A story about LDS Church finances

LaVarr Webb

The financial standing of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has attracted a lot of attention lately.

As a church member, I don’t mind the focus on church finances. It’s all part of becoming a successful worldwide organization with an increasingly high profile. You get big, you attract antagonists. That’s life. 

I’m proud to belong to a church that manages its finances wisely, that saves substantial amounts, and whose members are happy to voluntarily make generous donations to the church for its worldwide mission.

I am disappointed when irresponsible falsehoods are spread around, such as those contained in an opinion column by a church critic published in the Salt Lake Tribune on Dec. 22.

I’ve had some experience with the way the church uses its finances and I want to tell a personal story.

A number of years ago, I was the bishop of an LDS congregation in the downtown/inner city area of Salt Lake City. In that capacity, it was my solemn responsibility and opportunity to help hundreds of people in need. As bishop, I authorized expenditure of church funds amounting to thousands of dollars each month to help church members, and many who were not church members, with food, clothing, housing, utilities, counseling, medical bills and other basic needs.

I had been working with a very nice person for a few years who, years previously, had been in a serious automobile accident and suffered from serious health problems. A lot of support from the church had been given to this person over the years, especially for medical costs that weren’t covered by Medicaid.

After many surgeries, pain and problems persisted, and additional surgery was needed. The out-of-pocket cost was going to be about $12,000. I sought help from a variety of sources to help with the cost. Personal and family resources were very limited.

I called the surgeon and explained the situation. He agreed to do the work at a substantially discounted rate. But after everything I could do to get the price down, it was still about $8,000. I was very concerned about spending that much of the church’s fast offering funds. I lost a little sleep worrying about spending $8,000 for one medical procedure, in addition to the very substantial amount of money I was authorizing every month to help other people.

Following church financial guidelines, I consulted with my stake president and he said if I felt certain the expenditure was needed, to go ahead. So this good person received the needed surgery.

About a month later, I got a phone call from a number I recognized as coming from church headquarters. I immediately thought, uh oh, a church official is calling about the 8,000 bucks I spent on one person. And I was right, although the conversation was quite different than I expected.

The church representative identified himself as someone from the welfare services department. He said the expenditure, as it was a large amount, had been flagged. Then he thanked me for helping the person in need. I briefly described the situation, and he completely surprised me by saying something like, “I want you to know that if additional medical work is needed, and if the cost exceeds what local leaders can authorize, please call me and I’ll help you get what is needed.”   

That was a remarkable experience for me. Never once in my five years of helping hundreds of people, including a lot of homeless people, and spending tens of thousands of dollars a year, was an expenditure questioned by church leaders.

Sometimes the church is criticized for spending “only” about $40 million a year on humanitarian projects and services across the world. But that doesn’t tell even a small part of the story. By far, the largest share of church humanitarian aid is contributed at local levels by local leaders in church wards and branches for direct support of people in need.

I don’t know what that total amount is, but I’m aware that my stake spends around $1 million a year helping people in a small central city area of Salt Lake City. I assume that amount is substantially above average for the nearly 3,400 stakes all over the world. But if the average is half the amount spent by my stake, it’s still about $1.7 BILLION contributed at the local level each year. If it’s a third that amount, it’s still over $1`billion. I have no idea what the actual amount is, and the church is modest enough not to make it public.

But it’s clear that the church is very generous in its humanitarian mission and helps many hundreds of thousands of people. What’s more, the money, for the most part, is spent wisely and compassionately, helping people solve immediate problems, develop skills, get jobs, and become more independent.

I, for one, applaud the church’s financial practices.