New Zealand Mormon Church Finances: A Case Study

Last Sunday our RS teacher asked, “What prevents us sharing the gospel with others?”.  My immediate thought was, “Nothing prevents me from sharing the gospel, but a thousand things seem to prevent me from actively recruiting for the church”.

We have a wonderful ward, full of very bright, thoughtful and open-minded women.  A couple of months ago one of the more mature women in our ward stood and expressed her gratitude for the church for the support it gave her over the years as she coped with the challenge of raising two lesbian daughters.  The church for her was her soft place to fall in a world of judgment and bitterness.  When our current RS president taught a lesson she once famously stated with legendary fervor, “If you go home after our services today and have a smoke, guess what?  God still loves you!!”.  And so I had no hesitation raising my hand and sharing my thoughts.

“I don’t recruit other prospective members because I’m still confused about my religion. There are things I love about it but there are things that bother me.  Why would I bring anyone else into this mess?”

Trying to be helpful, a sister missionary from the Utah Valley lent over and asked me what problems I had in particular.  “Too many”, I replied. “But right now, the use of church finances bothers me”.

“Why so?” was her next question.

 “Because I can’t reconcile the fiscal behaviour of the church with its stated theological position.  There is a moral dimension to financial behaviour and I can’t resolve the gospel of Jesus Christ with the laissez-faire, neo-liberal, free-market financial ideology of the church.  I’ve tried, I can’t, end of story.  If it wasn’t so deeply American I think there would be some space to rethink its fiscal operations.  As it is – I’m ashamed of it, and in the case of the City Creek “let’s go shopping” fiasco there are $3billion USD more reasons compounding my suspicion and disappointment.”

I’ve blogged about this before and I’m doing so again in response to the ripples currently occurring in the US as a result of the last week’s media event over the church’s finances.   Look, I can deal with historical inconsistencies in the record.  I’m into discourse analysis – I understand somewhat how stories are told, untold or retold over time.  Our language is always constituting social realities and reforming them.  As W.I Thomas observed, “if people define situations as real, they are real in their consequences.”   But the way that money is harvested from its members and used in the operations of the church gets my goat, and that issue is with us now and needs to be addressed.

I’ve watched thousands and thousands of dollars flow out of our coffers into  those little brown envelopes now for years.  We’ve given up meals (as students), we’ve tried the patience of power companies with late payments so that tithing could be paid first, we’ve scrimped on family holidays and thought twice about music lessons, while at the same time being more generous with the church than we have been with our supply of healthy food for our dinner table.  Having said that however, the giving doesn’t necessarily bother me.  However, the fact that I don’t really know what I’m giving to after making these massive sacrifices of thousands and thousands of pingers a year bothers me considerably.  So lets do a breakdown of the New Zealand church finances – just as a case study.  At least here in New Zealand we get to publicly audit the annual return – which is more than can be said for that silly  ‘Corporation Sole’ entity that is the US church.

Lets look out the New Zealand Church income for the 2010 financial year:

I note the receipt from the Church Head Office in the USA is approximately $20m.  Because there are no notes attached to it I can only surmise that it has something to do with the operational costs involved with the management of the church in the Pacific Islands.

Here is the statement for church expenditure in New Zealand for the same period:

So lets see how this shakes down with respect to the NZ tithing receipts specifically:

  • Average salary per employee (at 149 EFT positions)         NZD$109932.00  (USD $87500.00)
  • Percent of NZ tithing receipts used for remuneration:  49%
  •  Percent of NZ tithing receipts used for administrative, general and operational costs:  61%
  •  Percent of NZ tithing receipts used for the stated purposes of the NZTB as a registered charitable entity:   19%

With increasing attention paid to the church’s finances as a result of a Bloomberg Businessweek article the LDS Newsroom produced a press release (12 July 2012) to explain their financial activities.  They are as follows:

So if these are the stated key areas of activity supported by the tithing funds, why is it that in the New Zealand context they don’t report on these five key areas in their annual returns?  Furthermore, given that these are the officially stated purposes for tithing, the annual return of the New Zealand church should surely address the following questions:

  1. How many buildings are currently being constructed, repaired and refurbished in New Zealand and what is the cost?
  2. What education programmes are being offered in New Zealand since the closure of CCNZ?
  3. How much does it cost to run the seminary and institute programme given that only a handful of folk are actually paid and the rest are volunteers?
  4. Given that we aren’t constructing any temples in New Zealand at present, how much does it cost to maintain and operate the Hamilton temple?
  5. What is New Zealand’s welfare programme and how much does it cost to run?  At the ward level our welfare programme has consisted of our bringing a few cans every week and contributing it to the Bishop’s storehouse.
  6. How much does the church contribute to humanitarian aid and what are those causes?  If an organisation is seeking financial assistance from the church how might they go about doing that given that the church doesn’t publish a process on their websites?
  7. How much does the church contribute to each local unit?  Is this a fixed sum or percentage or is this amount decided from year to year?

Looking at the 2010 annual return therefore,  it would seem that none of these key areas of activity are being directly and specifically addressed and there is still the question of the huge amounts spent on salaries for bureaucrats on the North Shore who we never see and have little idea as to their job descriptions or the services they offer.

Now lets do a comparison:

The Anglican Diocese of Canterbury spends 40% of their income on remuneration.  That is a 9% difference from our own organization AND theirs is a paid clergy, all of whom are available for community and parish work on a full-time basis.  My assessment of the Anglican Diocese (Cathedral politics aside) is that they are community focused, run several important social services, are fiscally transparent, and use their resources to make themselves locally relevant.

My assessment of the New Zealand LDS church is that it is bloated with petty bureaucrats who lack the kind of accountability that is required by us at the stake and ward level when we front up on a yearly basis to declare ourselves financially generous.   There is a problematic murkiness in their expenditure on wages, salaries, operational and administrative costs that they need to come clean about.  Their annual returns are woeful and reflect a sense that they imagine themselves to be a Corporation Sole, and merely ‘tick-box’ their public obligations as a New Zealand registered charity.

In April this year the Commerce Minister, Craig Foss called for higher levels of transparency and accountability from registered charities in New Zealand.  This, he suggests,  should be in the form of a requirement for the church to complete an audit or assurance engagement.   I’m hoping that Takapuna are paying some attention to this and don’t decide to shift the Pacific HQ off-shore in order to escape the kind of scrutiny that is so desperately needed.

So, my suggestions are these:

  1. Use local suppliers. There is too much Auckland and SLC control over contracts for good and services.
  2. Devolve more administrative work down to the local level.
  3. Contract out non-ecclesiastical professional work in a transparent tender system.
  4. Keep more money locally so that units have the resources to develop community services.
  5. Make a General Handbook of Instructions for Church employees available to the ecclesiastical units of the church so that they can see who does what and why.
  6. Institute contribution levies on more wealthy stakes to an international or domestic fund that poorer areas can access giving them the same level of church services as anywhere else in the world.
  7. In New Zealand work closely with the Charities Commission (now included in Internal Affairs) to ensure that the church operates on all levels like a charity.  A concerted effort to disentangle themselves from ‘Corporate Sole’ thinking also needs to be made so that we can feel locally relevant rather than somehow wedded to an American corporate monolith.

I’d personally like a church that I can be proud of particularly in the way in which it uses its money.  To me that includes more than being the perfect corporate entity with stock and property holdings enough to prop up a small nation and invest heavily in the retail sector.  It includes being able to explain to prospective Mormons – “If you go to the NZ Charities Register you will see that our donations are used for the betterment of our society,  and for the enrichment of our communities”.     At the moment any evidence of this is very, very difficult to apprehend.

And BTW – if you are in the NZ church offices – your Annual Return for the 2011-2012 financial year is late.

Saving Zion from America: Theorizing in the aftermath
Digesting the Dehlin Drama: Thoughts in the wake
The 15 Ailments of the LDS Church (With a hat tip to Pope Francis)
Room For All In This Church

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