Jana Riess: Why I stopped paying tithing to the LDS Church

At tithing settlement this year, the Religion News Service columnist declared herself a full-tithe payer and explained why none of that money has gone to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

It’s rare to say that a news story changed your life or your course of behavior. But that’s what happened to me a year ago, when Religion Unplugged and The Washington Post broke the story that my church, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, had amassed a nest egg in excess of $100 billion.

Weirdly, I had recently written a column called “I just paid my Mormon tithing. Why don’t I feel better about it?” In the article I discussed the annual December tradition of tithing settlement, in which church members can sit down with their bishop to discuss their giving and whether they are “full” tithe payers, donating 10% of their income.

I am a fan of tithing settlement. Regular financial accountability is a vital spiritual practice that helps followers of Jesus stay on track in supporting holy work on Earth. But it should go both ways, with followers being accountable for their giving and leaders being accountable for how those donations are spent.

That accountability has not occurred since 1959, the last time The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints pulled back the curtain to show what was coming in and where it was going out. That was a time of deficit spending for the Utah-based faith, which is likely why it stopped sharing financial information with members. As I wrote last year:

“I suspect that the nondisclosure policy continues, however, not because the church is poor or indebted, but because it has grown wealthy enough that exposing the extent of its holdings could cause embarrassment and prompt unwanted questions.

“Would knowing the extent of the church’s abundance diminish Latter-day Saints’ ongoing generosity?”

I had no idea when I wrote this that my religious world would be rocked less than two weeks later by major revelations about the church’s financial holdings. I certainly had no inkling that the specific line about Latter-day Saints decreasing their generosity if they knew the full extent of the church’s wealth would apply to me personally.

(Jeremy Harmon | Tribune file photo) Jana Riess speaks while recording the 100th episode of the "Mormon Land" podcast in 2019.

I spent the next two weeks reading the allegations, talking to friends, and praying about what to do. It became clear early on that the news stories were true, just as it became clear that church members and ex-members would respond in mostly predictable ways. Orthodox members defended the hoard as being exactly what Jesus would have us do to prepare for a rainy day (or “a rainy decade,” as Mitt Romney appreciatively jested). They were proud that the church had more money than university endowments, most hedge funds, and even some small nations. They saw the hand of the Lord in the nest egg’s growth from just over $10 billion at the start of this century to more than 10 times that less than two decades later.

Ex-members derided the church as a fraudulent institution that demands ongoing donations even from its poorest members while enriching itself for no obvious charitable purpose.

I was, as usual, somewhere in the middle. I agree with the detractors that the sheer magnitude of the church’s fortune is unworthy of the values of my Mormon people — the good that could be done to save lives right now with that money! Yet there the money sits, just growing in perpetuity.

On the other hand, I don’t think there was ever malicious intent at work in creating this situation. Church leaders aren’t counting their stockpile while they temple their fingers in evil glee or conduct extravagant secret lives of luxury. Rather, they set out to achieve a stable financial balance sheet and then, because of their discipline at saving a portion of each year’s tithing donations and the gift of a roaring stock market, the church got rich beyond anyone’s wildest dreams. Now that stockpile is sitting idle not so much by nefarious intent as by multiple layers of bureaucracy and institutional inertia.

In other words, the same systematic prudence that earned the church its unimaginable fortune is also responsible for the lack of any vision for what to do with it other than some far-off notion of waiting for the Second Coming of Christ.

The irony of the argument about saving for the Second Coming is how ardently it ignores what Christ said when he came the first time. Things like:

• “If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” (Matt. 19:21)

• “Sell your possessions, and give to the needy. Provide yourselves with moneybags that do not grow old, with a treasure in the heavens that does not fail, where no thief approaches and no moth destroys.” (Luke 12:33)

Those are hard teachings. I’m not young and idealistic enough to say the church should take them literally, liquidating its assets in one immediate, dramatic gesture. But no church that claims to follow the man who uttered these words should be sitting on a fortune that could do so much to alleviate suffering. The church does some humanitarian work, certainly. According to the church-owned Deseret News (in a February article that had to be a direct response to allegations that the church was doing nothing at all to help the poor), it has doubled its outreach in the past five years and now gives more than $1 billion annually in combined humanitarian and welfare aid.

That’s a start for a church with a $100 billion stock portfolio, to say nothing of its property holdings and other investments. But it could obviously do far more.

The short version of all this is that while I am still a full-tithe payer, I have not paid a dime of it to the church in 2020.

That change feels empowering. I love supporting charities that offer humanitarian relief, especially to children around the world. I do research on Charity Navigator about these organizations, giving preference to ones that provide direct relief and practice financial transparency.

Both of those factors were lacking when I gave to the LDS Church. Even giving to the church’s own humanitarian fund comes with this caveat at the bottom of every tithing slip: “Though reasonable efforts will be made globally to use donations as designated, all donations become the church’s property and will be used at the church’s sole discretion to further the church’s overall mission.”

That’s not enough for me, not anymore.

At tithing settlement this year, I declared myself a full-tithe payer and explained why none of that money has gone to the church. I don’t know what fallout there will be from this decision, if any. Frankly, it’s not important whether I continue to hold a temple recommend or not. What’s important to me is that at least a few kids who didn’t have food or access to education will have meals, school and the basics. I should have done this a long time ago.

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