$32 Billion?!?

On Wednesday, MormonLeaks announced that they had connected the church to $32 billion in U.S. stock market investments. [KUTV story.] And how did it figure this out? Ingeniously, actually: it looked at the Form 13Fs for thirteen LLCs to see their stock holdings, and it discovered that domain names matching the LLCs’ names were registered to Intellectual Reserve, Inc., which holds the church’s intellectual property.

So, should you be outraged that the church has at least $32 billion in the stock market? I mean, sure, if you’re a fan of being outraged by stories of religions having money (though frankly, if that’s what you’re in the mood for, maybe this is a better source of outrage). But it’s probably worth taking a minute to figure out what we do and don’t know before going full-throated outraged.

FWIW, as a preliminary thing, I don’t understand why anybody would be surprised that the church has a lot of money invested. I mean, there’s a long history of pointing out how wealthy the church (allegedly) is. I’m skeptical of every number that gets thrown out, but it’s clearly possible that the church has net worth of tens of billions of dollars.[fn1] It’s equally possible that it has that kind of money in the stock market. But nothing about the information MormonLeaks released indicates that it does.

Essentially, we have two things: domain registration (which clearly points the the church) and Form 13Fs.

So just what is a Form 13F? Let me disclaim intimate knowledge here: I’m a tax attorney and professor, not a securities one, so I’ve never filed a 13F, and today was the first time I read one. What I did, though, was look at the SEC’s FAQ on Form 13F is and who files it (and also, I read several of the LLCs’ 13Fs).

In short, an institutional investment manager that manages more than $100 million has to file a Form 13F. And what does the Form 13F tell us? Four things, basically: the name of the securities the investment manager owns, the class of security, the number owned, and their fair market value as of the last day of the quarter. (It also lists a little bit of information about the LLC, including its name and address and the name of the person signing on behalf of it.)

What the Form 13F doesn’t tell us is who is invested in the LLC. It is 100% possible that the church is the sole owner of all of the LLCs. It’s also 100% possible that it’s not; the church may be just one of any number of investors.

Now, I don’t know any more than MormonLeaks (or, for that matter, you, unless you’re an investment manager for the church) about these investments. But frankly, I would hope the church and church-related entities had a significant presence in the stock market. Why?

A couple main reasons. For one thing, the church employs a bunch of people. (How many? No idea.) It boasts of its excellent pay and benefits; until recently, those benefits included a pension plan, and even today it administers a retirement fund. How do pension plans and retirement plans work? Well, largely, the involve a tax-advantaged investment in the stock market to ensure that the money put away today grows to be sufficient, upon retirement, to support the retiree.

I mean, maybe it’s nice to think of the church as an entity existing apart from the trivialities of the economic world. But it isn’t, and, to the degree it has employees, it has moral and legal obligations to those employees, ones I think it is critical that the church perform. Are these LLCs used to invest for retirement for employees? No idea, but it’s possible.

In the same vein, church insurance is self-funded. Though I’m not an insurance guy, I do know that insurers tend to invest the premiums they receive so that they have enough money to pay out claims. Again, I’m not saying that the church ensures that its insurance is actuarially sound by investing through these LLCs, but it certainly could.

There’s a discussion to be had about how the church—and we as members—can ethically function in the economic regime we find ourselves in. It’s one I hope to start later this summer when I have time.[fn2] Until then, it’s worth keeping in mind that, in spite of the assertion that the Mormon church has $32 billion invested in the stock market (an assertion that MormonLeaks doesn’t actually make), the information we have says a lot less than that. We don’t actually know who or how much. Or why.[fn3]


[fn1] Yeah, I know, financial transparency. We’ve been around that block—and the City Creek one—dozens of times. Neither is relevant to the question of being in the stock market for billions of dollars, so if that’s what you really, really need to discuss, how about find a forum discussing that? (It’s not hard to find.)

[fn2] If you want a reading assignment to prepare for that discussion, check out the Vatican’s magisterial on financial and economic issues.

[fn3] N.b.: I’ve written about the church and money before. Like here. And here. And I’ll continue to write them as long as I need to.

Comments

  1. Scott B. says:

    Your views certainly aren’t what some other people are shouting at me, so I’m not sure how to think.

  2. Would it help if I posted this in all-caps?

  3. “So, should you be outraged that the church has at least $32 billion in the stock market? I mean, sure, if you’re a fan of being outraged by stories of religions having money”

    Visit the ex-Mormon reddit to get a better idea of what the outrage is about, for I think you’re creating a bit of a strawman. From what I’ve read, it is not so much that the LDS church has a lot of money, but that it has this much money and continues to use high-pressure shame and guilt tactics to get tithing out of its followers (regularly featuring stories of extreme financial sacrifice to pay tithing and go to the temple and not issuing any instructions to keep bishops from browbeating poor members into paying more than they can afford) and spend so little on humanitarian causes (only $40 million a year). At the end of the day we have to ask if the LDS leaders really aren’t that much different from Jesse Duplantis, just more sophisticated and better at maintaining a fake image of generosity and moderation.

  4. Mark, I debated between responding politely or dismissively, but I decided to go polite, at least this once. In short, the arguments you’re proposing aren’t, well, relevant to what I’ve said or terribly compelling. Certainly, the church could spend more on humanitarian aid. It could also spend more on private jets, on better buildings, on putting restaurants in the temples, on betting on red, or a literal infinite number of other things. Money, after all, is fungible. That the church could spend more on any given category of expenses doesn’t mean that it should, though.

    As for your allegations of pressure, that’s a factual question unrelated to the issue of how much the church has invested in the stock market; I’ll just say, anecdotally, that I don’t find your assertion of pressure matches my experience in the church. But the great news is, individuals’ experiences in the church are legion, and I certainly grant that it’s possible that others have been subject to inordinate pressure.

    And I feel myself slipping a little: at the end of the day, we don’t have to ask whether LDS leaders aren’t much different from Duplantis, because that’s a stupid assertion.

  5. J. Stapley says:

    There is also the issue of BYU’s endowment. I don’t imagine that it is as large as Harvard’s $38B, but there should be some significant change between the endowment and pension funds.

  6. what is the church’s reason for not being transparent as to its finances?

  7. Daniel, that’s for some other thread.

  8. Kristine says:

    ^Probably about the same as Harvard’s…

  9. U.S. News pegs BYU’s endowment at about $1.6 billion. So that’s not the full amount, but it would account for about 5% of the money (assuming, of course, that it is $32 billion and the church is investing alone through the funds).

  10. Tax question says:

    Sam – could the church be penalized for having too much money in operating reserves (assuming for the sake of argument that it does) or does that concept not apply to churches?

  11. Sam you took an unnecessary jab at people who would feel outraged at this number (which is perfectly rational to feel outraged at) and then you retreated back to what you claim is the main issue. Typical apologist tactic. “You doubters are ridiculous to think x, but the issue is really y and x is beyond the point.” OK, then why bring up x?

    “Certainly, the church could spend more on humanitarian aid….the church could spend more on any given category of expenses doesn’t mean that it should.” It shouldn’t?

    “we don’t have to ask whether LDS leaders aren’t much different from Duplantis, because that’s a stupid assertion”

    Maybe the LDS church leaders aren’t spending $54 million on a private jet, but two or three temples cost the same amount. And what exact purpose does a temple serve other than to stand there as a symbol of LDS grandeur? Why can’t the LDS church dedicate a much cheaper building to perform their sacred ordinances and use the millions they save on not building an opulently lavish symbol of self-importance on more real-world charitable aims? Duplantis is justifying the expense on the basis of spreading the word of god being so important. LDS leaders justify extremely expensive temples on the basis of it being so important to save the dead. It is a double-standard for you to mockingly point fingers at other religions for lavish spending and then think that the LDS leaders are so pure and perfect.

  12. Rexicorn says:

    Sam, making temple recommends contingent on tithing isn’t high-pressure? What about promising that tithing can end the cycle of poverty? The real difference is whether you think those tactics are appropriate or not. If tithing is a true spiritual principle that just happens to be about money, then it’s fine. If tithing is only about fundraising, then using that rhetoric when you already have so much money is not so defensible.

    Then again, if you’re the kind of ExMo who thinks the church is an evil influence on the world, then just the fact of it getting a lot of money and power is probably upsetting regardless, so…eh.

  13. Tax question, the really short answer is, that doesn’t apply to churches. Simplifying drastically, tax-exempt organizations fall into one of two camps: public charities and private foundations. Public charities are largely organizations that get donations from the public at large, while private foundations get donations from a limited number of people. (Okay, that’s way too simplistic, but it’s close enough for our purposes.) If private foundations don’t spend a certain percentage of their net assets annually, they owe an excise tax. Public charities—including churches, universities, museums, the Red Cross, etc.—don’t have the same distribution requirements.

  14. “what exact purpose does a temple serve other than to stand there as a symbol of LDS grandeur?”

    An expression of devotion and sacrifice to God, maybe?

    Listen, I’d love to see the church do even more humanitarian relief and fighting poverty, but characterizing temples as nothing more than “an opulently lavish symbol of self-importance” is wildly unfair, and not a good faith argument, in my opinion.

  15. No doubt people get outraged about the all the wrong things, and no doubt the church is a good steward—in the sense of hewing to the norms of 21st century American wealth management—of the resources at its disposal, but I’m with Mark L on the source of the outrage highlighted in the OP.

  16. Peter, I’m roughly indifferent (for these purposes) as to whether the church is a good steward (and again, I plan on talking about its and our financial ethics later), but the concern Mark highlights strikes me as misplaced at best. Again, the church doesn’t spend a ton of money on humanitarian aid. But that’s not what it was organized or formed to do. Loyola—my employer—also doesn’t spend a ton on humanitarian aid (I suspect; I guess I’ve never looked at it). Neither does the Harris Theater or the Museum of Modern Art. Humanitarian aid isn’t the sine qua non of nonprofit or tax-exempt status, and being outraged that the church isn’t spending more on humanitarian aid strikes me as being essentially the same as being outraged that the NCAA doesn’t spend more on religion, or that the local nonprofit hospital* doesn’t spend more on promoting modern dance. They’re all legit and appropriate charitable activities, and there’s no reason a nonprofit can’t act outside of its lane, but mostly they act within their lane. If we want our charitable dollars to go to humanitarian aid, we should be giving them to the Red Cross or UNESCO or something. If we want them to go to dance, we should give them to Hubbard Street Dance. If we want them to go to religion, the church is a good donee. But if we give money to Hubbard, we can’t complain that they’re not providing medical care to the indigent. (Or rather, we can, but we shouldn’t be taken seriously.)

    * N.b. that there are some significant legal issues surrounding nonprofit hospitals, but that’s a little outside the scope of this comment.

  17. brianl1984 says:

    Hi, I don’t think I’m giving too much away, but the Church employee benefits do include a matched 401k, and it did have a pension until about 3 years ago. (Those employees with more than 5 years still have one, all the rest have a retirement plus plan, which is basically a vested pension that you have control of, in addition to the 401k.) Our insurance is self funded, but I don’t know how much they invest. Overall, much of that stock isn’t very liquid, it is probably tied to employee retirements and insurance. Yes, there are other stocks. Maybe I’m the wrong person to have an opinion, but as someone on the inside, in an accounting department, I know how we handle our money, and I have no ethical, moral, or legal issues. Everything is done in wisdom and order, and according to GAAP, and all other state, national, and international laws and regulations.

  18. nobody, really says:

    I’ve got a relative who used to work for the Office of the Presiding Bishop. Said relative reports that if you want to increase fast offerings, the best way to do it is to build a temple. Donations from the surrounding stakes generally increase such that the payback is three to five years – meaning that the increased donations *just for fast offerings* offset the construction costs in relatively short order.

    Back in the 70s and 80s, it used to be “the thing”, if you had a company in the Zion Corridor that went public, you’d donate a bunch of stock to the LDS Church and then put an apostle or two on your Board of Directors. I used to work for such a company – they got NYSE listed in the 80s, and early shareholder reports had a couple of Q12 members on the Board. The Board of Directors jobs generally take about four days of work per year, but can pay $80K-$200K depending on the size of the company. It wouldn’t take many seats on boards for general authorities to have a pretty decent income, but eventually the demands of the ministry became too demanding for even those sorts of positions. I’d bet that a non-zero percentage of those stock holdings currently held by the Church were obtained in that way, and the dividends have been a good thing. I’m thinking stock in Union Pacific, Zions Bancorp, Franklin Covey, and similar companies could be owned this way.

    Even now, you can pay your tithing by donating stock. At this same Zion Corridor company, they had a program where you employees could purchase stock at a 15% discount, based on multiple factors. Savvy financial types would put 8% of their paycheck into the stock purchase plan, then fill out the required paperwork with the Church, and donate their stock at the end of the year. It would allow them to pay a full tithe with just 7%-8% of their pay. I’ve heard claims that such activities are “cheating”, but tithing is between you and the Lord anyway. If the stock price rose enough during the year, they could pay in full with 4% of their income. (Conversely, if the stock price tanked, they might have to make it up at the end of the year, or just pay cash and save the stock for another time).

    And at the end of the day, if you don’t like the way the Church invests their money, there are plenty of things you can do about it. You can gripe to the Bishop, you can complain to the Stake President, you can refuse to hold callings, you can sow discord throughout your ward, and you can even donate money to places where *you* think it should go. “Bring ye all the tithes unto the storehouse, and don’t you even think about giving to anybody else, for I am a jealous God, and will not have you supporting the United Way, or women’s shelters, or the Shakespeare Festival, for these things are an abomination in my sight….”

  19. Charactus says:

    Find someone in need who is trying to serve to the Lord righteously. Spend the next 3 months helping them with your time and 20% of your net income during that time period.

    If you tried that, I think you’d learn more about money, and the love of God than any commenting on this issue.

    And you still would be an unprofitable servant wouldn’t you?

  20. j-allred says:

    The recent notice that the church no longer needs donations for the Perpetual Education Fund and the Temple Patron Assistance Fund should be a big indication that, despite reserving the right to use funds as needed, the church does its best to keep funds in the category to which they were originally donated.

    In other words, if you want the church to spend more money on Humanitarian work, then donate more to the “Humanitarian Fund.”

  21. Last Lemming says:

    For the record, there is additional public information available on pension funds. Deseret Mutual Benefit Administrators files a Form 5500 for three retirement plans: a traditional defined benefit plan, a 401(k), and the new defined contribution plan. DMBA administers benefits for the Church and its affiliated organizations, both for-profit and non-profit (including the BYUs, Deseret Book, Bonneville International, and City Creek Reserves–see the whole list here.) The 5500s all claim to represent single-employer plans, so I interpret that single employer to be “the Church,” although it is not at all clear that my definition corresponds to that of MormonLeaks or of Sam. It is possible that the 5500s represent only the subset of the church’s companies that are not exempt from ERISA, but I seriously doubt it. You can see the 5500s by signing up for an account at freeERISA.com and searching for Deseret Mutual. The following summaries of asset holdings of the DB plan come from Schedule H. All figures are in millions of dollars.

    Interest in registered investment companies (e.g. mutual funds) – $1,520
    Corporate stock – $1,175
    Partnership/joint venture interests – $681
    Corporate debt – $566
    Real estate – $462
    All other – $406
    US Government securities – $364
    Receivables (mostly employer contributions) – $322
    Interest-bearing cash – $131
    Total – $5,627

    The 401(k) plan has $3,174 million in assets, almost 80 percent of which are in mutual funds. The new DC plan has only $51 million in assets, about 70 percent of which are in mutual funds. Neither plan invests in individual corporate stocks or bonds.

  22. Last Lemming says:

    I should probably point out that the real estate in the above list includes only that held by the pension plan for investment–it does not include any that the Church, or any of its affiliates, owns outright (like chapels, temples, BYU campuses, or the City Creek development).

  23. I like Sam’s no nonsense approach to this, but Walmart appears to give proportionally more of its wealth/earnings to charity than the LDS church. And you can’t really argue that Walmart’s purpose is to make charitable donations.

  24. This is a fun game. After spit balling with some quick numbers if the church invested $15 million at the end of the great depression at about a 10% rate of return, with no additional investments, it would be worth about $32 billion now. If you add continual investments (from say tithing receipts or reinvested profits from business ventures) that $32 billion could be much higher.

    My point is that the stock market seems like a perfectly good place with relatively low risk for the long term if properly diversified. I wouldn’t be surprised if the church’s net worth were higher than $32 billion.

    My question is similar to others. At what point are we a business masquerading as a church? I genuinely applaud fiscal success and fiscal responsibility but that includes fiscal transparency.

  25. The Church is the wealthiest Church in the US and perhaps in the world.
    It built at $1.5 billion mall to revitalize that area near the SL temple.
    Elder Dallin H. Oaks of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles said that each year The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints spends about $40 million on welfare, humanitarian and other LDS Church-sponsored projects around the world and has done so for more than 30 years.

    In comparison, the Salvation Army spends $1.883 billion dollars and Catholic Charities spend $3.773 billion annually in the US on humanitarian projects.

  26. Honestly, the first thing that I thought when I saw the report was, “wow, we are a worldwide Church with 15 ,million members and tens of thousands of employees, and we don’t even have as much invested in the market as Harvard, a single university in Massachusetts.” And as a member who does still pay tithing, I am glad that the Church doesn’t have it all sitting in a 24-story mattress at the COB.

  27. Again, the church doesn’t spend a ton of money on humanitarian aid. But that’s not what it was organized or formed to do.

    Except that, biblically, that is precisely what the church was formed to do. A theology that doesn’t have a preferential option for the poor and a wealthy church that doesn’t exhaust itself in its efforts to clothe the naked, feed the hungry, heal the sick, and release the prisoners is far from the heart of God, indeed.

  28. Scott B. says:

    Chris,
    A couple of thoughts:
    1. It would seem to me that you’re conflating two very distinct entities–Catholic Charities and the Catholic Church are not the same. The direct point of comparison for the LDS Church isn’t Catholic Charities–it’s the Catholic Church itself, wouldn’t it?
    2. Catholic Charities receives over half of its money from the US Federal Government; as a recipient of those funds, they are required to spend it in certain ways. Same goes for Salvation Army. This is a major difference between a “charity” and a “church” here, and I think blurring that line is a problem.
    3. I don’t know exactly what Elder Oaks was including or excluding with the $40M you refer to. What I do know is that the Church’s website also says

    “The Church has spent billions of dollars over the past few years to meet welfare and humanitarian needs around the world.”

    So is it $40M? Or is it “billions” then? The answer is probably both, because words and definitions matter. Clearly, there are differences in the definition of what a “humanitarian project” might be that make plucking specific numbers and comparing them to other specific numbers, without ever bothering to ensure that they’re remotely comparable, highly problematic.

  29. Chris, the LDS Church is not the wealthiest church in the world, by a long shot. And I doubt it’s the wealthiest church in the US.

    And honestly, comparisons to Catholic Charities and to the Salvation Army are inapposite.

    Toad, accusing churches of being businesses in disguise has a long and storied history, one that includes the LDS church, the Catholic church, Scientology, the Hutterites, and the Shakers, among others. And I can imagine situations where it’s a close question, but it’s not with the LDS church (or most or all of the others I mentioned). Businesses don’t generally sit on passive investments and donations as their principal revenue streams. (I mean, unless the business is like an investment fund of some sort.) The church is well-advised enough that virtually all (if not all) of its for-profit endeavors are owned through taxable and seperate corporations. Could you object to the church’s ownership of these types of investments? I mean, sure you could, I guess. But owning shares of a for-profit entity is different from engaging in business.

    As for City Creek, I already e-rolled my eyes at its inevitable mention, and won’t acknowledge anyone’s mention of it again, but investing $2b in a real estate venture is different from $2b of consumption. Provided you’ve done your math and prognostication right, that investment should have had a net present value in excess of $2b. Unlike, eg, temples and meetinghouses, which don’t generate any revenue, and are pure cost.

  30. Katie, I can’t really respond to your comment because you’re conflating a lot of things. You’re right that we have a theological mandate to care for the poor. But that doesn’t equate to spending x% of revenue on humanitarian aid. Moreover, while that is an amazingly important thing to do, again, it isn’t the institutional church’s sole—or, likely—primary mission. So how much should it spend? It could spend literally every cent it brings in. It could spend nothing. It could spend some number of dollars in between. But the criticism that the church doesn’t spend enough on humanitarian aid strikes me asvacuous until we (a) establish criteria to figure out how much a church should spend on humanitarian aid, (b) define what we mean by “humanitarian aid” (See Scott’s comment), and (c) figure out what counts as humanitarian aid.

  31. Anon, I’m not sure where you get the idea that Walmart is more charitable than the church. According to them, they (and the Walmart Foundation) made grants of $1.4b in FYE 2017. That’s great and super-generous, but also, Walmart had revenue of $485.9b. Charitable giving represented about 0.3% if its revenue. Moreover, its charitable giving included “charity” under a broad legal definition, not the more-limited popular definition of helping the poor. Among other organizations, they give to fire departments, schools, recreational centers, and disaster relief. It talks about employee scholarships, though I’m not sure whether that’s included in the $1.4b.

    This is all great and valuable, but if we use the legal definition of “charitable” (which Walmart is rightfully doing), something approaching 100% of the church’s expenditures are charitable, because charitable includes religious.

  32. The best single piece of advice I could give someone anywhere in the world to secure their current and future temporal welfare both for themselves and their posterity (not to mention their spiritual welfare, where this advice is infinitely more valuable) would be to join the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and follow its counsel and teachings with full intent and faithfulness.

    The best piece of advice I could give a government to secure its peace and prosperity for the benefit of its people would be likewise to follow those teachings.

  33. Leo, I’m not sure what that has to do with the OP, but just to be clear, joining the church and following its teachings has at best marginal financial benefits, benefits that are grossly overshadowed by family wealth, class, place of birth, parents’ education, etc. And the church doesn’t speak to government economic policies.

  34. I do feel better about the church having money, compared to the stories of when Apostles would take loans out from the church, and nearly brought the church to bankruptcy.
    I’m currently reading Henry B. Erying’s “I Will Lead You Along” and I’m at a part where the First Presidency thought that the stock market was too hot, and Bro. Erying had to come up with a plan on how to start selling stocks quietly; because they were afraid that they were big enough that if they started selling too fast, they would move the markets. So I think the church has had a noticeable amount of investments for a long time.
    If the church starts selling all liquid assets and starts purchasing survival gear I think everyone will take notice.

  35. My “best single piece of advice” remains unchanged. Over time, perhaps over generations, joining the Church and diligently following its teachings will have temporal benefits that will outweigh family wealth, class, place of birth, and parents’ education. The old TV show “The Millionaire” and the experience of lottery winners shows that money will trickle out of the hands of the unwise and will not bring lasting happiness without divine wisdom.

    Telling people they should be born wealthy isn’t very helpful advice, and a good many rich people are not happy. Indeed, if Hollywood is an example, great wealth has been a snare and a barrier to their happiness.

    A government that encourage people to consider joining and/or following the teachings of the Church would reap untold benefits for its citizens.

    What this has to do with this thread is that joining the Church is a very good personal anti-poverty program, and this is only a side benefit of joining.

  36. Does this 40m in humanitarian aid number being bandied about include local assistance provided through the fast offering system? And is that system self-sustaining or does it draw from other silos? And what about service provided by members and missionaries around the world, which requires tithing funds to facilitate? Getting bent out of shape over the cash or even the boxes of food we hand out entirely misses the boat RE LDS humanitarian service.

  37. Leo, no. We don’t preach the Prosperity Gospel here. Church membership and faithfulness have plenty of benefits, but wealth is not one of them. The sun shines on the just and the unjust alike, and the just and the unjust alike are wealthy and are poor.

    And that’s as far as I’m willing to let this tangent go. Personal wealth (or lack thereof) is unrelated to anything having to do with the church’s ownership (in full or in part) of LLCs that are invested in the stock market.

  38. Mark B. says:

    “[H]igh pressure shame and guilt” tactics and bishops “browbeating” members into paying more than they can afford? Whatever church Mark L. was talking about, it bears no resemblance to the church I worship with.

  39. One problem I have with those who say it’s not very Christ-like to not give all of your resources to the poor is that Christ did not do that. He did a lot of things: he slept on a boat, he dined with friends, he made wine for people fortunate enough to attend a wedding party, he sat quietly and observed things, he taught, and on, and on, and on. He could have shunned every one of those activities and been out healing the sick, feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, enriching the poor, etc. But he didn’t. Well, he did do all those things, but he also did other things. He did not expend 100% of his time doing the things people complain the church should be expending 100% of its resources on. But then, maybe we’re not talking about the same Christ.

  40. Reading the Doctrine and Covenants this last year, I was struck by the number of revelations that dealt with the temporal welfare and sustainability of the Church and its members. Early (albeit problematic) experiments in the United Firm, the Kirtland Bank, etc. were reaching, in my opinion, toward something which the Church is approaching today. D&C 78, for example, instructs early leaders to bind themselves by covenant to establish a print shop and a mercantile store. Verses 13 and 14 indicate that the organization of these business efforts was for a preparation and a foundation for keeping the commandments given to the church, “That through my providence, notwithstanding the tribulation which shall descend upon you, that the church may stand independent above all other creatures beneath the celestial world.” The Doctrine and Covenants also indicates that the Lord is less concerned about the division between spiritual and temporal commandments than we are.

    Independence through a foundation laid by the establishment of business efforts suggests to me the Lord is speaking in part of financial independence for the Church as a whole. Fast forward to the 21st century. The church has a publishing / communications arm and commercial and financial investments. I would argue that the Church is, in fact, working zealously to fulfill what it views as a multiple parts of it’s divine mandate. We don’t preach prosperity gospel in the Church. But we do teach a blend of spiritual and spiritual self reliance coupled with a divine injunction to care for the poor and needy. I see the investments in the CES universities, the self-reliance centers, the perpetual education fund, the new self-reliances support group programs, the Pathways program all pointing to that same goal. “That through my providence, notwithstanding the tribulation which shall descend upon you, that the church may stand independent above all other creatures beneath the celestial world.”

    We also preach laying up in store and preparing for unforeseen futures. President Hinkley said as much some years ago indicating a percentage of tithing was being set aside for future needs. I believe these investments are part of that effort as well. One can argue about what they feel is the equitable distribution among these priorities, but I feel confident in perceiving the Church as faithfully working to fulfill what the faithful believe are divine commandment.

  41. Humanitarian aid isn’t the sine qua non of nonprofit or tax-exempt status

    I didn’t mean that the complaint about the church’s humanitarian engagement is compelling, just that the OP doesn’t quite capture the source of outrage either. For my part, I’m happy if the church keeps the pipe organ tuned and reports my charitable contributions to the government like they’re supposed to do in this jurisdiction. In my experience the church is good at, say, paying the housing costs for exchange students who have no plan or hapless travellers who have no return ticket, but if I want to, say, help refugees I know better than to give my money to the church.

    As for stewardship, this is a common argument in favour of what the church is doing, reflected in this thread:

    “Everything is done in wisdom and order, and according to GAAP, and all other state, national, and international laws and regulations.”

    “And as a member who does still pay tithing, I am glad that the Church doesn’t have it all sitting in a 24-story mattress at the COB.”

    “the stock market seems like a perfectly good place with relatively low risk for the long term if properly diversified.”

    But what makes perfect sense if you have billions (?) of dollars and a global organisation to manage may not make intuitive sense to those who barely have enough to make rent at the end of the month who are nonetheless the recipients of a clear and unambiguous message—followed up in person—that no sacrifice is too great to get that tithing check in the mail.

    I’m familiar with the argument that if you give the unwashed masses an inch they’ll take a mile, and besides they’re far too unsophisticated to understand finances anyway, so the current policy of intransparency is just fine, thank you very much, but in my view great good could come of the church figuring out how to communicate the complexities of what it does and why (and how it manages to keep its buildings in North America cooled to 68 degrees Fahrenheit all summer).

    tithing is between you and the Lord anyway.

    Unless you work for the church; in that case it’s between you, the Lord, the HR department and the idiosyncratic interpretations of the stake president and bishop.

    Whatever church Mark L. was talking about, it bears no resemblance to the church I worship with.

    I guess Mark B. has settled it—the church is how he experiences it.

    “wow, we are a worldwide Church with 15 million members and tens of thousands of employees, and we don’t even have as much invested in the market as Harvard, a single university in Massachusetts.”

    Not only that, it’s less than the net worth represented by a single page of Monaco’s telephone book—a veritable tale of loaves and fishes!

  42. Roughly speaking, assuming a conservative annual 7% return on $32 billion and given the church’s self-reported $40 million a year it gives to charity, then Walmart gives away proportionally more of its annual income than the church.

    We can of course quibble about the definition of charity, but paying for landscaping, furniture, utilities and other operational expenses incurred by the Church is not really what we’re talking about here.

  43. Aussie Mormon says:

    A few of thoughts (not directed at one person)

    1) If you’re getting into a “who gives the most to charity” competition, you’re doing it wrong. Regardless whether it’s total, proportion, etc.
    2) At least 80% of the world live on less than $10/day [1]. This is 5.7 billion people. The church could give all that 32billion to those people, provide just over a day’s worth of assistance, and then not be able to help anyone else with it. Or they could keep it invested, trickle it out in carefully considered spending streams, and provide more useful benefits. For example setting up a water supply and treatment system is better than buying people a pair of shoes so they can walk further to get the water.

    “Not only that, it’s less than the net worth represented by a single page of Monaco’s telephone book”
    To look at it a similar way, the top 23 on the Forbes billionaire list each have more than this too.[2]

    ————————-
    [1] http://www.globalissues.org/article/26/poverty-facts-and-stats#src1
    [2] https://www.forbes.com/billionaires/#25b50c59251c

  44. To look at it a similar way, the top 23 on the Forbes billionaire list each have more than this too.

    Yeah, it’s not clear how the concentration of wealth elsewhere—whether in the endowment portfolio of, like, the most prestigious university on the planet or the yachts parked on the Mediterreanen coast—is relevant to church finances, but it certainly is the case that the church is not the biggest player out there.

  45. Yeah, there are reasonable bases for outrage and reasonable bases for not being outraged. I’ll go with outrage as to things like the ellipses changing Teachings of President Lorenzo Snow about tithing and not being outraged at the church’s investments for stability and future service. But it is certainly the case that the church does not keep the pipe organs or pianos tuned and does not keep “its buildings in North America cooled to 68 degrees Fahrenheit all summer” — maybe in California.

  46. But it is certainly the case that the church does not keep the pipe organs or pianos tuned

    I’m not saying the church does a good job keeping its organs and pianos tuned, but the facilities people just had our pipe organ fixed after decades of neglect and it is a glorious thing.

  47. If you’re prone to outrage over “high pressure tactics” related to religious observances like tithing, make sure you never read the Bible.

  48. Sam,

    We disagree here.

    Consider the scriptures:

    “Behold, do ye not remember the words which he spake unto Lehi, saying that: Inasmuch as ye shall keep my commandments, ye shall prosper in the land? And again it is said that: Inasmuch as ye will not keep my commandments ye shall be cut off from the presence of the Lord.”
    Alma 9:13

    And it is my purpose to provide for my saints, for all things are mine.
    But it must needs be done in mine own way; and behold this is the way that I, the Lord, have decreed to provide for my saints, that the poor shall be exalted, in that the rich are made low.
    D&C 104:15-16

    In passing let me note that as a side effect of the Church’s teachings, Utah has the lowest income inequality of the states and a relatively high rate of upward social mobility.

    To paraphrase Jordan Peterson, moral desolation is the poorest and most miserable of feasts. The gospel is a call to the pursuit of the highest mode of living, and this is simultaneously the highest quality and the most practical both for the individual and for society.

    Just as Harvard has a large endowment to fulfill its educational mission, the Church has reserves to fulfill all its missions, which (secondarily but necessarily) include temporal concerns. This is not “the prosperity gospel” as you understand it, though I am guessing as to what you understand that to be.

    There is absolutely nothing wrong and a good deal that is right with making sure that some of the world’s assets are set aside for the most important use possible, i.e. building the Kingdom of God on the earth. And whatever assets the Church and/or its members have, it is a tiny fraction of the world gross product and the total value of the world’s stock exchanges (both ca. $70 trillion). I wish that tiny fraction was still larger.

    The Church needs financial assets to fulfill its mission, and all things are ultimately spiritual.

    As for what the Church is doing temporally, I suggest looking at the Church’s self-reliance program and considering what the Church is putting into the third world. Go to MormonNewsroom.Org and click on International, and pick some countries. Looking at the Mormon Newsroom sites in Africa is inspiring.

  49. Mike Hunt says:

    Yeah, but what about all the soup kitchens the church could open? As we all know, soup kitchens=World Peace.

  50. Google “church bankruptcy”, “church pension fund bankruptcy” and “church loans” and consider what you find there as an alternative church lifestyle. As one church bulletin board put it, “God forgives. Banks don’t.”

  51. Sam, I love your posts; I do. (Keep them coming!) On this one, however, we disagree.

    I was not surprised or outraged by the fact that the Church owns stock. Let’s be honest: they own a non-trivial stake in the state of FL. Surely if I’m going to be outraged about something that makes a better target.

    The real question is: what would Jesus do? We should feel good about our investment strategy, if we can look ourselves in the mirror and say, “Yes, if Jesus were here today with a spare $32B lying around, he would absolutely use LLCs to invest it in the stock market.”

    Look, I can have faith in Jesus, my Savior and King or Jesus, Redeemer of my soul; I have a harder time getting behind Jesus, Hedge Fund Manager or Jesus, Floridian Property Manager.

    I’m not saying the church should “take no thought for the morrow”. But I know a poor carpenter from Galilee who did suggest that as an investment strategy.

  52. MTodd – Are you seriously suggesting the church should not have any investments, savings, etc.? At all?

  53. Aussie Mormon says:

    MTodd: Jesus might have been able to miraculously feed thousands, but the church requires money to do that. The church cannot provide ongoing service without requiring money somewhere along the line.
    A question MTodd, what would YOU do with that 32billion? And don’t just say give it to people, because 32billion doesn’t go anywhere near as far as people think.

  54. Jesus might have been able to miraculously feed thousands, but the church requires money to do that.

    I agree from a pragmatic sense, of course, but shouldn’t we at least examine this assumption? Like, how is this not putting one’s trust in the arm of flesh? Members are asked to show their faith by giving up some of the money they would otherwise require to meet their current and future obligations, so why should the institution be wedded to the goal of perpetual financial stability from a 21st century American wealth management perspective? Why not take the Sermon on the Mount as a guiding principle:

    And why take ye thought for raiment? Consider the lilies of the field how they grow; they toil not, neither do they spin;

    Wherefore, if God so clothe the grass of the field, which today is, and tomorrow is cast into the oven, even so will he clothe you, if ye are not of little faith.

    Therefore take no thought, saying, What shall we eat? or, What shall we drink? or, Wherewithal shall we be clothed?

    For your heavenly Father knoweth that ye have need of all these things.

    But seek ye first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things shall be added unto you.

    Take therefore no thought for the morrow, for the morrow shall take thought for the things of itself.

  55. Old Man says:

    Humanitarian: concerned with or seeking to promote human welfare.

    Exactly which church activities would not fall under the above definition? Education? Church welfare? Temples? Missionary work?

    By the above definition, what percentage of church expenditures qualifies as humanitarian?

  56. I’m not opposed to having a little set aside for a rainy day. But $32B (which may be just the tip of the iceberg)?

    As for what I would do with $32B? That would buy a lot of wells providing renewable, clean water in remote villages.

  57. Or buy a lot of vaccines, or provide training for medical personnel in third world countries, or, or, or, etc. The reality is that the church could never expend its resources in a way that will make everybody happy with the manner in which it does so. Keep in mind that Jesus did not expend all his time and energy feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, etc. He napped, he ate, he visited with friends, he sailed, he observed, he taught. He could have spent all of his time seeking out those who needed healing and healed them, for example, but he didn’t. His ministry was diversified. Why can’t the church’s be also?

  58. Before passing judgement on whether it’s appropriate for the Church to have so much invested in the stock market, I’d want to know which funds are being invested in. It seems possible that these investments could be doing more in the long run to feed the hungry and heal the sick than would simply giving the money to the poor directly. Partially for this reason I wish the church were more transparent about its finances.

  59. The church as a large, complex institution with many obligations and lots of cash flow should own stocks. It played with perpetual bankruptcy for most its history until the money men came in (Lee etc.). So the mere ownership of stocks, even significant stocks, is not where the outrage lie. I am sure someone in the Trib comment section and on Reddit is outraged, but that is a poor barometer and honestly a pretty boring premise for a BCC post.

    I don’t know enough to be outraged because I don’t have enough information to know whether I should be. Personally, I find that outrageous given the demands the organization finds perfectly happy to make on me to fund whatever it is they are doing. For all I know I would be outraged about how little stock the church owns relative to other assets.

    Whether you like it or not, most the reasonable outrage is about financial transparency. Its why the Mormon Leaks article is even interesting because no one outside a small number of people really know the basic contours of the church’s financial holdings. I am sure they are conservative and careful stewards. If that is true then their principle is probably growing faster than the church can spend it (which I think helps explain things like temple building sprees and owning 2% of Florida or whatever it is). At some point, that is going to get really difficult if it hasn’t already. And at some point it is going to hit some sort of outrageous number for a church. Maybe it is now, maybe not. Oh yeah we can’t talk about that.

    The last thing I will say is that opacity mixed with very large sums of money is destined to end badly, even if an institution is well-intentioned. Transparency IMHO would be a boon and protection to the church from itself. Until then I guess we will make do with people trying to read leaves from domain registries linked to LLC filings.

  60. Aussie Mormon says:

    How much transparency is enough though for people though? There’s a huge range between total income/spend at a church level, and saying that the Provo 12billionth ward bought 4 reams of paper or that the Perth Australia Temple bought a new key tag for locker B23 in the male change-room.

  61. Aussie Mormon,

    I don’t think anyone wants or expects the latter churchwide. The normal thing you would expect is for it to be tiered. Local congregants should have a good idea of how the ward budget is being spent. In fact, there is some decent transparency at the ward budget level. Quite a few people know where all the money in the ward is going though some run more transparently than others. It wouldn’t be out of bounds for the church to require each ward to publish a basic breakdown of how the ward budget is spent. Not down to paper etc. but maybe how it is allocated by program or just the major expenses.

    The other point is that almost all other churches have worked out a balance. There are best practices to draw on from our fellow religious brothers and sisters. I feel these types of “but what is enough” arguments are like my teenager throwing up his hands and saying “But I don’t know HOW to make rice” when clearly a large subset of teenagers around the world know how to make rice. The church is full of money men and women who report financials and accounts for a living. This is something we can figure out like most the other churches.

  62. Terry H. says:

    Sam this is great. Thanks for posting. I can’t wait to read all the comments above and below this one.

    PS BUY SAM’S BOOK. Its great!

  63. FWIW, DMBA sends out a legally required funding notice to its master retirement plan participants yearly. This spring, that notice listed the plan’s assets at $5.6 billion. I’m glad the fund is that large, because it has to pay me a monthly amount from the day I retire until the day I die. And I’m not alone. There are thousands who likewise will depend on this money. The Church has been wise in setting up a good retirement plan for its employees. Too bad so many corporations have left their employees out in the cold, all in the effort to funnel as much money as possible to the stockholders and executives.

  64. Well thought out post. Though the whole kerfluffle is silly anyway. The Church is in this for the long haul, building Zion will take lots of time and lots of money (in the early days the Church tried to force the issue, and look how that turned out!)

    Sure, they could throw away tons of money on short-term solutions to long-term problems, but that wouldn’t be particularly wise, now would it? [Besides, even Jesus didn’t require everything to be spent on the poor, recall the anointing oil incident?]

  65. I am an employee of Agreserves, the agriculture LLC. I guess because I am an employee I knew that the church has that much money invested in wall street as well as it’s billions in land. I have been an employee less than a year, but might not stick around long. The company has great benefits, but i don’t like the way it takes advantage of missionaries building all the houses and maintaining them. It is also important to note that a non profit company owns the land and the for profit company operates the business on the land which pays me. Because the non profit company owns the land, they don’t technically have to pay taxes. I have been told that they do anyway. After all, the church owns majority percentages of land in several counties.

  66. C.Miller – Huh? So you think missionaries should be paid for their labors? This is the reason you’re going to leave the employ of an organization that has great benefits? What aren’t you telling us?

  67. I don’t think the company should have missionaries building houses period. That being said, they did volunteer. That would be the only church related reason why I would leave the company. Other reasons are more related to the company being a large bureaucratic night mare in terms of stewardship management of the land.

  68. I have had dealings with church “businesses” (and the church’s retained law firm) and wasn’t thrilled with how things were done, but in my opinion these people aren’t “the church.” Some of my business partners had a hard time recognizing the difference.

  69. Making sure the Church has enough to sustain its mission through inevitable future national or global economic downturns, depressions and natural disasters is likely a key reason the Church appears to be hording so much. This attitude is a natural outcome of early Church history when governments, people and other churches wanted them annihilated. Nonetheless, with the “caring for the poor and needy” being one of the emphases of the Church (HB2 2.2 listed with the classic three), just the shear fractional smallness of our purported humanitarian contributions (1/10 of 1%—$40M out of $32B) doesn’t “feel” right. Still, I don’t judge too harshly since there is so much we really don’t know about these numbers. But, that lack of transparency does really bother me.

  70. Abe Froman says:

    > This attitude is a natural outcome of early Church history when governments, people and other > churches wanted them annihilated.

    Very few wanted them ‘annihilated’, most of them were sick of having them as neighbors and wanted them to move on. Would you want a theocracy to take over your local government, complete with their own army which takes out militias sent out from your state government? All while preaching the end has come and prophesying the end of days while running for president of the U.S.A.?

    Even when the U.S. sent an army out to Utah, it wasn’t to annihilate Mormons, it was to stop the horrors of polygamy, and it worked. I wish we could send an army to stop the modern-day polygamists on the Utah-Arizona border. Polygamy always means old men marrying forced, coerced, or unwilling children.

    And the church didn’t suddenly become a great financial steward when it when neighbors kicked them out; the church was corrupt (interest-free and forgiven loans to top brass) and near bankrupt up until the 1960’s, that’s when this new corporate structure was implemented and saved the church from bankruptcy.