Tuesday, December 17, 2019

On the Church's Investment Accounts

The Washington Post recently broke a story that a Church holding company, Ensign Peak Advisors, is allegedly holding more than twice as many assets as Harvard University's endowment fund. The story broke because there may be tax implications: there is mixed historical precedent over whether an organization such as Ensign Peak can qualify for its tax exemption by virtue of its alignment with the Church, which has a religious purpose granted special status under US tax law. There may be a related arcane legal debate: can saving for a future theological vision constitute a religious purpose on its own?

These questions, however, are not the reason anyone outside of tax law is interested in the story. People are interested in the story because wealth is fascinating and fraught. It is doubly fascinating and fraught when mixed with religion, and triply so when a concentration of wealth comes in a group outside the cultural mainstream. The Church's finances, made all the more alluring by the shroud of secrecy around them, make juicy gossip. Mix that basic instinct with the respectability that comes with philosophizing or moralizing about what should or should not be and it will be very hard for many people--myself apparently included--to resist the temptation to say something.

And so say something I shall. Maybe three things. What I think as a tithe-payer, what I think as an armchair philosopher, and what I think as a person with a deeply Mormon imagination.

My View as a Tithe-Payer

One angle on this story is to ask what a person who contributes 10% of their income to the Church might think about the Church's financial practices. I've seen people ask: if you were a stockholder in a company with reserves of that size, how would you react? If you had sent money to a charity only to learn it already had such a large reserve, how would you react?

I've paid tithing faithfully all my life. I can't answer those last two questions, though, because neither applies to tithing as I have always understood it. I don't see myself as a stockholder in the corporation of the Church. I don't see myself as a donor to a charity. I mean, I get that the money goes somewhere, but for me, the existence of any Church-related corporate structures has essentially nothing to do with tithing.

I don't pay tithing for the Church. I pay tithing, like Jacob in Genesis 28, as a spiritual practice. I pay because I believe it's good for me to mark my relationship with God by giving away a tenth of all I'm given. A symbolic returning. A confession.

If the Church disappeared tomorrow, I would still believe in giving up a tenth. And I don't mean just as a target contribution to society. If it came to it, I believe it would have spiritual value--and yes, I've thought about this before--to pile one tenth of my income on a stone altar and burn it.

I would watch the smoke rise heavenward. And it would be worth every dollar to be reminded that money creates only an illusion of control. To enact my understanding of our fundamental vulnerability to the universe. To embody my trust in a God behind it all.

Look: I'm not saying I want Church leaders to act like Samuel's corrupt sons in the Bible or anything. But even if they did: that's on them. I wouldn't feel like they'd conned me by telling me the stories of the long-ago nomads who had visions and started this whole thing. My tithing is not about the conduct of bureaucrats in suits. It's an old secret between me and Jacob's God.

My View as An Armchair Philosopher

It's not just the mystic in me who is drawn to the hypothetical image of burning dollar bills. The armchair philosopher, who runs a bit revolutionary, is intrigued by the idea too. Money as we know it is, after all, some strange sociology. What makes these scraps of paper in the pocket, or a certain pattern of ones and zeros in a screen, so horrifically potent anyway? Maybe the occasional cash fire would do us some good. Put things in perspective.

No, the armchair philosopher in me is more interested in the grey area between sacrifice and barbecue. What made the ancient Israelites decide that some of their sacrifices should go up entirely in flames, while some sacrificial meat was set aside for priests and some shared among the people?

On a practical level, I totally get it. If you're going to sacrifice animals, you might as well cook them sometimes. It can feel nice to eat with the group. Hungry bellies can be filled. And even having priests fed by the sacrificial meat and not by raising all their own food frees them up to do priestly things. Surely the value of shared meals and a specialized civic class offset the risks of gluttony or corruption.

And yet....what if the barbecue ends up messing up the sacrifice? After all, once it's a barbecue you'll always have to wonder whether it's God who wants the fire or if a priest is just hungry. And once you're counting priests or parishioners, there will be the risk that you start to feel like it's the size of the sacrifice not the fact of the sacrifice that matters. That throwing a bigger barbecue is the real point.

It sure feels like a point. To see you're bringing people together. To fill grumbling bellies. Why shouldn't you count them? It sure feels like a point.

You are a provider. That's your job. And it's the job of the priests, or else of the community at large, to ensure that the barbecue is well-organized with no cutting in line and feeding people with maximum efficiency.

What's vulnerability got to do with it?

My View from a Mormon Imagination

What does vulnerability have to do with it?

If as a tithe-payer, I focus on my own fundamental vulnerability, my own absolute decision to place myself under the mercy and the majesty of the nomads' God, as a Mormon I can't help but wonder how that plays out at the level of the kingdom.

My tithing may not be my money anymore once it's left my hands, but I still kind wonder what the Church--not as corporation, but as kingdom of the Prince-in-exile, does with it. Some of those questions are evergreen: when does not expense fall under the same ritual category as Christ's funeral ointment and when should it be saved for the poor? Like: are the pews I sit on, or the weird carpet on the walls, a justified expense? Or are those things just the cultural reflex of a people without greater openness to light and knowledge?

Some of the question saved tithing funds raise for me, though, are quite historically and eschatologically specific. I'll be honest: when I hear about the Church's assets, I kinda wonder if that money means the fulness of the Gentiles has come. That is: I wonder if God wants money gathered from the more affluent northern nations of the world like the Egyptians' jewelry, transferred over to the remnant of Jacob as the global Church shifts its gradely steadily (perhaps prophetically!) south.

And that's just one sign of what will come before the end. We can measure the changing seasons but we don't see the signs of the times. Is this endowment intended for us to grapple with the growing consequences of climate change for vulnerable members in the years to come? Has anything in our historical experience prepared us to calculate what we'll need in a future where human excess has caused the elements to melt with fervent heat?

Look. Maybe I'm crazy. Maybe Ensign Peak Advisors is just a bunch of middle-class Americans in ties. Or, more charitably, a bunch of children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren of people who saw the Church pressed to its financial limits by events ranging from its postwar expansion to the pressures of the Raid and US government seizure of assets.

And yet: I can't help but wonder if there's more going on with the corporate entities associated with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints because I have more than a corporate imagination. More on my mind than the relative sizes of Harvard and the Church's reserves and outlays, the tax traditions of how one might measure a year's balance sheet against a broad scope of mission.

Maybe the Church is holding onto too much money out of corruption or out of past conditioning. Or maybe the Church is holding onto a thoroughly reasonable amount of money relative to the tasks it will undertake in the next generation and only the shortness of American accounting gives us pause.

I don't know. It's not money, even though a bit of it was once my tithing.

Left to my own devices, I might've burned through it years ago.


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