Recently Bloomberg BusinessWeek published an investigative piece titled "How the Mormons Make Money", written by Caroline Winter. The Mormon Church is very secretive about their finances; they refuse to publish their financial accounts even to members. BusinessWeek’s conclusion was that the Mormon Church is very, very rich, with an estimated $40 billion in net worth and $8 billion in annual tithing revenue. The article also outlined the Mormon Church’s business structure, listing all of the church’s for-profit ventures, which include a $5 billion dollar project aimed at revitalizing downtown Salt Lake City, real estate ventures, insurance holdings, among many others. Although there was little in this article that surprised me, there is a heavy feeling in my chest as I compare the enormous wealth of the Mormon Church to the very modest - often desperate - financial accounts of my own family. Although my family’s financial decisions were made of their own free will and they offered tithing out of love for their church, I am considerably saddened when I pause to think that their hard-earned money is funding the business ventures of the Mormon Church. I was even more saddened to read that the Mormon Church only devotes an estimated 0.7% of their annual wealth to charitable ventures.
My parents were both converts; they joined the Mormon Church in their late twenties. At the time, they had three children; my father was a gunsmith, my mother was a housewife. My parents were poor. But in the Mormon Church, there is a strong emphasis on large families - in 1979, three years after my parents joined, the prophet Spencer W Kimball went on record saying “It is an act of extreme selfishness for a married couple to refuse to have children when they are able to do so.”1
My parents were obedient and had another four children, the last of which was me. Their financial situation became more and more desperate as they obeyed the dictates of their religion. To feed the family, they raised chickens, pigs, cows, and had a large vegetable garden. I was lucky - my mother went back to school after I was born and became a special education teacher. By the time I was eight, my mother’s income meant that my family no longer had to worry about where the next meal was coming from. My parents’ battle to lift themselves out of poverty was ultimately successful but was also brutally hard, as my mother had to juggle the demands of a large family, her school-work, and various part-time jobs.
During these financial struggles, my parents always paid their tithing. Every year the Mormon Church received from my parents 10% of an income that wasn’t enough to feed a family. There is a strong emphasis within the Church to pay tithing first; leaders promise that if an individual has enough faith, the Lord will provide. And the Church did give back; when times were desperate, the local leaders stepped in to donate food. Sometimes members would also pitch in, donating food and helping with babysitting. In return, my family has also done their part. The Mormon Church is composed of a lay clergy - the majority of positions are filled by unpaid volunteers. My father worked for years as the ward clerk, keeping track of membership records. Now that he has retired, he volunteers his time at the church’s family history center and the Palmyra temple. My parents also volunteer their time and skills to help members in need. One of my brothers is now the bishop for his ward; in addition to his full-time job, he volunteers an extra 20+ hours a week tending to the spiritual and practical needs of his congregation. He is in the third year of what should be a five-year stint.
When I was fifteen, my oldest brother had a financial crisis. He was building a house to replace his run-down trailer when he lost his job as a trucker. My brother and his family was forced to move in with my parents while he worked full-time to finish his house. My parents were faced with the burden of feeding five extra mouths, as well as financing the construction of a house. I woke up every morning with a pit in my stomach, which was only heightened by the sight of the tithing checks sitting on my parent’s dresser, made out for an amount I knew we couldn’t afford.
To the ward’s credit, everyone pitched in to help out my brother. Members volunteered time, coming every Saturday to help my brother build his house. My brother also received weekly donations of food from the Church Welfare services. The Relief Society stepped in one time, accompanying my mother to the grocery store and giving her $100 to buy food. There was a strong sense of community within the ward as they tackled my brother’s crisis. And yet, I couldn’t help but notice that most of the help received was in the form of volunteer work. Even in a very dire circumstance, the local ward had few financial resources available to help members in need. This was in spite of my parents’ monthly tithing donations, along with the tithing contributions of other members. The policy is for tithing to be wired directly to Church headquarters, a small amount of which is returned to the local ward for assisting members in need.
My family pays tithing because they believe in their church. And while I don’t want to impinge upon their beliefs, I do want to see the Mormon Church treat my family’s sacrifices with respect. The Mormon Church refuses to release their financial records. My family has worked so hard over the years to pay their tithing; why won’t the Mormon Church respect their sacrifices by telling them how their money is being used?
1 Spencer W Kimball, “Fortify Your Homes Against Evil”. General Conference Address, April 1979. http://www.lds.org/general-conference/1979/04/fortify-your-homes-against-evil?lang=eng