Sunday, August 26, 2012

Why I think

The recent article on the LDS church's financial holdings was very interesting.  There are several reasons why I'd like the church to be a little more forthcoming on the subject of their finances.  It all boils down to eliminating a financial mythology of the church that seems to float around quite a lot.

Examples of the such mythology include the belief that the church has no professional clergy (many General Authorities have salaries from the church).  I actually attended a Stake Conference once where a speaker tried to claim that members of the church should strive for financial strength because General Authorities must have generally been able to retire early to be able to donate so much time to the church.  When you consider that they are actually paid employees whose job it is to minister God's word and administer his kingdom, that little myth falls to pieces.  Also, when one thinks about how many general authorities have salaries it really takes the wind out of some of the holier-than-thou-we-don't-have-priestcraft talk.

Another example of financial mythology is the idea that the church welfare program is somehow magically immune from overhead costs.  I've heard it claimed in various Sunday school meetings that since the church is obviously a volunteer only church that it must be impossible that any of our fast offerings or tithing money might be getting drained off to pay employees or to keep buildings running or build anything.  Sometimes this belief seems to be coupled with a belief that any non church run charity is somehow tainted by evil, typically in having operating costs that are so large that hardly any money is spent on doing good.  Sure you can find a fake charity anywhere you look if you try, but that doesn't mean the church doesn't have operating costs in its welfare program.  Every bishops store house in the world has to pay for its utilities, probably rent, and probably has at some level a core staff of paid individual who keep the place running.  Volunteers helping to reduce costs is wonderful and certainly a big part of the picture.  The trucks and planes that transport our charity goods are operated by paid individuals, their vehicles use gas, and have to be services by mechanics.  Those costs are not totally eliminated by donated time.  Or take LDS family services.  Their psychologists and counselors are paid professionals.  When you visit them (even to complete a church mandated missionary evaluation) you pay them money (unless the Bishop is footing the bill with the ward welfare money).  Sometimes the church even takes its welfare money and sends it as international aid channeled through other international charities based on which ones have the best access to an area.

There is also the mythology that church officials are above suspicion for the handling of church funds because a prophetic system of church governance would weed out any incompetent's before they could do any serious damage.  Early church history clearly shows a pattern of money not being handled well and priesthood designated channels for money being accepted or spent being occasionally unskilled or unscrupulous.  Elders would go abroad seeking donations for building the temple that often never made it to the temple building committee because the Elder in question would borrow it for his own use before it made it to the church.  I believe there was even an incident where the church proposed that little oversight needed to be exercised over a group of individuals handing church funds because they were men of good character.  Later in a General Conference they were brought up for trial before the church because they had allegedly mismanaged funds.  The charges were dropped on the basis that it turned out no malevolence was involved, the people in question just weren't skilled accountants who couldn't have kept the books right if they tried (the only skilled one having left to do something else and abandoning his calling).  This history makes it clear there isn't something heretical about questioning whether church funds are being put to the best use or wishing to know what the church does with the money it has.  A divine institution is still filled with normal people who often do the best they can.

Certainly there would be difficulties in having more disclosure and there would be limits and procedures in place to determine what should be disclosed.  But that is no different than any non profit organization that has to publish the basics of its finances because of tax laws.  Disclosure could even lead to its own set of mythologies as members of the church might start making purchasing and financial decisions based on the church's financial posture.  But disclosing the church finances in the proper tone could prevent the worst of such problems.  If Joseph Smith hadn't advertized with Kirtland Bank with scripture quotations it might not have been a big deal.  Similarly, if church financial enterprises are explained in a sober and low key manner in which it is clearly stated that the church's stock market holdings and trades shouldn't be considered as a prophecy it should prevent a lot of people assuming that the church's financial dealings are somehow doctrinally binding.

Some publicity might result in the church membership pondering whether certain industries and financial arrangements even make sense as part of the mission of the church.  This shouldn't be faith shattering to anyone if its handled right.  Instead of fighting to keep the church's financial dealings as private as possible, having to clearly explaining why a church enterprise fits into the mission of the church might help the church refine its focus away from things that might not matter.  The real faith quelshing problems aren't generally ones where church members might be hurt by the truth (unless someone in church administration has made mistakes that are made unmentionable by the unquestionable authority of priesthood power).  Generally its a lack of answers to questions that is faith shaking.  If making Salt Lake downtown more beautiful and culturally vibrant is financially more important (worth more of the church's money) than feeding the hungry in Africa, I'd like a good explanation why from church leaders I can trust.  A "trust us we're doctrinally authorized to do whatever we want" spurs more questions, not faith.