As a young missionary, the Lord saw fit to inflict on me one the greatest trials that can afflict a Latter-day Saint: He forced me to become educated about Church financial controls and auditing procedures. Thus, I spent nearly a year of my mission as the financial secretary. To some it is give to proclaim the Word with the trump of angels, and to others it is given to reconcile the petty-cash fund, distribute living allowances, pay the rents for missionary apartments, supervise the purchase of new refrigerators, and prepare for the audit of the Presiding Bishop’s Office. I was definitely in the latter category, an amateur accountant for God.
The problem is that once you are in, it is difficult to ever really get out. Since returning from my mission, I have tried to keep a low profile about my financial-service past, but in the end God always catches up with you. Having invested the time to get you comfortable with Church procedures, you know that He is going to tap you for the clerk’s office once again. And so it happened when I moved into my current ward. After years under cover, I had grown sloppy and I let it slip in conversation with the bishop that I spent most of my mission as a financial secretary. A short time later, I was called as an assistant ward clerk. Hence, I spend a couple of Sundays each month reconciling the books after church and going with a member of the bishopric to deposit the tithing and other donations in the bank. It is a fairly elaborate system with lots of redundancy and monitoring. No doubt it keeps many a bishop away from the temptation of sticking his hand in the till, but it does mean that I get home from church rather later than my wife would like.
One thing that service as a financial clerk has shown me, however, is that the Church — particularly Church headquarters in Salt Lake, where all of the money is sent — is a massive engine for the redistribution of wealth. Without going into any detail, suffice it to say that the fiscal demands of my ward are far exceeded by its fiscal contributions. As a result, it sends respectable sized chunks of cash to SLC each week, cash that is not sent back to Northern Virginia. Likewise, as a missionary in Korea, I saw money flowing into the mission’s coffers each month. It far exceeded the contributions made by missionaries or their families. All of this has pounded home for me a simple fact: The primary effect of tithing is to move money from rich people to poor people.
The Church no longer publishes financial statements. That practice stopped when it ran into financial trouble in the wake of a building orgy under President McKay, but it does produce a fair amount of information on the demographics of church growth, all of which points toward one basic fact: The people who are joining the Church tend to be poor. What this means is that the Church’s fiscal liabilities are growing faster than its fiscal resources. This — rather than breathless exposes of the Church’s “wealth” — is the central economic fact about the Church today.
Serving as one of God’s bookkeepers has taught me two things about the economics of the Church and the gospel. First, to the extent that we see Church organization as telling us something about the mind of God, what seems to be primarily on His mind is the transfer of cash from rich to poor. I suspect that He would prefer that we went and did likewise to a greater extent than we do. Second, the economics of God’s work are difficult. The fiscal challenges faced by the Church are big. They are real challenges. I have faith that God will provide, and I don’t expect to see bankruptcy filings. However, those fixated on the wealth of the Church are missing the picture.
It makes me happy to think of all of that money leaving the suburbs of Washington, DC and going to build temples in places like Mexico or Ghana. However, it is precisely this dynamic that is, I suspect, the central economic challenge of the Church today.