By Daniel Schantz
I have enjoyed a lifelong romance with envelopes.
When I was just a boy, my preacher-father supplied me with several boxes of leftover offering envelopes to play with. I have been in love with envelopes ever since.
We lived in Springfield, Ohio, at the time, the city where I was born. My cousins lived there, too, and on Saturdays we held a secret club meeting in a dusty corncrib, organized by my oldest cousin, Carol. She appointed herself president of the club, but the purpose of the club was never quite clear. It was a secret, even from the members. I remember only that we argued a lot and voted on a variety of issues. What was NOT a secret was that Carol expected us to pay dues every Saturday.
I supplied members of the club with offering envelopes, in which we placed our tribute to Queen Carol every Saturday. What she did with our dues was a mystery, and we never thought to ask, but I learned from this experience that if you put money in an envelope and give it to someone, well, it’s not coming back.
As time went on I discovered many other uses for these little paper sheaths.
Missionaries often came to our house for supper, and they brought me postage stamps from such exotic places as Madagascar and New Guinea. These large stamps featured pictures of strange creatures, such as lemurs and leopards, emus and geckos. They were well protected in my little papery vaults.
As a young gardener, offering envelopes served to store seeds that I collected from our hollyhocks and sweet peas that grew along the fence. My mother was relieved to stop finding seeds in the laundry tub; the seeds would fall out of my jeans pockets and would stick to my underwear like burrs.
When I got my first after-school job in junior high days, the envelopes were ideal for budgeting my earnings. Long before Dave Ramsey was even born, I was dividing my money into envelopes labeled, “New Bike,” or “Tithe,” or “Acne Medication.”
At church there were extra offering envelopes in the pews, for members who forgot to bring their own.
I found that by carefully prying an envelope apart, I came up with a diamond-shaped sheet of paper on which I could draw pictures of army tanks, using the golf pencil in the pew rack. When I tired of drawing, I could use them for paper tearing, creating silhouettes of Abraham Lincoln, or Mickey Mantle, my favorite baseball player.
By putting a penny in one of three envelopes, I could play a shell game with the boy sitting next to me. “Guess which envelope contains the penny, after I mix them up.”
I can’t count the number of confidential notes I passed to girlfriends, in sealed offering envelopes, and in times of emergencies, I found that envelopes were perfect for dispensing with a front tooth that had fallen out during the song service, or for storing my bubblegum until Communion was over.
The official uses of offering envelopes included such things as:
Offering envelopes were issued once a year to members who wanted them. Each box contained 52 envelopes, one for each Sunday, and they were placed on a table in the foyer, where you could pick them up at your convenience.
Each envelope was imprinted with Scriptures, obviously chosen to tap a vein of guilt:
“Will a man rob God?”
“He who sows sparingly, will reap sparingly.”
“To whomever much is given, much shall be required.”
On the other side of the envelope were a variety of questions, starting with a place for your name and address and phone number and date of birth, plus names and ages of your children. Other questions included things like, “Where are you employed?” or “How often do you attend services?” or even “Do you tithe?”
Some modern envelopes even have a place for your Social Security number or credit card number. (I don’t think so! But thanks for asking.)
Using these little dossiers, the treasurer could figure out what percentage of givers were responsible for the total giving, and what to expect in the upcoming year. At the end of the year the treasurer would send each family a record of their contributions for tax purposes, but the subliminal message was, “You can do better.”
Offering envelopes provided a measure of confidentiality that members appreciated. If you were only able to give a dollar, no one would know it except God and the treasurer. On the other hand, if you put in three $100 bills, no one could accuse you of being a showy Pharisee, because your gift was hidden.
Members sometimes included a message to the preacher in their offering envelopes.
“How about a sermon on women being in subjection to their husbands?”
Apologies were common, as if they saw the church treasurer as their judge. “I’m sorry I can’t give more, but my husband lost his job.”
There was always a certain amount of advice offered. “The music was way too loud this morning. Please turn it down before we all go deaf.”
Even very personal prayer requests found their way into the envelopes. “Pray for my marriage; my husband and I are not getting along.”
Treasurers knew many secrets.
Offering envelopes helped ensure that all the money deposited in the offering plate actually made it to the church office intact.
In every church there were rumors of “Shady Sam,” a deacon whose magnetic fingers could lift a $20 bill at the speed of light. But stealing an envelope was more risky. It might contain only a dollar, hardly worth a jail sentence.
Some worshippers actually made “change” as the plate went by. They would put in a $20 bill and take out $10. At least that’s how it appeared. Maybe they actually put in a $10 bill and took out $20. It happened so fast, we were never sure. Envelopes encouraged members to make change before they came to church or to use a check that could not be easily “lifted.”
Offering envelopes, sitting on your kitchen counter, were like a string around your finger, to remind you that Sunday is coming, and you need to think about your contribution.
If you were ill and couldn’t make it to church, you could give your envelope to another family member to deliver, or even mail it to the church office.
You could easily designate your offering for a specific cause, by checking one of the causes printed on the envelope, or by writing in a specific cause. “This is for the homeless animal fund,” or “For the new fellowship hall,” or even “In memory of my mother, who finally died (thank God) at the age of 102.”
The New Envelopes
Offering envelopes are still widely used and available from many sources. Most of them today are larger and sturdier, often printed on recycled paper, bar-coded, and even bilingual.
Envelopes are especially popular with children’s church, as a tool for teaching stewardship. They come printed with Bible stories and quizzes, or even with pictures to color.
An Act of Worship?
Some churches have stopped taking up a collection during worship, for a variety of reasons. Perhaps they want to save time, or they are afraid of offending seekers, who might not be prepared to give. More commonly it’s because more and more members give online or have their offerings automatically withheld from their check. These churches usually provide offering baskets in the lobby, or have a kiosk where members can give by swiping a card.
Still, there is much to be said for taking up an offering during worship, after a meditation and prayer; and some churches that stopped taking up an offering have already restored the practice, because their income went down.
Somehow, swiping a card at a kiosk, in a crowded church foyer, does not strike me as an act of worship. It’s seems more like buying a candy bar or paying a light bill.
And having my offerings automatically withheld certainly pleases the god of convenience, but is it really an act of worship, since you never see or touch the money that is given?
The visible symbols of our important ordinances are vanishing. Pulpits are disappearing, along with Communion tables, and now offering plates.
Perhaps one answer is for a church to take up a collection during services, so that we have the experience of corporate worship, and then to indicate on your offering envelope that you gave online or by automatic withdrawal. There are actually offering plates with a “swipe feature” on the drawing board.
I don’t know what the future holds for offering envelopes, but I do know that the ordinary paper envelope is credited with raising more money for charity than any other device ever invented.
If they die, it will be like losing a member of the family.
Daniel Schantz is professor emeritus at Central Christian College of the Bible in Moberly, Missouri.