While walking with a group of rabbis on Temple Square in Salt Lake City, I noticed that one of them had a rather pensive look on his face. Hoping to resolve his concern, I asked him if everything was OK. After a brief hesitation, he admitted that he had trouble understanding how the LDS Church was able to get its members to pay tithing. Another rabbi immediately volunteered to answer his question: “Mormons believe that they are a covenant people. Paying tithing is a way to keep their promise to God.” I couldn’t have said it better.
My mind was drawn to the good rabbi’s comment as I read the recent Reuters article on the finances of the LDS Church. Entitled “Insight: Mormon church made wealthy by donations,” it offers investment advice to the church based on insights gleaned from an ex-Mormon professor and “disgruntled current and former Mormons.” Coming as it does on the heels of an equally inane article on the church’s finances in Bloomberg Businessweek, one is left to conclude that the country’s business media have decided to use the financial transparency mantra as a club with which to clobber the Mormon Church. If they’re going to do that, they should at least take the time to try and understand the faith that is in their crosshairs.
News flash: all successful religions need a reliable source of income in order to continue their ministries. Tithing used to be a Jewish (and Israelite) practice. Today, synagogues collect membership dues, High Holy Days ticket fees, and day school tuition from their members. In addition, generous Jewish donors help keep Jewish institutions and organizations afloat. Knowing this, how would Jews feel about the following Reuters headline: “Insight: Jewish community made wealthy by donations?”
Faithful Mormons pay 10% of their income to their church, along with monthly fast offerings to help the poor which are given following a 24-hour fast. They are also free to give to other church funds, including those which help support missionaries serving worldwide and provide loans to church members in underdeveloped countries who need to obtain more education and/or training. Yes, there are rich Mormons with surnames like Romney and Marriott who give a great deal of money to the church. However, most Mormons are not wealthy yet willingly give their widow’s mite to the church’s coffers. Again, I doubt very much that Reuters would publish an article citing names like Bronfman and Adelson as representative Jewish donors. Every month my wife and I give to the church’s tithing and fast offering funds, and have recently started donating to our congregation’s missionary fund as well. While I can assure the reader that our donations are rather modest, we consider it an honor to be able to demonstrate our faith in God in this tangible way.
Secular journalists try to make a big deal out of the fact that the LDS Church, like the Catholic Church and many other churches, chooses not to publicly disclose financial information. In the case of Reuters, it goes one step further by soliciting insights from disgruntled Mormons, then offers advice to the LDS Church on what it should be doing with its money. Lost in the analysis here is the hard truth that the LDS Church is a church, not a business. Its goal is to save souls, not make a profit. The article’s author is correct when he points out that building large temples around the world doesn’t make sense from a business perspective. Of course, the same could have been said of Solomon’s and Herod’s temples in Jerusalem. There was no logical explanation for the extreme sacrifices made by the ancient Israelites to construct their temples. None, that is, except one: They believed that God commanded them to do it. If one believes (as Mormons do) that only in temples – beautiful, expensive buildings dedicated to God – can the highest ordinances of the Abrahamic covenant be administered, then it is worth incurring any reasonable expense in order to build them. If, on the other hand, one only views temples as buildings that cost x dollars to build and maintain, then the analysis comes from a very different place.
As a tithe-payer, I don’t need to know exactly how much money my church brings in annually in order to see what is being done with my donations. On our recent honeymoon trip across the United States, my lovely wife and I visited LDS chapels, temples, visitors centers, and monuments all over the country. When we first met in Romania, we did so in a beautiful LDS chapel in Bucharest. Her sister just finished attending a conference in Hungary for LDS singles from 10 European countries. The cost for the five-day conference, including meals, bus transportation from Romania and a hotel room? Fifty euros ($61); the rest was subsidized by the church. Any businessman would tell you that it doesn’t make a lot of sense to foot the bill for the conference, but it does seem logical to people who believe that young Mormons should meet and marry other Mormons, preferably in one of those expensive temples.
Reuters obviously has little or no understanding of what motivates and inspires LDS leaders to spend money in the ways that they do. For Mormons, the results, both tangible and intangible, speak for themselves. If Reuters really wants to give advice on prioritizing spending, I can think of a few folks in Washington who could use it.