Monday’s Washington Post story about the finances of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has already gotten a lot of attention. We think it deserves more.
Not because the topic of church holdings is somehow new — it’s not (Time magazine once ran a cover story titled, “MORMONS, INC.”) — but because the renewed focus on the church’s extensive holdings once again proves that, well, the church actually practices what it preaches regarding provident living and self-reliance. They take seriously the biblical story about Joseph and Egypt’s seven years of plenty followed by seven years of famine.
In an age of ballooning federal deficits, massive student debt and failed pension promises, we should perhaps be a bit slower to blow whistles when an organization — once on the brink of financial ruin — actually stays out of debt and saves for a rainy day. This is especially important for a church, a common place to which people turn for help during times of economic distress.
As a nation, and especially as individuals, we would all do well to try harder to model this behavior.
Earlier this year, The Wall Street Journal ranked church-owned Brigham Young University the No. 1 school in the nation in terms of value for the price. Thanks to church assets — and specifically the financial investments highlighted by The Washington Post’s article — tuition for BYU students remains astonishingly low ($2,895 a semester for church members). Even more recently, the Journal has applauded Utah for having the best economy in the country (with a state government that runs a surplus and also saves for a rainy day). Meanwhile, researchers such as Raj Chetty have highlighted how Utah communities sustain some of the highest rates of upward mobility in the country.
Much of this success is influenced by the prudent financial and charitable principles taught (and evidently exemplified) by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Hopefully, by underscoring the church’s holdings, the Post article and the story’s whistleblower will draw some attention to an institutional model that’s actually working. The church’s financial standing — once squarely in the red only a century ago — is now, by some estimates, on par with entities such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Harvard, the Catholic Church or the Church of England. The Post’s whistleblower puts the church’s financial holdings at $100 billion, but more substantiated financial leaks from last year put the numbers closer to $32 billion.
Of course, it’s fair game to question whether the reserves are adequate or excessive, or whether specific actions with funds are proper, as the Post article and the whistleblower does. Vast assets require controls and nonprofit reserve investments can be controversial. In recent years, for instance, Congress passed a tax targeting large university reserves at institutions with at least 500 enrolled students and endowments totaling more than $500,000 per student.
For perspective, Harvard has a financial endowment nearing $41 billion, serving the higher education needs of some 20,000 students. The church, by contrast, serves 16 million members with the scope of its work often spilling beyond its own membership. The church supports international humanitarian and welfare efforts, extensive education services, food banks, addiction recovery and employment programs, family therapy and counseling services, genealogical and self-reliance initiatives, and, of course, its broad ecclesiastical functions, which include more than 30,000 congregations worldwide.
In education alone, the church runs a university system with total enrollments — both online and through four brick-and-mortar campuses — of nearly 90,000 students. And the church’s high-school-level church education program provides daily religious instruction and other services to more than 400,000 students each year. Full disclosure, one of us is a professor of Brigham Young University and benefits from the church’s support.
Though this renewed focus on church finances will undoubtedly draw attention to the buzzier elements of its asset portfolio (hey, look, the church invests in a mall), it’s unlikely to change attitudes among those in its congregations who see how the money from investments and tithes funnels back to carrying out a global-sized mission. Their kids go to BYU or church seminary classes. They serve missions in foreign lands or receive financial assistance through unpaid clergy when they fall on hard times. They participate in disaster relief efforts, helping throngs of co-religionists in delivering food and other essentials.
After publishing an exhaustive 1,000-page deep dive into the church’s finances, noted historian and long-time church critic, D. Michael Quinn, characterized the sweeping narrative history of church finances as “an enormously faith-promoting story.” He said that if people understood “the larger picture” on church finances they would “see the church is not a profit-making business.” Yes, the church saves and invests its surplus pennies, but it also helps vastly reduce the debt of college students, gives to the poor regardless of background and supports one of the largest non-governmental welfare programs in the country. Most importantly, it does all this without enriching those at the top.
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.
Hal Boyd is an associate professor of family law and policy at Brigham Young University’s School of Family Life and a fellow of the Wheatley Institution. Lynn Chapman holds a doctorate in public policy from George Mason University and is an education and business consultant based in Virginia. Their views are their own.