Discussions of Mormons and Mormon life, Book of Mormon issues and evidences, and other Latter-day Saint (LDS) topics.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Responding to Bloomberg's Insulting Cover Story, "Inside the Mormon Empire"

Some folks are ablaze over the insulting and trashy cover on Bloomberg Businessweek's latest issue featuring a story on how the Mormon Church makes money. Painfully illustrating what can happen when once respectable publications face declining public interest in their writing, journalistic responsibility and professionalism go out the window for a cheap shot at one of America's favorite Christian religions to belittle.

[Update:] The cover, if you know nothing about the Church, mocks what is considered a sacred event in the founding of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. It depicts the restoration of ancient priesthood authority from God to the earth, with an angel, the resurrected John the Baptist, giving divine authority to Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery. That restored power would allow them to baptize one another and carry out other work leading to the founding of the Church. This was a sacred moment, one of several moments of contact between heaven and earth in the founding of the Church, and whether you believe it or not, mocking it on the cover of a business magazine simply doesn't come close to basic standards of journalism. Yes, professional journalism does actually have some standards, and Jay Evensen of the Deseret News carefully explains why Bloomberg's cover for this story is unethical and unprofessional.

Bloomberg might do better to learn from the Church's financial independence rather than mocking it, which is what the cover clearly does, apart from whatever fair questions might be raised inside. The lessons of thrift, discipline, and sound planning in managing finances are needed more than ever in this world of instant gratification and mounting debt.

But is the Church just a big financial empire now? If so, a financial empire for whose benefit? It's not Church leaders that are making billions. Many walked away from lucrative careers to serve as Church leaders. Service is about sacrifice and service, from bishops up to full-time leaders who receive a living stipend. The success of the Church in managing its finances is not driven by a desire to enrich a few powerful men, but to reach and change the world. Is it not spending enough on humanitarian needs? Is it accumulating too much? Shouldn't it have more debt and less savings? And goodness gracious, how can it support a mall?

Those who are out to condemn the Church, especially in this heated election year, will easily overlook the realities of what the Church does and what its message is. The Church, fortunately, has issued a statement to remind us of what they are about, and I think it's a fair and timely statement that deserves to be considered. From the Church's newsroom, read "The Church and Its Financial Independence," dated July 12, 2012.
The Church and Its Financial Independence
The growth of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints from a fledgling band of frontier Americans to a global faith that blesses the lives of millions is one of the great religious success stories of the 19th and 20th centuries.

From the very beginning, members of the Church displayed a remarkable ability to set aside material things for spiritual goals. One of the earliest Church members, Martin Harris, mortgaged his farm to pay for the publication of the Book of Mormon. Other examples of self-sacrifice among the early Latter-day Saints abound.

Driven from place to place — from Missouri to Illinois to the far reaches of the western frontier — Church members several times abandoned their homes, farms and cottage businesses they had lovingly nurtured. By the time they made the final great trek across the American Plains to the Rocky Mountains, many were already impoverished. Those who came by handcarts because they could not afford wagons are a poignant testimony to that fact.

Brigham Young once remarked that if the Latter-day Saints could have 10 years unmolested in the Rocky Mountain valleys, they would establish themselves as an independent people. Over time, Brigham Young’s vision of a thrifty, independent and spiritual people largely came to be realized.

Complete financial independence and freedom from debt would take several decades, however. Historians today point to the early 1900s as the time when the Church finally began to turn the corner and free itself from decades of indebtedness — specifically highlighting a sermon by Church President Lorenzo Snow in which he called on the Latter-day Saints to renew their commitment to the principle of tithing.

Tithing is an ancient biblical principle and has been practiced by many churches through the centuries. Independent studies show, however, that nowhere else in America today is the principle of tithing so widely and faithfully followed as among members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The vast majority of the income used to manage the Church comes from tithing, not from businesses or investments.

Tithing has thus proved to be an enormous blessing to the Church and its people, along with simple but sound economic principles such as avoiding debt, living within one’s means and setting aside funds for a rainy day.

The key to understanding Church finances is to understand that they are a means to an end. They allow the Church to carry out its religious mission across the world.

Does the Church own for-profit businesses? Yes. In the Church’s earlier history as it was establishing itself in the remote Intermountain West, some of those businesses were necessitated by the simple fact that they didn’t exist elsewhere in the community. Gradually, as private businesses developed and the need for Church-owned businesses diminished, they were sold off, donated to the community or discontinued. Zions Bank and the LDS Hospital system are examples.

Today, the Church’s business assets support the Church’s mission and principles by serving as a rainy day fund. Agricultural holdings now operated as for-profit enterprises can be converted into welfare farms in the event of a global food crisis. Companies such as KSL Television and the Deseret News provide strategically valuable communication tools.
Tithing funds are used to support five key areas of activity:
  • Providing buildings or places of worship for members around the world. We have thousands of such buildings and continue to open more, sometimes several in a week.
  • Providing education programs, including support for our universities and our seminary and institute programs.
  • Supporting the Church’s worldwide missionary program.
  • Building and operating nearly 140 temples around the world and the administration of the world’s largest family history program.
  • Supporting the Church’s welfare programs and humanitarian aid, which serve people around the world — both members of the Church as well as those who are not members.
From time to time, some people, including journalists, try to attach a monetary value to the Church in the same way they would assess the assets of a commercial corporation. Such comparisons simply do not hold up. For instance, a corporation’s branch offices or retail outlets have to be financially justified as a source of profit. But every time The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints builds a place of worship, the building becomes a consumer of assets and a financial obligation that has to be met through worldwide member donations. The ongoing maintenance and upkeep, utilities and use of the building can only be achieved as long as faithful members continue to support the Church.

On occasion someone will try to estimate the Church’s income and determine how much of that is used to care for the poor and needy. Again, they rarely capture the whole picture. The bedrock principles underlying the Church’s welfare and humanitarian efforts are Christlike service and self-reliance.
Nearly 30,000 bishops who oversee their respective congregations have direct access to Church funds to care for those in need, as they help members achieve self-sufficiency.

At Welfare Square in Salt Lake City, where the Church cans goods for its distribution warehouses, some procedures would be more efficient if automated. Instead, the Church has opted for more labor-intensive production lines that provide opportunities for people to give service and for welfare recipients to work for what they get. This is not the pattern of a commercial business, but it is the pattern for helping people to help themselves. The Church’s aim is to help individuals to overcome temporal barriers as they pursue spiritual values.

Published numbers related to our humanitarian efforts include only dollars spent directly on humanitarian service. The Church absorbs the administrative costs. Furthermore, these numbers do not reflect the Church’s extensive welfare and employment services that serve many thousands worldwide. They also do not represent Deseret Industries thrift stores that provide vouchers to other charities for their use, donations to food pantries, or humanitarian- or welfare-focused missionary service or support given to aid other relief organizations in their missions. Hundreds of thousands of hours of donated service underpin Church programs such as these.

The Church exists to improve the lives of people across the world by bringing them closer to Jesus Christ. The assets of the Church are used in ways to support that mission. Buildings are built for members to come together to worship God and to be taught the gospel of Jesus Christ. Missionaries are sent to invite people to come to Christ. Resources are used to provide food and clothing for the needy and to provide ways for people to lift themselves up and be self-reliant. What is important is not the cost but the outcome. As former Church President Gordon B. Hinckley said, “The only true wealth of the Church is in the faith of its people.”

Those who attempt to define the Church as an institution devoted to amassing monetary wealth miss the entire point: the Church’s purpose is to bring people to Christ and to follow His example by lifting the burdens of those who are struggling. The key to understanding the Church is to see it not as a worldwide corporation, but as millions of faithful members in thousands of congregations across the world following Christ and caring for each other and their neighbors.
In my former work as a bishop and in roles in stake callings, I've seen a good deal regarding how the Church manages its money including tithing and other funds, how it makes decisions regarding buildings and other projects, and have seen and felt the principles behind its activities. It's cautious, careful, and generally wise, and I saw nothing pointing to financial motives dominating its work. The claim to be engaged in blessing mankind with the spread of the Gospel as well as humanitarian and compassionate service rings much more true than hollow claims that it's about financial wealth.

Say, is there any chance that politics is playing a role in Bloomberg's attack on the Church? Naw, not in a sacred election year! OK, Bloomberg, you've played your role well. Too bad that role isn't journalism. And too bad it doesn't include high artistic standards. I mean, the artwork on the cover just looks so cheesy. Let's have higher standards for your next trashy cover, please. Maybe something on Jeremiah Wright, I suppose?

30 comments:

Howard said...

It's not Church leaders that are making billions...The success of the Church in managing its finances is not driven by a desire to enrich a few powerful men.... You are defending something that hasn't been alleged.  The trashy cover points out the irony of the church pushing a Camel through the eye of a needle.  

Jon said...

I agree the church does do a pretty good job with its finances and should be commended. But there are also criticisms that are valid:

http://peace-in-paradise.blogspot.com/2012/07/business-is-thriving-in-salt-lake-city.html

Or at least should be addressed.

Matthew said...

My concern is primarily with transparency. I really don't believe that there is any reason to keep it all secret.

A secondary concern is with the way tithing is tied into the temple recommend questions. Pay tithing in order to obtain saving ordinances, and now in order to exercise one's priesthood (baptizing / ordaining).

Mormon 8:36-37 are directed at us as much as anyone else.

Steve Dalton said...

Jeff, I feel you are spot on.

Anonymous said...

The real issue here is the cover. Can you imagine Bloomberg Businessweek running a cover making fun of Mohammed?

Actually, I can, and I can also imagine the result. No more Businessweek. Just the public outcry from folks respectful of Islam would do them in, let alone the backlash from believers. So I see Mormons complaining about this unethical low blow from Businessweek, but is there any outrage from fellow Christians, Jews, Muslims, etc.? Maybe, but I'm not seeing it.

Timid said...

I think Bloomberg must be losing millions. Jealous of the church's success. Desperation to run that kind of cover.

Openminded said...

Most magazines are losing subscribers and $$$ to the internet.

The cover's a bit of a low blow. It makes its point, though, and we all know what it's saying here.

It's not going to be the last time the church faces ridicule for its finances, and though "the bedrock principles underlying the Church’s welfare and humanitarian efforts are Christlike service and self-reliance", it's clear that giving to the poor is given less emphasis than investing in businesses.

All this, despite the bible repeatedly emphasizing how the poor need help.

Pomeranian Catholic said...

I agree with Jeff. The Newsweek article artwork is really offensive and there's really no financial scandal to be found here.

dennis said...

The only ones who may have a legitimate interest in the finances of the church are those Latter-day Saints who have been and are faithful payers of their tithes and offerings. Nobody else has a legitimate interest. At best, everyone else is a voyeuristic peeping tom. As Latter-day Saint, When I turn my envelope over to a member of the bishopric, my interest is gone. It is a gift to God to be administered by those he has chosen. End of story. Period.

Paul said...

Thanks, Jeff, for this post.

A sad state of affairs for journalism, to be sure. The cover is outrageous.

Jon said...

@Dennis,

According to the scriptures you should still be interested in what happens to your tithes after you paid them.

Anonymous said...

I am grateful that someone has shed some light on this. I think it's the business of journalists to increase awareness of the issues that the public doesn't have access to or may not even realize the existence of.

If the cover is offensive to Mormons perhaps you should consider that it's offensive to others that the church gets tax exemptions for things that have nothing to do with charitable efforts. Furthermore, I suspect that much of the pique is that that cover strikes very close to the heart of the truth and that's what's making everyone squirm.

Finally, what organizations are tax exempt and increase the tax load for the rest of us is very much a legitimate area of inquiry. When an organization is given tax exemption to increase it's wealth and influence AND that organization uses that wealth and influence for overtly political enterprises like Prop 8, rolling back the ERA, slowing civil right for Black Americans and probably funding Romney super PACS it's everyone's business. Like it or not.

Paul said...

Anonymous, the pique is that the cover puts words in the mouth of John the Baptist, but does so in a way that uninitiated readers will assume it is Jesus Christ saying those things. Further, depicted is a holy ordinance that is at the base of the restoration story and it is distorted for political gain.

If someone had done similar artwork based on a founding ordinance of another faith, there would be a completely justifiable outcry.

As for the tax story, you apparently did not read the article which makes clear that taxable for profit enterprises owned by the church pay taxes.

You make in interesting and unfounded assumption regarding the use of church funds for political purposes.

weston krogstadt said...

Let's face it, Mitt Romney is going to win this election. I agree that this is offensive and dumb, however, this mgazine is NOTHING compared to what we are going to see the next 4 years. We need to start bording up those windows tight, because a storm is coming the likes of which we have never seen.

Paul said...

Whether Romney wins or loses is yet to be seen, as the race is quite close in swing states. Recent attention on his activities at Bain Capital are far more relevant than attacks on his church.

Anonymous said...

I can make any assumption I want about what the church's funding of political agendas is so long as there is the veil of secrecy pulled over church finances. And you have no way of proving me wrong tho I would cite the church's need to revise the estimates of what they gave to Prop 8 at least 3 times to demonstrate that they are neither forthright nor honest in their dealings with the world outside the LDS.

Paul said...

You are absolutely right that you may assume whatever you like. Whether you are correct is another matter all together.

Anonymous said...

And because the LDS guards its financial data in secrecy you have no more idea if you're correct nor does anyone else.

Paul said...

I'm not making claims about what they are doing or not. You are.

Rusty Southwick said...

Anyone justifying these attacks on the LDS Church is being inconsistent, discriminatory and biased against a specific religion, not applying the same rules to other religions. The illogic condemns their argument at the outset. They have no substantive way to frame it.

Bloomberg is hastening his spiraling into irrelevancy. In a week when we saw the passing of a truly great man who contributed a hundredfold to society, Stephen R. Covey, the contrast is startling and saddening.

weston krogstadt said...

"Guards it's financial data in secrecy"? What kind of dumb statement is that? Name an organization that does NOT guard it's financial data in secrecy. Anonymous, can you tell me what bank you use, and give me your account number please? Several people and organizations have done thorough investigations into the LDS church's finances and all of this data is easily available online. A major one was done by the Arizona Republic in 1991.

Jon said...

This blog post gives a good argument on why the church should be completely open (at least with its members) about its finances and why we should care:

http://themormonworker.wordpress.com/2012/07/18/by-common-consent-a-petition-to-return-to-full-annual-financial-disclosure/

Anonymous said...

Hi Jon,

I think that the blog actually does not give a good argument about full financial disclosure.

1. He states that we need openness and not fear as if fear is the motivating factor for not fully disclosing the finances. I agree that fear is often used as a way to control people, I just don't see it happening this way in the Church.

2. He quotes Doctrine & Covenants 104:71 but fails to add the final words "... of the order" meaning the United Order.

http://www.lds.org/scriptures/dc-testament/dc/104.71?lang=eng

We are not living the United Order as it is currently outlined in the scriptures.

3. I disagree that full financial disclosure will promote plainness as he quotes 2 Nephi 26:33. I can find nothing more complicated than reading financial statements of the companies of which I hold stock.

http://www.lds.org/scriptures/bofm/2-ne/26.33?lang=eng

What is plainly seen are the results of the monies being used which are in line with the gospel. And to be sure, if any financial wrong doings were to occur, the already existing scrutiny of members, disaffected members and non members alike would bring it forward. After all, the Church cannot even own ranches to produce food for welfare without someone getting all tied up in knots about it.

Steve

Paul said...

Steve, you are correct. Further, Section 104 makes specific reference to the Kirtland United Order and the "Zion" United Order (in Missouri, not yet formed), indicating that they will be separate. In other words, the transparency of the treasury of the United Order is specific to a given unit of that order it would seem.

Jon said...

Steve,

Sorry, I didn't read it as closely as I should have. I did a skim read (which I normally don't do) and it looked like he did a pretty good case. Thanks for pointing out the weakness in his arguments.

I wish I could remember where in D&C it talks about members being responsible for knowing the finances of the church, maybe it was the UO that I'm thinking about. Oh well, next time I read through D&C I'll have to keep an eye out for it.

Regardless, some of the reports I've heard make me feel uncomfortable, like the mall and the "bail out" of Brother Fulton down in Phoenix.

I remember my mother telling me about a member stealing from the church here locally, he was never confronted about it from the hierarchy. I think that is normal for any organization though.

Jon said...

Steve, what do you think of the first link that I linked to in the second comment?

Anonymous said...

Those who complain about the church owning profit-making investments don't know what they're talking about.

Every large non-profit has to have reserves or some kind of endowment, from which it can generate income, or in extreme necessity, sell off to generate cash. If it were not so, then the church would have to expand/contract its programs on a regular basis depending on fluctuations in donations.

The church would never want to be in a position where it had to close chapels, or stop building chapels for new wards just because tithing was down due to the economy.

The church, like all churches and other non-profits, has core essential programs that it wants to continue, in spite of fluctuations in donations that come as a result of fluctuations in the economy.

You can maintain programs (missionary, temple building/maintenance, church welfare, genealogy, chapel building/maintenance, BYU, seminary, institute) by having a solid stable reserve that produces income. Some organizations, such as schools, may call it an "endowment."

You can put that reserve in many things, but in essence all of them are investments. They could be in money-market funds, bank savings accounts, stocks, bonds, commercial property, buildings, home mortgages, or even owning businesses outright.

There is no no moral difference between owning stocks and in owning a business outright, since that is owning 100% of the stock. The critics would not be so vocal (or maybe they would) if the church put it's entire reserves in the stock market.

The principle of having _reserves_ (especially in income-producing assets) is an *essential* financial behavior of large non-profit organizations that depend on voluntary donations by individuals, be they religious or otherwise.

It is *standard* and *customary* practice that is in accordance with the best financial management. It would be foolish and against "best practices" for the LDS church to do otherwise.

tayman0522 said...

Transparency is the relatively new buzz word used mostly by contrarians to bludgeon people into complying with unreasonable requests, (see the issue of Mitt Romney and the supposed need to release his tax returns). When there is transparency, the contrarian will take a fact and/or statistic out of context in order to score points against the individual or organization that provided the data in the first place. What reasonable person would put themselves or their organization through such abuse? Do these organizations not have an obligation to protect their constituencies from undue harm? Yes!

Should the constituencies demand transparency of their organizations? In cases of real tragedy, certainly! (read Penn State) However, the answer most of the time is No. Why? Because individuals can pick and choose with whom they choose to associate.

In the case of Penn State, there were heinous crimes committed, and the organizations responsible for ensuring the safety of all who entered their premises hid behind ridiculous arguments and rationalizations.

Where there are crimes, there should be greater transparency. Where there are no crimes, the call for transparency falls flat and should be seen as the hot political potato wrapped in tin foil that it is.

Jon said...

The church not reporting its finances in a more meticulous way to its members is a relatively new development as shown by previous conferences:

http://archive.org/stream/conferencereport1951a#page/n11/mode/2up

Sam said...

I agree that cover was insanely offensive. I'm usually pretty mellow with media reports on the church, but this one really annoyed me. The fact that they cite the acquisition of Burger King stock as a donation from Mitt Romney but then make it seem as of an angel/Jesus commanded the church to get it is proof enough they are going for dirty journalism.