In recent months, there has been much media attention turned to Ensign Peak Advisors, an investment arm of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. From 1997 to 2019, Ensign Peak Advisors had used subsidiary companies in its reports to the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), to avoid publicly disclosing the full amount of its investment portfolio. In 2019, a former employee of Ensign Peak Advisors filed a complaint with the SEC and told the press. The Church and Ensign Peak Advisors have since come into compliance and were recently assessed a total fine of $5,000,000 by the SEC.
Here are some links with background info:
As with any failing, individuals and media outlets hostile to the Church of Jesus Christ (or to organized religion in general) have spun this story in the most negative light they can cast. As a result, many members and friends of the Church have been troubled or upset. At the core of these feelings are three facts, which I don’t dispute:
- The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has a lot of invested wealth (Ensign Peak’s holdings are valued around $37 billion).
- Church leadership wanted to avoid publicly disclosing the extent of this wealth.
- To avoid public disclosure, Church leadership instructed or authorized Ensign Peak Advisors to meet their filing requirements in a way that skirted around the law.
What I do dispute in this post are some of the claims and arguments that people derive from these facts:
- The Church of Jesus Christ doesn’t use its vast wealth to help the poor and needy.
- The Church of Jesus Christ shouldn’t store (“horde”) so much money.
- If Jesus had billions of dollars, he would have given it all away to help the poor, instead of storing/investing it.
- The Church is trying to hide its wealth from its members.
- The Church of Jesus Christ is financially corrupt.
- It’s wrong and deceitful for the Church to ask poor converts to pay tithing.
- Now that members know how much money the Church has, they won’t pay their tithing.
Here are my counter-arguments to each:
1. Claim: The Church of Jesus Christ doesn’t use its vast wealth to help the poor and needy.
From the Church’s humanitarian report: “The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints engaged in 3,909 humanitarian projects in 188 countries in 2021. This outreach, an increase from 2020, included $906 million in expenditures and 6.8 million hours of voluntary service.” This is only its humanitarian arm, not including the millions invested in quality, low-cost educations through CES schools and programs, the millions spent in Church administrative programs to build strong communities and foster faith and hope worldwide, and the millions of hours of service donated by members in private acts of service.
For further information, see the Church’s 2021 Humanitarian Report:
2. Argument: The Church of Jesus Christ shouldn’t store (“horde”) so much money.
The Church of Jesus Christ is a global organization that operates somewhere around 20,000 meetinghouses, 170+ temples, and thousands more seminary and institute buildings (which all require maintenance without bringing in any revenue). Plus, it operates 4 private universities, dozens of welfare facilities and operations, and 31,000 congregations (all of which need operating budgets).
Large amounts of financial reserves allow the Church of Jesus Christ to continue operating all of these facilities in the advent of a global economic or political crisis.
It’s also not like the Church has put aside all this wealth in the last couple years. The Church has been investing and saving money for over a century and a half. Those investments have slowly grown over time as the Church has built up its reserve.
2. Argument: If Jesus had billions of dollars, he would have given it all away to help the poor, instead of storing/investing it.
Jesus did not have billions of dollars when he was on the Earth, so we don’t know what he would have done with it.. But Acts and the letters of Paul indicate that after his death, early Christians leaders organized the collection, management, and storehousing of funds to support poor members of the Christian community and provide relief efforts. So early followers of Jesus, who had been trained by Jesus personally, engaged in careful management of funds to support the church’s larger mission.
3. Implied Accusation: The Church is trying to hide its wealth from its members
This is what the SEC press relief says: “The Church was concerned that disclosure of its portfolio . . . would lead to negative consequences.” It does not say what those “negative consequences” were, and it declines to speculate. The Church wasn’t trying to avoid paying taxes, because it’s already tax-exempt. Is the only other option that the Church was hiding its wealth from its own members? Is there really not any other reason why the leaders of a large nonprofit would want to keep the nonprofit’s assets private? What if the Church was trying to avoid criminals kidnapping missionaries and holding them for ransom because they heard the Church had a lot of wealth? (As happened, incidentally, in 1998, around the time Ensign Peak stopped being compliant in its reporting.) What if the Church wanted to avoid the hostile media coverage that a disclosed net worth would bring? What if the Church was actually trying to protect the privacy of its members by not publicly disclosing how much they donate in tithes?
4. Implied Accusation: The Church of Jesus Christ is financially corrupt.
An investment firm under the Church’s umbrella deliberately failed to disclose its portfolio properly to a federal government oversight commission. It was assessed a fine. That is what happened. Was the Church avoiding paying taxes? No, because it’s already tax-exempt. Were Church leaders embezzling funds or bloating their salaries so they could live in mansions and take private cruises? No. Was the Church harming people through financial predation or fraud? No.
I think it is actually a tribute to the Church’s upright financial behavior that this noncompliance is the only mud its opponents have found to fling at it. Especially when compared to the behavior of any large corporation in today’s world.
5. Argument: It’s wrong and deceitful for the Church to ask poor converts to pay tithing.
In my mission to Puerto Rico, I saw dozens of families and individuals who had, over time, lifted themselves out of the cycle of poverty through applying the teachings of the Church of Jesus Christ on seeking an education, being wise financial stewards, avoiding debt, paying tithing, and becoming self reliant. Regardless of how much money the Church of Jesus Christ has or needs, I believe that inviting people to act in faith and live these principles, including the principle of tithing, will lead to their benefit, not their harm.
6. Assumption: Now that members know how much money the Church has, they won’t pay their tithing.
On the contrary. I would much rather willingly pay tithing to an organization that manages funds responsibly, invests for the future, and encourages financial self-reliance in its members, than be required to pay taxes to a government that has to spend $400 billion a year on interest for the massive debt it has accrued.
Each year, at general conference, a representative of the Church’s auditing department stands in front of the whole church membership and declares, “the Church follows the practices taught to its members of living within a budget, avoiding debt, and saving against a time of need.”
I am proud to belong to such a church.