Mormonism as a Business

The latest edition of Newsweek has a story about how the presence of Mormonism has grown in popular culture, business, and politics. Among all that has been said by the article, what stood out most was the comment, “The result is an organization that resembles a sanctified multinational corporation—the General Electric of American religion, with global ambitions and an estimated net worth of $30 billion.” [corrections follow for the rest of the paragraph]This is far from the first time that magazines used that kind of description. Another magazine, Time had a blue evening picture of the Salt Lake Temple on the magazine cover with the words “Mormon Inc.” plastered on top. They aren’t the only ones to describe the Church as some kind of business venture, but it has been a staple for the way to talk about the LDS Church for years. It is also inaccurate and perhaps offensive.

The leading reason for this way of looking at the LDS Church is because of the two concepts of Tithing and Hierarchy. Members are required to pay 10 percent of income as a religious provision. Beyond that, the LDS Church owns various profit making businesses and land holdings. No doubt that brings in a lot of cash making it very rich. It also has a top down leadership that doesn’t give much autonomy to congregations like more loose religious organizations. That makes it suspect to those who see religion as completely personal. They are used to the less controlled Protestant model. Accurate on a superficial level, the “business-like” description of Mormonism ignores the spiritual meaning and purpose of its existence.

Why is Mormonism always described like this, and the Catholic Church, for instance, is not? Granted there are critics who do, but not as consistently and with abandon. It leaves visions of a soulless corporate culture, greedy bosses, tedious rules and regulations, and out of control materialism. The use of the business metaphor strips the LDS Church and its members of spiritual significance. More than likely those who stick to this label don’t appreciate, and even scorn, how believing Mormons approach the religious experience. Arguably, a lot of people believe church organization (not just religion) is an important part of worship. Presbyterianism was formed out of rejecting the single rule of a Bishop, but still has a very structured body politic that controls church governance. Careful observers have noted that the LDS Church is a mixture of centralized authority with a democratized laity involvement.

Finance gathering isn’t very different from one form to another in churches, although how it is used can be a contentious issue. Jesus was reprimanded (see Matthew 26:6-13) for how he allowed a woman to use a very expensive ointment. It might be true that the LDS Church is among very few, if any other, that has payment as a religious obligation. Yet, passing a plate or begging for donations ends up with the same outcomes of earning potential to sustain a large organization. Centralized or at a local level, a degree of materialism is necessary for a church to survive no matter the degree of spirituality.

Charitable donations and less business approaches don’t guarantee lack of corruption and abuse. Televangelists come to mind as scandalous money hungry religious figures, but hardly ever accused of profit motives unless caught. Paid ministers and clergy might earn a lot or not much. The religious organizations they belong to aren’t considered businesses, though the LDS Church is called such even when as a whole it contains a non-paid ministry. The stipend associated with life-time leadership is comparatively little compared to the grand amount of capital supposedly gathered in some bank vault.

Assuming that the LDS Church is a business out to make money, there is nothing more than vague conspiracy theories to explain why it would want the money. I suppose money means power, but their is scant evidence of much influence outside Utah and parts of Idaho. A few political advantages beyond those small Mormon populated areas is an anomaly and not standard. In fact, the number of members is far more important in use of influencing power than how much money is invested. Years ago in the mid 90s, the Arizona Republic did a large story on the finances of the LDS Church in hopes of uncovering its monetary worth and any questionable practices. The findings noted that what it did with its money (large as the estimated wealth) seemed in line with stated goals and purposes. Most surprising to them, and highly unusual for such a large money wielding organization, was the lack of waste and impropriety found in the investigation.

The truth is for those who care to use the term “business-like” in describing the LDS Church, the religious organization is both different and not unusual. Below the surface of the highly organized hierarchy and wealth is a people and leadership who take their religion as a spiritual investment very seriously. It may not have the awe inspiring grandeur of the Catholic Church, or the firebrand preaching of Southern Baptists, or contemplative awareness of Quakers. Still, there is a hint of each within the doctrines, practices, and worship services that can be too subtle for outsiders to notice. To be sure, there are believing members who can get caught up in the mundane and material aspects and lose sight of the spiritual. Ultimately, the hoped for end product is the age old making of Saints out of sinners. No amount of money or board meetings can create that. It takes faith. The preaching and living by example of the top LDS leadership is evidence they know this.

15 thoughts on “Mormonism as a Business

  1. “Why is Mormonism always described like this, and the Catholic Church, for instance, is not? Granted there are critics who do, but not as consistently and with abandon.”

    It’s worth pointing out that the Catholic church is constantly painted as an evil, powerful, corrupt group out to get peoples’ money. Just watch “Godfather III,” where Michael Corleone buys off the Pope or read Dan Brown’s books or any of a dozen different thrillers/movies where the Catholic church is seen as evil, rich and powerful. In terms of sheer volume, the Catholic church is certainly beaten down more than we are.

    Having said that, there is a tremendous amount of hypocrisy among the critics. They have no problem with the Church helping the poor but never stop to think that it takes resources to help the poor and helpless. We were among the first charities to arrive at the Katrina hurricane site. Why? Because we have literally dozens of trucks filled with emergency supplies ready to go. That takes resources. It takes resources to send aid all around the world, which we do.

    Having served on a high council and in a bishopric, I have seen the auditing procedures to make sure that nobody is skimming money. The procedures are overwhelming. It would be extremely difficult for anybody to get away with taking any money at all. Every penny must be accounted for, and there are several levels of auditing.

    So, to sum up, I have no problem with the Church’s efforts to bring the gospel to the world and the Church’s financial support system.

  2. Mr Geoff, you should probably go over to Wheat and Tares and explain that to a lot of the people that frequent that blog. A lot of them haven’t come to grips with the fact that we live in a capitalist society and that we need money to do things. This isn’t ancient Palestine. This isn’t a short term vagrant ministry.

  3. Geoff makes a good point about the criticism leveled at the Roman Catholic church.

    I agree that it’s wrong to view the LDS Church as a business, but there’s no denying that it appears to be run like a business. And not just “appears,” because in some ways it really is run like a business. That “style” is off-putting to some—including me, at times—as you briefly mention in your last paragraph.

  4. Glad to see the Wheat and Tares discussion is being noticed.

    I am repeatedly struck by how common is, and how often Mormon scriptures warn us about, the temptation to corrupt priesthood into priestcraft — to get gain unto ourselves. Evangelicals often accuse Mormons of believing that Jesus and Satan are brothers, because the JST of Genesis paints such a stark picture — literally the difference between heaven and hell — between the way of Christ and the “give me the glory” motivation of Satan to do good.

    It’s so easy to let preserving the church substitute for the end to which it was created.

  5. When speaking of the church’s net worth (not mentioning any specific amounts), church leaders of the past used to say they were largely “income consuming” assets, not “income producing” assets.

    That was in reference to the church properties consisting of chapels and temples. Even with all the donated labor for cleaning (and a little landscaping), buildings require huge maintenance budgets. Contractors have to be hired for grass cutting and most landscaping, regular carpet replacement, etc. Roofs have to be replaced every so often. Painting has to be done. Remodeling has to be done once in a while, replacing furniture, pews, light fixtures, sound system, toilets, etc. Those things don’t last forever.

    Utilities (gas, water, electric) for chapels in North America, even small ones, run at least $3,600 /month, going up from there. Commercial trash-removal (dumpsters). Insurance. (Even though the church is largely self-insured, a significant amount of money has to be set aside for a reserve.)

    Depending on size, temples can have even higher maintenance costs.

    Chapels and temples come under the “Facilities Management” arm of the church, and there are plenty of full-time employees there too.

    Then you have the missionary system. It costs money to run all those MTC’s around the world, housing and feeding several thousand missionaries at any given time. It costs money to fly missionaries around the world, which is not included in the current $400/month missionary ‘dues’. It also costs money to maintain mission offices and mission homes (the mission office is often separate from the
    mission president’s home).

    Mission presidents who are not retired often get a stipend to support their family, and pay their home mortgage, because they are not working at their normal job those 3 years.

    Then you have the Church Educational System, with paid full time teachers and administrators. Plus all the buildings associated with the system. (And yes, I know many are also non-paid.)

    Then you have BYU with 3 campuses to maintain, and for which the tuition does not even pay 1/2 of the cost of a student’s education.

    Then you have the welfare system. Even with donated labor, there are still a lot of paid employees working in that system, and bishops’ storehouses and warehouses (Bishops’ Central Storehouses) around the country that cost a lot to maintain. Plus the cost of all the food and other goods distributed to members at no cost to the member.

    Then you have all the employees at the various divisions of church headquarters administering all the above, plus other areas I haven’t mentioned, such as curriculum, translation, magazines, visitors centers.

    So yeah, it is a bureaucracy, and it SHOULD be run in a “business-like” way, in order to be responsible, accountable, and efficient with sacred funds.

  6. Mostly what the Wheat and Tares group is critical about is that the LDS Church has profit making ventures. They seem to believe that it has no business running anything for profit without some kind of large ministerial (mostly to the poor and needy) purpose. Of course, the second biggest criticism over there is that the LDS Church doesn’t open the books for the world to see. Frankly, I wouldn’t trust the world to see it either. As Geoff B. pointed out, there isn’t need for this transparency. If there were misuses and abuses of the funds then the lower lay leadership would take notice of aberrations.

    I will give them the first criticism as valid, but only if their assumptions are correct and I don’t believe they are. Not to the degree that they make a fuss about. The information they point to as a “percentage” of charity versus profit is, I believe, not close to the whole story although they somehow assume that it is for whatever reason. Because the LDS Church isn’t open to the public for scrutiny they can claim that there isn’t enough of the profit money going to charity. Yet, they can’t really know other than what the LDS Church did release that doesn’t seem to have any actual context. Personally, and I can’t know this any more than they can, I think the bulk of what they do as charity remains hidden out of a Christian belief that its better to quietly do good than herald it for all to see.

  7. I was in an Elder’s Quorum meeting last week and someone suggested that if the Mormon’s in our local area contributed a lot of money for the temple fund maybe we could ask the church to build us a temple in our local area. (For now we have to drive 1-2 hours to the closest temple.) From my experience I would think that such a suggestion would run counter to Mormon culture. If know that the exceptable way to influence leadership to drop a temple in your neighborhood is (1) increase the number of members with temple recommends and (2) increase the number members going to the temple from a local area. I’ve seen this happen in other areas where towns that were relatively small and not-wealthy received temples long before other areas because of this. The suggestion was a good idea, but I know it wouldn’t fly with the Mormon top-down hierarchical leadership. Which underscores to me the observation I have that the Mormon church seems to be only interested in money in that is helps them reach their primary mission, and is not a mission in of itself. I don’t think the Mormon Church as a corporation is a good description of what is really going on.

  8. Why is Mormonism always described like this [i.e.: business-like], and the Catholic Church, for instance, is not?

    Um, because to a large extent the LDS Church has a much more corporate-style structure (quite intentionally based on the G.M. model, when the first big push for correlation was going on several decades ago). Also, the way finances are handled in the Catholic Church is very different. It’s possible to sue a Catholic diocese, for instance, but not an LDS Stake. Everything is so centralized in Mormonism — much more like Apple than Microsoft/HP/Dell/etc. The business comparisons are so frequently used because they are so frequently apt. But, yeah, the organization of the Catholic Church is very, very different; the Pope connot wield nearly as much control as the LDS Church President.

  9. jettboy, Interesting post. I’m sure by now someone has pointed out that it was Time who had the Mormon, Inc. cover, not Newsweek. (The Wheat & Tares post you cite has a picture of it.) I’m sure the editors of those magazines would like you to give credit where it’s due. 😉

    You make some interesting generalizations (for instance about how the Catholic church is viewed) that seem to be perception rather than based in fact. I suspect if I were an active Catholic, I would be more atuned to their treatment in the press. I do acknowledge that they end up being the backdrop for lots of great fiction as Geoff points out.

    I think we would likely be treated less like a business in the press if we acted less like one. I’m not saying we should do that, but it’s easy to see how people see us when we also tout our high-flying successful business success stories. (I acknowledge that the recent Business Week article did not come from the church, but it mirrors an attitude that it easy to see, especially in upwardly mobile suburban wards across the US.)

    To be sure, the church is a complex organization and needs to find a way to do its work on a global scale. The fact that one can find similar curriculum in South America and Southeast Asia is remarkable, and comforting to those who move from one place to another. The fact that priesthood ordinances are consistent worldwide is of course essential to the gospel. The fact that programs such as the welfare program of the church bless lives in Africa and Albequerque is impressive to me. And certainly the church’s revealed form of governance allows that happen.

    In the end, it matters little how others think of us (except as it may affect our missionary efforts). What matters far more is what the Lord thinks of us. Are we moving his work forward? Are ordinances being performed? Are the poor cared for? Are we serving one another?

    These things may happen without the central command-and-control structure in the church. But they also can happen within that framework.

    BTW: The central point of that other blog you cited was the question of whether the church should invest a certain portion of its for-profit proceeds in humanitarian efforts or not. It’s a valid question to ask, though with the data available it’s hard to assess whether we’re doing it or not.

  10. Time, Newsweek, its all the same to me. Point taken at any rate that they are different magazines. I would also say that regardless of if the blog cited had the question of for-profit proceeds used for humanitarian efforts, my point in the comments was actually, “with the data available it’s hard to assess whether we’re doing it or not.” Of course, most of the comments there take it for granted that the LDS Church isn’t.

    “I think we would likely be treated less like a business in the press if we acted less like one.”

    On the other hand, I think we would be treated less like a business if writers would stop with the making of stereotypes. As my post states, there is truth in it, but I think its more nefarious than simple descriptive.

  11. I end up thinking we are between a rock and hard place. With the structure as it is, it’s easier to track and audit and have reporting structures, etc. If it were all more random, there would likely be more waste, and then people could criticize that.

    I think what the Church does is remarkable. I also am impressed that it is constantly looking for ways to reduce waste/save money, etc.

  12. Having some income-_producing_ assets like businesses and property (farmland, commercial real estate, etc.), and a large cash reserve, is a smart move on the part of the church. That income, and cash reserve, or liquid assets, serve to protect the income-_consuming_ assets such as BYU, CES, chapels and temples. If there were to be a world-wide depression and then tithing were to drop way down, those reserves and separate income stream could serve to keep the church afloat in bad times. Reserves could be drawn down, or assets sold off, or, better yet, some of those income-producing assets might be depression-proof.

    People who are criticizing the church for having cash reserves or income-producing assets (businesses) don’t know what they are talking about, and don’t understand the financial needs of a world-wide organization.

  13. The church is also creating more new chapels all over the world, especially in 3rd world countries where the tithing income doesn’t come anywhere close to paying for that construction (yet). In order to fuel that construction, the church needs lots of tithing from the developed countries. If business-income can help that along, even better.

    If the church members want to see chapels, temples, MTC’s, CES all over the world, the money to construct, maintain, and operate all those has to come from somewhere.

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