You could argue that The Washington Post ran a misleading piece about The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, complete with a misleading headline that the “Mormon Church” misled members on a $100 billion tax-exempt investment fund.
The headline was based on a former employee of a church-integrated auxiliary, Ensign Peak Advisors. The claim seems to be centered on the idea that the private foundation had not distributed 5% of its assets annually as required by the IRS.
Peter J. Reilly, a tax expert, disputed that assertion in Forbes, saying, “Ensign is not a private foundation. It is an integrated auxiliary of a church. And there is nothing in the tax law that prevents churches from accumulating wealth.” In the same article, Paul Streckfus of the EO Tax Journal agreed, stating, “this matter does not merit IRS attention.”
Beyond attempting to navigate the nuances of highly intricate and incredibly complex tax law, The Washington Post article seemed to question the validity and value of a religious organization accumulating financial assets.
The more important issue in my mind focuses on the question, “Is the Church of Jesus Christ rich, or is it enriching?”
The First Presidency of the church responded to the allegations by saying, “Over many years, a portion (of funds) are methodically safeguarded through wise financial management and the building of a prudent reserve for the future. This is a sound doctrinal and financial principle taught by the Savior in the Parable of the Talents and lived by the church and its members. All church funds exist for no other reason than to support the church’s divinely appointed mission.”
The divinely appointed mission of the church is not to get rich, but to enrich others.
The enriching of others, both members of the church and those in need outside of the church, happens on a daily basis in 190 countries around the world where the church is established. (More than half of the 16 million church members live outside of the United States, many in less wealthy areas of the world.)
The more than $2 billion the church has donated to humanitarian causes throughout the world, including significant contributions for disaster relief and to trusted charitable partners, is only the beginning of the enriching effort. There is significant work done to lift, strengthen, inspire and bless those in need through local congregations. The 30,000 unpaid bishops and branch presidents of the church have responsibility to deploy funds to the suffering and struggling. These leaders go about the work of enriching with their counterparts, the 30,000 presidents of one of the world’s oldest women’s organizations — the church’s Relief Society. Together, and with the help of other local members, they assess needs ranging from groceries and housing to medical services and financial planning, along with employment skills and steps toward self-reliance. Providing care and resources to the most vulnerable of church members, as well as to those not of the faith, includes countless acts that ultimately enrich individuals, transform families and bless communities.
Many government, civic, humanitarian and philanthropic organizations look to the Church of Jesus Christ as a model of ministering to those who need it most. Over the past two years, I have witnessed the work of enriching while covering Russell M. Nelson, a most extraordinary 95-year-old world religious leader, who has traveled to 32 countries and territories in his nearly two years as president of the church.
He has observed the church’s distribution of wheelchairs in Argentina, presented $100,000 to imams in New Zealand for the rebuilding of the two mosques attacked in the horrific Christchurch mass-shooting, met with fire victims in Paradise, California, and met with the owner of a gay nightclub in Florida, the site of another senseless shooting tragedy.
Resources are required to enrich the lives of others in a meaningful, sustainable way. The United States of America is $23 trillion in debt, and it racks up additional deficits in excess of $1 trillion a year. Congress would do well to note that the federal government is straining to provide basic services to its citizens and struggles mightily to meet the needs of those most in need. The American economy has been in a prolonged state of growth that will at some point cool and decline. A government that is deep in debt now, in the best of times, will be incapable of enriching or assisting its citizens without accumulating rainy-day resources today that can be deployed during an economic downturn in the future.
As Hal Boyd and Lynn Chapman wrote in the Deseret News, “Although some will call this most recent round of headlines about church finances ‘news,’ the wisdom remains as old as Egypt.” As the Old Testament story of Joseph sold into Egypt describes, being wise and building reserves in good times enables you to enrich and bless many others in bad times.
The fact that the Church of Jesus Christ has been able to fund the operation of meetinghouses, temples, educational institutions and missionary work — while also building up reservoirs of resources for the difficult days that eventually come — is a model that should be celebrated and emulated by governments and other institutions around the world. The church is following a proven, but less traveled path — not a road to riches, but a passageway to enriching others.