LDS Discussions Blog
Ensign Peak, Tithing, and Why the Church Claims They Hid it from Members (Feb. 10, 2020)
If you're reading this post, you have almost certainly heard of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints holding an investment fund worth around $124 billion dollars called Ensign Peak in recent weeks. The original story was reported by the Washington Post on December 17th, 2019, and the Wall Street Journal did another dive into the Ensign Peak fund this past weekend.
Originally I didn't plan on doing a write-up because it was all happening during the holidays and I just did not have time to write about it, but this past weekend's Wall Street Journal article really articulated what is so frustrating about the church's lack of transparency on finances, and what we've noted when looking at a lot of other troubling topics of Mormonism - they simply do not trust their members with honest, complete information on their history or finances.
To give a better overview of this topic, we're going to refer to the Salt Lake Tribune's coverage of the recent Wall Street Journal article by Peggy Fletcher Stack, because it covers some of the quotes from Mormon leaders along with Ensign Peak about the fund without getting as deep into the weeds as the WSJ article does. As we tend to do, we'll go through it in chunks to cover what the church is saying along with what they're not saying. And on to the article:
"Latter-day Saint officials kept the size of the church’s $100 billion investment reserves secret for fear that public knowledge of the fund’s wealth might discourage members from paying tithing, according to the top executive who oversees the account.
For members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, tithing — donating 10% of one’s income to the faith — “is more of a sense of commitment than it is the church needing the money,” Roger Clarke, head of Ensign Peak Advisors, which manages the denomination’s investing holdings, told The Wall Street Journal.
“So they never wanted to be in a position where people felt like, you know, they shouldn’t make a contribution,” Clarke said."
The Salt Lake Tribune gets straight to the point here, because this is a massive statement and acknowledgement by the Mormon church. Ensign Peak, which manages $124 billion in investments cultivated from tithing funds, is admitting that the church doesn't tell its members about the fund because they know members aren't going to keep paying tithing if they knew the church is sitting on so much money that they could cover every administrative cost for the church with the yearly gains and still have billions left over in gains each year to grow the account.
And do not forget that Prophet Joseph F Smith said this about tithing at the 1907 General Conference: "Furthermore, I want to say to you, we may not be able to reach it right away, but we expect to see the day when we will not have to ask you for one dollar of donation for any purpose, except that which you volunteer to give of your own accord, because we will have tithes sufficient in the storehouse of the Lord to pay everything that is needful for the advancement of the kingdom of God." (In Conference Report, Apr. 1907, 7)
Of course the church (and church apologists) would reply that Joseph F Smith was speaking as a man in that instance, and that $124 billion in liquid assets is not "sufficient" for the church's needs. But if church leaders truly believed that, why not be transparent with the members who are taking their hard earned money and funding the church's investment portfolio? If $124 billion in an investment portfolio is not enough, why not share with members what they've accomplished and let them know what the goal is if the church is truly as 'transparent as they know how to be.'
This is the same exact reason the church refuses to be transparent with members about problems with church history whether it's Book of Mormon translation, Joseph Smith's implementation and use of polygamy and polyandry, or the vast issues with the First Vision as they celebrate the 200th anniversary. If the church truly believed what they were doing was true and good, they would be open and honest and tell every member to research their claims and hold them accountable. Instead we have talk after talk demonizing those with doubts, telling the poor that only tithing can get them out of the poverty cycle, and that they are as transparent as they know how to be.
Back to the article:
"The Journal’s exploration of church financial holdings included interviews with Clarke and top Latter-day Saint officials, including Presiding Bishop Gérald Caussé, the ecclesiastical leader who oversees the Utah-based faith’s vast financial, real estate, investment and charitable operations.
Neither Clarke nor other officials would provide The Journal with details on the size of the church’s annual budget or how much money goes to Ensign Peak. But, the paper reported, they “gave estimates for its main areas of expenditure that, collectively, total about $5 billion.”
In recent years, the church’s reserve fund has grown by about 7% annually, Clarke told The Journal, mainly from returns on existing investments, not member donations."
Again, the church refuses to be transparent with their members as they enjoy the benefits of being a tax exempt corporation. And while that might not be against the law (there are questions of whether it's lawful to be tax exempt when you are not actively using the fund for charitable purposes), it is absolutely against their own definition of honesty. From the church's manual on honesty:
"When we speak untruths, we are guilty of lying. We can also intentionally deceive others by a gesture or a look, by silence, or by telling only part of the truth. Whenever we lead people in any way to believe something that is not true, we are not being honest."
Not only is the church being dishonest by leading the church members to believe that they are “We are not a wealthy people but we are good people, and we share what we have" as Elder Andersen said in 2018, they are taking active steps to obfuscate their financial dealings in order to keep members thinking the church needs their money. When you look at the details of the story along with the church's rationale for deceiving members, it quickly goes from dishonest to reprehensible.
Just last year, Prophet Russell M. Nelson did a worldwide speaking tour where he told members in Africa that only paying tithing can get them out of the cycle of poverty. From the Deseret News: "We preach tithing to the poor people of the world because the poor people of the world have had cycles of poverty, generation after generation," he said. "That same poverty continues from one generation to another, until people pay their tithing."
Not only is that statement simply untrue, it is beyond self serving for a man who knows the enormous amount of cash they are sitting on to tell those who do not have the means that they have to pay tithing in order to not just get out of poverty, but to enter the temple which they are told is essential to their salvation.
Put another way, the man who claims to be the lone prophet of God on this Earth is telling people in the poorest areas of the Earth that without giving the church (worth $124 billion in this one investment fund alone) 10% of their income they not only will never get out of poverty, but they will be denied exaltation for eternity.
I know some believing members will take offense at that characterization, but please tell me where I am wrong. There is simply no statistical evidence that paying tithing brings people out of poverty (anecdotally I have been much better off in my career since I left as have thousands of others who leave the church), and tithing was not enforced to enter the temple until 1899, which is why Prophet Joseph F Smith assured members there would be the day that the church would have "sufficient" money to not require tithing money from members.
Last, the church concedes the whistleblower was accurate when stating their yearly gains were about 7%, which is the benchmark rule of thumb for most investment plans. That would mean the church isn't doing any better or worse than the average, which is what you'd expect from an organization that is run by men. But when Clarke says the gains are "mainly from returns on existing investments," he is being careful not to say that those "existing investments" were made with tithing money. Just as in the Gospel Topics essay on Joseph Smith's polygamy, they are using carefully worded denials when they know full well that they are purposefully misleading their members (and the public) at best.
Back to the article:
"The fund’s handlers are instructed not to invest in industries that Latter-day Saints consider objectionable — including “alcohol, caffeinated beverages, tobacco and gambling,” he said, alluding in part to the church’s health code known as the Word of Wisdom, which bars those substances (although caffeinated sodas are not part of that prohibition).
Some of the stocks in which Ensign has invested millions include Apple Inc., Chevron Corp., Visa Inc., JPMorgan Chase, Home Depot, Amazon and Google, according to the article."
This is no surprise, although I'd just note that if you've never looked at the Word of Wisdom, we covered their recent "Now You Know" video on the Word of Wisdom and you can see how silly the Word of Wisdom is not just in the actual revelation, but the implementation of it as well. But there's really nothing here of note, so let's move on. Back to the article:
"Clarke and former Ensign employees said the firm created a system of more than a dozen shell companies to make its stock investments harder to track. That strategy, Clarke said, was designed to prevent members from parroting what Ensign was doing and to, as the paper stated, “protect them from mismanaging their own funds with insufficient information.”
Church officials described the fund as a “rainy-day account” and to help fund operations in poorer parts of the world — such as Africa, where the faith is booming — where member donations can’t keep up."
Wait, what? The Mormon church created a system of more than a dozen shell companies to make their investments harder to track?
And now that the church has now been caught doing so, their excuse is that it was to "protect them [active members of the church] from mismanaging their own funds with insufficient information?"
This is absolutely ridiculous. The statement here by the church is a flat out lie, and as a member of record I beg any church leader to explain to me how this is not as damning towards their honesty as it appears to be. What member is going to be harmed by seeing that the church has a professionally run investment fund and then attempt to replicate it? Do they not realize that many members have 401K accounts that are run in the exact same way? And yet somehow they don't need to set up shell companies to hide it from the government or their family.
I can't overstate how blatantly dishonest this statement is, and the church absolutely knows how deceptive and insulting such a rationale for creating a system of shell companies to hide their wealth is. This is a true 'liar liar pants on fire' moment for the church, and the leaders of the First Presidency are all in on it. Either they don't have enough faith in you remaining 100% obedient to tell you the truth, or they are so greedy that they would rather lie to keep the money rolling in. There is no faith promoting answer here which is apparent from their terrible answer here.
The church calling the fund a "rainy-day account" is also laughable, because we can see the devastation around the world every day. Children are starving to death every minute, millions upon millions of people have no access to clean water, and natural disasters impact poor countries around the world and yet the church has never once made a charitable donation from this $124 billion account according to the whistleblower account.
Now the church in this case is saying that eventually they will use the money to fund church operations in the parts of the world where they are actually growing at a decent page (where there is a lack of access to Google to research their truth claims), but why would that be needed if paying tithing will bring them out of poverty as Prophet Russell M. Nelson declared to the members just last year? This is so contradictory to what the leaders say today, yet they say it with a straight face because they need members to believe that they need to follow the prophet, no matter how dishonest and wrong the prophets have been throughout the church's history.
Back to the article:
"The church can’t predict “when the next 2008 is going to take place,” Christopher Waddell, second counselor in the faith’s Presiding Bishopric, told The Journal. “If something like that [an economic recession] were to happen again, we won’t have to stop missionary work.”
When the Great Recession hit, however, officials said the church trimmed the budget rather than tap its reserves."
The church here is saying they need the $124 billion for when the "next 2008" takes place so they "won't have to stop missionary work," yet when the 'Great Recession' actually did hit, the church never tapped into the fund nor did it halt missionary work. This is yet another rationale that is contradicted by their past actions, and they are only saying it to try and pacify members who are waking up to realize that this church is not only untrue, but not good, either.
Back to the article:
"Here are some other takeaways from The Journal story:
• Ensign Peak’s holdings include “$40 billion of U.S. stock, timberland in the Florida Panhandle and investments in prominent hedge funds.”
• Latter-day Saint officials acknowledged that it used Ensign funds to underwrite construction of City Creek Center mall in downtown Salt Lake City and rescue Beneficial Life, a church-owned insurance company, but said there was nothing illegal in that.
• Former employees said the fund mushroomed from about $40 billion in 2012 to around $100 billion by 2019.
• Church officials said the global faith, as a whole, gives about $1 billion a year to “humanitarian causes and charities.”"
This big concession here is that the church admits they used this tax exempt fund to underwrite a for profit venture in the City Creek Mall and to rescue Beneficial Life, both of which were originally reported by the whistleblower. The church contends this is not illegal and I am not a legal expert, but I can say it looks awful when a church uses a tithing investment fund to bail out its for profit ventures yet has never spent a dime to help those who truly need it.
And the church claims to give $1 billion a year to "humanitarian causes and charities," yet they do not give details. That should not surprise anyone considering the way they do accounting of these donations. For example, in one instance where we do have some transparency:
The LDS welfare fact sheet from 2009 shows in the years 1985 through 2009 (24 years), the church donated just $327.6 in cash donations but they also count $884.6 million in donations of "material assistance." So in other words, over those 24 years the church donated an average of just $13.65 million a year in actual cash, while *valuing* the volunteer time of its members at $36.85 million a year.
In 2016, "Dallin H. Oaks of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles said that each year The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints spends about $40 million on welfare, humanitarian and other LDS Church-sponsored projects around the world and has done so for more than 30 years." (Deseret News)
That lines up with the information outlined from the 2009 release, and it also lines up with the church's announcement last year at General Conference that that have given $2 billion over 34 years through this fund. So how does the church go from claiming $2 billion in donations over 34 years (which is overwhelmingly based on service hours that are converted to donation amounts) to $1 billion per year as church officials are claiming just months later? There might be ways to get there with creative accounting such as including what the church gives in assistance to members on the ward level, but remember again that local help is heavily funded by members on the local level and is also a way to evade the matter at hand which is how the church handles tithing contributions.
Back to the article:
Debates about Mormon finances and the question of transparency have persisted for decades but were triggered again in December by a “whistleblower” complaint filed by David Nielsen, a former portfolio manager with Ensign Peak, and reported by The Washington Post.
In a complaint filed with the IRS, Nielsen accused Ensign of taking in billions from members’ tithes and other donations and not spending any of it over a 22-year period for charitable purposes. He urged the agency to strip the denomination of its tax-exempt status, saying Ensign may owe billions in taxes.
The church’s governing First Presidency — made up of church President Russell M. Nelson and his counselors, Dallin H. Oaks and Henry B. Eyring — rejected any allegation of fraudulent behavior, insisting in a news release that the faith “complies with all applicable law governing our donations, investments, taxes and reserves.”
We covered this above so we won't rehash this much here. The church literally created over a dozen shell companies to hide their finances, so please forgive me if I don't believe the church's prophets when they declare the church “complies with all applicable law governing our donations, investments, taxes and reserves.”
Back to the article:
Church leaders may be right to worry that the financial revelations could have a negative impact on tithe paying.
Carolyn Homer, a Latter-day Saint who lives in Virginia, told The Journal that after she heard about the money held by Ensign Peak, she resolved to tithe less and give more to other charities.
After The Post piece, Patrick Mason, head of Mormon studies at Utah State University, told The Salt Lake Tribune that stories like this “will undoubtedly trouble many church members and lead them to wonder whether their charitable giving is best directed toward an institution that reportedly has a stockpile twice as large as Harvard’s endowment.”
Why wouldn't more members want to be like Carolyn and donate their money to local causes that will actually use the money to help others? The members who take their tithing money and donate it to local animal shelters, food pantries, or children's programs are doing the work that the church claimed to be doing when demanding 10% of every member's income.
Even apologist Patrick Mason isn't trying to sugarcoat the juggernaut that is the church's excess liquid asset holdings, and the fact is that Harvard's endowment is actually being used to help people while the church's Ensign Peak fund has only been used to help the church's own businesses.
I don't really know what more to say here, because Carolyn is actually doing something more in line with what the Bible teaches about helping those in need than the church that claims to speak for God. And while we can point to a laundry list of items that show this church is not true, this is a big reason you know that the church is not good.
Back to the article:
Others may not be as concerned.
A recent Tribune/Suffolk University poll revealed that while a majority of Utahns, from across the religious spectrum, support the idea of requiring tax-exempt religious organizations to publicly report their finances, barely a third of “very active” Latter-day Saints do.
That suggests “a remarkable level of trust in church leadership,” Sam Brunson, a professor of tax law at Loyola University in Chicago, told The Tribune, “not just on spiritual/religious matters but also on more mundane secular matters.”
This is a very interesting poll, because it implies that the more active in the church you are, the less transparent you want them to be. It's very similar to polls regarding impeachment - the more loyal you were to Donald Trump, the less likely you were to want witnesses or documents to be produced.
So, yes, it is a remarkable trust in church leadership. It's the same reason that many believing members refuse to read anything that questions the church, which for many includes church sources and even the Gospel Topics essays. When we shut down critical thinking, it allows those who claim authority from God to abuse that trust over and over again, which we have seen from the days of Joseph Smith promising exaltation to marry the young daughters of early members through today with finances, interviews with children, or shutting down questions about church history.
That might seem flippant to those who are active members, but the bottom line is that the survey referenced is making the point that the more entrenched in the church you are, the less transparent you want them to be. While some may look at that as a good thing, I actually think it's another instance where we can see that the church is not only untrue, but not good either.
The final section of the article:
Clarke also told The Journal he was “misunderstood” by Nielsen, who asserted that Clarke had said the church had mustered the money for Christ’s Second Coming. Latter-day Saints, like many Christians, believe there will be a period of war, hardship and natural disasters before Jesus comes back.
“We believe at some point the Savior will return. Nobody knows when,” Clarke told the newspaper. When it does happen, “we don’t have any idea whether financial assets will have any value at all. The issue is what happens before that.”
Julia Miner, a retired tax attorney in the San Francisco Bay Area, is proud of her conservative Mormon tradition of frugality. But there is a time, she told The Tribune on Saturday, to use resources to help and lift people.
“Isn’t amassing wealth and then saving it the equivalent of ‘burying talents,’ that Christ condemned in the biblical parable?” Miner asked. “At some point, saving needs to be converted into good works and charitable giving.”
This is another area where the church is trying to obfuscate the problem of hoarding $124 billion in liquid assets while bailing out their own business ventures and not using any of it to help those in need.
Do you really think when Jesus comes back to Earth that he's going to congratulate Russell Nelson on leaving those in need out to dry while accumulating a stock portfolio for his return? I mean it's just so nonsensical that I can't believe they even try that line of thinking, but when you're caught with your hand in the cookie jar you say whatever you can to get out of the situation.
And the funny part about the quote is that many church leaders thought they knew when Jesus was coming back, but they just happened to be wrong. If you read the early patriarchal blessings, many early members were told they would see Jesus before they died, because they truly believed they were in the final years before his return. You can Google patriarchal blessings about seeing Jesus before you die and read them, which is yet another example of why this church has no more connection to the divine (or revelation/discernment) than anyone else. Just as every generation is told they are the chosen generation by the church's prophets, the carrot is always being dangled that time is running out in order to cultivate obedience.
As for the idea that the $124 billion is for the years leading up to Jesus' return, I also think that is a ridiculous notion. If we truly believe that the world is going to fall into chaos before the second coming of Christ, does the church really believe that stocks and bonds are going to hold value then? In other words, if Clarke is contending that he was misunderstood because money will likely have no value when Jesus comes back, does it make rational sense that money would hold value in the years leading up to it if the world truly falls into chaos?
This story makes me angry because we have all seen and heard of countless examples where families skip buying food or paying their bills to make sure they pay their tithing, because without it the church cuts off their membership to the temple. And the concept of tithing in the Mormon church wasn't always like that and it was never supposed to be like that according to Prophet Joseph F Smith. The very idea that you you need to give 10% of your income in order to enter an LDS temple for the chance at exaltation is also a big red flag to the church's truth and goodness claims.
There are families that are struggling and continue to pay tithing because they were taught that the church needs it more than they do (and that the prosperity gospel will reward them with blessings to make up for it), and yet church leaders have been lying to every one of these families about the church's own means. And when they get caught, they lie about why they withheld the information from these very members who are padding the account for them.
That the church implies that they created over a dozen shell corporations because they were afraid members would either stop paying tithing or try to replicate their investment scheme is abhorrent just as the church hiding their true history from members even in the year 2020. With the 7% annual return they are getting, they could fund the entire church (approximately $5 billion a year) and still have well over $2 billion left over each year. Even if the stock market dropped 30%, they would *still* have enough to fund the entire church and not need a dollar more from that one investment fund alone - not even counting their for-profit ventures, vast real estate portfolio, or massive land purchases such as the gigantic ranch in Florida.
Obviously I no longer believe in the truth claims of the church after researching the historical and doctrinal topics, but I am still a member of record who has contributed to the church's wealth. I remember when I first got married how tight money was, and thinking that the 10% we gave to the church was not even needed makes me feel betrayed considering we added stress to our lives so that the church could pad their bank account.
I feel terrible for the members who have been contributing their entire lives only to find out that not only did the church not need the money, but that they aren't even using it to help those in need. Imagine giving up a vacation because you needed to send those tithing checks in only to find out that the church earns about $24 million dollars per day in gains alone.
Or imagine that you had a health emergency and couldn't pay the bills, because instead of creating a rainy day account of your own, you gave that money to the church and now have to rely on family and friends to bail you out because your money is now sitting in the church's investment portfolio?
Or how about the many active members who not only give 10% to the church, but contribute fast offerings each month (or more) only to find out that the church earns a million dollars on the gain alone every single hour, and yet instead of using it to help those in need, they ask you to contribute more instead of being selfish and using it for worldly things such as a family day out or a weekend trip with the kids.
As Deuteronomy 14:28-29 makes clear, the church is supposed to use the tithes collected to actually help those in need:
28 At the end of every three years, bring all the tithes of that year’s produce and store it in your towns, 29 so that the Levites (who have no allotment or inheritance of their own) and the foreigners, the fatherless and the widows who live in your towns may come and eat and be satisfied, and so that the Lord your God may bless you in all the work of your hands."
If Jesus does come back, I can't wait to see his reaction when the leaders of the church that claims to speak exclusively for him explain that they hoarded all of the cash they could instead of helping the very people they are commanded to help in the very Bible they (incorrectly) use as justification for collecting tithing from their members in the first place. I will never claim to speak for Jesus, but it's beyond clear that the leaders of this church never have either whether it's claiming God called the Native Americans Lamanites from Israel, that dark skin is a curse from God, or that God changed his mind in just 3.5 years on treating LGBT members as apostates.
Whether you're a believing member or have left the church, the only thing I can say is that if you want to continue tithing, follow the Bible and use the money to help those around you whether it's a children's program, a local animal shelter (always a favorite of mine), or a food pantry. Those organizations will not only help people in need with the money, but they will be transparent about how they spend your money. And any organization that threatens to take away your exaltation for helping local causes instead of their investment portfolio isn't worth your time, money, or worship.
As we've pointed out in countless pages on this site and others, the church will never be true. We can prove that over and over again whether it's looking at DNA and the Book of Mormon, the Book of Abraham, or how Joseph Smith retrofitted the priesthood restoration or First Vision to establish authority.
And, sadly, as we see with the way leaders shut down critical thinking, demonize those who research it, and hide information from its members, the church will never be good, either. No organization that truly exists to help every child of God would create over a dozen shell companies to make sure the world can never find out what they have, and no organization that tells you that you will be eternally separated from your family unless you keep giving 10% to them is worth your devotion.
There are many reasons that the church is losing more members today than they have since Kirtland according to church historian Elder Marlin K. Jensen, but one of the biggest is that even in the year 2020 and in the age of Google, they still refuse to be honest and open with their members. Whether it's hiding church history, changing what the meaning of translation or 'curse of dark skin' is, or hiding finances in over a dozen shell companies, the leaders of this church simply do not believe that members will stick around if they are honest about their history or practices. And as we're learning more and more each day, they are right to fear that, because if you're willing to approach their history and practices in the way you approach any other organization, product, or belief, you will realize that not only is the church demonstrably false, but it's actually not very good, either.
As we usually close out these posts, I want to mention how difficult it is to take in this new information and changes in policies, and we understand how painful it is to process. Please email us anytime at firstname.lastname@example.org if you would like more resources to learn about these issues or if you are looking for people that you can safely talk to as you continue your faith journey. And please email us if you disagree with our post - we welcome all comments!