Recently there has been a lot of buzz about how much money the Mormon Church has in its possession after an accusation came out from former church members and twin brothers David and Lars Nielsen. David was a former employee of church-owned investment firm Ensign Peak Advisors. The claim from the Nielsens is that the church is essentially too wealthy, and that its members don’t understand that the church is not using their charitable contributions, namely tithing and fast offerings, for the right purposes.
That accusation is dead wrong for lots of reasons. A brilliant point by point rebuttal of the allegations was published in the Deseret News shortly after they were made.
The title of the Washington Post headline is immediately condemning: Mormon Church has misled members on $100 billion tax exempt investment fund.
That sentence is bold enough to make one assume that a judge and jury had investigated, a trial was held, and the church was found guilty as charged. As I’ve read comments online of people responding to that story and other versions of it, it’s clear that too many people believe the story the Nielsens are using for their own publicity and potential financial gain.
As a lifelong member of the Mormon Church (it’s actually The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, but we’ve been called Mormons for a long time, and we’re sometimes referred to as Latter-day Saints or LDS), I feel a responsibility to weigh in on this debate about whether the church has too much money and whether it’s using the money we contribute to the church through tithes and other offerings for worthy and appropriate purposes.
Let me just say that I think I represent by far the popular opinion of tithe-paying members of the LDS Church in saying that I’m confident that the church uses the funds for what they’re supposed to be used for. Let me also say that you will not find a group of men with more integrity than you will in the LDS Church’s governing body, including our prophet and president, Russell M. Nelson, along with others who serve alongside him in determining the spiritual and financial direction of the church.
Understanding the potential damage to the church and its mission from insidious and purposely deceptive misinformation spread as widely and quickly as the Washington Post is able to broadcast because of its extensive reach, those men who lead the Mormon Church promptly responded to the accusations. This is what they said.
We take seriously the responsibility to care for the tithes and donations received from members. The vast majority of these funds are used immediately to meet the needs of the growing Church including more meetinghouses, temples, education, humanitarian work and missionary efforts throughout the world. Over many years, a portion is methodically safeguarded through wise financial management and the building of a prudent reserve for the future. This is a sound doctrinal and financial principle taught by the Savior in the Parable of the Talents and lived by the Church and its members. All Church funds exist for no other reason than to support the Church’s divinely appointed mission.
Claims being currently circulated are based on a narrow perspective and limited information. The Church complies with all applicable law governing our donations, investments, taxes, and reserves. We continue to welcome the opportunity to work with officials to address questions they may have.
I absolutely believe their response to be genuine and accurate. Not necessarily because I’ve seen the church’s accounting books and had a chance to review how each dollar is used. But because I’ve had a lifetime of opportunity of being involved in the church and its efforts to spread the gospel, feed the hungry, clothe the naked, help people get on their feet and become self-reliant, and generally follow the Savior’s example and admonition to lift people. In fact, I’ve been bold enough to assert in the past to many people, and I’ll say it here now: without the efforts and influence of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, this world would be a much different place in a way that it would never want to experience. The positive influence of the 15 million member organization is felt in ways that few give it credit for, including David and Lars Nielsen.
My Own Experience
Over the years that I’ve been a member of the LDS Church, I have paid hundreds of thousands 0f dollars in tithing and other offerings to the church. I’ve never once felt misled about what’s being done with my contributions.
I’m satisfied in knowing that I can take my family to worship in a simple but comfortably reverent building on Sundays, that there is air conditioning in the summer and heat in the winter. I’m grateful that there is an organ, a piano, and hymnbooks to use for worshiping through music. I’m grateful for classrooms, chairs, and “cultural halls” (places to play basketball and socialize). I’m thanking for temples where advanced instruction and meaningful revelation is received.
With that being said, I certainly understand that not every dollar contributed is used in the most perfect of ways. In a church full of imperfect people, admittedly including those who are the highest leaders in the church, there is bound to be some waste. In fact, I worked for the church’s IT department for two and a half years, from 2009 to 2011. I saw waste among employees in my department and others we worked with, including having people fill positions that they weren’t qualified for, and many who were there to watch the clock and not contribute much, ultimately being content to just not get fired until they ultimately earned a pension. Those people are paid with tithing money, and in many cases it did seem like they weren’t producing as much as they were consuming. That situation was unfortunate, but it’s also simply an unavoidable part of human life. The overall goal and intention to use tithing money to support and bless the church was always there.
Compared to any other large organization, I haven’t encountered anything that rivals the efficiency of the LDS Church when it comes to helping people with whatever it is they need.
In the 40+ years I’ve been a member of the church, I’ve also contributed somewhere close to 10,000 hours serving in volunteer positions and on as-needed projects.
If you’ve ever been anywhere near a natural disaster, you’ve probably heard of “Mormon Helping Hands,” the people with the yellow shirts who show up as volunteers to clean up after earthquakes, floods, hurricanes, and other emergencies.
I had the chance to participate in one such activity (a comparatively small-scale one) with my daughter and my brother recently. At our own expense, we traveled two hours away to Linden, Tennessee to spend the day with hundreds of other local church members clearing damage done to people’s homes (most of them not members of our church) from a storm that spawned tornadoes. The financial value of the work that we contributed to this community on a Saturday where more than 300 people came together along with chainsaws, rakes, shovels, and manual labor to clean up an entire community had to be in the range of tens of thousands of dollars. But we provided it all for free. And we were grateful to serve without payment.
The deep commitment to volunteering, contributing more than you take, helping those who are less fortunate, and all of the above come from the church and its members and the divine interaction of faith consistently working to finance the development of more faith.
The evidence is clear that members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are some of the most (if not the most) giving people on the planet. The latest survey from Serve.gov estimated that Utahns (where the church is headquartered and where the majority of the population observes the faith) volunteer the most out of any state in the US and have held that spot for thirteen straight years. Serve.gov’s 2018 study estimated that $3.2 billion worth of value was given by Utah volunteers in that year.
On the money side, the top 3 metro areas in the country as named in a SmartAsset.com survey are all in Utah: Provo-Orem, Ogden-Clearfield, and Salt Lake City.
Why the Nielsen Brothers Got it Wrong
One thing that is clear from watching the videos and reading the accusation David and Lars Nielsens’ attack on the church from which they’ve become disillusioned is that the Nielsens either never did understand (or they have chosen to forgotten) the purpose of tithing. Lars’ public accusations especially take a faithless approach to a principle of faith, an error that itself disqualifies his entire argument. He asked, “Would you pay tithing instead of water, electricity, or feeding your family if you knew that it would sit around by the billions until the Second Coming of Christ?” For faithful Latter-day Saints, even if that characterization (our money “sit[ing] around by the billions”) was accurate, we’d still say “absolutely”. Why, because we’ve seen how faith creates miracles in our lives. We don’t go without water, electricity, or food. God provides for us because we live by a principle that was revealed to the ancient faithful (see Malachi 3:8-11, where the Lord promises to open the windows of heaven and pour out a blessing upon those who bring “tithes into the storehouse”) as well as again to those who we faithful Latter-day Saints consider to be modern-day prophets.
Emulating the LDS Church
In a society that is heavily burdened by debt, it is ironic that people would complain that the church is too wealthy, essentially that it has been too responsible, too successful in teaching its members to sacrifice and give, that it’s not wasting enough money on things that are of no worth, which is what we’ve come to expect of government and other non-profits.
According to most economists, the next financial crisis will be made much more severe (possibly worse than 2008) because of the enormous debt load being carried by individuals, households, and sovereign governments throughout the world. It’s just a matter of time before contemporary society’s addiction to spending more than it makes will create a potentially desperate situation.
For me, I’d much rather see at least $100 billion in the possession of worthy men and women who have shown that their fruits (through their membership and through their own examples) are ones of giving, carefulness, and thoughtful stewardship of resources than in the hands of the IRS to pass on to organizations that have been found guilty repeatedly of misuse.
It is not unrealistic, maybe even probable, to anticipate that a situation similar to what is recorded in Genesis to have happened in Egypt, a famine for which Joseph and the Egyptian Pharoah were prepared because of stockpiling, could happen once again, this time affecting millions of people throughout the world.
I trust that the leaders of the LDS Church to be ready for such a time as that.