By Eric Johnson
$100 billion. That’s how much is in the reserve coffers of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, according to a report by two former employees who had worked with Ensign Peak Advisors, which is the investment division of the church’s cash and short-term investments. The report was released on December 17th, 2019. (For the Washington Post article, click here. For a short video from one of the former employees of Ensign Peak, click here.)
When we understand that we’re talking about “billion” with a “b,” $100 “billion” is truly astronomical! And that’s just the cash money. It doesn’t include the many billions of dollars worth of other investments owned by the church.
Click on the links above and read the articles for yourself to consider the claims made by these whistle blowers. Instead of discussing the details of these very serious (but seemingly accurate) accusations, I would rather ask, “What should we think about the church holding $100 billion?”
Just how much is $100 billion?
Some ball players in today’s sporting world can demand $10 million, $20 million or even $40 million for just one season of play, while actors and actresses can get $50 million or more for a movie. It is hard to fully grasp these numbers. In fact, unless we understand the sheer magnitude of a million or even a billion (which is 1,000 million), incredibly high numbers do not have the impact they should.
For instance, let me throw out the number of $10,000,000 ($10 million). Fewer than 1 percent of Americans make $1 million per year. If a person worked 40 hours a week (no overtime) for 52 weeks a year (no vacations), then that person would need to average $96 per hour just to make $1 million. I know nobody personally who makes $1 million a year, but there are a number of people who do.
Way fewer Americans make at least $10 million in a year. For the average person, even making $10 million during an entire lifetime of employment is completely out of reach. Consider that a person would need to average $200,000 each year for 50 years of employment to make $10 million over 50 years! That would be $200,000 per average year from the time a person is 18 all the way until he/she is 68 years of age. As someone who has never made six figures in a single year, I can’t imagine earning this much in a lifetime. If a person averaged $50,000 a year from 18 to 68, that total would be $2.5 million, a number much closer to what you, the average reader, will probably earn in your lifetime.
Let me throw another number your way. If a person were to count to a billion beginning at 1, one number every second–and that’s quite optimistic when you get to higher numbers such as five hundred forty three million, three hundred and seventy six thousand, three hundred and ninety three!!–it would take more than 31 years to count to 1 billion. (Source) And that, my friends, is just for 1 billion! It would take more than three centuries to count to 100 billion!
How about one more example. If a person were to spend $1 million every hour of every day, 24 hours a day, that would be $24 million per day. You would have to spend that for 4,166 days, or almost 11.5 years, to get to $100,000,000,000 ($100 billion)! That’s spending it at a rate of $24,000,000 a day, an amount that would stagger even the rich and famous.
By no means am I a mathematician (just ask my daughters who learned not to come to Dad for help with their math homework), but these examples help us understand the unfathomable chance of a number as big as $100 billion. It is, quite frankly, impossible to grasp.
Isn’t the nonprofit church or organization supposed to help people?
The LDS Church is a nonprofit church. Yet right after the report was published on December 17th, many Latter-day Saints came out in defense of the church. The First Presidency put up an article on its website a few hours later saying that they were merely doing what Jesus commanded in his parable on the talents. (Source) Some wrote on social media that they trusted their leaders, no matter what anyone says, and if the leaders thought it was a good idea, then they were on board for the church owning $100 billion in reserve.
There was an article in the Deseret News that day as well explaining how the church has come a long way since it was close to bankruptcy six decades ago. BYU professor Hal Boyd and Lynn Chapman even commended the church for its reserves in their article titled “The Washington Post says the Church of Jesus Christ has billions. Thank goodness.” They concluded:
Before we face the next recession, our governments and other institutions of civil society would do well to follow the church’s example. Although some will call this most recent round of headlines about church finances “news,” the wisdom remains as old as Egypt.
Utah Sen. Mitt Romney, a Mormon, explained,
I just noted that my church has $100 billion safety fund. I’m happy that they’ve not only saved for a rainy day, but for a rainy decade.
Read the article for yourself, but it sounded to me more like something the satiric Babylon Bee would publish than a serious response. While I would agree that every individual should follow the church’s example and save money for the future, invest properly, and not get into foolish debt, I do not think the church’s example is how a religious non-profit organization should act.
Can you imagine Jesus asking Judas, his main financial apostle, “Say, how much do we have in our hedge fund right now?” Why, Jesus didn’t even have a place to lay his head (see Luke 9:58). Or were Peter and the other disciples worried about the Net Testament’s church’s financial reserves? If so, we don’t see any indication of this attitude in the Book of Acts. Instead, we see Paul desperately seeking to raise funds to help the church in Jerusalem, and it appears every lepta and denarius they collected was used to help the poor.
Anyone who donates to this church receives a tax-deductible receipt at the end of the year. This amount can be deducted against the individual’s income. It is assumed–at least by most who are giving as well as the IRS–that this nonprofit organization will use the money to better its people, the community, and the world. For a local Bible-believing Christian church, the money brought in through tithes and offerings pays salaries for the pastor(s)/secretary/janitor, etc, the mortgage on the church, the utilities, and missionaries that the church supports along with donations to other organizations, possibly including Pro Life centers, homeless shelters, and para church ministries helping those outside their church.
According to the former investment firm employee, the church makes about 7% income on its reserve money each year. For $100 billion, that’s an incredible number, as $7 billion is nothing to sneeze at. The whistle blower’s report said that the church makes about $7 billion a year in tithes, although D. Michael Quinn–who has done extensive research on this topic–believes the actual number is closer to $35 billion each year. He wrote The Mormon Hierarchy: Wealth & Corporate Power (Signature Books, 2017), and while it’s not cheap, I recommend it, as Quinn did an outstanding job documenting the church’s holdings over the years while not receiving a whole lot of cooperation from the leadership of the church. More than half of the book is filled with appendices filled with business names and numbers, an accountant’s delight. (Because of his research, I am more apt to believe Quinn’s estimate of $35 billion in tithes compared to the $7 billion reported in the report since it appears the whistle blower may not have had access to the tithing numbers.) Quinn wrote on page 141,
It is stunning to contemplate that the LDS Church’s income from all sources has reached tens of billions annually in the twenty-first century.
Of course, there’s lots of guess work because the church doesn’t release its financial statements. (If the tithes are just $7 billion, then shouldn’t the leaders just give an accounting so we can discount the other number?) If Quinn is correct, however, the LDS Church brings in more than $40 billion each year BEFORE accounting for those monies it makes in its other investments, including ownership of properties such as the City Creek Mall it built a few years ago.
Meanwhile, the church boasted in 2018 that it has given away $2.2 billion since 1985. (Source) That might sound like a lot before you consider that $2.2 billion divided by 33 years equals an average of $67 million per year. From 1985 to 2011, that number was $1.4 billion, so from 2012-17, it appears that $800 million was give over 7 years, which would be close to $110 million per year. For a church that is possibly bringing in more than $40,000,000,000 ($40 billion) each year, that’s less than 3% of its total income. Granted the church has many expenses, including paying its general authorities, building and maintaining its buildings, and paying the utilities. I get that. But 3% of the total income given away in charity doesn’t seem overly generous.
To put this into perspective, Christian agencies whose aim it is to feed and clothe the poor and help in disasters, both in the U.S. and across, the year, spend much more than the much larger LDS Church. For example, consider how much these charitable front-line organizations are projected to give away in 2019:
- Salvation Army: $3.7 billion
- World Vision: $907 million
- Compassion International: $764 million
- Samaritan’s Purse: $603 million
These agencies are out and about working with people in need and helping them, as Jesus commanded we should do. Even if the LDS Church gave away as much as $110 million last year, as it appears they may have done, this amount would not even make Forbes’ list of the largest 100 charities. In fact, the number 100 organization on the list (Covenant House) gave away $143 million last year. (Source) Meanwhile, the Salvation Army has just 1.6 million members–a mere tenth of those who belong to Mormonism–and yet this church gave away more than 30% more money in one year than the LDS Church has given away in more than three decades. The Salvation Army is a Protestant denominational church that also has to maintain buildings and pay salaries. Let that sink in for a moment.
How much is enough for a religious institution to hold in reserve?
Perhaps the LDS Church did not break any laws. Maybe this amount of money was accumulated in a legal way and managed by a group of men, most of whom went through the Depression and who may find it hard to divest themselves from their super frugal ways. That’s fine. But the question is not whether or not the money was accumulated legally or is run by men who would rather pile up their reserves than give it away in charity. Rather, the question ought to be if storing this much money is moral.
I will allow the IRS to do its work and check into possible illegality of the actions of the First Presidency, including the charge that the church used some of this fund’s assets to prop up church-owned businesses, such as the failed Beneficial Life insurance company. The government should verify that the church has used its monies legally or its tax exempt status ought to be challenged.
I will state upfront that I am not a member of this church and thus I do not donate to it. This money is not mine. But I do think the members should have a say in the finances of their church. And with that, allow me to conclude by requesting two action items.
First of all, the church leaders should come clean and publicly report the church’s holdings to the 16-million+ membership.
It would help the credibility and the integrity of this church if church leaders publicly disclosed the church’s numbers. D. Michael Quinn writes,
In my judgement, negative reactions [about how much money the church brings in] would decrease significantly if LDS headquarters resumed a detailed financial report to each April’s general conference (The Mormon Hierarchy: Wealth & Corporate Power, p. 142).
According to Quinn, the church would be better served by being transparent than remaining secretive. Thus, I call on the LDS leaders to open up their books to show how much income the church makes along with its investment portfolio. Since the 1960s, the church has not provided any financial reports. I imagine this is because the leaders are allowed to do so, legally, and they have a fear that members could stop giving when they realize the church doesn’t need their money and instead is hoarding it for a rainy millennium. While there are many good programs the church runs–including education at the seminary, institute, and college levels–there is so much more the church could do with its resources than have it sit on the sidelines.
Second, and finally, I call on LDS members to demand that their leaders come clean and hold these men’s feet to the fire.
It’s your money, not mine. I can tell the world that I disagree with the church holding $100 billion in reserves and none of the leaders will care about my opinion. But imagine if 2 or 3 million Latter-day Saints stood together in unison and declared, “We won’t give any more to the church until you are transparent and open with us.” You, church members, are the best accountability partner the church could ever have.
If you are a Latter-day Saint, I would encourage you to write a heartfelt letter to the First Presidency and hand it in person to your bishop while giving him an extra copy as well. Explain that until the leaders come clean with the reporting of the church’s finances, you will withhold your tithes and offerings to this church. And encourage fellow members to do the same.
Yes, this could be costly to you. There is even a risk that you could lose your temple recommend in the next two years if you don’t tithe. The Boston Tea Party started small, but look at the result.
What you would be asking your church leaders to do is not unreasonable. Every single local church and its denomination that I have ever attended has had open financial books. Why, then, does The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints not release its financial reports?
While I think the church should be allowed to have some money in reserve (how much that ought to be can be a discussion for another time), I maintain that $100 billion is far too much for a nonprofit religious organization to hold. This is not just money for a rainy day. Instead, it is nothing less than obscene for a church to have this much money. Period.
Without help from inside (i.e., the pressure applied by the LDS membership), church leaders will continue to deflect the issue while continuing to tell nice stories at general conference and remind its people about the parable of the talents–a story told by Jesus that the leaders have taken out of context to support holding on to so much money. But, Latter-day Saints, if this is your church, it is also your money. The leaders should no longer hide the numbers. Demand accountability of the church that claims to be the restored church of Jesus Christ.