We belong to a rich church. Exact numbers are hard to come by, but the assets are likely worth tens of billions US$. While there are obviously a lot of assets in things like temples, BYU campuses, institute buildings, Church headquarters and buildings, chapels and other land, there are also a lot for “for-profit” assets. Some examples of these include:
- Deseret Management Company (an umbrella organization)
- Beneficial Life (which was worth $3+ billion, but which recently cost $600 million to “bail out”)
- Hawaii Reserves (including an estimated $80-100 million remodel of a hotel)
- Farmland Reserve (including the largest ranch east of Mississippi)
- Bonneville International (large broadcasting company – markets
- Bonneville Communication (which markets what sounds like missionary work – “Our unique strength is the ability to touch the hearts and minds of our audiences, evoking first feeling, then thought and, finally, action.”)
- Deseret Book
- Several for-profit private hunting preserves (boasting access to private airstrips)
While exact numbers are private and unreleased, these assets generate a lot of income. How much? When the Church has talked about the mall / condo project in downtown Salt Lake City, they have emphasized that no tithing or other sacred funds were used for the project. They also have a policy of not borrowing money. The cost is therefore covered by profit from other for-profit businesses. According to most recent estimates, the Church is spending around $3 BILLION on this project. They are also spending tens of millions redeveloping Ogden, UT, as well as tens of millions buying up random parcels of land in downtown Salt Lake City. So, given all of this, the Church’s for-profit businesses have profits in the BILLIONS. And this is especially successful given the roughly 4-5 million active Mormons that this represents.
So what? A lot of churches do the same things. There are mega-churches besides ours throughout the United States and the world who also have media companies to spread their message, access to private jets to fly their leaders around efficiently, investments in buildings and land, etc. What is wrong with having successful people investing money to make more money? As some people say, we should invest the money to make more so we can someday use it to help the poor or for something else.
I suppose this is a good answer if your goal is to be a corporation and make money. But I think we could also do more as a church to help the unfortunate around us. We could do more to help the poor and downtrodden. When I think of Christ in mortality, it seems that he didn’t really care about money or buildings or business. He seemed to mostly care about helping the less fortunate.
But wait, we are doing that. We have humanitarian efforts. We have bishop’s storehouses. We have fast offerings. We do all that already. I agree. We DO do that already. But it’s a question of magnitude. As the old adage says: “Put your money where your mouth is.” Given how much we make in business, how much do we give in humanitarian aid?
This is one area where there are actually some figures given by the Church. The Church actually publishes an annual Welfare Services Fact Sheet. Here is a link to the one from 2009. To see what these figures mean, let’s examine what is covered. On the left side of the sheet is a column that lists things that “Welfare Services” include. Items listed include fast offerings, bishop’s help, bishop storehouses, welfare assistance, humanitarian relief and development projects throughout the world.
To see how much we spend on all of these things, look on the bottom of the right column. There are two numbers: “Cash donations” and “Value of material assistance”.
- “Cash donations” includes actual money spent by the Church. It is not broken down further, but this likely includes cash donated for fast offerings and redistributed by the Church. It also likely includes actual cash spent by the church on all of the things listed above
- “Value of material assistance” includes the cash value of other things donated. This might include humanitarian kits put together by members, blankets sewn, etc. It also likely includes the value of member’s time donated to work on Church farms, in warehouses, etc.
Looking at the numbers, we see $327.6 million in cash and $884.6 million in material assistance, for a total of $1.2 billion in Welfare Services. This sounds like a big number, and it is. But when you look at it further, it is for the years 1985-2009, or a 25 year period. This works out to $48.5 million per year total, and a cash amount of around $13.1 million annually.
Now, contrast this with the numbers from the beginning of this post. We spend $3 billion cash on a mall from Church profits, yet only $13.1 million a year on welfare services (including humanitarian aid, fast offerings, welfare assistance, etc). The $3 billion number is 229 TIMES more than the amount of the annual cash donation for humanitarian needs. Wow. I think that the Church realizes how paltry this number is, so on the 2010 Welfare Services Fact Sheet, they wrap the actual cash amount into the material assistance number to make it appear bigger.
And even if you include the value of “material assistance”, we spent 61 TIMES as much on a mall project than the $48.5 million annual figure.
And this is just one project. This doesn’t include the $600 million spent to bail out an insurance company, or the $80-$100 million on a hotel in Hawaii, or the tens of millions on various other land purchases around Utah. To me, this seems strange.
Now, there are various arguments that can be made that things are just fine like they are:
- We argue that Time Magazine is misleading when it prints a cover article entitled “Mormons, Inc”, yet when you look at where we put our resources, it’s hard to argue otherwise.
- We argue that farms and communication companies and other things help serve a higher cause, yet when they are making billions of dollars in profits while we spend tens of millions directly helping people, the “higher cause” becomes lost.
- We may claim that we are investing to make more money so we can “someday” help more people, but this makes about as much sense as a billionaire keeping all of his money to invest so that “someday” he can donate even MORE to those in need.
- We may claim that we are helping the poor by creating jobs, but any for-profit corporation can make this claim.
- We argue that we are “beautifying” the area around the temple, but the Vatican could have made the same argument over the past few millennia.
- We may say that the poor are always among us, but this didn’t stop people like Mother Theresa.
- We can come up with all sorts of excuses, but at the end of the day, we are spending over 200x as much cash on a mall than we spend each year directly helping people.
I recognize that the Church is always going to have businesses. I recognize that being a good steward of money involves investing it and being a “profitable servant”. I recognize that taking ALL of the profit of these businesses will never happen.
- I would take AT LEAST 10% of the profits of each business each year and spend them on actual humanitarian needs. For the $3 billion in profits used just to build the mall, this would be $300 million, or 22 TIMES the amount of cash they spent last year.
- Accounting games can always make things look non-profitable, so I would approach this the same way we are asked to approach tithing. If we are expected to pay tithing on gross, before taxes, etc., I would do the same for the for-profit businesses. If business “tithing” should be on profit after taxes, etc., then it should be the same for individuals.
- This may cause a bit of hardship, but we should rely on God. Perhaps, with faith, by giving more away, we will be more blessed. Perhaps the businesses will prosper even more. Perhaps the declining rate of Church growth will turn around. Perhaps, by being a part of an organization that does even more good in the world around us (as opposed for our own members), we will all also turn outward and make more of a difference. Perhaps, we can generate good karma.
- We can make a much bigger difference than we currently do. Imagine the good that could come if we gave away 10-20 times as much as we do.
- Given the numbers above, do you think the amount the Church gives away makes sense?
- If so, what are your reasons? If not, why not? How much makes sense for a church to give away?
- For the fiscal conservatives who think the government should do less while individuals and churches should do more, does it make sense for a church to act as a corporation and keep its profits, or should they give some of them away?
- Do you think tithing Church-owned for-profit businesses makes sense?
- Would it be helpful if the Church was more transparent about its finances?
(NOTE: This is part of a series of posts about “Sacred Molehills”. If you are interested in reading any of the other posts in the series, you can click on “Mike S” in the Authors box near the top of the right column. I’d be interested in any comments there as well.)