Friday, March 5, 2010

Do You Know Where Your Heart Is?

I'd like to voice my congratulations to members of the LDS Church and my thanks to its leaders for a major recent change to the mission, or purpose, of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. If you haven't heard, Church authorities announced a short while ago that they are changing what used to be a three fold mission of the church to a group of four purposes: 1. Preach the gospel, 2. Perfect the saints, 3. Redeem the dead, and now 4. Care for the poor and needy. This is a major shift, as previously the entire mission of the Church was inward focused--bringing others in to swell the ranks, caring for and improving those already in the Church, and bringing LDS sacraments to the ancestors of church members. The fourth purpose, presumably now understood as equal in significance, is outward-focused on allying with people outside of the Church to help people outside of the Church.

A lot of people are somewhat minimizing this shift by saying the LDS Church has already been involved in extensive humanitarian efforts, and while that may be true, the LDS Church has not made humanitarian efforts a significant portion of its means or time. For example, of the Church's more than 52,000 full time missionaries, some 80% preach the gospel full time. The remaining 20% are largely in administrative work and temple work, and a small percentage are humanitarian missionaries. Monetarily the church isn't much better. Members of the Church donate 10% of their income to the Church, but that money isn't set aside for charity. Members are encouraged to make separate donations to fast offerings and humanitarian work, both charities, but those contributions are encouraged at a significantly lesser degree. Tithing funds are set aside for the construction and maintenance of churches and temples, private education, production of church materials and resources, and major major investments (including land used for hunting, developing, etc.) so tithing is really about the original threefold mission of the Church, not charity.

Because the Church doesn't report the actual amount of money it receives or how that money is spent, it's difficult to know what percentage of its contributions go to charity. The recent PBS documentary about the Mormons estimated the Church was worth more than $80 billion, and since it's donating just under $50 million a year to charity, it's contributing less than 1% to charity by my calculations (I am by no means a statistician), which is low compared to other Churches of roughly the same size (in terms of American membership), like the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America which donates upwards of 10% annually to charity. (My friend Holly paints the picture more passionately)

I'm not trying to minimize the significant humanitarian work of the LDS Church and its members. The Church had some remarkable humanitarian work, like its timely aid to hurricane Katrina victims in 2005. And regardless of what percentage it comes out to, the fact is that the Church did give $282.3 million in cash and $833.6 million in commodities throughout 167 countries between 1985 and 2008--that's an average of $48 million a year, and that is a lot of money. I am very grateful for the humanitarian work of the Church, but looking back, I see room for improvement, and this drastic change in direction marks a significant improvement. To me it signals that the Church will make charitable donations as important as its work in the other three areas, where it has previously spent the bulk of its resources. I think this change will not only make life better for the beneficiaries of this new charity, but for the members of the Church who will be better people and who will be regarded more highly by their neighbors. So again, kudos to the Mormon Church!