The mission of Widow’s Mite: Pursue and tell the truth about LDS finances without judgment

“This is not about sneaking in criticism of the church,” says a contributor.

(Gustave Doré via Emory University Pitts Theology Library) "The Widow's Mite," depicting a scene from the New Testament. The Widow's Mite Report, which tracks finances in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, draws its name from this biblical story.

Tuck away that $100 billion figure for now.

Investments and operating properties held by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints probably top $236 billion or more in value, according to a website its creators say is devoted to careful and neutral research and analysis of the global faith’s financial holdings.

The Widow’s Mite Report is a series of studies published online by about a dozen unnamed current and former church members with professional backgrounds in finance, business, real estate, law, education, data science and related fields.

“You might call it a passion project, with people who are smart and thoughtful and who care,” said a website co-founder who works as a professional investor.

[The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is on its way to becoming a trillion-dollar faith.]

The site, at widowsmitereport.wordpress.com, draws its title from a biblical story about a poor widow giving two copper coins to a temple treasury. Jesus lauds the woman, noting that she had donated more than much richer contributors who had given far greater sums because she “did cast in all that she had, even all her living.”

For the website’s authors, this parable highlights the sacred nature of what believers donate to their church and the sacrifice it represents.

“We felt there was a real opportunity to bring greater clarity to the discussion,” collaborators behind the site said in a joint statement, “by presenting what is known or reasonably estimable about church finances in a format that would be easy to understand.”

Contributors said the site grew out of conversations — as well as in reaction to waves of misinformation online — sparked in part by a whistleblower’s late 2019 revelations about the reserve fund held by Ensign Peak Advisors, the church’s investment arm, which manages its vast portfolio of stocks, bonds and real estate built from members’ tithing.

“It’s a study of the largest aggregation of widow’s mites in human history,” the site’s co-founder said. “That really means something profound to those of us who have spent our lives in the money industry.”

Four of the website’s core contributors agreed to be interviewed by The Salt Lake Tribune, on condition that they not be named. They said they insisted on keeping their identities confidential not out of fear of church retaliation, but instead to avoid the site’s reports being viewed, and potentially dismissed, due to the details of any one contributor’s personal experience.

“We wanted to keep the focus on the public service of gathering and analyzing data,” they said in a joint statement, “rather than on any individual person.”

As another collaborator, a finance executive for a publicly traded company, put it: “It shouldn’t matter: active, inactive, nonbeliever, full believer — the information is the information. Let’s argue facts.”

‘True to the data’

(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

Armed with scant financial data released by the Utah-based church, site creators began in 2018 and 2019 to piece together what could be gleaned from an array of public documents and disclosures, amassing the information into a series of interconnected computer models and applying textbook financial analysis.

The research took about two years to reach critical mass. Eventually, the co-founder said in an interview, “we had many people with diverse backgrounds weighing in, sanding away the rough edges and it really came into a form that felt like a real public service.”

“We wanted to do a really good, thoughtful job at being true to the data and to the numbers,” he said, “but also to telling the story about what those numbers mean, and how they relate to individuals, families, wards [congregations], stakes [regional clusters of congregations] and nations.”

Its first report went up in 2021, using intuitive graphics, a conversational tone versed in Latter-day Saint doctrine, full citations for every source of information — and a transparent and easily digested approach to its underlying assumptions and what it doesn’t know.

“Back-and-forth testing of our estimates, anchored in places by published financial data, drives what we believe,” the authors said in their joint statement, “is a reasonable, holistic model of the global church.”

Growing credibility

(Chris Samuels | The Salt Lake Tribune) The Church Office Building, shown in February 2023, is reflected in a downtown Salt Lake City building, where Ensign Peak Advisors, an investment arm of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, is located.

The Widow’s Mite Report is now cited among the more thorough and well-documented public takes on the church’s far-reaching finances and assets.

Sam Brunson, a popular Latter-day blogger and a tax law professor at Loyola University Chicago, said its information “strikes me as plausible.”

“For the most part,” Brunson said, “I’d say it’s fairly accurate, as long as you read their caveats.”

It is also notable, added Aaron Miller, an associate professor at church-owned Brigham Young University, that the site relied on publicly available information and was diligent in citing its sources.

“The strength is that it’s easy to verify the information that they’re providing, because you can go look at the original sources,” said Miller, who specializes in business ethics and nonprofit finances.

But that focus also can be viewed as a weakness, he said, in that “what’s publicly available isn’t always going to be complete information, one way or the other.”

Church spokesperson Christopher Moore said he could not provide responses to questions submitted by The Tribune, because the “main themes” were coming from “anonymous accounts.” Nobody in church leadership has thus far publicly rebutted the Widow’s Mite findings.

None of the site’s players works for Ensign Peak or the church’s finance department, the co-founder said.

Unknown even to one another in some cases, group members have worked together virtually to research and strengthen their underlying analysis as new data emerges. They’ve also expanded their focus to include other aspects of the faith’s financial world. Contributors said the site’s models are constantly refined in light of inbound critiques and questions.

“The project has always been open to criticism from anyone who cares to take the time to study the source material,” their joint statement said, “regardless of their identity or personal beliefs.”

Expanding focus

(The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) The Pocatello Temple, one of six existing Latter-day Saints temples in Idaho. Three more are planned in the Gem State. This temple, The Wall Street Journal has reported, cost an estimated $69 million to build.

The no-frills blog now has comprehensive sections on Ensign Peak, detailing its rapid growth in value since 2001 to upward of $150 billion today. The webpages delve deeply into church real estate holdings worldwide, with a current estimated value of about $102 billion.

It also examines the church’s present stance and past history on charitable giving and humanitarian work; digs into the ongoing costs of temple construction; and studies trends in church membership and tithing participation around the globe.

(Ernest Randriarimalala | Photo courtesy of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and WaterAid) Toky, 7, and his friends wash their hands at the sanitation block in Madagascar. In 2020, Latter-day Saint Charities provided funding to help support 1.8 million refugees, internally displaced people and host community members in 39 countries with emergency water, shelter, water, sanitation and health support.

Widow’s Mite offers insights into a recent “60 Minutes” segment on church finances and parses the high-profile settlement announced in February in which U.S. regulators levied $5 million in fines against the church and Ensign Peak for failing to properly disclose past stock holdings and going to “great lengths” to deliberately “obscure” the church’s investment portfolio.

In recent years, the site has branched into examining the church’s approach to environmental sustainability, the prospect of converting chapels and temples to solar power and an analysis of compensation paid to top church leaders.

The webpages fact-check assertions made in other media coverage and sometimes note discrepancies between its data analysis and claims made by church leaders, whom it said often don’t have access to the faith’s full financials.

Whatever its findings, Widow’s Mite does not purport to tell Latter-day Saints or others how they should take in any of the conclusions.

“We just wanted to bring to this situation information that could be useful, sober, approachable and intelligible,” said another collaborator, a university professor. “This is not about sneaking in criticism of the church.

“This is about, what can we know?”

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