The key to understanding church finances is to understand that they are a means to an end. They allow the church to carry out its religious mission across the world. —statement from the LDS Church
The increasing visibility of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has prompted media requests for information on the church's financial structure, a level of interest underscored this week by a cover story in Bloomberg Businessweek.
However, a church spokesman said Businessweek's story contained speculative information and misperceptions. The cover illustration also offended many communities of faith, including the LDS Church. (Please see accompanying story).
As a result of the frequent media requests, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints issued an in-depth outline of its financial history, philosophy and structure and posted it Thursday on its LDS Newsroom website.
"The key to understanding church finances is to understand that they are a means to an end," the statement says. "They allow the church to carry out its religious mission across the world."
Noted historian and scholar Richard L. Bushman, professor emeritus at New York's Columbia University, said he believes the groundbreaking statement from the LDS Church stems from the fact that "the church has been criticized so often for its involvement in business and its wealth that it would like to dispel the impression that it is a corporate empire aimed at making money."
In Bushman's opinion, the church's impatience with this criticism is justified.
"The church is not a capitalist enterprise; it is a religious endeavor that uses the tools of capitalism to achieve religious ends," he said. "In a nation obsessed with wealth, the distinction is hard to appreciate, but to Mormons it is all-important."
In fact, the church's statement emphasized the charitable and religious purposes of all its investments.
"The church exists to improve the lives of people across the world by bringing them closer to Jesus Christ," the statement said. "The assets of the church are used in ways to support that mission. Buildings are built for members to come together to worship God and to be taught the gospel of Jesus Christ. Missionaries are sent to invite people to come to Christ. Resources are used to provide food and clothing for the needy and to provide ways for people to lift themselves up and be self-reliant.
"What is important is not the cost but the outcome. As former church President Gordon B. Hinckley said, 'The only true wealth of the church is in the faith of its people.'"
The statement on finances begins with a review of its fiduciary history, indicating that "from the very beginning, members of the church displayed a remarkable ability to set aside material things for spiritual goals." Examples are cited, including how "one of the earliest church members, Martin Harris, mortgaged his farm to pay for the publication of the Book of Mormon."
The financial sacrifices of the church's journey to the American West are outlined, along with its early struggles with debt. According to the statement, the church's renewed commitment to the principle of tithing – under the direction of President Lorenzo Snow – was critical to overcoming indebtedness.
"Tithing is an ancient biblical principle, and has been practiced by many churches through the centuries," the statement says. "Independent studies show, however, that nowhere else in America today is the principle of tithing so widely and faithfully followed as among members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The vast majority of the income used to manage the church comes from tithing, not from businesses or investments."
In addition to tithing being "an enormous blessing to the church and its people," the statement also cites "sound economic principles such as avoiding debt, living within one's means and setting aside funds for a rainy day" as critical to the church's philosophical approach to finances.
The statement addresses church ownership of for-profit businesses, which began during its pioneer period as it established certain necessary businesses. Through the years, many of those businesses, such as Zion's Bank and the LDS Hospital system, have been sold, donated to the community or discontinued.
"Today, the church's business assets support the church's mission and principles by serving as a rainy day fund," the statement says. "Agricultural holdings now operated as for-profit enterprises can be converted into welfare farms in the event of a global food crisis. Companies such as KSL Television and the Deseret News provide strategically valuable communication tools."
Bushman said "the church wants these businesses to be self-sufficient and not a drain on tithing resources, but their overriding purpose is religious more than economic."
The statement indicates that the church's tithing funds are used to support what it calls "five key areas of activity":
- Providing meetinghouses as places of worship. "We have thousands of such buildings and continue to open more, sometimes several in a week," the statement said.
- Programs for the religious education of high school and college-age students.
- Supporting the church's international missionary program.
- Building and operating nearly 140 temples around the world and administering the world's largest and most extensive family history program.
- Supporting the church's welfare and humanitarian programs around the world, which serve "both members of the church as well as those who are not members."
"Such comparisons simply do not hold up," the statement says. "For instance, a corporation's branch offices or retail outlets have to be financially justified as a source of profit. But every time (the church) builds a place of worship, the building becomes a consumer of assets and a financial obligation that has to be met through worldwide member donations. The ongoing maintenance and upkeep, utilities and use of the building can only be achieved as long as faithful members continue to support the church."
The church addressed efforts to determine how much of the church's total income is used to care for the poor and needy. "Again," the statement says, "they rarely capture the whole picture," including the work of "nearly 30,000 bishops who oversee their respective congregations (and) have direct access to church funds to care for those in need, as they help members achieve self-sufficiency."
The church's objective in its welfare efforts "is to help individuals to overcome temporal barriers as they pursue spiritual values," the statement says.
In news stories such as the recent Bloomberg Businessweek cover story, the published numbers relate only to the church's humanitarian outreach and "do not reflect the church's extensive welfare and employment service that serve many thousands worldwide."
"They also do not represent Deseret Industries thrift stores that provide vouchers to other charities for their use; donations to food pantries; or humanitarian–or-welfare-focused missionary service or support given to aid other relief organizations and their missions," the statement said.
"Those who attempt to define the church as an institution devoted to amassing monetary wealth miss the entire point," the statement concludes. "The church's purpose is to bring people to Christ and to follow his example by lifting the burdens of those who are struggling. The key to understanding the church is not to see it as a worldwide corporation, but as millions of faithful members in thousands of congregations across the world following Christ and caring for each other and their neighbors."