Church Finances

A few observations:

  • Another lawyer on another vendetta is pressing to know just how much the church is worth, as various recent articles have chronicled.
  • I have dear friends skeptical about the use of tithing for BYU or political campaigns like the gay marriage movement who have elected to pay their 10% to other charitable organizations.
  • Americans since the early 1830s have distrusted Mormonism, labeling it a scam to enrich a few at the expense of the many. These critics have also labeled Mormonism as secretive to a dangerous extent.
  • Many LDS feel that requiring reporting of church assets demonstrates a lack of faith in church leadership.
  • Americans love to talk about money and wealth. Several books have been written hoping to look inside the church’s coffers. One reporter seems to have made it his specialty.

Before thinking this through again in light of the Oregon case, I think I probably could have been persuaded either way. Since pondering the issue, I find that I have one major reservation about disclosing the financial statements of the church.

Business-speak and the obsession with balance statements, earnings reports, and the ever present ROI (return-on-investment) have infiltrated a dramatic portion of our culture (Harvey Cox on the Market as God is useful here). There is seemingly no safe place left in a world where social encounters are turned into “networks” and marketing “demographics,” and even our acts of charity are encompassed by market metaphors. For me, however bureaucratic or programmatic some people find LDS church infrastructure, I cherish in my experience of the Gospel precisely that freedom from the world of business. I do not go to church to engage in business networking or sell products. I do not go to church because it provides me a return on investment. I do not stipulate the details of the use of my tithing to become a “venture philanthropist.” I go to be with God and to participate in a community he has called into being.

The church is not a business or a corporation and should not be one. To force it into the mold is to persist in the dominance of one (spiritually bankrupt) model of human interactions and the striving for something greater. So, as one generally left of left-wing Mormon, I say that, however tragic the plaintiff’s suffering in the Oregon case, don’t let this be another brick in the wall of the corporatization of our shared religious culture.

Comments

  1. Left Field says:

    Perhaps I missed something when I was out of town last week, and I don’t see anything in the Sideblog. Can you give us some information about “the Oregon case” to which you refer?

  2. Mark IV says:

    Left Field,

    You can read about it here:

    http://origin.sltrib.com/ci_6357652

  3. You can read about the Oregon case here.

  4. I agree with your point. Say what you will about events in the late 60’s but not reporting finances was probably a good thing. Plus, I’m not sure most people can understand what finances for a business mean. That is they’ll see a big number and think everyone is rich while not understanding assets in use, liquid assets, and then the assets for future use and so forth. (i.e. consider all those saints in 3rd world nations and future financial drains)

  5. Angry Saint says:

    Once again this case shows what happens when greedy attorneys get involved. From the “limited” knowledge that I have about this case, the suit should have been brought against those men who committed the horible action in the first place.

  6. no thanks says:

    I personally believe that the church would be well served by disclosing it’s finances. Basically take the approach that we have nothing to hide, so we won’t. Of course personal data of the members should be kept private. The release of a simple balance sheet would be more than adequate.

    The church is not a business or a corporation and should not be one.

    I think that the church has blurred the definition between a religion and business. The 2 billion dollar commercial development in downtown SLC makes your contention hard to support.

    An advantage of disclosing finances would be making the church much less vulnerable to the tactic being used by the plaintiff Oregon case. The church doesn’t want to disclose it’s finances, perhaps badly enough to just settle the case. This is a case that the church could quite possibly win at trial, or perhaps even win without a trial.

  7. Are you honest in your dealings with your fellowmen? is a question asked of faithful members who want to attend the temple. I believe if the Church is honest in its dealings with its members and its members’ fellowmen, it should have no problem sharing its finances, revealing how it receives and utilizes the Lord’s resources on earth. Disclosure shouldn’t have to come because of lawsuits. It should come because of a sincere desire for honesty and forthrightness. To show it has nothing to hide. Too much obfuscation has already caused much grief.

  8. I have to agree with WE and No thanks. If my wife gave me 10% of her income and then asked me what I did with it, if I said, “I’m not telling.” I don’t think that would be a satisfactory answer.

    By not disclosing it begs the question of why not? You say religion is not a business. I say religion is the oldest business. The mormon church has a bankroll that is the envy of many huge churches. Why is it all a secret?

    My wife and I were talking about that whole cost cutting measure of missionaries staying with families. And I remember saying that I wondered what they were doing with the money savings. My wife said probably building more temples, or at worst another commercial development in SLC. Sadly we wont know.

    Our church is much more corporate like than most churches and as long as paying an honest and full tithe is a requirement for temple attendance I will always want to know what my money is exactly going to.

  9. Kind of a hot button issue. On the one hand, many of the standard defenses people make for non-disclosure by the Church don’t make sense when it is noted that before about 1964 the Church routinely made detailed yearly financial disclosures. Leaders of that era weren’t forced to, they just felt it was the right thing to do. On the other hand, the Church at present is already under a microscope, and that by commentators who don’t necessarily play fair. Why should we give them more ammunition to work with?

  10. Much more corporate than most churches? Perhaps on a total dollar amount. But on a per-capita scale? You’ve got to be kidding me. Don’t peer behind the curtain of your average megachurch…

  11. “The church is not a business or a corporation….”

    We must go to a different church….

  12. My main concern about the Church disclosing it’s finances is that it will be the equivalent of dumping blood in the water to draw in more trial lawyers looking to take a bite out of a fat target.

    Sorry lawyers in the audience but that’s how I see it :-)

    Is there anyway that the church could restructure internally (in a legal sense, not a religious hierarchy change) to make it such that most of it’s resources are not vulnerable to these type of lawsuits?

  13. Everyone has their own idea as to how the Church should spend its money. Some think the Church’s only business should be giving money away, and even if it did give all of its money away, people wouldn’t be happy with exactly where it was going. Having all the information available to everyone would lead to way more money talk than I want to listen to. We’d constantly be having people question this or that expenditure, demanding justification. It would get tiresome really quickly.

    I don’t believe the Church has anything to hide, but we do have better things to spend our time on than arguing about money, especially since many critics will not be satisfied no matter what.

  14. Kevin Barney says:

    Personally, I favor disclosure. Disclosure cures a lot of ills.

    I think it’s ironic that the Church stopped disclosure because it was embarrassed about its deficit spending that was spiraling out of control, and it is not inclined to resume disclosure for the opposite reason–because of its great financial responsibility and success (in the post N. Elden Tanner age), and a concern that it will no longer get the widow’s mite from the poor, who see the big numbers and don’t understand.

    But I think we can explain the numbers. GBH has already done a good job of explaining that most Church assets are real estate that cost money to maintaine and do not generate income. I think we need to have a little more faith in our people.

    As for trial lawyers, what difference does it make? Everyone knows the Church has a lot of financial resources, and people can read the Arizona Republic series going into great detail on the subject. Are there plaintiffs attorneys now who aren’t suing the church because they’re worried it is judgment-proof? I doubt it.

  15. as long as paying an honest and full tithe is a requirement for temple attendance I will always want to know what my money is exactly going to.

    Isn’t the point of tithing that it’s not our money, it’s the Lord’s money? Of course, then we have to trust the GA’s that they are using the Lord’s money as He would want, which is the point of the whole discussion, I guess. For me, it’s easier to not worry about what the church is using my tithing for when I don’t consider the money mine once the check is written and handed over.

  16. Frankly, I don’t care what they specifically do with the 10% we give.

    It’s not mine. All I know is, when we pay our tithing, things always work out- when we don’t, well, it’s pretty clear.

    And I never thought I would feel that way, but there it is.

    I understand the folks wanting disclosure, and there was a time and a place I would have demanded that as well. Maybe it’s because this is still relatively new to me, but the stark contrast in my life between “before” and “now” makes having faith much easier.

  17. no thanks says:

    Is there anyway that the church could restructure internally (in a legal sense, not a religious hierarchy change) to make it such that most of it’s resources are not vulnerable to these type of lawsuits?

    Not really, the church would have to become more like the Southern Baptist Convention. Basically become a loose federation of associated congregations. Then you could only sue each individual congregations. This would make individual congregations pretty much judgment proof.

  18. I just can’t see how knowing what percentage of my donations are used for temples, BYU or ward budgets etc. “corporatizes” my worship or my membership.

    Disclosure is not primarily for the benefit of members. I, too, trust our leaders and have no doubt as to whether they are responsible stewards. However, donations are treated as charitable contributions and donors are given tax deductions. The income of charities is not taxable. I think that all members of society have a legitimate interest in requiring charities who are given this tax status to publicly disclose what they do with the money. It does not matter that the members themselves do not require that kind of information of their leaders. Public disclosure keeps all tax exempt organizations accountable. It also eliminates the risk to the church of being labelled as a secretive financial empire which uses its wealth for improper purposes. Most churches publicly disclose their financial statements. We look nefariously secretive and give ammunition to our critics when we do not.

  19. jjohnsen says:

    My main concern about the Church disclosing it’s finances is that it will be the equivalent of dumping blood in the water to draw in more trial lawyers looking to take a bite out of a fat target.

    You don’t honestly think that if the church keeps it’s finances closed that lawyers will leave them alone, do you? If they think they can win a judgment, they’re going to go after the church. Period.

  20. I think the philosophy of nondisclosure is one of accountability–the Brethren are accountable only to God, not to the members of the Church for expenditure decisions. It is also one of faith–faith that God, who has chosen His servants, will Himself see to it that the amounts are spent appropriately, without the need of reporting to anyone outside of the leadership or those they appoint.

    None of us likes having anyone looking over our shoulder and receiving criticism, and God does not like or want us looking over the shoulder of His appointed servants or criticizing or second guessing them.

    It is sort of like “executive privilege”, disclosure to outsiders (including lay members of the Church) of financial (or other statistical information routinely kept confidential) might inhibit the robustness of discussions and the making of hard decisions by the Brethren with God’s inspiration.

    Have I stated this reasoning correctly?

  21. Personally, I don’t care. Plain and simple. I understand both sides and couldn’t care less. I don’t think disclosure would do ANY good whatsoever; I believe it won’t do any bad, either. IMO, those who believe will continue to believe (no horrible skeletons), while those who oppose will find more reasons to oppose. So, I don’t care.

    As to the specifics of the Oregon case, I think it is ludicrous to force disclosure prior to a judgment of liability. I understand why the attorney wants it disclosed – so that he can paint the Church as a rich, uncaring impersonal clone of the Catholic Church when it comes to sexual abuse. It’s prejudicial – pure and simple. If there is a judgment of liability, disclosure makes sense; if not, it doesn’t.

  22. I’m in favor of disclosure also. What is a fairly non-Church related distrust of people/things with lots of money I want to know that people are being trustworthy. I do acknowledge that sometimes they will spend money on things I don’t completely agree with (revamping downtown SLC for example) but I’d rather know and disagree than not know and be suspicious.

    I do think the Church is corporate. It’s centralized, correlated etc, not run entirely out of individual congregations. I regret this sometimes but it’s not all bad. I worked at Starbucks for a while and it’s this huge corporation without even franchises. I mostly despise that but generally my experience at Starbucks was fantastic. I was surprised by that and it made me a little less irritable about the corporation that is the Church.

  23. amri,
    I’ve made the Starbucks/Church connection myself. While working there as the best barista in NYC, I was so impressed by the benefits and the way they were able to turn an otherwise menial job into a great blessing to my family. Boy do I miss the health insurance! Likewise, because of the “corperate” nature of the way the church does business, we are able to assist and serve on a larger scale. The PE fund is a good example. But even with all that, I’m still in favor of disclosure. What ever happened to avoiding the appearence of evil?

  24. Nick Literski says:

    The “disclosure” being sought is not public disclosure, Ray. It’s part of the normal discovery process in a civil lawsuit. In most cases, sensitive information like this ends up being protected by a court-ordered confidentiality agreement, specifically to avoid public disclosure. The only time it would be publicly disclosed is to a jury, AFTER a finding of liability. At that point, the question of church finances becomes relevant, because the jury is looking at the possibility of punitive damages, and what’s “punitive” to you or me isn’t “punitive” to a large corporation.

    I have seen nothing which leads me to believe that the LDS church is agreeing that financial information could be presented to a jury after a finding of liability. Rather, lawyers for the LDS church are attempting to argue that even IF they are liable, and even IF they are subject to punitive damages under the law, they shouldn’t have to provide financial information. They base their argument on what is honestly an unsupported and rather bizarre claim to freedom of religious expression. Now, I’d really love to see their legal briefs on that subject, because I can’t see how keeping finances secret is a “religious expression,” unless the LDS church wishes to suddenly make financial secrecy an actual tenet of the faith.

    Per my usual disclaimer on this subject, I am in no way saying that the LDS church is liable in the Oregon case, nor am I saying who should prevail. I am merely discussing the academic issue of whether a large corporation–even if it’s a church–should be subject to normal rules of discovery.

  25. I do not go to church because it provides me a return on investment.

    Hey, even Christ taught his followers in parables that emphasized the importance of ROI. Burying the talent instead of finding a way to multiply it was a definite no-no.

  26. Tracy M. #15- That’s exactly how I feel. Thanks for saying it so well.

    One thing I found interestng about the Oregon Case is that I had never realized before that the Church was unique in it’s centralized financial process.. I think if the church becomes required to disclose it’s financial assets, it will need to decentralize it’s finances in order to protect itself from money grabbing lawyers. That would be unfortuneate.

  27. cj! you were the best barista in NYC?! Now we’re going to have to have a competition you know. I was so struck by the similarities that I was going to write a post about it but I figured people wouldn’t like my down to the apron joke. I think Starbucks makes a lot of choices to make their corporation great for their employees, down to the language they choose to use. That’s partly why I believe in disclosure because it establishes a relationship between the top and the bottom that I believe is necessary for a happy corporation/church.

    This would be about faith for me if God were in charge of the money but as we’ve discussed a million times on the blogs, our leaders are still human. They are not expected to be perfect. It is one of our doctrines that they are fallible. In my mind that obligates them to be more transparent.

  28. I agree completely with #17

  29. Thomas Parkin says:

    I’m alrady regretting the countless ‘the church has $xxxx dollars, why haven’t they solved x problem posts.’

    ~

  30. Adam Greenwood says:

    As for trial lawyers, what difference does it make?

    Punitives. Oh, and appeals to ugly passions in jurors.

  31. Lawrence Schlosser says:

    In a world where every piece of information is used to “game the system”, I am inclined to not provide “them” with the fodder to game me.

  32. Melinda says:

    The Church’s tithing dollars can only be used on non-profit religious expenditures like building temples, financing ward budgets, and funding BYU. Tithing dollars can’t be used for commercial development, or the church would run afoul of the IRS.

    I do not want disclosure. I’m satisfied that my tithing is used for non-profit religious purposes, and I really don’t need to see the specific breakdown.

  33. Clayton says:

    I believe that President Hinckley has stated tithing funds are not being used for the downtown SLC project.

    Tithing is more of a principle of faith than it is money. Part of this faith comes in the giving of our funds, but also in how these funs are used (even if we may think that the funds could be used more wisely elsewhere). We are limited in our ability to see the whole picture and the presiding bishopric, quorum of 12, and the first presidency are not.

    I am not in favor of disclosure, especially in this case where liability has not been established.

    The church has nothing to hide in my opinion. But just because it has nothing to hide does not mean that it should disclose all of its financial information. Even if the information is disclosed, some will still not be satisfied, no matter what the church does.

  34. SamMB, you said, “I do not go to church to engage in business networking or sell products…The church is not a business or a corporation and should not be one.”

    I completely agree. This is exactly why the Church should disclose the use of funds that are charitably given – to openly and honestly deal with its fellow men by proving that it is not just running a “corporation.”

    The truth has nothing to hide, does it?

  35. Melinda: re running afoul of the IRS, who says the church or its for-profits’ haven’t already? Or won’t?

    Critics are going to be critics whether the funds are disclosed or not. And perhaps eventually, the funds will have to be disclosed anyway. What is the secret?

    Sacred funds, not secret funds! Operate in the light, not in the dark. This is not the Mafia, but the Kingdom of God on Earth, it operates in the light of day, not in the darkness of night. Right?

  36. You make a really good point in your entry. The church is not a business or a corporation and should not be one. I think that turning the church into a business is another one of the adversary’s tools to turn people away from God and the blessings of belief. Very dangerous.

    Thanks for the read and chance to think about tithing and why it is that I pay it.

  37. NonProfitScholar says:

    Just imagine what would happen if these financial records were disclosed. No matter how good the books are, there would still be things in them to argue about. This way, the accountants get to do the arguing and the rest of us don’t have to waste our time on it. The whole reason for transparency in corporate accounting is that the profit/greed motive is always present. In the church, that simply isn’t the case, and even if there were cases of embezzlement, this kind of reporting isn’t what would reveal that. This is all very much like the exhortation not to question our leaders. It isn’t because they are always right, it’s just because a culture of always second guessing the person in charge would kill a nonprofit voluntary organization like we’re running. Better to do stupid things occasionally because the bishop says so than to waste all of our time and energy bickering.

  38. I see several comments here distrusting the people’s right to know based on a perceived assessment of the ability of the masses to comprehend the information, assess it accurately, and interpolate the information for themselves “safely”.

    Sheesh folks. We already broke through this during the Renaissance.

    15th Century Europe:
    “Let the people read the scriptures themselves? Gee, what if they are too stupid to get it? We should interpret it for them.”

    21st Century Bloggersphere:
    “Let the people read the spreadsheets themselves?
    Gee, what if they are too stupid to get it? We should interpret it for them.”

    Information is nearly a breathing thing, in that it will always seek to be free.

    p.s. I know spreadsheets and scriptures aren’t the same thing. However, isn’t it odd that the two arguments for filtered disclosure are so similar?

    p.s.s. I urge everyone reading this thread to take caution in that $ is a very contentous topic, and the appropriation of church assests has been a stumbling block for many Apostles, early and modern. Judas, comes to mind very quickly, as does Marsh.

  39. I admit my own ambivalence about the Church’s revelation of its finances. I agree with #12 that knowing how much money is out there might encourage some other lawsuits against the Church. I have looked a little at the pending case in Oregon (http://weightermatters.blogspot.com/2007/07/church-snipers-on-roof.html)and I think that this case is clearly not one in which the Church should have to reveal its finances. That being said, for future reference, the Church ought to try to explicitly lay out in detail the authority structure of the Church and where responsibility lies. I have seen some other cases where issues regarding the Church organization are involved and the court/jury have struggled figuring out what the doctrine or the organization consists of, just because there are no authoritative statements on it anywhere. Whether the Church’s legal theory (we aren’t responsible for the HT/VT’s actions) is accepted by a court is another story.

    For curiosity’s sake, I would love to know how much money the Church has and how it is being spent. For the non-lawyers, all non-profits that qualify for tax exemption have to submit annual reports of their finances and activities to the IRS, except for churches. So our Church is no exception. So we need to decide whether we are talking about a legal requirement of disclosure or just a moral imperative. On the other hand, I don’t want to see the Church coffers become the object of such scrutiny by those who want to bring the Church down. I am sure that some Church investments have failed, lost money, etc. and enemies of the Church would love to find that out. Plus, I would hate to see the members begin to squabble over money. You know that once the Church finances were known, everyone would be asking SLC for contributions to their own pet Church-related project. We may be better off not knowing and trusting that they are spent wisely. But as I said at the beginning of this comment, I remain ambivalent.

  40. Statements that church assets don’t produce income are incomplete.

    Shortly after the church announced a new temple would be built in our area, a member of the Seventy visited for a conference. In what I thought was a surprising disclosure, he said initial tithing compliance more than doubles in areas with new temples. Eventually, it levels off but remains significantly higher than in areas without temples. He also said the church will sometimes buy multiple parcels of land where they hope to someday build a temple or meetinghouse and will later sell off most of the properties for a profit to help finance construction or plow the money back into the general church fund.

    It reminds of a friend who manages real estate for a major grocery retailer. She says they sell food barely above cost and make most of their money buying and selling real estate. Groceries pay the taxes on the land and not much more.

    I would like to see the church disclose finances because I think it would be interesting but I understand their hesitancy. I personally know one person who quit paying tithing when she found out how much the church paid for the new scoreboard at Cougar stadium a few years ago.

  41. The accountant says:

    The Church is required to file financial reports in Great Britain. Go here http://www.charity-commission.gov.uk/registeredcharities/ScannedAccountsEnds51000242451_ac_20051231_e_c.pdf to see the 2005 report.

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