Monday, June 24, 2013

The Dead and the Living

A response to criticisms of LDS church finances as regards temple work, proselyting missionary work, and care for the poor

I've heard and read criticisms of LDS church finances since I first started reading any materials beyond the Sunday School and Missionary approved lists. I never felt able to take the criticisms very seriously. They typically implied some level of greed or misconduct among the general authorities who decide on the administration of the funds, and I completely fail to see the evidence for such insinuations or accusations. But recently I read a critical blog post that moved me.

On the Rational Faiths blog, Paul Barker wrote compassionately about the good we, as a church, could do if we diverted resources from temple work and proselyting missionary work to care for the poor and the needy. Paul's voice represents many scattered Latter-day Saints who love the LDS church and want it to become an even better, more compassionate institution. His feelings reflect one reason some Latter-day Saints give for leaving the LDS church. I felt, as often happens to me, very inadequate in how little I give to the millions in extreme need. I felt again the discomfort of my comfortable life, and how much more I could do if I would live more simply and frugally. And I really felt that my church, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, could do more if it changed its priorities from possibly ineffective and unnecessary aspects of temple work and proselyting to supporting projects designed to bless and save the poor of this world. The changes wouldn't obviously even hurt proselyting or temple work. We could just be less extravagant in those efforts.

With Paul I hope, and ask, that the LDS church will once again be open with its finances and that it will make more financial decisions openly. I hope it will give more financial power and discretion to women. But there was one sentiment expressed by Paul that particularly troubled me. He felt that he could not justify the expensive building of temples when there are so many poor in the world that could have their lives changed drastically with just a small portion of the money that goes toward temple building. I took his question seriously, and asked myself if I could justify it. I want to offer the fruits of my reflection in the hopes that they might be helpful to compassionate people, like Paul, who wish we did more as a church.

First, in offering a this-world-only justification, I want to tell a story of service. It might seem a bit like a "story problem" to some of you, but if it helps anyone love statistics and math more, I'll view that as a positive side effect (one of my personal articles of faith is that the world would be a better place if more people had more practice at quantitative reasoning). In a second post, I want to offer other justifications shared with me by my believing parents, and some thoughts inspired by their feedback.

This topic will be treated in two posts. Both posts are aimed at an audience who values membership in the LDS church. The first addresses the topic of LDS church finances--particularly as regards helping the poor--from a pragmatic, this-life-only perspective. The second draws heavily from comments solicited from my parents and a couple of friends, and examines many assumptions made, either explicitly or implicitly, by those of us who criticize LDS church finances. I believe the things I have written in both, and accept full responsibility for my words, although I'll happily give credit for anything good I write to the individuals who offered me their thoughts.

Our story of service

Mormons spend a lot of time at church. In the United States, "Active Mormons", as we call those who attend church regularly, spend about 35 hours a month volunteering for stuff, and over half of it (57%) is for religious purposes in the church. That's 242 hours annually from 95% of Latter-day Saints spent on religious activities that have no tangible benefit to society. That leaves only 187 hours a year for "church-affiliated volunteering to meet the social needs of members, church-affiliated volunteering to meet the social needs of people in the community regardless of LDS membership, and volunteering outside the church to assist people in the community." Imagine the social good they could do if they got rid of all the hours spent proselyting, teaching boring lessons, giving interviews, taking an hour to make 5 minute decisions on what needs to happen next sacrament meeting or next ward party, going to the temple to baptize dead people that could do it themselves after the resurrection, and visiting people in their homes to exchange pleasantries and lessons they could read themselves, that they've heard before, and that their kids will be itching to run out on.

Let's try a thought experiment. Let's get rid of most of the meetings, interviews, weekly activities, temple work, lessons for Home and Visiting Teaching, and other stuff that doesn't meet social needs--either in or out of the church. Seems like we'd be a lot more like the average American, and have loads of time freed up to fill more social needs of people in our communities. We'd have the 15 hours a month we already spend on people's social needs, plus most of an extra 20 hours a month. And America is one of the most volunteer oriented countries in the world, I've heard. Americans certainly do a lot more that the Italians I met. It wasn't part of Italian culture. I even heard people say things like, if I did that for free it would be taking somebody's job away. So we Latter-day Saints could be like Super Americans, volunteering so much more than the average . . . wait for it . . . four point something hours a month to anything at all! Oops. We are already Super Americans.

My Inductive Leap

I'm going to bring up a subject I don't know much about, although I'd wondered about this before in vague ways. At the Mormon Transhumanist Association 2013 Conference, Joseph West spoke about authenticity and resource mobilization. He made what seemed an uncontroversial claim, that to mobilize vast resources a movement must give its members a sense of authenticity. If the LDS church is going to ask me for so much of my time and money, I have to feel like I am authentically Mormon and that being Mormon has authentic value.

I don't know exactly how this works out with finances in the LDS context. The same study I cited on volunteer hours found that the average U.S. Latter-day Saint donates $1,821 annually to social needs of others, partly through the church and partly not. I don't know how this compares to the average American (they didn't say, and I haven't searched), and it doesn't include tithing (as best I can tell). Maybe we could do a lot more for the poor, financially, if we spent more of our tithing money on the poor and less on proselyting and temples. That is a real possibility, but think with me a little longer.


In second semester calculus classes you have to solve optimization problems. You have multiple variables, and you want to maximize your output. If you increase variable X, say the percentage of money that goes to social needs, you give more and more to the poor. But you have another important variable Y, say the number of people that are giving some percentage to the poor. If you increase X but it causes Y to decrease a lot, then you end up giving less to the poor. In an organization as complex as the LDS church, there are myriad variables and many goals competing for resources. Let's go back to the question of giving our time. It would be great if we spent less time on inefficient religious activities and more on social needs of people in and out of our communities. But it is important to remember that with all the religious service we require of active members, the LDS church is somehow getting us to give nearly four times as much service to social needs as the average U.S. citizen gives. To the critics of LDS finances, I have a challenge--how do you propose we might increase our total financial giving to the poor and the needy while maintaining the sense of authenticity that allows for the mobilization of vast resources? The sense of authenticity created through missionary work, temples, and the financial sacrifice required by tithing?

Of course, you can't answer the question. I wish you could, and hope our books will open up soon so we all can answer it better (if still not fully, since the number of variables is likely too great). I do understand the criticism about the billions spent on temples and a mall, but maybe these are variables that maximize spending for the poor. Maybe downtown Salt Lake City and Temples are things that give Mormonism authenticity. Maybe without them there wouldn't be so many people giving as much, or as little, as we do to the poor.

Closing Thoughts

I guess that sounds like a hand-waving defense of the status quo. It is a recognition of my own limitations of knowledge and judgment. I like to think of it as hope and trust in the goodness and wisdom of God and my church leaders, and also as a starting point for an alternative critical approach. I would like to see changes in church finances. I think all Latter-day Saints would like to do more for the poor. Some aren't willing to do it at the expense of the work for the dead. They really care about the billions of dead that Mormonism promises to bless. Others are ready to walk away from the LDS church because we don't do more for the poor. Here's the question I hope we can answer: How can we make the fourth mission of the church a bigger part of our LDS identity? How can we make caring for the poor and the needy a bigger part of what it means to be authentically Mormon? The church won't change overnight, but maybe we can figure out how to shape what it means to be Mormon?

I looked at some of the details of the study referenced in the news article at the top. There are a couple of things we could do better. We ask our most educated members to do a lot of purely religious service. Maybe if you are one of those members, you need to set limits. You need to say, yes, I will teach this class, but I will only spend this much time preparing, because I'm trying to figure out how to serve the poor and needy more. I'm not very good at it, yet, but I need time and space to figure it out, so I'm not going to put in much time on this calling. If you feel you need to call someone else, or to call someone to share the load with me, I will understand.

I'll make a personal confession. I loved my mission, and I love the temple, but I haven't donated to those funds in 10 years. When I give extra, it goes to fast offerings, the perpetual education fund, and the humanitarian aid fund. I won't cut back on my tithing (I've offered to let my wife choose what to do with her half, separately--we do this with non-tithing donations), but I'm going to give the money I have stewardship and discretion over to what I value most (I don't really consider tithing as mine, so I'm trusting the leaders on this).

An Invitation

I'd like to make an invitation: to those like me who claim Mormonism as our authentic home, let's change the emphasis. Let's give the fourth mission of the church the attention and support it deserves. Let's give more airtime to the teachings of Brigham Young when he says we have to save people temporally if we want to save them spiritually. Let's talk about building Zion, with no rich and no poor among us, every chance we can. Maybe let's start a new holiday when we celebrate this mission? I never followed through on celebrating Consecration Day like a few of us on a Facebook post talked about, but maybe we could try again? Anyone interested?

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