What does "unpaid ministry" look like?

By Eric Johnson

One of the criticisms many Mormons have about Evangelical Christian churches is their perception of a “paid” clergy. Referring to Mormon missionaries and church leaders such as bishops, tenth LDS President Joseph Fielding Smith wrote, “We do not have a paid ministry” (Answers to Gospel Questions, 3:79). On the LDS Church website under the question “Why don’t Mormons have paid clergy?” the church explains, “The leader of a congregation is a bishop or a branch president. He is not paid for his service, but he donates his time to serve the congregation.”

As we explain in chapter 10 of our book Answering Mormons’ Questions, the Bible teaches that there is nothing wrong with Christian church leaders being financially supported. For example, Paul compared the Christian worker to a soldier, a farmer, and a shepherd in 1 Corinthians 9. According to the apostle, the pastor feeds his flock spiritually and is fully justified in partaking of material things. Just because a Christian worker receives financial support does not mean he or she is greedy or lazy.

The Doctrine and Covenants (D&C)—supposedly given to LDS Church founder Joseph Smith by God—agrees with this idea. For instance, D&C 42:71-73 says that bishops (as well as elders and high priests who assist these bishops) are to receive “a just remuneration for all their services.” D&C 75:24 specifically names certain men who were called missionaries and states that “it is the duty of the church to assist in supporting the families of those [missionaries], and also to support the families of those who are called and must needs be sent unto the world to proclaim the gospel unto the world.”

Differentiating between the meaning of “unpaid” and “professional,” the Foundation for Apologetic Information and Research (FAIR), a Mormon apologetic group, explains, “There can be no doubt that the Church does have an unpaid ministry. More precisely, it does not have a professional clergy. Much of the day-to-day ‘ministering’ that goes on in the Church takes place at the local, i.e., ward and/or stake level. Leaders at the local level—that is, bishops, stake presidents, relief society presidents, elders quorum presidents, and other leaders or auxiliary workers—do not receive any kind of pay for the temporary, volunteer service they render.”

Somehow, being a member of a “professional clergy” is supposed to make all the difference in the world. After all, some Mormon leaders point to a paid clergy as one of many proofs that modern Christianity is apostate. While FAIR admits that other leaders, such as the General Authorities, do receive compensation, it is pointed out that “no tithing funds provide for General Authorities’ living stipends; such funds are drawn from business income earned by Church investments.” It would be interesting to understand the rationale as to why receiving income from a church investment is somehow considered acceptable but money from tithes is anathema, especially since no church “investments” were being used to pay church leaders in either biblical times or the 19th century when D&C 42 and 75 were written.

The Mission President’s Handbook

In December 2012, an official copy of the LDS Church’s “Mission President’s Handbook,” a publication not meant for the general public, was leaked on a blog site operated by a private individual. This official “how-to” manual explains the detailed rules for a mission president, whose job it is to work with local bishops while administering missionary efforts with stake presidents. In Appendix B under the title “Family Finances,” the manual discusses the “monthly reimbursement of living expenses” for the mission president’s family, including children under 26 who are not married and not employed full-time. It says that “living expenses include food, clothing, household supplies, family activities, dry cleaning, personal long-distance calls to family, and modest gifts (for example, Christmas, birthdays, or anniversary).”

Health and life insurance for the mission president and his family are fully covered, as are expenses not covered by personal health insurance, support for children serving full-time missions, one round-trip flight for each child to visit the parents on the field, school expenses for the children along with extracurricular activities, and “undergraduate tuition at an accredited college or university.”

The manual provides specific instruction for banking, as a “personal bank account at Church headquarters is established for you and your wife.” However, the mission president is told he “should not open a local bank account for personal funds received from the Church unless absolutely necessary, especially if the account would produce interest (and thus raise income-tax questions).” As far as housing, transportation, and insurance, items such as “rent, utilities, telephones, and Internet connection” are included. If the family needs a gardener, this may be provided, as well as “one part-time housekeeper-cook (no more than a total of 20 hours per week).”  Unlike many Christian pastors’ families whose wives must work in order to make ends meet, the mission president’s wife is told that her “primary responsibility” is “caring for (her) family.” The manual adds, “She should not feel an obligation to participate in mission activities at the expense of family needs. If a babysitter is needed occasionally so that she can participate in an activity, the cost of the babysitter may be reimbursed.” It seems like an ideal situation. The wife stays home, raises the children, and even has a gardener and maid to help her in her home-making duties!

The mission president receives the use of one car and the expenses to run it; while his wife is not provided a car of her own, another mission vehicle is available for her and “dependent children who are mature and careful drivers.”  I have a friend who served a California mission in the 1990s under mission president and now-Apostle Jeffrey R. Holland. When Holland’s child used the missionary car to travel to a Sacramento King’s basketball game and got into an accident, my friend said that he and his companion had to continue their mission without the car. Instead, they had to ride bicycles, traveling at times a great distance.

Playing with Numbers and a $100,000 annual price tag

For our radio show Viewpoint on Mormonism, Bill McKeever and I decided to play with numbers to see just how much compensation that this “volunteer” position in the state of Utah might be. Using the information from the Mission President’s manual, we applied what we felt were reasonable numbers on each item that a mission president’s family could use as reimbursement from the LDS Church. For our example, we decided that our mission president was 55 years of age, his wife 50, and three children as follows: 22-year-old girl (college student), 17-year-old boy (finishing high school, going on his mission after graduation this year), and a 14-year-old girl. (Granted, most mission presidents probably have more children, but we have no way of knowing how we could determine an average number, so we believe three children was very conservative.) This mythical family lives in Provo, Utah. We used figures that we felt were reasonable for the state of Utah, and even at that, we tried to be conservative. Of course, the totals would differ from family to family. While the price of living, Utah is much cheaper than, say, Sacramento, New York City, or London, we used a family number and adddress that could provide a conservative figure of the total package. The following are those items that are fully covered for a mission president, according to the manual:

Rent: 4-bed, 3-bath, fully furnished house: $2,000 monthly x 12 months       $24,000

            Note: Since the mission supplies a fully-furnished home, the mission president’s family would be able to leave their furnishings in their own home, most likely a home that they own. This would increase the value of their home for rent, and that money (after mortgage/taxes/insurance) left over after receiving the rent from their tenants appears to be theirs to keep while they are serving away from home. For some, this could be a “break even” proposition or, more likely, income of $1,000 or more per month.

Utilities (differs depending on the time of the year, but taking annual averages):

Gas = $80 monthly

Electricity = $75 monthly

Water = $90 monthly

Sewer = $20 monthly

$265 monthly x 12 months =  3,200

Cable/house phone/internet bundle: $150 montly x 12 months = 1,800

Maid (20 hours a week): $12 per hour x 80 hours per month = 1,000 x 12 months=  12,000

Gardener $40 per event x 30 weeks (spring/summer) =  1,200

Food (including occasional meals out)/Supplies  $1000 monthly x 12 months = 12,000

Household supplies      INCLUDED IN FOOD

Car 2012 Camry, 2.99% over 60 months, $387 monthly payment x 12 months=   4,600

Second car can be used by the wife for errands, school trips, etc.–we’ll consider this as “free”

Gas 12,000 miles, one car (we’ll consider gas for second car as free)    1,300

Car Insurance (using two cars, husband/wife, no children insured)  1,200

Car maintenance New car, no maintenance first year, oil changes every 4 months   100

Life insurance $250,000 for president/$100,000 for wife, $85 monthly x 12 months     1,000

Health insurance/deductibles: $1,000 monthly   12,000

Medications $50 monthly x 12 months=   600

Dental insurance: $350 each quarter x 4 quarters=   1,400

Dental deductibles/repairs: $75 monthly x 12 months =   900

Clothing      3,800

According to TLC, “a A North Dakota State University study from 2010 found that the average American household spends about 3.8 percent of their income on clothing. The Census Bureau states that the average household income is about $50,000 per year, so that means roughly $2,000 per year, per household.” Since this family is closer to double the $50,000 number, let’s say that they spend $3,800 a year.                                                                                                                                                

Family activities: Weekends away, gatherings, etc   1,000

Dry cleaning $50 montly x 12 months =     600

Phones for the family (long distance included)  $200 monthly x 12 months = 2,400

“Modest” gifts (birthdays/Christmas/anniversary) $200 monthly x 12 months =   2,400

Missions (middle child): $400 monthly x 12 months=   4,800

Plane Round trip Oldest child flies home from college (allowed one time per child)=  300

School expenses (2 kids) College testing, lab fees, etc $45 monthly x 12 months =   500

College undergrad tuition: Oldest child, BYU charges $2280 semester x 2 semesters =  4,600

Dance (or piano or ???) lessons, middle child: $50 monthly x 12 months =     600

Club Soccer, youngest child: $100 monthly x 12 months= 1200      1,200

TOTAL BENEFITS: $99,500

It must be mentioned that tithing on these items are not supposed to be paid. Unlike other church members, this family can receive temple recommends without paying tithing on “income.” Hence, for the value of this compensation, which we list here at almost $100,000, the tithe amount would be at least $10,000. So, this particular mission president—who, remember, is considered a “volunteer”—is getting compensation for at least $110,000! Not bad for someone who is not supposedly getting a wage!

Paying the tax man?

When it comes to tax issues, the mission president—who has his housing, insurance, vehicles, and college tuition for the children paid by the church—has very little to declare when tax time rolls around. The manual explains that this is because there is “no employer-employee relationship” between him and the Church, as he is “engaged in volunteer religious service.” Hence, “any funds reimbursed to you from the Church are not considered income for tax purposes; they are not reported to the government, and taxes are not withheld with regard to these funds.” In other words, the government apparently looks upon the mission president as a man with very little income. All of the benefits described above—worth tens of thousands of dollars—are not taxed.

There seems to be a fear that a mission president may give too much information to the IRS. The manual explicitly states on page 80: “Because you are engaged in volunteer religious service, no employer-employee relationship exists between you and the Church. As a result, any funds reimbursed to you from the Church are not considered income for tax purposes; they are not reported to the government, and taxes are not withheld with regard to these funds.”

It continues on page 82:  “To avoid raising unnecessary tax questions, please follow these guidelines closely: Do not share information on funds you receive from the Church with those who help you with financial or tax matters…. Never represent in any way that you are paid (emphasis mine) for your service. If you are required to file an income-tax report for other purposes, do not list any funds you receive from the Church, regardless of where you serve or where you hold citizenship.” This idea was pointed out earlier in the manual, stating that “the amount of any funds reimbursed to you should be kept strictly confidential.”

Remember, many Mormons like to think that their leaders are not paid. Many who might read this church manual may be very shocked to hear about the many benefits the mission president receives. Their housing expenses, food, car, insurance packages, maid and gardener, and even college tuition for the children are fully covered. Perhaps this is why the manual warns the mission president to not let anyone know that he is “paid” for his service. One can only wonder what benefits other “volunteer” leaders receive under this or similar arrangements.

Semantics is employed by FAIR by saying the church does not have “professional clergy” and arguing that these other leaders receive nothing more than a “living allowance.” Based on all the benefits received by the mission president, however, wouldn’t it be more honest to just admit that this “living allowance” is comparable to what most people consider a “wage”—and a very good one, at that?


For a February 2013 Viewpoint on Mormonism podcast series on this topic, click on the following links: Part 1  Part 2  Part 3  Part 4  Part 5

In addition, here is a 2-part series on a paid clergy:  Part 1  Part 2