Among the distinctions the LDS Church is known for are its missionaries in white shirts, its towering temples and saying next to nothing about its money.
After all, the Utah-based faith doesn’t have to reveal much about its wealth in the United States and many other locales around the globe.
But, in a few countries, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints must make public at least some basic information about the revenue it collects, the money it spends and the assets it owns.
In the United Kingdom, for example, the church reported to the government there that it baptized 1,951 British, Scottish, Welsh or Irish converts in 2010. That equated to $605.29 per convert, according to a line item for what the LDS Church said it spent on missionary work.
“Even not many church members in the U.K. know about these reports,” says Chris Mace, who for about 10 years has monitored Mormon finances from his home in Huddersfield, England.
For his new book, “The Mormon Hierarchy: Wealth & Corporate Power,” noted historian D. Michael Quinn obtained the LDS Church’s financial disclosures for 2010 in six countries that require churches or charities to make such filings: Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the Philippines, Tonga and the U.K.
The reports discuss only church finances in those countries and are not uniform. The U.K. filing was 40 pages, Quinn notes in the book.
The New Zealand document had just three pages, providing the accounting basics — income, expenses, assets and a few subcategories of each.
But the reports are enough to offer a peek at how the Salt Lake City-headquartered church spends money abroad. The combined assets in those six countries added to $1.8 billion in 2010. They include cash, investments and real estate like a stake center (regional meetinghouse) in view of Australia’s Gold Coast, the Mormon temple south of London and hundreds of chapels across the six countries.
Help from abroad
The Salt Lake Tribune converted all the figures in the reports to U.S. dollars based on the exchange rates Dec. 31, 2010. There are more recent reports available, Quinn says in an interview, but he chose to compare 2010 for a variety of reasons, including it being 180 years after the church’s founding.
The historian, who was excommunicated from the LDS Church in 1993 for his writings about early Mormon polygamy, says he was most struck by the money church leaders in Utah directed overseas. Of the six countries, only Australia did not report a supplement from headquarters in 2010.
The church in Canada received $166,728, while the Philippines got $63.8 million — 85 percent of its revenue.
SUBSIDIES TO LDS FOREIGN CONGREGATIONS IN 2010
New Zealand: $17.1 million
Philippines: $63.8 million
Tonga: $12 million
United Kingdom: $1.8 million
Source: D. Michael Quinn
Even in a developed country like the United Kingdom — home to almost as many Mormons as in Canada — headquarters sent $1.8 million in 2010, indicating that the church infrastructure exceeds what the locals can support. That and the other subsidies lead Quinn to assume the U.S.-born church is subsidizing its work and wards in Africa and Latin America, too.
Based on some general statements Mormon apostles have made through the decades about the church’s income from profit-making corporations and members’ tithing, Quinn says, the source of those subsidies must be offerings from Americans and the businesses the faith owns.
Every time a meatpacker buys cattle from a church-owned ranch in, say, Florida, a retailer leases space at downtown Salt Lake City’s City Creek Center, or a Mormon purchases a novel at Deseret Book, Quinn explains, they are helping the nearly 16 million-member faith expand overseas.
“My conclusion,” he adds, “is the international church could not exist to the extent that it does with buildings and services were it not for the commercial investments and for-profit businesses of the LDS Church.”
A spokesman for the LDS Church declined to comment for this story.
Mace agrees with Quinn’s conclusion. In the U.K., he says, the church is trying to support between 1,000 and 2,000 missionaries and a slew of meetinghouses in one of the most expensive countries in the world.
Mace notes the church recently bought a site for a chapel near the Tower of London. The land alone cost about $15 million in today’s U.S. dollars.
“If they want a chapel in prime real estate,” Mace says, “they’re going to have to pay for it, and U.K. members aren’t paying enough tithing to pay for that.”
On the payroll
None of the reports specifies what individual LDS Church employees earn. (Congregations are staffed by lay leaders.) However, in Canada, the church was required to give the salary ranges for the 10 highest compensated employees.
According the report, one earned up to $299,999; another received up to $199,999; six received up to $159,999; and two got up to $119,999.
While the reports offer far more detail than what the LDS Church shares about its U.S. finances, they still leave some Mormons wanting.
Gina Colvin is a Mormon scholar and research fellow at the University of Canterbury in Christchurch, New Zealand. She reviews her faith’s filings in that country.
Colvin points to figures showing how, some years, the church has reported about nearly half its expenditures are for employees and contractor pay. The average church worker appears to be making more than $56,000 a year (U.S.), about 1.5 times the average New Zealander’s income.
Colvin also questions what happens to local tithes. She has found the average ward in her country tithes about $100,000 a year in New Zealand currency. Yet many congregations have budgets of only $5,000.
“So where’s the other $95,000?” Colvin asks.
The LDS Church website explains that members give their tithing donations to their local lay leaders.
“These local leaders transmit tithing funds directly to the headquarters of the church, where a council determines specific ways to use the sacred funds,” it says. “This council is comprised of the [governing] First Presidency, the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles and the Presiding Bishopric.”
These funds, the website adds, “are always used for the Lord’s purposes — to build and maintain temples and meetinghouses, to sustain missionary work, to educate church members, and to carry on the work of the Lord throughout the world.”
Still, Colvin worries that member money is being steered toward real estate projects, especially one in which the LDS Church closed the Church College of New Zealand, in Hamilton, and has plans to develop the property for private purchase. Many locals were critical of the decision to shutter the school.
“While I don’t have any questions about the accounting responsibilities [in the church reports], I do have questions about the ethical and moral responsibilities to its member stakeholders, which seem not to be a question anyone in church leadership is willing to answer,” Colvin says. “We are supposed to give without question, and right there are some red flags.”
Quinn understands the desire for more transparency, but he cautions Mormons against criticizing the LDS Church’s commercial ventures. Apostles long have preached that making profits builds the overall church, Quinn says, and the foreign filings appear to support that.
“Theologically,” he says, “the business of Mormonism has always been business.”
Correction • Oct. 15, 1 p.m.: The average salary of LDS Church employees in New Zealand is 1.5 times as much as that of the average worker in that country. An earlier version of this article misstated that percentage.