easter to Pentecost cycle.  Might this be a timely opportunity to review and adapt some of our present practices?  Might this not be time to “take a pass” on “passing the plate?”