Saturday, April 2, 2011

Gospel Principles #32 - Tithes and Offerings (NOM version)

See my previous blog entry about how I taught the Tithing lesson in Relief Society.

Since around 2000 I always had a very strong testimony of tithing. My testimony of tithing first developed while I was in college. I had purchased my first car, which put me in a financial bind. It started getting difficult to pay rent, let alone tithing. Even though I kept meticulous track of how much I owed to the church, I was never quite able to catch up on my tithing.

Soon it was the summer time and my family was going on a trip to Hawaii. They wanted me to get my temple recommend so that I could do baptisms for the dead in the Hawaiian temple. With a heavy heart, I went in to see my bishop to confess that I hadn't paid my tithing. I don't remember what the bishop said to me but in that moment, I became convinced he had become transfigured and that I was talking to my Savior face to face. After a tearful half hour, I finally emerged with my temple recommend and a new resolve to pay my tithing. Later that week I was offered a job on campus that was in my field of study and that gave me a much larger income. I took that as a sign that the windows of heaven had definitely opened for me. From that moment forward, I never had a problem faithfully paying a full tithe.

Until now, of course. Looking back today, I interpret that experience differently. I think it's very possible that I could have psyched myself into having that spiritual experience because I was under emotional duress because of the shame of confessing my sins. And the fact that I got a new job the week afterward can easily be chalked up to post hoc logic.

While I definitely see value in charitable giving, I no longer believe that paying tithing meets that criteria. I'll explain some of the reasons why my thoughts about tithing have evolved in this blog entry.

The Church Does NOT Need My Money
One of the frustrating things about the church is how secretive they are about their finances. Most other religious organizations are very transparent about their tithes, even going so far as publishing how every penny of the congregation's money is spent in their church bulletin. The LDS Church's finances are a mysterious black box. No one knows exactly what the church's net worth is, although we can safely assume that it is very large.

We can get some hints about the church's wealth by examining their stated income in countries where charities are required to publicize their income such as Canada. According to a recent blog entry by Harrison Ames, an average ward such as the Lethbridge 12th received approximately $560,000 in donations from the ward members in 2009. About $67,000 was spent by the ward (with about half of that going to assistance to the poor and needy in the ward). The rest went to the church. That means the ward itself got 8.3% of what it contributed (with half going to charity) and the church took the remaining 91.7%.

This report seems to be fairly consistent with anecdotal accounts from ex-Mormons in America who had served as ward financial clerks. From their accounts, it appears that the average ward donates $500,000 to $1,000,000 to tithing per year, depending on the affluence of the area. Fast offerings ran from $25,000 to $30,000. Donations to other funds tended to add up to $17,000 to $20,000. And they stated that their annual ward budgets usually only amounted for $7,000 to $8,000 a year. That means the church took in quite a large amounts from these wards. Some estimates say that the church brings in roughly $6 billion of income per year.

Moderate estimates put the church's net worth at $80 billion. Some put it at $100 billion. It's important to note that the church has vast property holdings: it has 928,000 acres in North America, owns 0.7% of Florida, is the largest ranch land owner in Wyoming, is the second largest land owner in Nebraska, has the largest cattle ranch in 48 states, and is the largest foreign landowner in the United Kingdom. They also own several profitable business such as their own insurance company, radio and television stations, shopping malls, hotel chains, and the Polynesian Cultural Center in Hawaii (the most popular tourist attraction in the state). The church also owns stock in several major corporations. Not to mention the three Brigham Young Universities as well as other small colleges throughout the Intermountain West.

In short, the LDS church is ridiculously wealthy. And for that reason, I'm not entirely convinced they need my money any more. 

Now, let me be clear that I think that it's important to give generously to charity, especially since we Americans are the wealthiest 5% of the world's population. But, unfortunately, members often feel they have done enough after they've given to the church and rarely donate to other charitable causes. (I know I don't when I pay a full tithe. I can't afford to give to anything else after that.)

Rather than giving 10% of my income to the church's many capitalist ventures, I'd prefer that my financial sacrifice goes to helping the causes I care about: ending poverty and world hunger, environmental and conservation efforts, relief efforts after natural disasters, and supporting the very excellent programming on NPR. Those causes need me. The LDS church does not. [1]

Many Members Put Themselves at Financial Risk to Pay Tithing
A few months ago, a member of our bishopric gave a Powerpoint presentation about financial management on the 5th Sunday of the month. I was under the impression that he had used an official Powerpoint that he had based on the Family Finances section of the church's Provident Living website. What was the number one principle of financial management according to the bishopric member? No, it wasn't to save or to stay out of debt or live within your means. It was to pay your tithing! That feels a little backwards to me when I look at it from a common-sense, secular perspective. [2]

USA Today ran an article back in 2008 about how many Christians keep paying tithing even as they face foreclosure on their homes. Although the article was largely about evangelical Christians, I could easily see Mormons acting exactly the same way under similar circumstances. For many Mormons, paying tithing is an essential part of their budget---a non-negotiable expense they must budget for right along with buying groceries, paying the mortgage, or paying off credit card debt.

But in my opinion, giving to charity is a luxury. I think you should make it a financial priority, but if you come across hard financial times, then you need to cut back on luxuries like these. I think that paying off your debts and meeting your financial obligations is more important and frankly more moral than giving generously to charity. (Incidentally, a close reading of the definition of tithing in LDS scriptures seems to suggest that you should pay 10% of your tithing after expenses. I've read a few interesting arguments that the current apostles may potentially be misrepresenting this definition in their Conference talks.) [3]

It's sad to me that Utah probably has such a high bankruptcy rate because church members pay such a large tithe. [4] Bankruptcies and foreclosures don't just wreck your credit: they drain the financial resources of the society as a whole. For that reason, I think it's more moral to pay your financial obligations before paying a tithe. When hard times hit, I say one should be able to give to the church by donating their time instead. (Perhaps by volunteering to work at the temple or work as a volunteer at the Bishop's storehouse.)

Furthermore, it really depresses me to hear stories of church members living in poverty who pay tithing. Stories of destitute people giving tithing do not build my faith; they anger me to no end. How can there be any justification in requiring people living in poverty to give 10% of their very meager incomes to a $100 billion dollar corporation? Under what system of morality is that even remotely fair?

The Church Uses Some Tithing Funds for Morally Questionable Purposes 
Given that many members make very real sacrifices in order to give tithes to the church, I'm not terribly enthusiastic that these "widow's mites" are going to pay for $3 billion dollar shopping malls such as the City Creek Mall. I'm fully aware that the church has stated that tithing money is not being used for this project (rather it is being funded by for-profit, tax-paying arms of the church). However, at some point, these for-profit, tax-paying branches of the church corporation got their initial capital from tithing---maybe not from me personally, but most likely from my grandparents or great-grandparents. I don't think it's terribly easy to separate the two. Furthermore, even if they only pay for the project with interest from their investments, those investments were first made with tithing funds. [5]

It also upsets me that tithing records were used to identify potential donors to the Proposition 8 efforts.

And although we take great pride in having a lay clergy, the First Presidency, apostles, and First Quorum of the Seventy receive a very large stipend. It's difficult to nail down, but some rumors suggest that the apostles get a stipend of $600,000 a year and that the seventies get $120,000 a year. They also drive expensive cars, live in very expensive homes and have servants that are all paid for by the church. In light of the fact that most of these men were independently wealthy before becoming General Authorities, this feels a bit excessive to me. Especially when church employees such as my father get paid less than what they would get in the private sector because they are "sacrificing for the Lord."

For further study into the church's actions as a corporation, I'd highly recommend reading Daymon Smith's The Book of Mammon. Be warned that his strange use of language in the book makes it a difficult read. But the four-hour interview he did on Mormon Stories is very accessible and provides a good introduction into the topic. Pure Mormonism also had an interesting blog entry in which he reviewed The Book of Mammon.

[1] Some naysayers might point out that the church does give humanitarian aid, especially after natural disasters. This is certainly true, but most estimates argue that the church's donations to humanitarian aid only account for 1-2% of its operating budget. That's pretty moderate, in my opinion.

[2] Incidentally, it was never tithing that taught me good principles of financial management. I would have to say that reading The Millionaire Next Door: Surprising Secrets of America's Wealthy is what finally got me to make the changes I needed to make to my finances because it showed me that the true secret of wealth is living well below your means. I remember that it argued that a good defense (saving and investing) is better than a good offense (having a large income). Tithing does teach the principle of living below your means, but you unfortunately don't get to keep the fruits from saving that income because it all goes to the church.

[3] It's also interesting to note that there is a tremendous amount of debate within Christian communities about whether or not tithing is even a Christian principle at all. Just a quick Google search for the word "tithing" will quickly reveal lots of different perspectives on this debate.  

[4] Paying tithing probably explains why Utahns are such poor tippers (as my mother who recently quit her job as a server in the Salt Lake airport can attest). 

[5] For a further analysis of the City Creek project from a critical perspective, see


  1. A few remarks.

    As a bankruptcy attorney who has worked through the budgets of the bankrupt, I am highly skeptical that tithing has much to do with the bankruptcy rate in Utah. Bankruptcy has more to do with DEBT than with income. I've seen people with very high incomes file bankruptcy just because the debt load was overwhelmingly impossible to meet. Creditor interest rates and penalty fees have been exorbitant. Even if Utahns had full access to all 100% percent of their income, it seems rather unlikely that the bankruptcy rate would change at all.

    More likely, the high bankruptcy rate is due to the extremely conservative state legislature providing Utah with extremely weak debt collection laws. Utah has terrible laws against creditor collection abuse. They don't protect the residents much at all (incidentally, I would imagine this is why so many of the creditors I deal with have "801" area codes). So, when you have an elderly widow in Colorado being harassed by a debt collector making threats and even outright lies, she has some recourse to state laws to fight the abusive behavior. In Utah she has a lot less options and the blunt-instrument of bankruptcy may be the only tool she has to stop the abusive behavior.

    Secondly, your point on the percentage of income the church donates to humanitarian aid. You are correct that it's a lower percentage to humanitarian aid than other national American Protestant denominations like the United Methodist Church (UMC).

    However, this data is misleading. The LDS Church operates on a completely different financial model than just about every other Protestant national organization in North America. All finances in the LDS Church are centralized in HQ in Salt Lake City. Which means that the central LDS organization is responsible for basically ALL expenses.

    This is different than the UMC (and all the other national church organizations I'm using it as an example of). The UMC issues charters to local congregations that have their own pastor, their own budget, and their own meeting facilities. The UMC covers SOME expenses of the local units, but not even remotely close to ALL, or even most. The local units are the ones responsible for paying for their own building and expenses and raise their own funds to do it.

    The LDS Church, by contrast, pays for buildings and expenses from a pooled centralized account.

    In short, the LDS Church is paying mortgages. The UMC is not.

    This is huge. Real estate costs and payments are MASSIVE. That's a huge expense item. And it's an expense item that is not being deducted from national Protestant budgets because of their decentralized nature. Since the LDS Church has to make mortgage payments, naturally, much less is available for humanitarian aid.

    President Gordon B. Hinckley once stated in a Time Magazine interview that the estimates of LDS Church wealth are vastly overblown. He pointed out that the majority of the LDS assets were revenue-consuming, not revenue generating. Religious universities, for example, are terribly expensive.

    And the idea of hording wealth wouldn't make any sense anyway. Who is pocketing the cash? The apostles? They live highly modest lives (prophet Thomas S. Monson has a smaller house than I do - and we're barely scraping by in the bad economy). The leadership of the LDS Church is living highly modest lives. I'm just not seeing the "bling" if you know what I mean.

  2. Fair enough, Seth. I'll concede that the causes of bankruptcy are probably complex and multi-varied, as most economic/legal issues are. This post is pretty old and it's worth mentioning that from my current vantage point, I see that most issues related to the church are a little more nuanced than I might have originally made them out to be. (Leaving the church has actually helped with that, interestingly enough.)

    I think your other points are fair, too, but there's no way for either you or I to know since the church's finances are still inaccessible (as I stated in the blog post). For me, it's primarily the church's lack of transparency that is unsettling---although I can see why the church maintains secrecy of its assets from a business/legal perspective. Without hard data about the church's finances, we are both at a stalemate in this discussion. We can only make guesses and have no reliable way of knowing whether we're right or wrong.

    In either case, tithing is not something that I give a lot of thought to any more. I reject Mormonism's claims to be the one true church and I no longer attend nor consider myself a Mormon, so I see no need to support it financially. That being said, it's fine if my LDS friends and family continue to believe in the importance of paying tithing. It's their money and they can do what they want with it. Who am I to judge/care as long as it doesn't make them financially dependent on me or the state? If it brings them peace of mind or better sense of financial self-discipline, then more power to them. Meanwhile, I'm finding better uses for my 10%. :)

  3. I respect your decisions even if I do not agree with them. And thank you for the polite response.

    I realized the post was rather old and you may have moved somewhere else. I simply arrived here by trying to Google for lesson resources for a Gospel Essentials class I taught today on tithing. Thought a few extra thoughts might be nice for visitors. I also appreciated the disclaimer on your site. I wish some other sites had something like that.... But that's neither here nor now.

    Best wishes.