Jana Riess: LDS Church’s $100B fortune offers opportunities to do more good

(Jeremy Harmon | The Salt Lake Tribune) Jana Riess speaks while recording the 100th episode of the "Mormon Land" podcast on Oct. 4, 2019.

Over the weekend, The Wall Street Journal ran a long piece about the corporate wealth of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, seeming to confirm a whistleblower’s December allegation that the church owns more than $100 billion in investments.

In the article, The Journal said that the church’s investment fund, Ensign Peak Advisors, “has total assets comparable to some of the world’s largest investors.” It ranks below Russia’s National Wealth Fund, at $126 billion, but is more than double the assets of Harvard University’s endowment ($40.9 billion), or the holdings of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation ($46.8 billion). It’s also double that of the Roman Catholic Church, which has roughly 1.3 billion members and holds assets of $50 billion. That’s a little more than $38 per member.

For Latter-day Saints, who have 16.3 million members, our church’s wealth translates to about $6,130 per member, or 161 times the Catholics’ money-to-member ratio.

Looked at in the aggregate, $100 billion seems like a hell of a rainy-day fund. It’s an incomprehensible number with more zeroes than the calculator in my smartphone can handle. But when considered as a ratio of money per member, $6,130 doesn’t seem like much. I’m sure this is what the church’s leaders and financial advisers tell themselves, anyway; they are just being prudent and preparing to help their members in the event of a global catastrophe/Second Coming/insert your Apocalypse here.

I don’t agree. The needs in the world right now are too great for one small denomination to be sitting on a nest egg of $100 billion “just in case.” People are in poverty now. People need clean water now.

Consider what researchers Christian Smith (Notre Dame) and Michael Emerson (Rice University) noted in their book “Passing the Plate” about what could be accomplished with even small fractions of that sum:

  • $10 billion. “Sponsor 20 million needy children worldwide through Christian organizations providing them food, education and health care.”

  • $2 billion. “Finance 5 million grassroots, micro-enterprise economic development projects per year in poor countries worldwide that employ revolving loan funds for needy entrepreneurs to purchase tools, materials, and equipment to start or expand micro businesses, which they pay back as their businesses grow.”

  • $2 billion. “Fund 1 million new clean water, well-drilling projects per year in the poorest nations (25% of the world’s population drinks unsafe water), dramatically improving the health of tens if not hundreds of millions of people per year.”

  • $4.55 billion. “Provide food, clothing, and shelter to all 6.5 million current refugees in all of Africa, Asia, and the Middle East.”

  • $480 million. “Quadruple the annual operating budget of Habitat for Humanity.”

The Paradox of Generosity” was published in 2008, so these figures are more than a decade out of date (and there are, tragically, nearly five times as many refugees now, according to the United Nations). But you see my point. If anything, the world’s problems have worsened over time, and the needs have grown even more acute.

What exactly are we waiting for? In The Journal’s article, it seemed as though Ensign Peak employees were waiting for Latter-day Saint leaders to tell them what to do, or to explain what the plan was for the money they did such a fantastic job of making for the church. But when they met with church leaders to discuss it, it seemed that the leaders were waiting for the prophet to tell them what to do. Meanwhile, the money just continued to grow, augmented regularly by each year’s surplus tithing and, even more lucratively, by the gains of U.S. history’s longest-ever bull market.

This is a magnificent opportunity to do “more good”—what former church President Gordon B. Hinckley said should be the real meaning behind the enduring nickname “Mormon.” Conspicuously, despite The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ recent insistence on getting rid of the term “Mormon Church,” the Wall Street Journal headline blared, “The Mormon Church amassed $100 billion. It was the best-kept secret in the investment world.”

Secret fortunes. Guarded treasure. Is this what we want our religion to be known for?

I don’t know about you, but when I Google “Mormon news” or “Latter-day Saint news,” I’d like the resultant headlines to be different than the ones I saw this morning — not just the one from The Journal, but also the United Kingdom’s Daily Mail, which read “The Mormon Church kept their $100 BILLION investment fund a secret over fears that it would discourage members from tithing as a whistleblower claimed they misused their finances.”

So that’s even worse. Here, Mormon tithing is connected not just to secrecy but fear, financial mismanagement, and billions IN ALL CAPS. It hurts my heart to see this.

Wouldn’t we rather Google the name or nickname of our religion and be greeted with a headline about how The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, despite its small size, has had an outsized presence in global relief efforts? To be known as the visionary people who opened their coffers to feed millions of hungry children? To be the little church that gifted the world with clean water or helped to end malaria once and for all?

We could do at least one of those things. We have the resources to bless so many people. But will we share those resources, or continue to hoard them? I am reminded of a challenging passage from the Gospel of Luke:

The ground of a certain rich man brought forth plentifully:

And he thought within himself, saying, “What shall I do, because I have no room where to bestow my fruits?”

And he said, “This will I do: I will pull down my barns, and build greater; and there will I bestow all my fruits and my goods.

And I will say to my soul, Soul, thou hast much goods laid up for many years; take thine ease, eat, drink, and be merry.”

But God said unto him, “Thou fool, this night thy soul shall be required of thee: then whose shall those things be, which thou hast provided?”

So is he that layeth up treasure for himself, and is not rich toward God. (Luke 12:16–21)

My question now is: For whom are we guarding this treasure? If the church’s answer is that this is what Christ would want us to do, I think we have a clear and irrefutable indication to the contrary from the Savior’s own parables.

The views expressed in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.