Gordon Monson: LDS Church must trust members with the truth about its money and give more to charity

April’s General Conference would be a good time and place to start doing so.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) The Angel Moroni atop The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints' Bountiful Temple in December 2022. Tribune columnist Gordon Monson is calling on the faith to "shout" its wealth "from the mountaintops — at, say, April’s General Conference — to all the world."

This may not be, but just might seem to be, the absolute simplest line of thinking in a complicated side hustle for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. That side hustle — accompanying what is supposed to be its main endeavor, bringing souls to God — is making money.

Lots of money. Billions and billions and billions of dollars.

Here is, then, the simple advice: Be transparent about that pursuit, let the nearly 17 million folks who either believe in the faith or once did know how much the church has and what it does with it.

Shout it from the mountaintops — at, say, April’s General Conference — to all the world.

Easy, right? Not easy enough, apparently.

As was reported by The Salt Lake Tribune this week, church leaders and their money minions for a long time went to “great lengths” to hide the amounts their investments were generating by way of “clone” firms that were located around the country but quietly centered in the heart of Utah’s Zion.

People who run investment outfits for a living say secrecy is hardly an uncommon thing when it comes to growing wealth, jumping in and out of and shaping markets. Investors often like to keep what they’re doing and why on the sly. Except in the church’s case, for fistfuls of years, it used dubious, deceitful practices and ran afoul of federal regulators.

Those regulators just exacted a fine of $5 million from the church and its investment wing for their financial shenanigans. If you haven’t read the story, please do so.

If the church and its advisers are making loads of money for the religion on and through their vast stock and land portfolios, good for them, as long as they follow federal rules and use them to benefit the world.

Being God’s church and all, the way they see it, there’s no downside to having as much money as God.

The tithing question

(Photo illustration by Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Latter-day Saints pay tithing to sustain the church's mission and to heed what they see as a divine command.

There’s a major hiccup in having all that wealth, though, and the church fully knows this, when it requires from its members, at least for good standing, 10% of their income or increase every year. According to the church, that’s not requiring the faithful to buy their way into heaven; it’s encouraging them to obey a long-held commandment.

If you sacrifice to give now, you’re promised in the long run an attendant blessing to get.

Local lay leaders hold annual “tithing declaration” interviews with church members to see how they’re doing on this teaching. Don’t cheat God is to say don’t cheat the church.

But when your religion has companies and portfolios and land holdings that generate and literally “stock” pile tens of billions of dollars in assets, what’s good for the worship business may be bad for pure worship.

Giving until it hurts

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Latter-day Saints attend a General Conference session in downtown Salt Lake City in 2019.

It could put a bit of a crimp on belief and on giving. When hardworking individuals and families are out there attempting to build God-fearing, God-loving lives, rearing kids, making mortgage and car payments, giving their children and themselves whatever educational or other opportunities they can on their modest or meager salaries, offering up 10% can be a huge sacrifice.

Why does God — or the church — need their contribution, some ask, when there appears to be so much excess already in the vault?

That’s a revelation and a risk the organization has to take, or at least should take.

The counsel, not just from this corner but also from many who desire to follow Latter-day Saint strictures is: Trust your people with the truth. Let them know what’s going on with your mountain of money, and, while you’re at it, make sure to lawfully inform regulators, too.

Those are the basics. Avoid the very appearance of evil, or of cheating. That’s true for any business, and it should be even truer for God’s kingdom on Earth, as the church preaches that it is. God’s not a cheat. Even in the church’s temple “worthiness” interviews, members are asked this question: Do you strive to be honest in all you do?

The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission determined that the church wasn’t being honest, not in this case.

Beyond that, from a fundamental level, there are some other moves the church could make to smooth things out with the money everybody now knows it has.

Charity never faileth

(/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.

For starters, donate to noble and needed worldwide causes to the point of excess. The church already does much contributing — almost a billion dollars in 2021 — but not to the degree it could. If it wanted to preserve a chunk of the principal without whittling it down via donations so it could use it to build more contributions in the future, it could still commit more than it does. What would Jesus do? He’d give and give and give to help the poor, the needy, the hungry, the hurt, the afflicted.

Consider the difference the church could make in, say, eliminating or reducing global food shortages and homelessness. Again, the church and its members do give in this regard and in others. Their church could give more; that’s the thing.

If it did give more goods to do even more good, the positive effect on its reputation would soar. The church wants to do God’s work. It sends young missionaries around the globe to preach the Lord’s happy word, but if those nametagged novices could demonstrate to faith-seekers and disbelievers the tangible deeds the church does, that would open a lot of doors and hearts and minds — and, frankly, even more wallets.

The church has dumped a truckload of research and money into how it can make its message, its presentation and itself more appealing to those who are looking for a clearer path to God. Paving that path with good deeds and abundant donations would make the road easier for many to see and to travel.

Remember, if you give, you get. And the giving and the getting go both ways.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Gordon Monson.

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