Hey guys, so in a past episode, we got a bird’s eye view of the history of the financial status of the Church. Tithing donations from members have always been the Church’s primary source of support. But, the Church is also involved in a wide variety of investments and businesses, which a lot of people have questions about. So let’s talk about it.
Alright, so, why is the Church involved in for-profit businesses? “Historically, two purposes have characterized Church participation in business: to provide important services to the community that might not otherwise be available, and to provide a reasonable return on the resources of the Church.” On the Church’s website, we read, “The Church holds business interests that are primarily an outgrowth of enterprises which were begun when the Church was isolated in the West. The commercial businesses owned by the Church help serve the needs of the Church in accomplishing its mission.”
For example, when Latter-day Saints came to Utah, they needed means of communication, so the Church started up the Deseret News. Farmers needed a cash crop, so they got involved in the sugar beet business. Brigham Young got tired of retailers price-gouging the Saints, so the Church started up ZCMI, which stood where City Creek Center Mall now stands — and if you want to dive more into that topic I’ll leave some resources in the YouTube description.
Scholar D. Michael Quinn wrote, “… the LDS church has rarely had financial profit as the motive for starting even the most ambitious business. In fact, from 1933 to 1961, First Presidency Counselor J. Reuben Clark continually cautioned against Church enterprises making too much money, which would be profiteering at the expense of those whom Mormon enterprises seek to benefit, the average Latter-day Saints.” “Until 1933 Mormon-owned or -controlled businesses were mostly a drain on the church’s resources, driving it to the edge of bankruptcy.”
Now, let’s talk about investments: “The Church maintains diversified reserves — including common stocks and bonds, interests in taxable businesses, commercial and residential real estate and agricultural properties — to provide financial support for the Church’s ongoing and future operations. .… Each year, the Church sets aside a portion of its funds to save and invest.” If there’s a tithing surplus for the year, at least some of that money goes into the Church’s reserve until it’s needed.
Church leaders are not hiding this reserve under their mattresses. In Biblical terms, they do not bury the talent that has been given to them. In 1991 President Gordon B. Hinckley said, “Prudent management requires that this money be put to use. In that process, we have purchased and hold some good, productive farms. They are well operated under capable management, and they yield a conservative rate of return. We have felt that good farms, over a long period, represent a safe investment where the assets of the Church may be preserved and enhanced, while at the same time they are available as an agricultural resource to feed people should there come a time of need.”
For example, the Church owns a massive ranch near Orlando, Florida, called Deseret Cattle and Citrus. The Church also invests in various companies like Google and Home Depot — though they try to keep that information private in part because they don’t want members just blindly investing in everything the Church invests in, thinking it’ll all be financial butterflies and rainbows.
As we talked about in our last episode, the financial history of the Church has not been one of butterflies and rainbows. It really wasn’t until the tenure of N. Eldon Tanner that the Church was able to really get its finances in order. “Within two decades [after 1963] he established LDS headquarters as a financial powerhouse, with significant annual income from both its investments and businesses.”
According to a 2020 article from the Wall Street Journal, the company that manages many of the Church investments, Ensign Peak Advisors, “ballooned from a shoestring operation in the 1990s into a behemoth rivaling Wall Street’s largest firms.” It is reported that the Church’s EPA investment portfolio is now worth upwards of 100 billion dollars.
The fund became controversial after a former EPA employee complained to the IRS that the Church was doing something illegal. The Church released a statement denying the claim. So far, the IRS hasn’t investigated, and probably won’t. That said, while most people would agree that having reserve funds makes sense and is important, some people nonetheless feel that the Church’s reserve fund is exorbitant. Some feel the Church should be doing more right now with those funds, instead of saving them for future needs. Others see the Church’s relatively recent financial success as quite faith-promoting. They’re grateful that the Church is financially secure, and applaud leaders for being wise financial stewards.
As for me, like J. Reuben Clark I acknowledge that leaders are not infallible in their financial decision-making, but as a believing member of the Church, I do give them the benefit of the doubt. Frankly, I don’t have the full picture of the Church’s financial obligations, expenditures, and future projections, so if the Church chooses to save and invest my tithing until the time comes when they feel it’s needed, I’m OK with that. I pay my tithing because I believe this is God’s restored Church and it’s part of a commitment I have made with God. Of course, I want leaders to use it in inspired ways, but my decision to pay tithing is not conditioned on how perfectly or imperfectly they choose to use it.
Of course, you are certainly free to come to your own conclusions. If you want to dive deeper into this topic, as always, check out the resources in the YouTube description, watch some of our other videos while you’re here — Similar to the last episode, this one has been rather broad. There’s still plenty we’ll probably talk more about in the future. But until then, have a great day!
- “Church Finances and a Growing Global Faith” news release from the Church (fantastic Q&A format that offers a good review of Church finances): https://bit.ly/3Ix3RhV
- Many Church-owned businesses are managed by Deseret Management Corporation, which you can learn more about on their website here: https://bit.ly/3IOhkSe
- “LDS Church Finances from the 1830s to the 1990s” by D. Michael Quinn: https://bit.ly/32bpFQp
- “N. Eldon Tanner and Church Administration” by John P. Livingstone (BYU Studies): https://bit.ly/34HfOTg
- “The State of the Church” by Gordon B. Hinckley (April 1991 GC): https://bit.ly/33AC7K3
- “Finances of the Church” via Encyclopedia of Mormonism: https://bit.ly/33nI6lr
- “Business: Church Participation in Business” via Encyclopedia of Mormonism: https://bit.ly/3rQKLfM
- “Church Finances — Commercial Businesses” via the Church’s website: https://bit.ly/3q9JUXZ
- “The Church and Its Financial Independence” via the Church’s newsroom: https://bit.ly/3f5eYBU
- “LDS Church Real-Estate Holdings Include Farms, Ranches, Buildings” by Deseret News: https://bit.ly/3Fs0sif
- ‘Old-Fashioned Virtues Keep Church Thriving” via the Financial Post (interview with N. Eldon Tanner), pub. July 3, 1976: https://bit.ly/32iwcsB
- “Church responds to allegations made by former employee in IRS complaint” via Deseret News: https://bit.ly/3Ijjc5c
- “$100 Billion In Mormon Till Does Not Merit IRS Attention” via Forbes: https://bit.ly/3tDR20M
- “Religion and Economics in Mormon History” by Leonard Arrington (BYU Studies, 1961): https://bit.ly/3KMvOUF
- If you want to dive really deep into this topic, you may be interested in D. Michael Quinn’s book, “The Mormon Hierarchy: Wealth and Corporate Power”.
- Here’s a good interview of Quinn on the Mormon News Report podcast: https://bit.ly/3o6NaSt
- “Mormon leaders and Salt Lake City work together to transform land” via Deseret News: https://bit.ly/3rXoHjP
- More City Creek Center questions and answers here: https://bit.ly/3u90Os0