In my post yesterday, I addressed why loyal latter-day Saints should not be part of any movement to push the Church toward greater financial disclosure. You can read that here.
Today I would like to address a different but related issue, which is the many, many practical problems with financial disclosure in a private institution like the Church.
Notice the word “private.” This is essential. Government, which is a public institution, has completely different rules than a private institution. This concept goes back centuries and is part of British common law, which formed the foundations for our own laws. Government belongs to “all of us” (presumably), and because you are part of the institution of “all of us” you should be allowed to have transparency of how government spends its money. So, you can go to your local town hall and ask to see the budget, and everything should be there. I have actually done this, and in every town where I have lived, disclosure is pretty complete. This is a good thing.
Private institutions are not expected to make “complete disclosure.” This is an easy concept but often misunderstood.
Let’s say you and your buddies get together and have a BBQ in your back yard once a week. You have made a private agreement. It is on private property, it involves voluntary, private associations. As long as you are not bothering your neighbors by loud music or yelling and screaming and setting off fireworks at 2 a.m., you are free to keep your private association. Nobody from outside your group can come along and insist you disclose who is paying for what, and how much, and is Joe buying the hamburgers or the hot dogs, and is Alice always making the potato salad. From a legal standpoint and from a standpoint of basic common sense, your private association should be respected.
So, we can agree that outsiders to a private association have no legal standing and no moral standing to demand that members of a private association disclose their financial actions. So, if you are not a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, stop asking for financial disclosure because it is a private institution and has nothing to do with you. Go find something better to do with your time, thank you very much.
How about members of the association? Yes, they can ask for disclosure, but presumably they would only do so in the most extreme circumstances. If Joe at the BBQ is always insisting that everybody disclose exactly how much was paid for hamburgers and potato salad, wanting to see receipts, he is really a busybody, and personally I am not inviting him to my BBQ anymore. He may end up leaving the association.
You see, full “disclosure” for private institutions is always problematic. Many people who favor “full disclosure” or “transparency” within the Church are, frankly, no different than Joe asking to see the receipts at the weekly BBQ — they are just making busy work for other people and asking for things the majority of the people don’t care about. And of course the “transparency” only goes one way: they want disclosure for other people, but are unwilling to disclose things about their own private finances. So, they really don’t want transparency at all — what they want is to cause trouble.
The point is that, in any private association, there are appropriate ways and times to ask for disclosure. If you are a member of a private association like the Lion’s Club, and you suspect your president is pocketing group funds, then, yes, at the monthly board meeting you are probably justified in asking for an audit. But notice that all private groups have ways for this to be accomplished. At the Lion’s Club it may be at the board meeting, at the Church it is a discussion with your bishop and/or stake president or even the high council member responsible for auditing your ward.
Yes, your ward is audited twice a year. What happens is the bishop and the clerk have to prepare detailed, and I mean detailed, accounting for every dollar that was spent. I personally have audited several wards, and we spend hours and hours going over expenses, making sure the receipts are there, etc. If the receipts are not there (and this sometimes happens), we call in the clerk and if necessary the bishop, and the audit is not done until all expenses can be explained. I can attest that controls are in place on a ward and stake level to assure that all money is accounted for. And if it is not, and you suspect something fishy is going on, go to your bishop or stake president or even your high council representative, and the problem will be addressed.
OK, that’s the situation at a local level. How about at a regional or church-wide level? Well, very few people, if any, reading this have any idea how it takes place. And the Church is deliberately opaque about this. We receive a twice-a-year report at Conference that covers things with a broad brush stroke, but we probably would not be able to find out details if we wanted to.
I, for one, am completely OK with this, and I suspect the vast, vast majority of members who go to Church and perform their callings and go to the temple and pay their tithing are OK with this as well. In 15 year as a Church member, I have never heard anybody at church grumbling about the Church’s financial situation. It is always semi-anonymous people (who may or may not be active members) over the internet.
So, why doesn’t the Church disclose all of the details? Here are some reasons I can think of, and there probably are dozens more:
1)It would never be enough for the critics. If the information was disclosed on a regional level, they would ask why not on a stake level or a ward level. They would want every possible detail about every possible investment. They would be Joe at the BBQ on steroids.
2)It would take a lot of time and cost a lot of money. The auditing on a ward and stake level is carried out by volunteers, but the more disclosure the Church makes, the more time and money that must be spent auditing and justifying. Imagine if the entire process were public and every person could question every expenditure. It would be a complete nightmare, and precious tithing money would be spent hiring accountants, attorneys, etc.
3)Private information would be released. Personally, I am not interested in my tithing information being broadcast to the world. But in these days of identity theft, can you imagine the treasure trove of information for scam artists to be gained from private information gathered from the Church?
4)Private information could cause contention. What if spending per person in Switzerland is 10 times spending per person in Ghana? There could be very good reasons for this (like the cost of living), but the Church would spend countless hours justifying and dealing with hurt feelings. Not good.
5)People could base their personal financial decisions on the Church’s financial investments. They would just be following the Lord, right? Well, imagine if they did this and the investment lost money. Again, not good for anybody.
These are just some of the reasons I could come up with. To sum up: if you are not a member of the Church, it is a private institution, and its finances are none of your business. If you are a member of the Church, you do have a stake in it, but is it really all that important? Don’t be like Joe at the BBQ insisting on seeing receipts for the potato salad to see if he spent five cents more than another person. Go find something better to do.