A Reuters story released Sunday suggests that if the Mormon Church were a corporation, it would need to change its investment strategy.
The problem with that premise is that the church is different from a corporation, a spokesman for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints told Reuters.
The Reuters story, written by Peter Henderson, categorizes the church's "investment strategy" as "risk-averse," and claims investors "would call for less spending on real estate and more on charitable causes to improve membership growth — the Mormons' return on investment."
While not commenting specifically on the story or the income projections that serve as the basis for its conclusions about Mormonism, LDS Church spokesman Michael Purdy did tell Reuters that such projections are always "speculative."
Since U.S. law does not require religions to provide full disclosure of their finances, many U.S. faith groups — including the LDS Church and the Catholic Church — do not. So within the text of the story Henderson uses words like "estimate," "assuming" and "using those figures as a basis" to signal that Purdy is correct: He is speculating.
Beyond the speculative nature of such projections, however, Purdy said they "do not reflect an understanding of how the church uses its income to bless the lives of people."
The Reuters story vaguely alluded to the LDS Church's recent statement on "The Church and Its Financial Independence," which was released last month in response to a similarly themed story in Bloomberg Businessweek. In that statement, LDS officials outline the church's financial evolution and philosophical underpinnings.
"Those who attempt to define the church as an institution devoted to amassing monetary wealth miss the entire point: the church's purpose is to bring people to Christ and to follow his example by lifting the burdens of those who are struggling," the LDS Church's statement said. "The key to understanding the church is to see it not as a worldwide corporation, but as millions of faithful members in thousands of congregations across the world following Christ and caring for each other and their neighbors."
The LDS Church statement also explains the "five key areas of activity" to which church funds are allocated:
Providing buildings or places of worship for members around the world. "We have thousands of such buildings," the statement says, "and continue to open more, sometimes several in a week"
Providing education programs, including support for LDS universities (including the three campuses of Brigham Young University) and the church's vast seminary and institute programs
Supporting the church's worldwide mission program
Building and operating nearly 140 temples around the world
Administration of the world's largest and most exhaustive family history program
And supporting the church's welfare programs and humanitarian aid, which, according to the statement, "serve people around the world — both members of the church as well as those who are not members."
The Reuters story alluded to those areas of activity in the third-to-last paragraph, but provides no context to help readers understand the extent to which church funds are allocated in each of those areas. While the lack of financial disclosure from the church in these matters would make it impossible to get hard numbers, it would not be difficult to find active, practicing Latter-day Saints who are familiar enough with church policies and procedures to at least give readers a sense of the enormity of LDS Church financial commitments around the world — particularly with regards to the church's far-reaching and impactful welfare efforts.
Instead, Henderson draws mostly from what he calls "concerned or disgruntled current and former Mormons" who claim that the church "spends too much on real estate and for-profit ventures, neglecting charity work." His primary source for information and analysis is Dr. Ryan T. Cragun, a sociology professor at the University of Tampa and a returned LDS missionary who disassociated himself from the church during his graduate studies and who no longer considers himself a Mormon.
In addition to its speculation about donated revenues, the Reuters story also touches on the LDS Church's for-profit businesses, describing them as a "multi-billion-dollar global network." It suggests — inaccurately — that all of the church's senior missionaries "volunteer for its for-profits," which should be news to senior missionaries who are serving as proselyting missionaries or who are serving in church visitors centers or who are serving in one of numerous humanitarian assignments that have nothing to do with the church's for-profit businesses.
The story accurately notes — as the recent LDS statement indicated — that the church's for-profit enterprises are "part of a vast nest egg for tough times."
"The church teaches its members to live within their means and put a little money aside for life's unexpected events," Purdy told Henderson. "As a church, we live by the same principle."
And that is consistent with what last month's church statement said was the "key to understanding Church finances."
"They are a means to an end," the statement said. "They allow the church to carry out its religious mission across the world."