Sunday, July 15, 2012

A Mormon Family's Finances

          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.


  1. I get an impression from your story, PMG, that the Church more or less helps out enough to make you grateful, but perhaps not always enough to get you back on your feet? Am I understanding you correctly?

    1. Now that I think of it, that makes sense.

  2. PMG, do you recall any instances where the Church helped a non-Mormon family?
    That is, extended its charity beyond its own community? I ask because someone recently told me of a bishop who discovered some Church ordinances that prohibited the Church from doing that.

    1. I have heard rumors along that line but I am not sure. I think the decision may be the choice of the individual bishop. And as I'm sure you're aware of, that can lead to a lot of variation. But as to any specific ordinances, I don't know.

    2. Hmmm... It would seem to make sense that the decision was a local one. That is, I would think that if any such decision to limit charity were made high up in the Church, then it would be more widely reported.

    3. I would recommend this link, which I think helps illustrate the different practices between wards.

    4. Okay, try number four, from my laptop this time.

      I have had several callings in which I had responsibilities that included helping to distribute or arrange for individual/familiy financial assistance, as well as volunteers for church projects.

      When I was in charge of picking up orders from the bishops storehouse, I would estimate that about 1 in 4 orders I was picking up were for non-LDS families or households. They must have had some reason to be in contact with our bishop, (maybe a family member or friend suggested talking to him?) but several of the families I delivered food to for over six months expressed their gratitude that a church they didn't go to, was helping them out.

      That particular family had a daughter the age of my son (who went with me most of the time as some time with me, without the twins) and they would play together. My son wanted to give her a Book of Mormon stories book, so I explained to the mother what my son wanted to do. She said that they didn't realy belive in God, so my son and I went and got a Dora the Explorer book, which the daughter loved.

      Several of the other nonLDS people I delivered to were single moms who got help with food and some of their utilities paid by our ward. Another was a recently divorced man who I helped in getting the paperwork submitted for renting an apartment. After he was accepted the ward paid half of his deposit, I took him to DI (which was covered by the church ini some way) to choose out the items he needed to function in his new place, everything from a couch to a frying pan and basic silverware. I also brought him food from the bishop's storehouse for two months after that. I know he came to one ward activity where he thanked the church for helping him when no one else would. I don't know of any other contact he had.

      Certainly more than the majority of the people I delivered things for were LDS, but personally I was involved with the following things that were given to nonmembers; food, items from DI, electricity bill, car insurance, health insurance premiums, rent, security deposit, car repairs, water/sewer payment, baby formula, and prescription medications. I, of course, helped fascilitate those things for members as well. For non-food items I would guess it was about 10% non-members.

      This only addresses money given directly to individuals. I know of several instances of medium to large donations given to groups of people who were victims of specific disasters or incidents.

      Without breaking confidential details, I think I can say that there is certainly help given to non-members. It is not nearly as much as help given to members, but it does happen. I think a lot of it is a question of who goes to the bishop for help, and how or if they know that it is something they can ask a bishop for.

      As one other side note, I know that there is money that a Bishop or Stake President can access for special circumstances of need for members of their ward or stake. If the need involves a large amount of money, they can access money that is not part of the fast offerings of that ward or stake. I can't go into the specifics, I would not want to have the families who received the help, face any judgment. I do know from talking to the Stake President that the amounts that were involved were in the thousands of dollars, and that it came from Salt Lake, after being approved by a member of the Seventy. In both cases the bishop asked the stake president, and then the stake president requested advice from the member of the Seventy who handles those situations.

      As far as I understand, all money that goes through the bishop's storehouse, DI, and fast offerings are not reported as part of the churches "charitable giving."

      Thanks for addressing this topic in a way that invites conversation.

      Julia -

  3. Years ago Mark and I went to the bishop and told him we couldn't afford to pay tithing. He told us to pay tithing, and that he in turn would give us church welfare. We decided not to pay tithing, so he took away our temple recommends. Ah memories.

    Great post as usual, pm girl.

    1. Such an unusual position to be put in - no one wants to go on welfare, especially if they have the money to avoid doing so. And that was what caused me such pain as a fifteen-year old - the money that my parents were paying towards tithing was enough that we could have kept our heads above water.

    2. About ten years ago my exhusband and I were in a very similar meeting with our bishop. A sudden job loss had left us unable to pay several large bills we had coming in, and our rent. Our bishop told us the same thing. We did decide to pay our tithing and the bishop handed us a check the Tuesday afterwards for the amount of our rent.

      We ended up needing the ward to pay our rent for the four months until another job came along.

      I am not saying that our decision was better than Donna's. I have heard from a lot of people who were asked to pay their tithing, and then had more than the amount of the tithing given to them, when they paid their tithing.

      I also know several people who received help from the church and felt it was a difficult because they felt that they were suddenly asked to do more cleaning the chutrch, helping other people at the bishops request, setting up and taking down ward activities, etc. Personally, I didn't mind having our bishop ask us to do more, since the ward was helping us out, but then I generally don't mind being asked to do things in general.

      (Asking because I truly am curious, not trying to get in an argument.)
      I am curious Donna, was it not wanting to have church welfare help that made you decide not to accept the bishop's author, or was it something else?

  4. PMG, how is it that your family was able to adopt your brother if they had so little money? Was he the child of a family member who couldn't care for him?

    1. So to help stretch the finances, my parents took in foster kids. The state provided aid in the form of food stamps and clothing allowance, which was stretched to provide for the entire family. My brother came to us as a foster child when he was two. And since he was a foster child, the adoption process was free.

    2. My mom always likes to say that my brother adopted us, not the other way around. :-)

  5. Good day to you my friend. I needed to give you a quick note to express my thanks. I've been studying your blog for a month or so and have picked up quite a lot of good info as well as enjoyed the way in which you've setup your blog. I am attempting to setup my own blog but I feel it is too general. I want to focus more on specific topics. Being all things to all folks isn't all that it’s cracked up to be. Many thanks.

    1. Thank you so much - it is a good idea to establish a focus for your blog. If you have multiple interests, sometimes it is worth doing two separate blogs.

  6. Hello There. I found your blog using msn. This is a really well written article.
    I'll make sure to bookmark it and come back to read more of your useful info.
    Thanks for the post. I will certainly comeback.

    Review my website stairlifts


I love hearing comments and I welcome all viewpoints; however, I request that if you do choose to comment, please do so in a manner that is constructive and respectful of others.