Let’s Talk About Money

I don’t have any idea if $100 billion is a good amount for the church to have in its endowment. Personally, I tend to think, given its revenue and expenditures, that the number is high. At least as long as it continues to bring in a significant amount of tithing annually, it feels to me like it doesn’t need a cushion quite that big.

But the thing is, I don’t know. Church leaders are completely opaque in how they’ve made their investment/spending decisions. And to be honest, I suspect that it has been a decision only in the loosest sense. Inertia is a powerful force and decisions made 20 years ago carry a lot of weight.

But arguably the church should communicate its financial thinking better. And I don’t mean that the church needs to tell members exactly how much it has in assets (though it certainly could). But I believe that if the church viewed members as stakeholders, it could and would communicate its thinking to us. What considerations has it made in deciding whether to spend or invest? How did it decide how much it needed for current expenditures and for future expenditures.

I think there would be a lot of power in church leaders saying, “We believe that we need to have a cushion for the next hundred years. Based on our projections, we believe that, as in Alma’s day, the church is going to grow primarily among the poor. While we have positive revenues today, we have projected that in 20 years we’ll be operating at negative cash flow. We debated tapping into our endowment now to [reduce tithing/feed the hungry/something else] but we believe that these future needs will be more compelling.”[fn1]

Ultimately, we may disagree with the church’s analysis and/or its conclusions. And there will certainly be people who use whatever reasoning the church provides as a way to attack its priorities, its truth claims, even its corporate form. But many of those people are equally ready to attack the church for its opacity. There’s no state of the world where everybody will be satisfied.

But the church laying out its reasoning does at least a couple positive things. First, this type of transparency acknowledges that members are legitimate stakeholders in the institutional church. It tells us that the church respects us and wants to give us information.

It also demonstrates that church leaders have thought through these issues. Even if I (or we or some members) believe that the church came to the wrong conclusion, by laying out their reasoning they can demonstrate that came to their conclusion in good faith.

Finally, it gives tithepayers and potential tithepayers important information as they decide how and where to contribute money.

It doesn’t turn over spending and investment choices to the membership at large. And frankly, I don’t think the church should. It would be unwieldy and, given that we all have different priorities, ultimately it would result in gridlock. But this type of transparency evinces a significant level of trust and respect, trust and respect that would be good both the institutional church and its members.


[fn1] Over on Facebook I was having a discussion with Nate Oman; he mentioned that he assumes that future members of the church will be poorer than current members on a per capita basis. And savings and investment ultimately represent a transfer of wealth from people today to people in the future. That’s not to say that future people need our charitable dollars more that current people—in fact, in general we assume that the future will actually be richer than the present. And I believe that the benefits of charitable spending today compound and provide even more benefits in the future. Still, one possible way to frame the church’s investment is that we, the wealthy of 2021, are giving money to the less-wealthy (or even the poor) of 2051.

Comments

  1. Thanks for putting this up, Sam. Your broader point about the church needing to talk publicly with the membership about its assets is entirely persuasive; I think you’re completely right there.

    As for the other issues swirling around this debate, leaving aside from more radical critiques that could be made of the church corporately acting in accordance with the principles of finance capitalism, I do have one beef with the argument Nate makes (which I know you don’t say you agree with, but many people probably do). My beef is this: unlike a lot of other claims which are made (mostly somewhat lazily by folks on the left like me) about how the scriptures supposedly authorize this or that kind of redistributive or egalitarian or socialist economics, I think the command to give charity immediately as the need presents itself, as opposed to strategically saying “my charitable donations will be in greater need in the future and hence accumulating wealth now to give away later will have a greater impact,” is actually firmly attested to in Mormon scripture. I’m talking about King Benjamin’s address, of course; Mosiah 4:16 (“ye will not suffer that the beggar putteth up his petition to you in vain,”) and 4:22 (“if ye judge the man who putteth up his petition to you for your substance that he perish not, and condemn him, how much more just will be your condemnation for withholding your substance”) in particular. Nate or others could reasonably argue that the “judgment” being talked about in the latter verse isn’t the same as making a prudential judgment call about when to give and when not to give, but give the spirit of immediacy and intimacy which permeates this whole part of the sermon (“are we not all beggars?”), I am doubtful that’s a distinction which can hold up. Basically: the command is, as I read King Benjamin, to give when petitioned to give, and not qualify one’s giving, either by rationalization (“the man has brought upon himself his misery”), or by strategic financial calculation. Of course, none of us live this standard, and we all are at least partly condemned for that. Still, the language of scripture remains. If being guided by it means that, in some fiduciary sense, the church is being unwise with its funds, and thus ought to be guided otherwise, then I would argue, at the very least, that one should admit to be unscriptural in thinking so.

  2. Thanks Russell. To be fair to Nate, he wasn’t making an argument in this context, merely observing that savings represent an intertemporal transfer, one that may be progressive if future people are poorer than present people.

    I don’t intend to put words into Nate’s mouth, but I think (and I assume he would agree) that we don’t have an either-or situation here. The church can simultaneously spend today and save for future spending. (And I know my hypothetical statement was stark and without a lot of nuance. I’d like to say that was for illustrating precisely what’s going on but, realistically, it’s because I was writing fairly quickly.)

    So I agree with your point that we have an obligation to serve those around us. I think we also have an obligation to serve those who will come after us, and I don’t think those obligations are mutually exclusive. And I think it would be tremendously helpful for the church to explain its reasoning as it allocates between today’s needy and the needy of the future.

  3. A Turtle Named Mack says:

    I would love transparency, about both the decision-making and their plans. I’m sure that would only lead to endless, and fruitless, debates about those decisions and plans. I get why they wouldn’t want to share those things. I disagree, but I get it. But what most bothers me is the justification of these savings as a rainy day or apocalypse fund (these are the assumed justifications because, as has been pointed out, our leaders haven’t really been forthcoming). There’s no amount of money that will seem sufficient. There will never be a time when someone says “I think we have enough now. We can stop saving and start using the excess for charitable causes.”

  4. As someone who was never bothered in the first place about the Church’s massive wealth fund, I think transparency would be a great idea. I’m fascinated by sovereign wealth funds, particularly Norway’s, and if you go on their website, you can see a detailed list of all their global stock, bond and real estate holdings. My hope would be that some day, a section of churchofjesuschrist.org features a similar level of transparency (although whether that’s a realistic hope is a completely different story). I think the Church owes it to its members to explain what it owns, how much those assets are valued at and the investment goals of the reserves. I can’t imagine Christ’s Church when he lived on the earth was this secretive about finances.

  5. Aussie Mormon says:

    Turtle “But what most bothers me is the justification of these savings as a rainy day or apocalypse fund (these are the assumed justifications because, as has been pointed out, our leaders haven’t really been forthcoming). ”

    The church explicitly said, in general conference that they had a rainy day fund.

    April 1991: Gordon B. Hinckley, “The State of the Church”
    “In the financial operations of the Church, we have observed two basic and fixed principles: One, the Church will live within its means. It will not spend more than it receives. Two, a fixed percentage of the income will be set aside to build reserves against what might be called a possible “rainy day.””
    https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/general-conference/1991/04/the-state-of-the-church?lang=eng

  6. Bro. Jones says:

    Aussie Mormon: they did indeed say they had a rainy day fund, but can we agree at least that the size of this fund is more of a “rainy century” fund?

    I’ve asked before in these discussions: “Suppose that in ten years, tithing funds dry up and the Communist United States government taxes the church, or whatever calamity you want to imagine that results in the church losing most of its financial reserves. What does a ‘poor’ church look like and what does it do differently than the current institution?” We already make most missionaries pay for the privilege of serving. We build lots of temples but even at $100 million a building, we can afford many of them. We underwrite a couple of universities to keep tuition low, but we still charge tuition.

    With whatever cuts we’d have to make in a world of negative cash flow, would it prevent the building of the kingdom of God?

  7. A Turtle Named Mack says:

    I love that idea, Matthew. That level of transparency is so admirable. At the same time, the Church is viewed differently by its members than Norway is by its citizens. If the Church were to detail it’s stock holdings, you can expect many members to assume that those positions were inspired and would seek to mirror those same strategies. Or if the Church were to, as so many of us would like, start selling to raise funds for a charitable push, it may be interpreted as a sign of impending disaster. It gets complicated.

  8. Turtle, in terms of disclosure of assets, it would even be good enough to say, Hey, we have $30 billion in publicly-traded stock, $10 billion in corporate bonds, and $3 billion in real estate.

    But as I’ve been thinking about it (leading up to this post), it seems to me that process disclosure is even more important. The idea that the church is thinking through things, and an explanation of what it’s thinking looks like, has value both as a secular and a religious matter imho.

  9. Money makes the world go round.

    The church doesn’t talk much about money, but when they do it is usually in the form of “the church provided $400,000 of Corona virus aid” as they say here: https://newsroom.churchofjesuschrist.org/article/church-continues-to-provide-humanitarian-aid-to-paraguayans-impacted-by-covid-19

    Members will often tout the church’s charitable giving and support in times of disaster, but it seems to me like the church obscures the relative amount that is given. People tend to ignore the mixed billions vs illions.

    Consider the conversion:
    Person 1: it’s okay the church has 100 billion dollars, but their very generous with it. They just gave half a million to help peeps in need.
    Person 2. You just said the church has one hundred thousand – million dollars and bragged about giving half a million away. Sheesh.

    I like Sam’s ideas here. Let’s get some idea of how much is being invested, how much is spent on buildings and churches, and how much is spent on charity or welfare. I don’t know what the right amount of any of those categories is, but at least let’s be open about it.

  10. I think the church could set a good example and motivate members to be more conscientious about how they allocate their charitable giving and investments. It saddens me how hard it is to get others interested in stuff like givewell, thelifeyoucansave, peter singer, and ethical investment. If the church led the way, those conversations might that much easier and effective.

  11. I would really like to see more info on how (and how much) church welfare actually gets used. Does it get used for members in trouble? Does it include fast offerings?

    There’s a situation in my ward in which a recent convert and recently divorced sister (also an immigrant) has three children (the youngest is two) and went through a lot of physical/mental abuse from her ex-husband. She has no job and is put up in some kind of government housing somewhere and none of us are supposed to know her address to protect her and the kids from her ex. The ward leadership apparently does offer some form of support to her, but recently they’ve started to have her do things like indexing and random tasks in exchange for meals and such, and the RS president that works with her has gotten frustrated by the fact that she hasn’t gotten a job and has said some apparently unkind things to the sister. Now she’s afraid to even ask anyone for anything. She lives in an area where a lot of her neighbors are muslim immigrants and reportedly they regurly take turns giving her and family bread and meals and such, all without any kind of ‘infastructure’ like our ward has.

    To me this seems like a ‘help first, ask questions later’ kind of situation, but whole “bootstraps/ beware the welfare queen” culture is so embedded in the church and many of its members that our ward leadership can’t help but view her situation with at least some suspicion.

    Rainy-day arguments notwithstanding, I can’t help but wonder if the church has the capacity to do a lot more good on the service/welfare side than it already does.

  12. Marksmyname says:

    Rockwell hits the nail on the head. $400,000 may sound like a lot, but when you start with $100 billion, that’s like having $10,000 and giving away 4 cents.

    This has bothered me for a long time and I can no longer donate tithing to the church when I see so many organizations that could do so much good with the money instead. I realize my recommend will probably not be renewed but I have a clear conscience giving those funds elsewhere.

  13. Aussie Mormon says:

    a person:
    “but recently they’ve started to have her do things like indexing and random tasks in exchange for meals and such”

    The aim of asking the member to do things like that is to try and stop people feeling like they are charity cases or feeling like they are just being a drain. Especially if they (as appears to be the situation in your example) end up requiring long-term fast offering support.

    “RS president that works with her has gotten frustrated by the fact that she hasn’t gotten a job and has said some apparently unkind things to the sister.”

    The RS president is way out of line if that’s the case.

    “Rainy-day arguments notwithstanding, I can’t help but wonder if the church has the capacity to do a lot more good on the service/welfare side than it already does.”

    Almost certainly. The biggest problems I see are:
    1) Organising it – People are busy and to do it properly, people need time
    2) Regulations – A lot of support style service would require multiple approvals (food serving etc).
    3) Getting people to do it – Again people are busy. The same time these things happen, are times when the people most able to do the physical aspects are unavailable.

    The Just Serve program will help with this a lot I think. Once community organisations that already have the required approvals and setups in place link-in, then church members can get involved a lot easier.

  14. Laying out its reasoning does at least one more positive thing. Utah is consistently among the top markets for financial schemes. By demonstrating what financial transparency looks like and encouraging members to always evaluate the basics of where their contributions/investments are going, the church can teach members (by practice) that nobody should ever invest or contribute to any cause or person whose basic financials are concealed and closed to scrutiny. I believe it would ultimately make members more responsible, teach better fiscal awareness while giving the church a great platform to teach principles of financial responsibility.

  15. There’s also all the compellingly clear scriptural mandates the Church has to operate with full financial transparency. It’s hard to take a generous enough view to believe they’re merely unaware of them.

    Our earlier move to opaque finances correlate to nearly ruinous financial mismanagement. It appears (based on reserves) that’s not been material issue recently, but (again) we don’t know how dire things may have gotten for the church during economic collapses since the 1960’s. We are big property holders, so on a valuation basis we likely had scary times for those considerable holdings in the ’80’s & ’08.

    Still, I think the relative opacity against tithe payers is the primary consideration. We all have the ability to make educated guesses at church finances, but we’d have to rely on unauthorized sources and most Saints have been taught that’s a fast path to apostasy.

    It would be entirely different for THE CHURCH tell us exactly how much we receive and profit annually, spend annually, and hold in reserves. It becomes harder to tell a family of four to pay tithing before rent and groceries to an organization with billions just laying around.

  16. I don’t know if it is too much or not enough either, but there is some simple math we can do to help us understand the scale of that much money.

    First, we don’t know if the $100 billion is an over- or under-estimate, but it is the commonly thrown out number, so we will use it. Next, we have close to 17 million members or so, but many of those are not active and don’t pay tithing. Just to pick an easy number to do math with, let’s say that it is about 10 million members who pay some amount of tithing (it is probably less than this). Dividing that out, it comes out to about $10,000 per person. Many of those are kids or poor people who don’t give much. Even if we cut that in half to 5 million adults, we are looking at about $20,000 per person in investments. Is that too much or too little? It probably represents on average between 1 and 3 years’ worth of tithing for upper and middle class members in the U.S.

    I don’t remember where I heard it explained and don’t know if this is really how it is done or not, but my understanding is that N. Eldon Tanner set up a system whereby all donations from a given year would be put into an investment account in the year they were donated, then remain there for two full years, after the end of the year they were donated. As such, it is about 2.5 years that the principal is invested. The earnings on that principal are separated out and used for further business investments, real estate, endowment accounts, etc. The original principal from 2.5 years ago would then be used as operating cash for building maintenance, ward budgets, salaries, BYU tuition, temple construction, etc. according to the Primary definition of what tithing is used for. That puts the amount of money in the investment accounts as not much more than about 3 years’ worth of tithing, as it rotates through every 3 years. That to me seems reasonable.

    Am I off by a decimal point or two somewhere? Anyone have more inside information about how the principal amounts from tithing funds are invested and used and for how long?

  17. John Charity Spring says:

    “God cannot save or damn a man only on the principle that every man acts, chooses and worships for himself.” Joseph Smith.

  18. “Inertia is a powerful force and decisions made 20 years ago carry a lot of weight.”

    I think this is the key. We probably assume too much when we think there is a carefully calibrated plan behind the size of the Church’s balance sheet.

  19. Ann Porter says:

    “Inertia is a powerful force and decisions made 20 years ago carry a lot of weight.”
    Also, the people who are actually managing the money are doing exactly what they are trained to do – grow the asset. The consequences of this obscene success is not their job to fix – it’s the client’s job.

  20. The OP is so thoughtful and so competently (expertly?) expressed. Many comments reflect the same proficient ease with handling investments and managing vast oceans of money, and many creative, wise, and gospel-based suggestions are presented.

    And every word of it is hypothetical. It’s almost as if everyone has forgotten that it took a literal whistleblower, at some peril, to make known the few facts we have. It’s almost as if the OP author and commenters believe they are part of the investment team. The membership isn’t part of ANY team, but we’re carefully groomed to think we are. Especially you guys.

    There’s a reason why poets and writers depict money hoarding as they do. There’s a reason why a jealous, stone-hearted, insanely grasping dragon atop a collected hoard is a trope. Toxic misers exist, in actual reality. Surely all y’all have met up with some at some point, in your careers or families. Surely you know what a magnet a fund in need of management must be. And while I don’t have the desire or the energy to deconstruct all the ways and means of greed in general, the specific facts we have don’t speak well of church leadership.

    We have holdings that boggle our capacity to assess or even count. Literally everything about it is a guarded secret, including the fact that it exists. If you can’t see the massive toxicity that presents to good and trusting people, I don’t know if my comment will help.

    (First comment from a woman?)

  21. Well said, Ann.

  22. I think disclosure of process could be a big deal because it looks to me like they accumulated a big war chest by virtue of being frugal for a long time, because being frugal is good, widow’s mite and all, but now they have more than they know what to do with. The “widow’s mite” was motivation to be frugal, but they neglected the question of whether just being frugal is really enough to show respect to that widow’s contribution. From what we know about the past, the church probably imposed the strict “live within your means” policy some time in the 1960s when Eldon Tanner was brought into leadership, and probably by some point in the 1970s had their heads above water and were starting to stash away a certain percentage each year. The situation looks to me like what it would look like if someone born in 1940 started saving for retirement in a serious way around 1970. That person would now be 80 years old (like many of the current generation of decision makers), but he’s different from your average 80 year old in that he is still working and assumes that he’s immortal and will never stop working. So why, then, has he created such a massive retirement fund?

  23. Tithing is a donation not an investment. And the name claims that the church is the church of J. Christ not of its members – so the wish to be regarded as a stake holder is a hybris.

  24. Serpent, members of the church are unquestionably stakeholders. We have a relationship in the church and an interest in its viability and wellbeing. What it does affects us and what we do affect it. So there’s no hubris in recognizing that relationship.

  25. What does “… of Latter-day Saints” mean, if not that the church is also its members?

  26. Ok, latter day saints are in some kind connected to the church, but that does not endow them with something like being a stakeholder. The bible paints a picture where the members are sheeps.

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