On being a bookkeeper in Zion

As a young missionary, the Lord saw fit to inflict on me one the greatest trials that can afflict a Latter-day Saint: He forced me to become educated about Church financial controls and auditing procedures. Thus, I spent nearly a year of my mission as the financial secretary. To some it is give to proclaim the Word with the trump of angels, and to others it is given to reconcile the petty-cash fund, distribute living allowances, pay the rents for missionary apartments, supervise the purchase of new refrigerators, and prepare for the audit of the Presiding Bishop’s Office. I was definitely in the latter category, an amateur accountant for God.

The problem is that once you are in, it is difficult to ever really get out. Since returning from my mission, I have tried to keep a low profile about my financial-service past, but in the end God always catches up with you. Having invested the time to get you comfortable with Church procedures, you know that He is going to tap you for the clerk’s office once again. And so it happened when I moved into my current ward. After years under cover, I had grown sloppy and I let it slip in conversation with the bishop that I spent most of my mission as a financial secretary. A short time later, I was called as an assistant ward clerk. Hence, I spend a couple of Sundays each month reconciling the books after church and going with a member of the bishopric to deposit the tithing and other donations in the bank. It is a fairly elaborate system with lots of redundancy and monitoring. No doubt it keeps many a bishop away from the temptation of sticking his hand in the till, but it does mean that I get home from church rather later than my wife would like.

One thing that service as a financial clerk has shown me, however, is that the Church — particularly Church headquarters in Salt Lake, where all of the money is sent — is a massive engine for the redistribution of wealth. Without going into any detail, suffice it to say that the fiscal demands of my ward are far exceeded by its fiscal contributions. As a result, it sends respectable sized chunks of cash to SLC each week, cash that is not sent back to Northern Virginia. Likewise, as a missionary in Korea, I saw money flowing into the mission’s coffers each month. It far exceeded the contributions made by missionaries or their families. All of this has pounded home for me a simple fact: The primary effect of tithing is to move money from rich people to poor people.

The Church no longer publishes financial statements. That practice stopped when it ran into financial trouble in the wake of a building orgy under President McKay, but it does produce a fair amount of information on the demographics of church growth, all of which points toward one basic fact: The people who are joining the Church tend to be poor. What this means is that the Church’s fiscal liabilities are growing faster than its fiscal resources. This — rather than breathless exposes of the Church’s “wealth” — is the central economic fact about the Church today.

Serving as one of God’s bookkeepers has taught me two things about the economics of the Church and the gospel. First, to the extent that we see Church organization as telling us something about the mind of God, what seems to be primarily on His mind is the transfer of cash from rich to poor. I suspect that He would prefer that we went and did likewise to a greater extent than we do. Second, the economics of God’s work are difficult. The fiscal challenges faced by the Church are big. They are real challenges. I have faith that God will provide, and I don’t expect to see bankruptcy filings. However, those fixated on the wealth of the Church are missing the picture.

It makes me happy to think of all of that money leaving the suburbs of Washington, DC and going to build temples in places like Mexico or Ghana. However, it is precisely this dynamic that is, I suspect, the central economic challenge of the Church today.

57 comments for “On being a bookkeeper in Zion

  1. Adam Greenwood
    December 29, 2005 at 5:41 pm

    “The people who are joining the Church tend to be poor. What this means is that the Church’s fiscal liabilities are growing faster than its fiscal resources.”

    So what’s the explanation for this? Were the people who used to join the church less poor? Or are the people who join the church now less likely to have their financial circumstances improved over time by church membership than before? Or are the church programs more expensive now than they used to be? Is there some other explanation I’ve left off?

  2. December 29, 2005 at 5:43 pm

    Interesting, but just because the church works this way does not mean that’s how the government should operate. (Not that you are saying that, but I’ve had other members of the church make that argument). The government and the church have two different operating mandates, and so it doesn’t follow (to me) that the government should be involved in the redistribution of wealth.

  3. Nate Oman
    December 29, 2005 at 5:52 pm

    Adam: I suspect that one thing that is at work is larger disparities between rich and poor. Another point is that in the past growth among the global poor was slower, so that the Church growth among the affluent could keep up with Church growth among the poor. That said, it seems to me that the consistent trend in Church programs since at least the late 1950s has been toward simplification and cost cutting, which indicates that in the past the Church was more expensive and that many of the institutional bells and whistles were cut to accomodate growth. Also, I think that it is safe to say that the Church does not do as good a job as it used to do in lifting the economic conditions of its members. This is not meant as a criticism, only an economic fact. My ancestors were dirt poor famers in Sweden who joined the Church and emigrated to Utah, where they became moderately poor farmers in Sanpete County. In other words, in the 19th century emigration to America acted as a catalyst for the economic improvement of the Saints. In a post-Utah gathering world, however, this immigration induced economic benefit no longer exists.

    My understanding is that poverty-related inactivity among even returned missionaries in many developing countries is very common.

    I should have mentioned this in the post, as well: I am not implying that tithing money is being handed out to poor members. Only that the cost of Church programs in most areas of the world is supported by transfer payments from affluent pockets within the Church. This is absolutely vital for many reasons, but the presence of chapels and temples doesn’t necessarily do much to directly improve the material condition of poor Saints. Furthermore, although I think that the PEF indicates that the Church thinks that it can do more, it is not clear to me that ultimately this responsiblity rests with SLC. Institutionally, the Church provides us with a model of wealth directed towards the poor, but paying tithing does not relieve us of our individual obligation of concern and care for the poor.

  4. Matthew Crowley
    December 29, 2005 at 5:56 pm

    “First, to the extent that we see Church organization as telling us something about the mind of God, what seems to be primarily on His mind is the transfer of cash from rich to poor.”

    If the Church’s organization truly tells us anything about the mind of God, the message I am getting is that He routinely changes his mind. After reading McKay’s most recent biography and other materials I am given to the belief that the organization of the Church is at least as much trial and error as it is inspiration. That having been said, I agree with you that redistribution is an overarching principle, but as with everything the devil is in the details.

  5. manaen
    December 29, 2005 at 6:11 pm

    “the Church — particularly Church headquarters in Salt Lake, where all of the money is sent — is a massive engine for the redistribution of wealth.”
    “The primary effect of tithing is to move money from rich people to poor people. ”

    But it is not given that one man should possess that which is above another, wherefore the world lieth in sin. (D&C 49:20)

  6. manaen
    December 29, 2005 at 6:14 pm

    We had a Financial Clerk in my mission (Argentina) who also wanted to be out in the field. He would send requests for corrections and clarifications to areas he wanted to go until they requested assistance — which always would take the form of his presence.

  7. sdb
    December 29, 2005 at 6:16 pm

    While it is true that the Church’s redistribution of wealth does not mean that this is the way the government should operate, neither does it mean (as I’ve often heard from Church members) that the government should not redistribute weath. The purpose of the Church and the government, as you say, have different operating mandates, but they are not mutually exclusive. I like Nate’s statement that our Church contributions should not prevent us from giving directly to the poor; neither should the fact that the Church (or churches) provides a safety net for a certain number of people necessarily prevent the government from offering a safety net to others.

  8. December 29, 2005 at 6:19 pm

    Nate, I don’t disagree with your assessment of what is currently happening. And I don’t think any of the breathless expose writers disagree with you, either. But church policies and practices can change. They have changed in the past, for example, there was the McKay “building orgy” you allude to, where spending priorities were pretty different for a while. It is interesting to consider what the church has the financial capacity to do, should it wish to.

  9. ed
    December 29, 2005 at 6:35 pm

    Nate, I wonder if you could provide some more support for the following claims:

    “The people who are joining the Church tend to be poor.”

    I assume you just mean that the church is growing in poor countries faster than in rich countries. Are you also claiming that current converts are poorer than past converts? Are you saying they’re poorer relative to where they live, or just that they’re poor relative to rich Americans?

    “What this means is that the Church’s fiscal liabilities are growing faster than its fiscal resources.”

    What “liabilities” exactly do you have in mind? We need buildings, but land and buildings are presumably much cheaper is less developed countries than they are here. Perhaps the expense comes from the practice of putting “American style” buildings everywhere, and otherwise attempting to replicate American practices?

    I strongly suspect that the average active mormon today (worldwide) has more real income than at any time in the past. If the fraction of that income paid in tithing hasn’t changed, then real per-person resources should also be at their highest level ever. Are you asserting that our per-capita “liabilities” have grown even faster? Have we chosen to assume additional liabilities, or have the relative prices of the factors of production changed? I guess I don’t feel like Adam’s question has really been answered…

  10. December 29, 2005 at 6:38 pm

    Nice post, Nate; it’s about time someone said something nice about accountants. A couple of quibbles: First, tithing also moves money from “the mission field” to Utah by way of the large LDS/Utah bureaucracy that is funded by tithing revenues. It would be interesting to determine which predominates, the rich-to-poor or the periphery-to-center effect, making Utah as a whole either a net tithing recipient or a net tithing donor.

    Second, while the “rich to poor” analysis of tithing revenue flows makes tithing sound progressive, US tax itemizers pay an after-tax net tithing rate of roughly 7% while lower-income US non-itemizers pay an after-tax net tithing rate of 10%. So there’s also a mildly regressive element built into the tithing payment system.

  11. Nate Oman
    December 29, 2005 at 6:43 pm

    ed: By poor I mean that they are citizens of poorer nations. I don’t know anything about the profile of converts within countires. By liabilities I meant church units and temples, both of which consume cash. (This, I think, is probably a better measure of liabilities than persons.) I assume that if the Church in the UK and South Korea (data is publically available for the UK; and I have personal experience in Korea) is not economically self-sufficient then it is probably not economically self-sufficient in Ghanna or Brazil, both of which are much poorer. From this I think that we can deduce that every new stake or branch in the developing world places additional demands on Church resources. I don’t have data that is any more finely grained than this.

  12. Nate Oman
    December 29, 2005 at 6:48 pm

    Dave: I don’t have any information on the cost of the SLC based bureacracy, but I would be very, very, very surprised if it exceeded tithing revenues within the state of Utah. A more likely candidate for Utah tithing benefit is probably Church construction and real estate holdings in Utah; however, since these are considerable and on the whole tax-exempt they also place pressure on Utah tax payers.

    Aside from tax deductions, any fix percentage contribution will be slightly regressive if we assume (fairly reasonably I take it) that there is diminishing marginal utility to wealth.

    My point is not that tithing is regressive or progressive. My point is that its primary effect is to move money from rich areas of the Church to poor areas of the Church.

  13. December 29, 2005 at 6:57 pm

    I’ve always wondered about the great amount of wealth in the church in cases where the church starts making cost-cutting decisions. The missionary program is one. No longer is the church sending out missionaries with health problems thus avoiding health-care costs. Also, our stake just started a pilot program having the missionaries live with older, retired members (i.e. widows). The host is paid very little for their service.

    I think the biggest reason for the Church’s recent financial troubles is the retirement of Shawn Bradley.

    An entire year as financial secretary–What did you do?

  14. December 29, 2005 at 7:19 pm

    sdb – all of your points are granted.

    Personally, I don’t mind progressive taxation (in fact, I kinda like it, mainly because I love the EiC bonus I get on my tax refund).

    It’s when some members of the church start arguing for socialism I get a little worried.

  15. Bookslinger
    December 29, 2005 at 7:41 pm

    I think your analysis leaves out a couple important possibilities. I think poor converts often move up the economic ladder because the gospel raises their sights. Also, I think the born-in-church children of converts generally do better financially than their poor-when-they-joined parents.

    If my assumptions are correct, then the economic skew of baptizing more poor than rich is compensated by the 2nd generation.

    And as long as rich American member couples produce at least, on average) more than 2 children who grow up to be active tithe-payers, that also tends make up for the skew towards poor converts.

    Remember that it’s not a zero sum game, and the game is not static. I think these things need to be looked at generationally in addition to taking snapshots of moments in time.

    I, too, was a Fin Sec, back in the mid 80’s overseas. No PC’s back then. I was lucky to have an IBM Selectric typewriter. Oh the humanity.

  16. annegb
    December 29, 2005 at 8:16 pm

    Nate, I am so grateful for this post. Thank you for sharing this, it gives me a feeling of humble pride in this organization and makes want to be a better person.

    And I understood every single word.

  17. Jonathan Green
    December 29, 2005 at 8:25 pm

    Nate, I think that ward financial clerk is one of the best jobs in the church for some of the reasons you mentioned. One advantage of the position that you didn’t mention was seeing how quickly and painlessly the church can do a great deal of good for people through fast offerings. There may have been a few problematic cases, but they were vastly outnumbered by the people who needed help and who got it. Seeing things like that makes tithing much easier.

  18. December 29, 2005 at 8:44 pm

    I would be intrigued about the economic position of of the children of converts within their native countries as well. I suspect it would vary from place to place, but one might expect at least in some locations for it to improve conditions, if only because of the networking possibilities and the improved safety net.

  19. Rosalynde Welch
    December 29, 2005 at 9:50 pm

    Nate, I think your restated claim in #11—“tithing’s primary effect is to move money from rich areas of the Church to poor areas of the Church”—is more accurate than your original pass in the post itself, to the effect that the money moves from rich *people* to poor *people*. An even more accurate version might be that money moves from rich *people* to poor *areas.*

    In fact, contra Bookslinger and Clark, church membership does very little financially to relieve the poorest members in the poorest countries. LDS children, in particular (that is, children as opposed to adults, not LDS kids as opposed to kids in general), are suffering from devastating malnutrition in Latin American countries—malnutrition that could be significantly reversed for very little cost. For a number of complex reasons, none of which entail egregious or even mild fault on the part of the local or general leadership, the church has not been successful in getting resources to these young members.

    The Miller Eccles study group had a speaker on this topic a few months ago, and my dad’s report to me was fascinating and a little heartbreaking. I’ve been after him to get me his notes so I can post them.

  20. Nate Oman
    December 29, 2005 at 10:16 pm

    RW: I remember hearing a while back about a study that was done on the economic effects of Church membership. If I remember right the gist of it was that if you are a Mormon and poor but not imporverished, then Church membership tends to boost one’s economic prospects and especially the economic prospects of your children. On the other hand, if you are LDS and poverty-stricken, then Church membership has basically no effect. Does this sound familiar? I wonder if the Miller Eccles group person was the author of this apocryaphal study.

    FWIW, I have read litarature put out by UNITUS (and LDS microcredit booster) to basically the same effect.

    I certainly don’t want to imply that tithing is some sort of poverty relief program. Far from it. I just wanted to point out that it is about moving large somes of money and the movement is away from the rich and toward the poor. This is not the same thing as poverty relief.

    Indeed, to the extent that members think that paying tithing helps relieve poverty, they are laboring under a very unfortunate delusion because it keeps them from fufilling their obligations to the poor. Tithing is an important responsibility, but it is not the same thing as reliveing poverty. That is something we ought to be doing over and above paying our tithing.

  21. Kevin Barney
    December 29, 2005 at 10:30 pm

    Rosalynde, I suspect that the talk your father told you about was based on a pair of articles in Dialogue on this very subject. If you are a subscriber, look over your collection for the past few years and you should find them. Then you may feast away.

  22. Kevin Barney
    December 29, 2005 at 10:48 pm

    OK, Rosalynde, I looked this up for you. See the following:

    Bradley Walker, “Spreading Zion Southward: Improving Efficiency and Equity in the Allocation of Church Welfare Resources,” Dialogue 35/4 (Winter 2002): 91-109

    followed by

    Bradley Walker, “Spreading Zion Southward, Part II: Sharing Our Loaves and Fishes,” Dialogue 36/1 (Spring 2003): 33-47

    What you described from that study group is exactly the topic of these two articles.

  23. Bookslinger
    December 30, 2005 at 12:11 am

    Rosalynde (#19) and Nate (#20),
    The things you addressed still appeared to be snapshot or short-term analyses, not specifically comparing a 25 year generational delta as I was envisioning. I’m curious to know how 25 year old BIC children of adult converts (in poverty areas of the world) compare to their parents when the parents were 25 years old, and how they compare to their non-member peer group. Yes, minor children of converts often go hungry. My question is whether the next generation of children goes hungry as well, and how they compare to non-member peers who originally started out in similar circumstances 25 years ago.

    I’m very glad to see the church more involved in community welfare projects (well-drilling, mass feedings to avoid starvation, etc) around the world than it was in my missionary days.

    Although the over-arching principles are the same, the administration and implementation of member welfare must be tailored to local situations in other countries in order to conform to the principles.

  24. Tatiana
    December 30, 2005 at 3:14 am

    Wow, we totally must feed malnourished LDS children! What is being done? That’s a situation that the RS has a mandate to fix! What can we do to help, aside from more generous fast offerings and contributing to the PEF? Of course, when children are malnourished, it affects their brain development and negatively impacts their intelligence and ability to learn and grow, and to provide for themselves, as I’m sure you all know. I had no idea that there were LDS children going hungry anywhere in the world. What is the RS doing about it? Does anyone know? To me this seems like an emergency situation that we need to correct before it impacts these children’s development.

  25. Nate Oman
    December 30, 2005 at 7:43 am

    Bookslinger: the apocryphal study I heard about purported to provide such a generational study and concluded the second generation of poor LDS have an economically improved prospect but that the second generation of impoverished LDS do not. Mind you, I have never actually seen the alleged study :-)…

  26. John Mansfield
    December 30, 2005 at 8:54 am

    The wealth redistribution discribed here is an interesting inversion of 19th Century practice such as the Section 51 instructions to Edward Partridge and the United Orders. Then the wealth transfers were supposed to equalize the members of a local group with no transfers between groups.

    Thanks for sharing your experience in these things, Brother Oman.

  27. Chad too
    December 30, 2005 at 8:54 am

    Nate, I totally understand the not-telling-your-priesthood-leader-about-your-Church-financial-secretary-service thing. I served in Asia in the mid ’80s and I made the mistake of telling my mission president on my entrance interview that I had earned money for my mission working as an office assistant for a non-profit. I became a marked man. In my first in-the-field interview my President asked me to start typing my weekly letters to him (so he could gauge my typing skills, as it turned out). Two months after arriving in-country I was called to the office as the mission secretary, answering telephones in a language I was still learning (“I’m sorry, I didn’t understand what you just said. I’ll transfer you to someone who speaks better Japanese than I” was a common mantra for the first month or two.) One side benefit of my time in the office is that I learned and used vocabulary that most regular missionaries didn’t ever get exposed to (and I mean that in a good way). Between my experiences as the secretary and being companion to the financial secretary (who had duties very similar to yours) I had to learn a lot more business-oriented words than my co-missionaries.

    My mission home service was for 10 months. After arriving back home and then to BYU, I served as an executive secretary or assistant or Ward Clerk or assistant in every BYU Ward I attended. After graduation, I got called as Ward Clerk in my singles ward and also my first married ward. In my current ward I’ve been a membership clerk, a historical clerk, a stake financial clerk, and now my first post-bishopric stint is as, you guessed it, Stake Executive Secretary.

    My patriarchal blessing hints that my service in the Kingdom is going to be this way, so I can’t complain. At least I’m not Scoutmaster ;-)

  28. Wilfried
    December 30, 2005 at 9:30 am

    I think this post may unwittingly reinforce a wrong impression in its statement that “the primary effect of tithing is to move money from rich people to poor people.” Could be misunderstood as if tithing is going from individuals to individuals. As if wealthy U.S. citizens are redistributing their wealth to poor nations who thus profit from the former. Just a few nuancing thoughts based upon my extensive experience with Church finances abroad:

    – Much (most) of the Church money that is spent abroad is for paying for the mission home, mission office, mission cars, Church employees, legal costs, stay of visiting authorities, etc. All justified (if done carefully and properly, ahum), but this huge part is not money that goes to local units. And much (most) of that money comes from the contributions of local members.

    – Loyal members abroad pay, relatively speaking to their income, (much) more as direct and indirect contributions for their Church membership than many members in the U.S. Often already crushed by taxes, their tithing is non-deductible in most cases, their travel costs to meetings, conferences, temple are much higher because of distances, including often hundreds of miles for home and visiting teaching to the scattered membership, etc.

    – The local units always need to reach certain financial ratios themselves in terms of tithing to e.g. obtain a building or move to stake-level. Even if those ratios may be set as reasonable as possible, they still constitute huge challenges.

    I am not arguing about fairness here. Building the Kingdom requires sacrifices. Just to make sure we do not have a one-sided view of an intricate matter.

  29. Jesse
    December 30, 2005 at 9:59 am

    Several of us have made the point that the flow of money is from wealthier individuals to poorer areas of the world, and Nate has repeated that is different than the sort of person-to-person help we also seem to be required to provide to those around us in need.

    However, I’d make the point that even flow of money from individuals, to ward/stake/mission programs makes a personal difference. I spent the majority of my mission in areas where we met in rented houses (sometimes houses where the missionaries also lived). Today, most of those areas have chapels. It is my impression that having a physical building makes a difference for unit cohesion, that it helps in providing a sense of home/belonging and that results in greater ties between members. A stronger, local social network as it were; a personal benefit (not to mention a spiritual one). Certainly a local temple and a growing body of endowed members does that as well.

    It seems also that the PEF is a response, at least in part, to the need to increase the productivity of members in less developed areas, so that the church can be more self-sufficient in those places. I’ve always thought about it as a more personal thing, and had missed this more long-term, institutional benefit.

    I’ve always felt good about the tithes I’ve been able to pay, because I think about them in terms of how many of those small branches I served in I would now be supporting. For some odd reason I got dumped into a wealthy country and have been materially blessed. And I get to turn around and use that position to help my brothers and sisters with that gift. It thus becomes a double blessing.

  30. ed
    December 30, 2005 at 10:20 am


    I’m confident you’re right that there is a net transfer to poorer areas of the church, particularly where the church is growing fast. But I’m not sure how much you can really learn about this from what you see as ward financial clerk. Yes, a lot more money flows out of your ward than flows back in, but I’m not sure what happens to it then. Some of it probably goes buy land and build temples, meetinghouses, and mission homes in Ghana and Brazil, some goes to pay operating expenses of those buildings, some goes to buy real estate in downtown Salt Lake city, some to pay for BYU, and some is probably saved in the form of various other financial investments. Some of it might even go to acquire property back Northern Virginia, which I don’t think you’d see as financial clerk. I wish I had a better sense of what the proportions were, but I expect the largest expenses are land acquisition and building construction. In any case, the fact that the church is using your money to buy land in Brazil doesn’t seem to teach any particularly powerful lesson about redistribution.

    And I still take issue with your statement (also made over at LDSLF) that the church isn’t really “wealthy” in a practical sense because it’s “liabilities” are growing faster than it’s income. I think a more accurate picture is that the church’s income is growing, and it’s choosing to spend that income on expanding in various ways: building lots of temples and meetinghouses, acquiring lands for current and future building projects, and centralizing funding of ward building and budget expenses, etc. Some of these endeavors entail a commitment to paying ongoing operating expenses, but I’m not really sure of the magnitudes. This seems pretty much like what you’d expect a wealthy and powerful organization to do.

    BTW, I think this is a very interesting topic, and I wish we had more information. If you know of any, let me know!

  31. Rosalynde Welch
    December 30, 2005 at 11:16 am

    Kevin, what a memory! Thanks for the references, and yes, I’m pretty sure that’s the guy.

    Tatiana— Bradley Walker, assuming he’s the guy at ME, is organizing a private initiative to relieve LDS child malnourishment in these areas, and, I believe, is actively soliciting contributions. Like I said, I’d love to post his presentation here, but until I can get hold of the materials: if you’re interested in contacting him, email me and I’ll see if I can forward the email to him through my father.

    It’s difficult to imagine that the RS has the infrastructure or resources to tackle this problem in any systematic way, although I agree that this sort of problem would seem to fall squarely within its original mandate. Because the RS has no infrastructure beyond individual units—stake and general RS officers do not preside over ward officers and have no structural authority—and because all RS must be overseen at every level by the presiding priesthood leader, the RS does not have the channels of communication, organization, authority or (of course) resources to handle problems of this nature independently. All RS service projects that I have ever been involved in that go beyond local needs have been coordinated through Church Humanitarian Services, which operates (I believe) under the authority of the presiding bishopric.

  32. Mark B.
    December 30, 2005 at 12:31 pm

    Wilfried’s observations on life in the church abroad apply in many respects to the church among the poor in the United States as well.

    Although the tax burden is lower here than in Europe, those on the bottom of the economic pile earn too little, and have too few allowable deductions, to gain tax benefits for payment of tithes and offerings. Until the Manhattan Temple was completed, the marginal costs of travel to the temple in Boston or Washington was much higher for those in the central city without cars. The same applies to travel to youth conferences, camp, regional meetings, etc.

    The bulk of church money that flows into the city pays for real estate, and the poor we have with us always. And, the costs of church membership represent a substantial drain on their limited means.

    Regarding Ed’s comment about the wealth/non-wealth of the church–almost all of the church’s spending is for non-income-producing assets. So, a property in New York City may cost the church $15,000,000, but that’s $15MM that the church won’t “see” again–unless the church shrinks or gathers to Jackson County and all the properties are sold.

  33. ed
    December 30, 2005 at 12:51 pm

    “almost all of the church’s spending is for non-income-producing assets.”

    How do you know this? I don’t really have much idea how much the church spends on income-producing assets (although I suspect you’re right that it’s a small percentage).

    The fact that the church is continually acquiring large amounts of valuable real estate to me only supports the idea that it is wealthy. And buying land in poor countries doesn’t count as “redistribution,” although building buildings in those countries might be seen that way.

  34. Tatiana
    December 30, 2005 at 2:02 pm

    Buying land does seem to me to be a very wise investment, whether or not it counts as redistribution. Also the local prior owners of the land do get the dollars, though there is no guarantee that they spend it locally, of course.

    I’m glad the church is financially sound. Think what an example that would be to members if the church were overextended and in great debt. I feel happy in knowing that we are collectively in good financial shape, and I hope to get in excellent financial shape personally as well, though I’m not there yet. I feel as though the two things are closely related, and I love all the teachings about family finances that I read in the Ensign. It seems to me that one of the major ways in which the teachings of the church improve our safety and happiness is by encouraging us to be frugal, live within our means, pay off debts, build up savings, in the form of bank accounts, cash, and supplies (food storage), as well as investing in self-sufficiency (gardens, home production) and of course the emphasis on education, which is investment in ourselves. The solid joy that comes from knowing your own family is provided for as well as possible, and that you’re able to give help to others, is one of the things that makes Mormon life particularly sweet, in my opinion. I think the good finances of the church overall is a side effect of that. If the church were not well-off, I would question if we were doing something wrong.

  35. manaen
    December 30, 2005 at 2:37 pm

    “almost all of the church’s spending is for non-income-producing assets.�

    As a bean counter, I could note that a sources-&-uses analysis would show that ward/branch buildings are the greatest income (tithes/offerings) producers.

  36. b bell
    December 30, 2005 at 2:50 pm

    I am quite confident that its OK for wealthy tithe payers tithing money to help sustain Church functions in other parts of the world. In fact we should be proud of it.

    1. Temple covenants regarding consecration
    2. I served in a poor part of the world. I knew many poor people who payed tithing and fast offerrings at far far greater sacrifice then when I write a check every month for 10%. The Church was not self sufficient were I served my mission but I am sure that a large percentage of the funds used locally came from local people.
    3. A new building really would usually mean that local nonmembers would start to show real interest in the church. The initial investment in a building will eventually pay off in the years and generations to come. I recall lots of investigators getting excited about the church in one particular area when ground was broken for a new chapel and government officials were there for the groundbreaking.

    Also regarding church finances and its link with personal finances I think that Tatiana’s comments above hit the nail on the head.

  37. Bookslinger
    December 30, 2005 at 3:06 pm

    I’ve wondered about this since my mission days. In a poor third-world country, how do you feed the malnurished children of members without word getting out “Join the Mormons and get free food!” There’d be stampedes to the baptismal fonts.

    I don’t think we can limit such feed-the-hungry programs to members only. Alma 1:30 states: “… they were liberal to all, both old and young, both bond and free, both male and female, whether out of the church or in the church, having no respect to persons as to those who stood in need.”

    And of course, the church gives out the emergency Atmit (nutritious gruel) without regard to membership status in conjunction with recognized worldwide relief agencies.

    This question reminds me of a family that a missionary companion and I taught. The mom had been baptized before I was transfered in. A young son had been taught the lessons, turned eight, and was ready and willing to be baptized. They were active, but the mom had not given her consent for the son to be baptized, and was giving only vague excuses.

    We were regularly visiting them. They lived in a multi-room shack in one of the slums, and you could see all their food on the nearly bare shelves on the wall. Their food was just some of the basics that everyone had, but very little of it.

    Christmas was coming up, so my companion and I bought some basic staples: noodles, rice, cooking oil, flour, powdered milk, cocoa powder, sugar, and presented the “Christmas basket” to them. The next week at church, the mother requested that her son be baptized, so we got him interviewed and arranged it.

    I think it was a righteous baptism because the boy understood, accepted and committed to the teachings, and the family was already pretty much active. But for a while I wondered “did we buy a baptism?”

    To those of you who want to feed starving children around the globe, here are my recommended charities (in addition to the “Humanitarian Aid” on your tithing/donation slip of course):

    Christian Children’s Fund where you can donate to their overall effort, and/or “adopt” individual children and correspond with them. Sally Struthers used to do their TV ads. Last I checked they had a low administrative/fundraising overhead as a percentage of donations, well within the reasonable range. Once you sponsor a child any additional donations have 100% of the donated amount go to the in-country programs.

    International Rescue Committee is a world-wide relief group that focuses on refugees and immediate emergency needs. Again, last I checked they had a very low administrative/fundraising overhead. Liv Ullman is/was their spokesperson.

  38. Mark B.
    December 30, 2005 at 3:59 pm

    ed–Pres. Hinckley has said as much, on more than one occasion.

    See, e.g., http://library.lds.org/nxt/gateway.dll?f=templates$fn=default.htm

  39. Mark B.
    December 30, 2005 at 4:00 pm

    That link didn’t lead to the talk I had found. Look at Pres. Hinckley’s talk The State of the Church in the May 1991 Ensign.

  40. ed
    December 30, 2005 at 4:20 pm

    Thanks for the reply, Mark. I don’t think the talk (linked here) is very enlightning, though. Hinckley says that “a fixed percentage of the income will be set aside to build reserves against what might be called a possible “rainy day.” So that “fixed percentage” presumably goes into income-producing assets. What is this percentage? 1%? 5%? 20%?

    He also says that “We have a few income-producing business properties.” How many is “a few?” Plus, this was in 1991…we probably have a lot more now, perhaps even relative to our increased income, if we’ve been setting aside a fixed percentage since then.

    (Understand that I am NOT criticizing what the church is doing, just trying to understand it. I would think the idea that the church is at least somewhat “wealthy” would be uncontroversial.)

  41. Tatiana
    December 30, 2005 at 4:21 pm

    #37, Bookslinger: “In a poor third-world country, how do you feed the malnurished children of members without word getting out “Join the Mormons and get free food!â€? There’d be stampedes to the baptismal fonts.”

    I am thinking of something along the lines of mothers and children coming to a meeting at the meetinghouse first thing in the morning and getting a cheap, nutritious meal along with an RS lesson?

  42. Mark B.
    December 30, 2005 at 4:47 pm

    Given the expenditures by the church since 1991, ed, particularly for the building of temples, I’d be surprised if there were any substantial increase in the church’s business holdings. But, I haven’t seen the numbers either.

    As Pres. Hinckley said, most of the assets of the church are invested in facilities for worship. If the church were to sell all of them, there’d be a lot of money filling those vaults in Little Cottonwood Canyon. But we’d be doing baptisms in the Mississippi River again, and holding services in the grove by the temple lot.

    Since that’s not likely to happen, the buildings are all depreciating assets, and their operation and maintenance takes a serious chunk of the church’s income. Which, as Pres. Hinckley said, is primarily tithes and offerings.

  43. Rosalynde Welch
    December 30, 2005 at 4:57 pm

    Just a bit more on the child malnourishment topic, since it’s on my mind… Help from North Americans is a mixed blessing. For those children who are currently suffering, of course, the high-calorie food that NAs could provide would change the entire course of their lives. But to the extent that NA help brings with it Western lifestyles and childrearing practices, the next cohort of infants may suffer even more. Breastmilk, delivered via extended nursing into toddlerhood, is the best source of nutritious, high-calorie food for infants and babies in these regions. If mothers, emulating Western practices, begin using infant formulas, or stop nursing their children for extended periods, the children will suffer greatly—both from the suboptimal nutrition immediately, and because mother will likely become pregnant again sooner, further stretching family resources in the future. It’s such a tricky, tricky issue.

  44. Tatiana
    December 30, 2005 at 5:33 pm

    #43, Rosalynde, there’s always a chance of doing inadvertant harm when one tries to do something right. I agree that all efforts should be done with sensitivity and understanding of the local culture and conditions. That’s why the RS is such a good path for such things, because it will naturally include local mothers and grandmothers, whose understanding and input will make all the difference. As with all church activities, I expect such a program would benefit local families in many indirect ways, too. For instance, finding and establishing local suppliers for cheap bulk foodstuffs (milk, eggs, beans, corn, etc.), increased nutritional knowledge among local mothers who pitch in to help plan and prepare the meals, increased medical and child development knowledge among mothers who essentially get an enrichment lesson 6 days a week, etc.

    I see some such program being essential to expanding the church into third world countries where extreme poverty is endemic. Global poverty is a difficult problem that we can’t fix overnight, but I, for one, don’t really feel like I can enjoy a hearty meal again until I know that at least the LDS children of the world are being fed. Shouldn’t we as adults put children’s nutrition ahead of our own?

  45. December 30, 2005 at 5:34 pm

    From Nature 438, 903-906 (15 December 2005):

    “With the Indian Ocean tsunami and the Kashmir earthquake, disasters in the past 12 months claimed more than 400,000 lives — the highest toll since 1970. But more than three times that number are estimated to have died on Earth’s roads in the same period; more than twenty times as many died of avoidable childhood diseases.”

    I wonder if the charitable expenditures on avoidable childhood diseases since 1970 have been, correspondingly, 20 times as great as contributions to this year’s disasters have been.

  46. Julie M. Smith
    December 30, 2005 at 7:17 pm

    RW, do you have any evidence that providing nutrition aid results in decreased levels of breastfeeding for the next age cohort?

  47. Rosalynde Welch
    December 30, 2005 at 7:24 pm

    Tatiana and Julie— I’m definitely not suggesting that we shouldn’t provide aid when we can! Just pointing out that it should be done with great care and sensitivity.

    Julie, no, I can’t pull any studies. Just an inference drawn from the general pattern of the health effects of abrupt Westernization on developing countries. There are some benefits, absolutely, and a number of drawbacks, as well.

  48. annegb
    December 30, 2005 at 7:42 pm

    Yes, Brian, #36, this is what I’m saying. I’m glad to be doing my small but significant part to help those people. I’m not proud of myself, I’m proud of us.

  49. Razorfish
    December 30, 2005 at 9:25 pm

    Earnings Power of the Church

    I would argue that the Church is getting financially stronger each year as measured by its Balance Sheet (net assets ie land, buildings, other assets) and by its “Income Statement” ie annual revenue stream as measured by tithing contributions and growing membership. If it were a publicly traded company the stock would be appreciating based on it’s annual membership growth and associated increasing “revenue stream.” The correlation of higher annual contributions with higher membership growth annually is a pretty safe directional bet.

    What is the earnings power of the Church? A few years back in Newsweek or Time, a writer based on research or other analytical estimates indicated / quessed that the Church’s annual donations (tithing or other receipts) to be around $5 billion per annum.

    If you assume the following: 12.2 million members, 26,773 congregations, with 46% in the US and 54% non-US, and 50% of members active, and 25% of all members temple recommend holders, and the average faithful member is contributing 3.6K annually or earning between 36K and 72K for each family household (depending if both parents work). And assume that US income is 4 times that of non-US income, that would translate to about $6.4 billion in annual tithing receipts. I

    That is a significant annual revenue stream by any estimation to keep the work moving forward in terms of 1) building new temples, 2) new meeting houses, 3) annual budgets for the ~27,000 wards around the world, 3) 300+ mission fields, and other operating budgets for the Church.

    As impressive as $6.4 billion in annual revenues is (by the assumptions taken above), the earnings potential is maybe ~$25 billion annually if all members were active and faithful tithe payers (based on the hypothethical assumptions made above). The reality is that most of the tithing from a typical ward comes from the 80 – 20 rule. Most of the tithing comes from the stalwart 100 core members in each ward, and from them, most is concentrated in the wealthy 30 or so. That’s not to say that the contribution of the “widow’s mite” is not important or significant (from a testimony or principle of tithing perspective), but rather that the lion’s share of contributions are coming from a concentrated group of faithful (and wealthy) LDS people.

    Obviously, nobody has any idea what the earnings power of the Church is, except a select few within Church headquarters, but analytically one can surmise (based on the assumptions above) what potential earnings power is possible from a set of assumptions made above.

    Bottom line is, if the estimate above is reasonable, I don’t think you could argue the Church has ever been bringing in greater tithing receipts than the present, and therefore, has never been financially stronger than the present.

  50. sam b
    December 30, 2005 at 9:50 pm

    There’s another aspect to local tithing practices which I think has a mixed potential. By donating locally, our income (in our income-obsessed society) becomes instantly known to the bishopric and the clerks of the ward. I wonder whether there’s an unconscious effect on the clerks. It’s been strange for me to transition into affluence while remaining a bleeding heart Social Gospel partisan, knowing that several people in the congregation can compare my aggressive anti-poverty stance with my apparent salary. Or perhaps worse yet, that there may be new stress in interacting with me on the basis of a known salary.

    I have no particular answer here. At some level it’s probably good not to have that full privacy, to know that someone in my community knows the forbidden secret of my salary, while at some level it has negative effects.

    By way of full disclosure, I ended up donating directly to SLC, but not for the reasons above (though they occurred to me as I was making the change): my wonderful but absentminded bishop kept misplacing my BillPay automatic checks, and I had no interest in writing paper checks.

  51. sam b
    December 30, 2005 at 9:55 pm

    re: 47, I think you’re remembering an ill-fated campaign (1970s?) to encourage the transition to formula for kids in the developing world that was at least partially driven by formula companies eager to have US aid and NGOs buy their products and “addict” whole new generations of consumers to formula. Given the importance of diarrhea to childhood mortality and the protective effect of maternal antibodies, I would be surprised if a contemporary NGO were encouraging steps to eliminate breastfeeding (not shocked, but surprised). I’m not aware of any reliable indication that nutritional supplementation leads to less breastfeeding, and as far as overpopulation, there is reasonable data that educational options and economic independence (and we suspect though I believe the data are less reliable, adequate nutrition) are predictive of smaller families. So be thoughtful about it, but fax as many powerbars as you can to the developing world.

  52. Bookslinger
    December 30, 2005 at 10:58 pm

    Razor (#48), the estimates I’ve seen, and my gut feel observation is that activity rate in the US is 40%, but overseas it is 25%, with an overall activity rate of about 1/3 or 33%. Dividing sac meeting attendance by the number on the roster overstates the overall activity rate, because there are so many members in the “lost file” who don’t appear on local rosters. Since children, most retirees, the unemployed, and many of the poor don’t pay tithing, I think about 1/2 of active members are actual tithe payers. Last time I worked the numbers, my guess was $3 billion/year from US tithing, and between $.5 and $1billion/year from overseas tithing. Investment income is anyone’s guess.

  53. rich
    December 30, 2005 at 11:20 pm

    nice to see president hinckley’s planning ahead with a perpetual education fund that is now laying the foundation for some serious financial backbone for the church in 3rd world countries.

    it’ll take time . . . but in time i bet that fund will spawn initiatives that will create self-sustaining springs capable of generating enormous wealth . . .

  54. Jonathan Green
    December 31, 2005 at 1:18 am

    Sam B.: When I was a financial clerk, I often multiplied tithing by ten in my head to see what numbers popped up. Nothing ever did that changed my opinion of any ward member in any way. It’s not that I wasn’t acutely attuned to income inequality at the time, or willing to nurture my sense of resentment–I was. But I never could remember if people paid weekly, biweekly, monthly, whatever, and I had no idea if people were paying full or partial or extra tithing. Mostly I was simply awed that so many people pay tithing at all. Other clerks may have different experiences, but the tithing I counted made very little impression on me, and I never said a single word, inside the clerk’s office or outside of it, about the amount of any individual member’s tithing.

  55. Mark B.
    December 31, 2005 at 11:29 pm

    Sam B. When I served in a bishopric and saw tithing figures, I never paid any attention to the amounts people paid. I did notice the names of those who were faithful–especially the widows on fixed incomes–who were consistent in the payments of their tithes and offerings. It strengthened my resolve to see the faithfulness of those who had so little of the world’s goods.

  56. maria
    January 1, 2006 at 6:15 am


    Are you familiar with the Nestle/Carnation infant formula controversy in Latin America in the early 1970s? My mother worked as a nurse in Nicaragua at that time so I was raised hearing how she and her co-workers spent countless hours attempting to convince impoverished women that their babies would NOT look like the healthy Nestle babies on all the billboards if they watered down the formula to make it last longer…

    I tried to find a good article on the topic…but it’s late and I’m a little blurry-eyed. Here are a couple links that give you the gist of what occurred:


  57. Scott H.
    January 4, 2006 at 1:04 pm

    Thanks for your insights! Remembering back to my mission, there were several faithful members in Chile that were employed in building and maintaining the church buildings. This employment gave them the financial security to be able to devote their free time to their church callings. I am glad my tithing is able to help.

    Regarding the church assets, at what point should the church stop investing surplus tithing receipts into income generating assets and reroute tithing to humanitarian needs? It seems that that asset allocation decision should be considered. After all, if the church was able to recently plunk down $1 billion of non-tithing income to buy a mall, perhaps its financial footing is sufficiently sound to invest the surplus into some of the causes we have mentioned here.

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