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Utah native Jeff T. Green, believed to be the wealthiest person to hail from the Beehive State, pledged last month to give away at least 90% of his wealth to philanthropic causes during his life or at his death.
But the former Latter-day Saint missionary and Brigham Young University graduate won’t be giving any of his money to the state’s largest nonprofit: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Indeed, Green is resigning his membership in the Utah-based faith — along with 11 family members and a friend.
“Although I have deep love for many Mormons and gratitude for many things that have come into my life through Mormonism, I have not considered myself a member for many years, and I’d like to make clear to you and others that I am not a member,” Green writes in a Dec. 20 letter to church President Russell M. Nelson. “While I left the Mormon church more than a decade ago — not believing, attending, or practicing — I have not officially requested the removal of my records, until now.”
While most members “are good people trying to do right, I believe the church is actively and currently doing harm in the world. The church leadership is not honest about its history, its finances, and its advocacy,” he writes. “I believe the Mormon church has hindered global progress in women’s rights, civil rights and racial equality, and LGBTQ+ rights.”
Because of Green’s views on LGBTQ rights, he has chosen Equality Utah for his family foundation’s first major donation — $600,000.
“We made this investment sizable and publicly to send a message that Equality Utah isn’t going anywhere,” Green says. “It is my hope and that of my foundation [Dataphilanthropy] that this is the first of many contributions to Equality Utah.”
He notes that “almost half of the funds will go to a new scholarship program to help LGBTQ+ students in Utah,” including those who “may need or want to leave BYU.”
Equality Utah and the church were partners in pushing and winning passage of the so-called Utah compromise, a nondiscrimination law that provides protections against employment and housing discrimination for LGBTQ individuals in the state while safeguarding some religious freedoms. Equality Utah touted the effort in an October YouTube video.
Utah’s predominant faith also has formed an alliance with the NAACP, the nation’s oldest civil rights organization, and has donated nearly $10 million for three new educational and humanitarian initiatives to help Black Americans.
The church’s own wealth is an issue that troubles Green.
It has amassed “more than $100 billion in assets, that is all derivative of the widow’s mite, which doesn’t even measure the real estate and less liquid assets,” he writes to Nelson. “This money comes from people, often poor, who wholeheartedly believe you represent the will of Jesus. They give, expecting the blessings of heaven.”
His former faith “should be doing more to help the world and its members with its wealth,” Green writes. “Instead, I think the church has exploited its members and their need for hope to build temples, build shopping malls, and cattle ranches, fund Ensign Peak Advisors investment funds, and own mortgage-backed securities, rather than alleviating human suffering in or out of the church.”
Green concludes his 900-word missive by saying it is his “formal resignation … effective immediately … without any waiting period.”
The divorced dad of three “is not going to change my mind,” he writes. “After today, the only contact I want from the church is a single letter of confirmation to let me know that I am no longer listed as a member.”
This move is far from how the young Latter-day Saint boy and the other signers growing up in the bosom of the church once imagined their future.
For each of them, the journey to this moment has taken a different path with its own twists, turns and tumults. But all say they have landed at a place of peace and solace.
Green’s sister, Jennifer Gaerte, had lots of questions about her faith as a young Latter-day Saint but eventually followed a fairly traditional path — went to BYU, sent her boyfriend on a mission, married him in a Latter-day Saint temple, had four sons and moved to Davis County.
“We were,” she says now, “that picture-perfect Mormon family” — until seven years ago, when the traumatic death of her husband’s brother rocked her spouse, their marriage and their world.
“My husband was angry with God and for months refused to go to church,” she recalls. “I was totally understanding.”
She continued to take her children to church, but they were ostracized because their dad wasn’t attending. Some said some kids from the ward even threw rocks at them.
“I went into survival mode,” she says, “trying to save my marriage and family.”
At the time, Gaerte was serving in the Young Women presidency. She went to the bishop and said, “I need to be released,” but he replied: “If I release you, you’ll go inactive.’ To that she responded, “If you won’t release me, I’ll release myself.”
And that was it.
The family moved from Woods Cross to Farmington, attended for a little while but eventually stopped going altogether.
Since then, Gaerte, who is a social worker and teacher, has had to figure out “who I am apart from the church because it was so ingrained in me,” she says. “Do I believe this because it’s me, or because it was what I was taught?”
Green, Gaerte and two of the five siblings have left the church, she says. “Our parents raised us as strong individuals who can think for themselves and this is what we’ve done.”
She hopes they see it that way.
‘Didn’t feel edified’
Justin Green, Jeff’s younger brother, served a mission in Guatemala, married in a temple, and was fully engaged for most of his life.
About 10 years ago, he started to realize that he was going to church and not enjoying it — not feeling spiritually nourished.
“I didn’t feel edified. I didn’t feel connected to the people or a sense of community. Doctrinal discussions were never deep,” says Justin, an Amazon executive who now lives in Houston. “It was causing friction in my life. It wasn’t working for me.”
He didn’t dive into history or social issues surrounding Mormonism but rather just drifted away.
“I realized I could be a better father to my [four] kids, a better person,” he says. “I could spend time on other things.”
In the past few years, as Justin has found his own “moral compass,” he has examined more about the church and its teachings and realized that he couldn’t answer any of the temple recommend questions in the prescribed way to be deemed worthy to enter.
[What are the recommended questions Latter-day Saints must answer to their lay leaders to gain entry into the faith’s temples? Read here.]
Justin decided to join the others in resigning, he says, because when outsiders find out he’s from Utah, they assume he’s a Latter-day Saint.
“I don’t want to be associated with it,” he says. “I don’t think it’s as open and embracing as it should be.” But, he adds with a laugh, he still loves BYU football.
Doug Whittemore is Jeff’s closest cousin in age and lived across the street in West Jordan. The two were inseparable for years and, by all accounts, had a “wonderful childhood” in their Latter-day Saint community.
Still, there were aspects of the faith that troubled him.
“Something was not clicking for me intuitively,” recalls Whittemore, who works in financial services in Dallas. “It was pragmatic, but I could never buy into the [religious] concepts, and the teachings were about as far-fetched as you could believe.”
So at about age 18 or 19, he decided not to serve a mission — the first male in his extended family not to serve.
From then on, he was blazing his own trail.
After that, everyone in the family, including Jeff, treated him, well, “differently,” he says. “A lot of them wouldn’t talk to me for years, and that still persists to this day.”
You would think they would have the opposite reaction, he says, by “fighting to get me back.”
It took a long time to rebuild a relationship with his parents, but he was finally able to have tender exchanges — over fishing — with his dad, shortly before the father died of pancreatic cancer in 2018.
“I respect everyone who is Mormon and treat them as I would want to be treated,” Whittemore says. “The core of all religions is being good to human beings.”
‘Clear sense of purpose’
With his pioneer pedigree (had Ensigns, Angells and Woolleys in his family tree) and a Mormon penchant for obsessiveness, Jeff Green once saw himself working full time to inculcate faith in teens as a seminary teacher.
On his mission to Ventura, Calif., (not far from where his office is now), the earnest young proselytizer even tried to convert a Catholic priest. The man of the cloth was kind enough to offer a listening ear but had no intention of switching faiths, a fact which eluded the idealistic missionary who was convinced he was on God’s side.
Because of such zeal and certainty, Green loved his mission. It changed his life.
“I had a clear sense of purpose that what you’re doing echoes in the eternities,” he says. “I felt like I was creating a rich eternal life for others.”
The thoughtful scholar eventually moved from religious education to earn a degree in English literature, then went on to study marketing communication at the University of Southern California.
As Green was building his career as an entrepreneur of online advertising, he also began to scrutinize Mormon history, starting with his ancestors and polygamy. Then he moved on to church founder Joseph Smith’s reported “First Vision” and other aspects of the official narrative about the past, finding contradictions along the way.
That led him to a more thorough exploration of church teachings, and what he viewed as troubling aspects of the faith’s structure and sociology. Such research ultimately drained his convictions of the church’s truth claims.
“The most positive part of our childhood wasn’t the strong connection we had with our parents but to the community,” the soft-spoken 44-year-old says. “I am deeply grateful to that community and its amazing people, including my ancestors who made great sacrifices in the name of God and the community.”
Yet, he feels just as compelled to make a formal break.
“Believing Mormons (following the lead of church leadership) often accuse those who leave of doing so for simple or petty or even demonic reasons — this is not my story,” Green tells Nelson in the letter. “I stopped believing and attending out of principle.”
He is leaving now, he writes, “for the same reasons.”