LDS FAQ: Mormons, Money, and that "Financial Empire"
It has become quite popular among critics, both in and out of the Church, to criticize the financial aspects of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (called the "Mormon Church"). There are also legitimate questions that people can ask in light of various stories on the Church. Here I offer my views. This is part of the LDSFAQ (Mormon Answers) suite by Jeff Lindsay. My writings reflect my personal understanding and are not officially approved by the Church. They are also not necessarily approved by or even kind of liked by the Marriott Corporation, by Zion's Bank, by City Center Mall, by Bonneville International Corporation, by KSL Radio, by the Deseret News, by the next President of the United States, or by Harry Reid. Just about the only entity that pays any official attention to this work is Planet Lindsay, LLC, which holds all copyrights and reserves all privileges.
A lot of critics have been charging that the Mormon Church (you know, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) is just a big business, a financial empire, a man-made organization focused on money and wealth. That's what a lot of critics charge, especially in election years with Mormon candidates. But is there any truth to the claims? Don't bank on it--that's my 2 cents, anyway.
Yes, the Church gets a lot of tithing money donated by its members who live the ancient law of tithing. Yes, the Church owns a number of businesses, lands, and other financial entities that generate income. But the real issue is why? Why does the Church have investments? Why does it need and use income of any kind? Why does it even need money?
To understand the Church, you must understand the motives that drive it and its people to do what they do. The motives at the core of the Church, which affect what it does at the local, regional, national, and global level, from top to bottom, are not about personal gain. They are not about glory and power, comfort and ease, or living exorbitant lifestyles.
The focus and primary goals that motivate actions and decisions are not desires for individual gain, but the desire to bless the world. The goal of the Church, from its leaders to its local units, is about doing good and bringing the blessings of the Gospel to the world. You may disagree with the Mormon definition of good, which includes spreading values, principles, and practices that we believe make people happier, healthier, with stronger, more successful families. But from the Mormon perspective, better individual lives and stronger families are the goal, and it is achieved through the work and success of the Church on a global scale. This requires churches, printed materials, temples, organizational structures, charitable resources, websites, broadcasts, and a host of resources that involve use of financial resources. Leaders aren't getting huge bonuses and vast wealth for their service in the Church, though there are adequate living stipends for the top full-time leaders of the Church. But getting a better car or bigger apartment is not the goal.
The beneficiaries of Mormon success, ultimately, are the members of the Church and the peoples of the earth that we seek to bless. Most don't want what we have to offer, but that doesn't stop us from wanting to share. Indeed, we have an obligation to take the Gospel to every nation and tongue, and to do many other things to advance the cause of what we call Zion. Part of the work of Zion involves humanitarian service and direct charity. Part of it involves promoting strong education through Church-operated universities, LDS institutes, and other church education tools. Part of it involves publishing the scriptures of the Church in numerous languages. Part of it involves building temples and churches around the world. All these things involve the need to be wise with our financial resources, to prepare for the future, and to avoid debt when possible.
Frankly. in a world increasingly rocked and threatened by the profligate spending of nations and politicians and by the inability of individuals to control their own finances, the world might do well to look at the wise financial management of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints with appreciation and a design to learn and emulate, not despise and condemn. The financial success of the Church is rooted in old-fashioned, biblical principles that have been abandoned by this age. We have a few things we'd like to teach the world, and provident living is one of them. That's not just a cute statement: it's a serious mission of the Church. We even have a website dedicated to helping the world, both members and non-members, live more providently and enjoy the blessings that can come with frugality, budgeting, and careful preparation for the future. Learn how you and your family can become more self-reliant and better prepared by visiting ProvidentLiving.org.
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No, it's a large religious organization with significant material needs: there are buildings to be built and maintained for worship, books and manuals to be printed and distributed worldwide, missions to operate, broadcasts to deliver, and so forth. (It even occasionally needs lawyers in this litigious era.) All of these require the use of tangible assets. They require money and properties. To ensure that the Church can continue operating even when there are downturns in the economy, it is important to convert a portion of Church income into investments that can be used in the future. To not save and not seek return on savings through investment would be utter foolishness and a violation of basic principles of financial responsibility. (For further perspectives, see the following question.)
The Church is a charitable and a religious organization. It exists to bless the lives of the world and to bring people to Christ. But this can't be done for free, without tangible assets and genuine expenses.
"After all, it's a religious organization, so why does it own stocks, bonds, and investment properties? Why does it own anything at all?" These are fair and rather popular questions, but reflect a misunderstanding of organizations in the modern world. A modern organization cannot grow and survive in this world without funds, and to have stability, one must protect against the vagaries of economic winds. The standard practice for organizations, non-profits and otherwise, is to have financial resources that can be tapped when needed.
Here's comment made on Mormanity by an anonymous LDS poster that explains:
Those who complain about the church owning profit-making investments don't know what they're talking about.
Every large non-profit has to have reserves or some kind of endowment, from which it can generate income, or in extreme necessity, sell off to generate cash. If it were not so, then the church would have to expand/contract its programs on a regular basis depending on fluctuations in donations.
The church would never want to be in a position where it had to close chapels, or stop building chapels for new wards just because tithing was down due to the economy.
The church, like all churches and other non-profits, has core essential programs that it wants to continue, in spite of fluctuations in donations that come as a result of fluctuations in the economy.
You can maintain programs (missionary, temple building/maintenance, church welfare, genealogy, chapel building/maintenance, BYU, seminary, institute) by having a solid stable reserve that produces income. Some organizations, such as schools, may call it an "endowment."
You can put that reserve in many things, but in essence all of them are investments. They could be in money-market funds, bank savings accounts, stocks, bonds, commercial property, buildings, home mortgages, or even owning businesses outright.
There is no moral difference between owning stocks and in owning a business outright, since that is owning 100% of the stock. The critics would not be so vocal (or maybe they would) if the church put it's entire reserves in the stock market.
The principle of having _reserves_ (especially in income-producing assets) is an *essential* financial behavior of large non-profit organizations that depend on voluntary donations by individuals, be they religious or otherwise.
It is standard and customary practice that is in accordance with the best financial management. It would be foolish and against "best practices" for the LDS church to do otherwise.
The Church has issued a statement on its financial independence. I encourage you to read it to understand the nature of the Church and the need for wise financial management.
It's a commandment from the Lord, taught in both the Old and New Testaments and in modern scripture. It's a means for the financial management of the Church but also for the blessing of the lives of those who live this principle. It's completely voluntary and confidential. People can attend Church and participate in many ways without paying tithing, and tithing status is confidential. (But to get a recommend to attend the temple, one must be a tithe-payer, and some callings in the Church may require that people be able to attend the temple.) Those who pay, though, generally experience that it's not really a sacrifice and brings significant blessings as we learn to discipline our finances and use them generously for the good of others. Give it a try!
Being a Mormon can be a negative when it comes to vying for popular appeal, as we've seen in the Mitt Romney campaign, yet it is true that there are a surprising number of Mormons in the ranks of business and political leaders. Why is that? I'm not completely sure. Political and business success really has very little to do with religious belief. Success in these fields is generally more driven by more superficial factors such as looks. OK, yes, Mormons tend to be good looking, but that's not necessarily a problem with the religion. :)
It may be a cultural thing. Mormons from an early age learn to give talks in Church and thus may become fairly good public speakers. Serving on missions can help them be less shy and more willing to reach out to people. These skills can help them have the confidence and desire to serve that can fuel desires to lead in government or business. That's just my theory for now. If you have a better theory, let me know, but it's not because of some grand Mormon conspiracy like some wackos assert.
To prevent urban blight in downtown Salt Lake and to create a more vibrant economy in the region where the Church has its headquarters, the Church has given back to the community by assisting in the development of a vibrant and beautiful economic district called the City Creek Mall. Critics have seized upon this good faith effort as a rallying point against the alleged economic greed of the Church, but they are rather unfair and unwise in the criticism, in my opinion. There are fair questions to ask and issues that are complex and challenging, so there are plenty of opportunities for complaints and attacks if that's what you want to do. But for those seeking to understand, I suggest reading what really is behind this cooperative effort. See City Creek Mall (FAIRBlog) and Mormon Finances and the City Creek Center (FAIRMormon.org), and see my own Checking Out City Creek Mall: What Was All That Fuss About?
Fair question. You cannot understand the Church and its actions if you don't appreciate that throughout the Church, the focus and primary goals that motivate actions and decisions are not desires for individual gain, but the desire to bless the world. The goal of the Church, from its leaders to its local units, is not about individual gain, but global good. You may disagree with the Mormon definition of good, which includes spreading values, principles, and practices that we believe make people happier, healthier, with stronger, more successful families. But from the Mormon perspective, better individual lives and stronger families is the goal, and it is achieved through the work and success of the Church on a global scale. This requires churches, printed materials, temples, organizational structures, charitable resources, websites, and a host of resources that involve interactions with the tangible world, including financial resources. Leaders aren't getting huge bonuses and vast wealth for their service in the Church, though there are adequate living stipends for the top full-time leaders of the Church. But getting a better car or bigger apartment is not the goal. The beneficiaries of Mormon success, ultimately, are the members of the Church and the peoples of the earth that we seek to bless. Most don't want what we have to offer, but that doesn't stop us from wanting to share. Who benefits? I hope you do, or soon will.
To answer this question more fully for you, I'll need just a couple of quick answers from you--should only take a minute. First, I'll need your bank account information (bank account number, current balance, plus your name and social security number). What is your current salary? How much state and federal tax did you pay last year? If could email me a copy of your tax return statements for the past 5 years, that would be really helpful. How many credit cards do you own and what is the balance on each of them and the largest expense in the last years for each of them? Also, how much did you spend last year in these categories: alcohol, tobacco, firearms, video games, morally questionable entertainment, entertainment of all kinds, and personal hygiene supplies? By sharing and verifying these simple financial facts with me, I'll be able to better answer your question in a more helpful way. There is nothing to worry about--I will not use that information for any improper purpose other than posting in on the Internet for others to validate.
Surprisingly, some people are unwilling to share those financial details. They want their financial details shrouded in secrecy. In fact, it turns out that most individuals and private organizations seem rather guarded with their financial details. The excuses they offer for wanting secrecy vary, but include things such as
Fortunately, the Church is more enlightened than that. "Go away" is not the response, but "come and learn" - but not from our confidential financial records. We have much more interesting and appropriate records for you to study. Why not begin with your own free copy of the Book of Mormon?