Jana Riess: My new way of paying LDS tithing has given me a new perspective

When I gave the money to the church, the logistics of sitting down to do it might take up five minutes of my month. Now, it requires a good deal more time and consideration.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Odeh Ondoma gives Barbara Haugsoen a tutorial on how the Giving Machines work installed in the plaza at City Creek Center in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Nov.24, 2021. The machines, sponsored by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, can be found in 10 cities across the United States, offering people fun and memorable ways to give this holiday season.

On this day of giving, I have been thinking about what has changed in my life in the past year since I published a column explaining why I had stopped paying tithing to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

The short version of the story is that I was deeply disturbed two years ago by the revelation that the church had stockpiled more than $100 billion worth of investments and was not utilizing those funds for helping others, but rather to shore up business enterprises such as the City Creek Center mall in Salt Lake City.

That $100 billion is an almost unimaginable sum of money, and it is fair to say that with the tremendous gains in the stock market in the past two years, that could have grown to $130 billion or even more, depending on how the assets are allocated.

I don’t want to have the argument that “the church is already doing so much! Look at all it does for charity.” It’s true that the church gives millions of dollars every year to charity. In 2020, it gave nearly a billion (though not, apparently, from the investment fund in question). I have been very proud this year, for example, in the church’s involvement globally with ensuring a more equitable distribution of COVID-19 vaccines to poor nations, to which it has donated more than $20 million.

But compared to what the church has in its coffers, what it gives to charity annually is quite small, less than 1% of what it has in reserves.

Since making my decision two years ago, I have had an awakening of sorts about just how much I had allowed my spiritual center to become divorced from where my money was going. I used to function on autopilot. When I paid tithing to the church, the logistics of sitting down to do it might take up five minutes of my month. Now, it requires a good deal more time and consideration. I have to weigh many competing goods to decide where best to send my tithing.

It is incredibly humbling, actually. The needs are overwhelming. Just this week, for Giving Tuesday, I have received more than 40 solicitations from worthy organizations. From Doctors Without Borders to literacy organizations to “Matthew 25: Ministries” here in Cincinnati, there seems to be an infinite number of charities that need help.

But rather than feeling weighed down by this, I have been profoundly energized by the process of making choices to combat poverty.

Certainly, the feeling that my money is truly making a difference, even saving lives, is empowering. But for me as an individual, it has also been a profound exercise in gratitude.

A middle-class person in the United States who tithes 10% of income, whether on gross or net (I do net), is likely giving away several thousand dollars every year. Which is actually a heck of a lot, it turns out. Seeing that money go out the door to organizations that truly need it makes me deeply grateful that it’s something I can do. That I’ve been so fortunate to be born into a country of relative ease and prosperity. Those are not thoughts I had in such a visceral way when I was paying tithing to an already wealthy organization.

People’s feelings about money are complicated, and here’s a truth I’ve been learning: It’s not only the good parts of myself, the gratitude and the joy, that have been revealed through my decision to no longer tithe to the LDS Church. What has also become clear is my own control-freakiness.

I’m just not comfortable with the “black box” nature of sending checks to an organization that is never held accountable for how that money is spent (or even if it is spent at all, ever — what has perhaps been most disturbing about the church’s unaccountable wealth has been the fact that it is simply sitting there, regarded as something that needs to grow indefinitely for the possibility that someone, someday, somewhere might need it).

The control-freak aspect of how I tithe now is that I like knowing where my money is going. I think most people do. One big irony in all this is that even while the LDS Church fails to let members know what is being done with our tithing money, the church has become known in recent years for its vending machines that “light the world” with charitable giving. This holiday season, there are vending machines in 10 U.S. cities, where givers can buy items ranging from $5 up to several hundred. The church covers credit card fees and other expenses, so that every dollar donated goes to those in need.

The machines are very popular, and it’s not hard to understand why; they provide donors with a sense of immediate problem-solving. You need a goat? I can help with that. You need a coat? I can help with that, too. It is all direct, transparent and deeply human.

Since I wrote about my decision a year ago and went public with the fact that I am no longer tithing to the church, I have heard from many readers. Some have been angry and defensive, while others have been curious or have wanted to express their own frustration and sadness that the church as an institution seems to donate a much smaller portion of its own wealth per year than it expects of its members as individuals.

I try not to give anyone advice about their tithing experience; I can only speak from my own experience. Sometimes, people ask me if I have had any fallout in the form of discipline because I made this choice and then wrote about it. I don’t respond to that question, partly because it’s no one’s business but also because there is no scenario in which my local leaders deserve the hate mail they would receive from liberal Latter-day Saints if I had been disciplined or from conservative Latter-day Saints if I had not!

All I can do is try to make the decisions that are right for me personally and that enable me to do the most good in the world. For now, this mode of tithing to multiple charities has broadened my horizons, expanded my heart and made me much more conscious of my own privilege. I’ve been counting my blessings a lot more this year, and my tithing bubbles up from that renewed awareness, rather than feeling like a checklist obligation.