SALT LAKE CITY — In the early 1830s, destitute Mormons flooded into the city of Kirtland, Ohio. Brigham Young himself wore borrowed pants and shoes. Alarmed, local residents warned the Mormons to leave.
That experience and a national recession — the Panic of 1837 — created economic distress for the infant LDS Church and many of its members, but leaders derived principles from those and other painful early trials that continue to drive the church and what it teaches its members today, the Presiding Bishop of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints said Friday.
For example, 163,000 people around the world completed the LDS Church's new, highly practical self-reliance courses last year, Bishop Gérald Caussé said Friday during the 2018 Church History Symposium. Simultaneously, the faith's leaders practiced what they preached, storing food and investing a part of the church's revenues so it could continue if hardship hit.
"Some people occasionally describe today’s church as a powerful and prosperous institution," he said. "This may be true, but the strength of the church cannot be measured merely by the number or beauty of its buildings or by its financial and real estate holdings."
Bishop Caussé shared insights into LDS Church finances and the way church programs run during the keynote address of the final day of the conference, "Financing Faith: The Intersection of Business and Religion" in the Little Theater at the LDS Conference Center.
The LDS Church does not disclose how much members donate annually, but it uses tithing funds to translate, produce and distribute church publications and to operate five universities and colleges, 159 temples, thousands of meetinghouses, a worldwide program of seminaries and institutes and more.
Bishop Caussé provided insights into the process.
For example, it isn't widely known that the the First Presidency, the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles and the Presiding Bishopric meet together annually as the council on the disposition of the tithes on the first Friday of December. They "examine and approve the allocation of the church’s sacred funds from tithes and offerings for the following year," he said.
This council follows two main principles. "First, total expenditures will not exceed forecasted revenue," Bishop Caussé said. "Second, the budget for operating expenses will not increase year to year at a more rapid rate than the anticipated growth in tithing contributions."
He also shared four spiritual principles that govern the church's institutional finances — the law of tithing; self-reliance and independence; provident living or preparing for the future; and "providing for the Saints in the Lord’s own way."
"I liked the way he weaved together the history and the principles he shared today," said Jed Woodworth, a historian with the LDS Church History Department. "They are modern initiatives, but they are rooted in historical experience.
"I think it's noteworthy a general authority of the church is willing to prepare an address that engages church history on the level he did. He introduced every point of his talk with something from church history."
LDS leaders frequently counsel church members to live within their means, avoid unnecessary debt and prepare for the future by developing reserves, including food and financial assets, Bishop Caussé said. The LDS Church teaches that harmony between the spiritual and temporal is an important condition for the happiness.
"This same principle of temporal preparation has also been applied at the general church level," he said. "For example, grain silos and warehouses filled with basic emergency necessities have been established throughout North America. The church also methodically follows the practice of setting aside a portion of its revenues each year to prepare for any possible future needs."
"These invested funds," he added, "can be accessed in times of hardship to ensure the ongoing, uninterrupted work of the church’s mission, programs and operations, and to meet emergency financial needs."
The church invests the money, Bishop Caussé said, following the lesson taught by Jesus Christ in the parable of the talents, by investing in stocks and bonds, agriculture, majority interests in taxable businesses — including Deseret Management Corporation, which owns the Deseret News — and in commercial, industrial and residential property. Those investments are managed by a professional group of church employees and outside advisors.
"Risks are diversified, consistent with wise and prudent stewardship and modern investment management principles," Bishop Caussé said.
The Presiding Bishopric manages these temporal affairs. Therefore, its daily routine resembles those of executive boards of international firms.
"We define strategies, develop and administer budgets for operations and investments, manage several thousand employees, help grow the church’s financial and real estate assets and develop and operate distribution, information and communication systems," said Bishop Caussé, a Frenchman who was general manager of a European food distribution company when he was called by church leaders to become a General Authority Seventy in 2008. He joined the Presiding Bishopric in 2012 and became the presiding bishop in 2015.
Yet, the church is not a financial institution or a commercial corporation, he said. Instead, he said it is all about people. It prudently manages member contributions only with spiritual objectives in mind.
Devan Jensen, an executive editor at the BYU Religious Studies Center, which was a conference co-sponsor, said he was impressed by the way the presentation explained the church's current emphasis on self-reliance and provident living through its historical experiences.
"I also learned how complex and worldwide the organization is," Jensen said. "He shared the fact that they have to consider the principles of macroeconomics to guide their investments. It requires a sophisticated organization."
A full transcript of his talk is available at mormonnewsroom.org.