A Latter-day Saint’s Take on the “Mormon Whistleblower”

When my alarm went off this morning, in my sleep-addled state, I tried to turn it off but instead swiped over to the news. And the first thing I saw was this headline: “Mormon Church has misled members on $100 billion tax-exempt investment fund, whistleblower alleges.” It turns out reading a headline like that is a really good way to go from sleep-addled to fully awake (not that I’d like to use it on a daily basis). I read the article over, then thumbed around to find the Salt Lake Tribune article on the same topic, finally delving into the full 74 page “expose” both articles referenced.

Not the way I’d planned to spend my morning, but it’s a topic I’m heavily invested in (pun intended), so I couldn’t really help myself. Since it’s something I imagine a fair number of you might be coming across in your daily news grazing, I decided I’d write a response to the piece, anticipating some of my friends wondering what I had to say about it, as their token Latter-day Saint friend.

It’s not like I haven’t written about church finances and tithing before, but what do I think about these allegations, specifically?

Well, for one thing, I think it’s important to go to the source of the allegations. In this case, the closest we can get is that 74 page document I referenced, which is written by the brother of the whistleblower. I’ll be honest. That document is extremely obtuse. Reading it is about as much fun as jabbing myself in the eye with a spork. It’s got footnotes to the footnotes, with some of those footnotes seeming to be longer than the document itself. More than that, it uses arguments that just aren’t easy to follow or even make sense of, but a few things shine through. First, it’s written by a person who is Not a Fan of the church, which should come as no surprise, considering he’s penning a document clearly intended to hurt the organization. Second, the ultimate accusation comes to “the church has been stockpiling money instead of spending it for charitable causes” and “the church used some money illegally to bolster a church owned insurance company and a partially church owned shopping mall.”

Setting aside my critiques of the document as a whole, these are serious allegations, and they need to be addressed. For the first, that the church has stockpiled $100 billion or so in an account that only accrues wealth and never doles it out, the whistleblower (according to his brother) says the church brings in $6-$7 billion in tithing revenue each year, spends $5-$6 billion of it, and invests the remaining $1 billion. For a church with 15 million members, that figure seems . . . very low. That’s an average of $466/member per year. Remember, tithing in the church is supposed to be 10% of your increase, which would mean church members make on average $389 per month. Even accounting for a worldwide membership, with a significant portion living in poverty, I have a hard time believing that figure. The Tribune article sites an expert who has estimated the annual tithing inflow of the church at more like $35 billion, which seems more logical.

Why does it make a difference? Well, charities regularly stockpile a reserve. Rainy day funds against times of trouble. (It’s something the church actively reinforces to members, always encouraging us to have at least a few months’ worth of money saved up against emergencies. Ideally a year’s worth.) The whistleblower was positioned in a place to directly observe how much money was being invested, so I trust his $1 billion/year figue. $1 billion of $6 billion is saving 16.7%. If the church is spending $5 billion/year, then having $100 billion stockpiled is enough to last it 20 years. On the other hand, $1 billion of $35 billion is saving 2.9%. If the church is spending $34 billion/year, then that $100 billion is enough to last it about 3 years, which seems much more reasonable.

What I mean to say is, the whistleblower’s ultimate figures don’t pass the sniff test, which leads me to question the conclusions he draws from them. I’m not saying he’s making the numbers up, but I wonder how well informed he actually is, and if he sees the whole picture. (Then again, some of this might come down to most of these figures being drawn from the whistleblower’s brother’s 74 page missive which, as I said before, is quite hard to follow. So perhaps there’s a concrete argument to be found here somewhere. I have to assume there is. The whistleblower was regularly charged with keeping track of billions of dollars, so I assume he’s good with numbers . . .)

But even if all the whistleblower’s numbers are true, the main argument (that the church is stockpiling money) is not nearly as damning as his brother might wish. I mean, if the whistleblower had come forward and alleged the church was stockpiling billions and spending it all on hookers and blow, then we’d be talking about some seriously bad decision making. But the big bad in this case seems to be “Church Saving a Lot of Money and Investing It Wisely!” Too wisely, apparently.

That’s a bit flippant. I apologize. We can and should certainly have a discussion about how much is a reasonable amount of cash to have in reserves. Harvard’s endowment is $50 billion. Should a 16 million member, worldwide organization have more, or less than that? If it’s entirely charitable (and thus tax exempt), how much is too much? Does the law say? If it doesn’t, should it? If it does, has the church gone over that amount? (I tend to think the law doesn’t say. Otherwise the whistleblower would have included that in the allegations.) Having a debate and setting a figure is certainly a topic for discussion. But it’s not nearly as problematic as the whistleblower’s brother would like it to be.

On the other hand, the allegation that the church spent around 2% of its war chest to prop up an insurance company and a shopping mall, if true, is more worrisome. According to the whistleblower, the church used tithing money for this, something church leaders specifically said they weren’t doing. “Thou shalt not lie” applies to church leaders as much as it does to members, and if this claim pans out, then that would upset me. But again, I wonder how big a picture this whistleblower had of the whole operation. The church has (many) lawyers, and it’s got more than enough money to spend. Why dip into this account illegally for something that it apparently has oodles of money to cover in other ways? The pieces of the argument don’t add up.

But naturally, whenever something like this comes up in the news, you’ve got an instant crowd gathering with torches and pitchforks, angry about the church. I get that people have issues with my religion. Its approach to gay marriage, equal rights, and other issues upsets and hurts many. But the allegations people like to trot out in these cases (that the church is defrauding millions of people out of their hard earned money) just aren’t founded on anything reasonable. Who profits off this? Do the allegations say the church president secretly bought an underground lair, where he swims around in ill-gotten profits, Scrooge McDuck-style? The closest critics can come to real critiques is that the upper echelons of church leadership get a yearly stipend. The figure I’ve seen lobbed around is $160,000/year, which, granted, is more than I make and more than a whole lot of people make. But at the same time, for most of those men, it’s a whole lot less than they would have been making if they hadn’t quit their job to devote their whole time to the church.

I’ve seen these men. Met them. Talked to them. President Hinckley lived in my grandparent’s condominium complex when he was a member of the First Presidency. I stayed in that complex many times, and I’d run into him in the elevator from time to time. “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous” it wasn’t, but it was a nice place and close to downtown. It had a pool. I liked that.

These men are going around the world, busy almost all of the time. Critics say they’re taking “church-paid vacations.” If I had to do the things these men have to do on these “vacations,” you’d have to pay me a whole lot more. Let me get the supposed plan right.

  • Step One: Convince members to pay 10% of their income to the church.
  • Step Two: Become a leader in that church
  • Step Three: Take a huge pay cut
  • Step Four: Work until you die, with no retirement, but live in a pretty good condo, and live a comfortable upper middle class lifestyle

I could go on, but I don’t have time for it. In the end, these allegations come across as interesting, but not nearly as interesting as the whistleblower’s brother would like. If some of them pan out, and it turns out the church has been breaking the law, I’d like to think it was unintentional. If it was intentional, I’d like to think it didn’t go all the way to the top. If it went all the way to the top, this wouldn’t be the first time a church leader has made mistakes, and it won’t be the last. We don’t believe our leaders are infallible. But to really alarm me, you’re going to have to find the hidden pleasure palace the leaders are all hanging out in, where they break all the commandments while they ridicule the chumps who pay their tithing. And I just don’t see that happening.

Anyway. If you’ve got questions, I’m happy to answer as best I can. Just keep things civil, as always.

4 Comments

  • By Stephanie Calder, December 17, 2019 @ 10:13 pm

    Why do you assume all 15 million members pay 10% of their income? Probably only 5 million are active members. And even of those many might not pay tithing. I think it’s fine to question Nielsen’s data but your rebuttal data is equally suspect.

  • By Bryce Moore, December 18, 2019 @ 8:12 am

    One would assume someone coming forward as a whistle blower–someone who’s asking the IRS to give them 30% of the recouped taxes as a reward–would take a little more thought constructing their argument than someone who’s writing a blog post in thirty minutes. You make a good point that not all 15 million members on the rolls pay tithing. There are 6.5 million members in America. If a quarter of them pay tithing, that’s 1.625. But let’s also assume that only half of them make money, because we’re looking at households in a moment, and that makes it simpler. That leaves 812,500 members in America who pay tithing. The average household income in America is $63,179. Assume that’s the average for those 812,500 members (some make a lot more, some make a lot less), and that means they collectively make $51.3 billion and pay a bit over $5 billion in tithing each year.

    And that’s just in America, making several very conservative, pessimistic estimates. This off the cuff guesstimate still leaves me thinking the whistle blower’s numbers just don’t add up.

  • By Stephanie Calder, December 18, 2019 @ 12:00 pm

    Fair enough. It’s impossible to know right now. It will be interesting if/when we ever find out.

  • By Samuel, December 18, 2019 @ 2:05 pm

    Your estimates are off both because you fail to consider activity rates and children. If activity rates in the church are roughly 30% then we’re looking at closer to 5 million potential tithe payers. Subtract the children from that number which we could estimate at about 10% and we have 4.5 million. If 4.5 million active adults paid tithing annually for a total of 6 billion that would mean $1333 per person. In 2013 Gallup estimated worldwide household incomes at $9,733. Of course then if church members were equally distributed throughout the world we would expect about $1000 per house annually. With a disproportionate number of members in the US, a wealthier nation, we would expect tithing averages to be slightly higher than the worldwide average. So $1333 per person/household annually seems very logical actually. The whistleblowers numbers very easily pass the sniff test.

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