Humanitarian Aid and Tithing

After being troubled about the definition of Tithing and the use of Humanitarian Aid, I took a serious look into this about a year ago, and changed the way I donate money and who it goes to. Here is the thought process I went through, and what I found through this.

The question of humanitarian aid and tithing is a really interesting one. The strict LDS interpretation is obviously that you should pay 10% gross income (net if you’re liberal leaning) in tithing, although there is a growing movement of people who calculate tithing based on ‘surplus’, which is the way tithing was originally defined in the 19th century. From discussions I’ve had online, admitting paying on surplus income has been problematic in temple recommend interviews for lots of people, but not for others. The leadership lottery is in full swing.

The use of humanitarian aid is a matter of debate, mainly because financial information is so guarded. In 2009 the church released a ‘Welfare Fact Sheet’ with details and figures regarding the humanitarian aid programme. It has since been replaced on the LDS website with a 2011 fact sheet which is less detailed. Someone saved the original thankfully: http://sdrv.ms/1i6pfJq

The replacement 2011 Welfare Fact Sheet is here:  http://bit.ly/M8NsTZ

There are a few things we can gather from this. The first is that the increase in total value of assistance from 2009-11 is $200m, suggesting that the total value of humanitarian assistance is currently around $100m per year. The second thing is that using the 2009 sheet, the cash donations are about 27% of the total donations. Using this figure (even though it’s very rough) we can estimate that the church is currently spending under $30m per year on cash donations to humanitarian causes – less than $2 per member. The material assistance is significant, but the donations more than likely simply help to run the programme and the figure seems to be a number plucked out of the air to place a value on the material assistance rendered.

The following link (http://bit.ly/Lj6Nll) is to a list of the top humanitarian projects that the church got involved with in 2011. As I look through this list, I was surprised how small this assistance is. For example, in Japan, 250 tons of supplies were distributed. This is around 10 Lorry loads going to a major disaster and the number 1 recipient that year. The most significant assistance throughout are volunteers, which is commendable, but costs nothing. This has led some to speculate that the equivalent financial value of volunteer assistance is included in the total monetary figure. We’ll never really know.

Lastly, using UK accounts (Which are indexed here: http://bit.ly/1jDKg10), we can see what the total Humanitarian aid donations have been in the UK over the last 4-5 years. Obviously the figure varies, but it is generally around £400,000 per year. With more than 190,000 members in the UK, this averages out at around £2 per member per year, which is about $3.40 per member. Based on the total donations we saw earlier, if we extrapolate this per member donation over the whole church we get just over $50m per year in donations. Given the fact that the value of materials will be less than the cost of providing them and the church could be including the value of volunteers in the total figure, it’s very possible that the church does not supplement the humanitarian aid programme with additional funds at all.

The programme clearly does some good, but the extent of that good is somewhat clouded. Following the Tsunami in Asia on 26th December 2004, the church issued a statement that was read in sacrament meetings urging donations to the humanitarian aid fund. This statement said that “100%” of donations received would go directly to those in need. There has been an accusation that this didn’t happen, but UK financial accounts from 2004 and 2005 are not available anymore. A brief look at the 2008-10 accounts show that over those years, the humanitarian aid donations in the UK were allowed to accumulate with only a tiny fraction used at all. The total figure reached almost £3m at the end of 2010 when the entire balance was transferred to SLC. This figure could potentially have gone back as far as 2004, although we’ll never really know. The fact that British donations are not used as stated and simply sat in a bank account for years would be a bit of a shock to some members. Adding this issue to the elephant in the financial room of the church (City Creek Mall), and I have a hard time feeling that the church is honest at all with its finances. The bottom line is that City Creek cost an estimated $2bn and the total value of all humanitarian assistance over a 27 year period is less than this really rankled with me then, and still does.

For me, the contrast between the church and other aid organisations was stark. There is a strange notion amongst some members that external charities are dishonest and not worth supporting, but in the church we have a pure organisation that uses every cent in the right way. As I researched this, I was struck by how much I felt the converse was true. A lot of the information we have about church finances and donations are clouded. This is the exact opposite of organisations like Oxfam. A brief look at their finances (http://bit.ly/1b02NiZ) shows that the after the cost of fundraising activities, Oxfam are usually left with 92% of the money they have collected, which can then be used for the charitable aims of the organisation. To raise close to £300m in a year and keep 92% of that for aid is incredible. I found similar figures when I researched Doctors without Borders, Amnesty International, Shelter and NSPCC. After doing this research I made the hard decision to donate my money to organisations that are open, transparent and focussed on causes that I feel strongly about. The charities I chose are Amnesty, Shelter, Doctors without Borders, Gavi Alliance, NSPCC and Make a Wish foundation.

Back to the original question of tithing and humanitarian aid. Only the individual can decide what constitutes a full tithe. Lots of members and local leaders will weigh in with their opinion, but the statement by the First Presidency in the handbook says that people have no authority to define tithing for others:

“The simplest statement we know of is the statement of the Lord himself, namely, that the members of the Church should pay ‘one tenth of all their interest annually,’ which is understood to mean income. No one is justified in making any other statement than this.” (First Presidency letter, 19 March 1970.)

The temple recommend and tithing settlement question simply asks whether you consider yourself to be a full tithe payer. You simply define tithing how you wish and how you are comfortable. I didn’t feel right knowing that all the charitable donations I could afford to make were going solely to the church. This led me to define tithing as 10% of surplus to the church, whilst donations to the other charities make my total outgoings in this area in the region of 10% of my net income. I was happy with this then and still am now.

LDS UK Accounts Summary

Many of us who have made significant donations to the church have wondered how the money is spent. The silence since the church last released detailed accounts in 1959 is concerning and leaves people to speculate on all sorts of things.

I was pleased to find that in the UK, the Charities Commission publishes basic accounts for all registered charities including the church. (These can be found here: http://bit.ly/1iL7Fc7)

The accounts are quite detailed in places, and it is difficult to extract details. Summary reports are given as well as the full accounts. I compiled all the key data available into a simple spreadsheet which is here:

http://sdrv.ms/1hL3MGh

Some things I noticed:

1. Net growth has slowed significantly in the last 5 years to the point that last year membership increased by less than 500.

2. Total number of units has been falling for 5 years, but rose slightly in 2012.

3. For the last 2 years, missionary work has been paid for by the UK arm of the church rather than directly from SLC. This cost is close to £7m per year.

4. The church in the UK regularly receives large transfers of money from “the parent charity”. This seems to have increased in the last 2 years to help cover the costs of missionary work.

5. The UK church donated £5.4m to “the parent charity” in 2011. This was “restricted funds which had accumulated.” These restricted funds are things such as Humanitarian Aid, Book of Mormon fund and Perpetual Education fund which had be accumulating over many years rather than being used for the purpose stated.

5. Genealogy and CES each cost £5-6m a year. This seems extraordinarily large.

6. Large donations were made to the Irish church in 2008 and 2009.

Ultimately, it’s difficult to read too much into these figures, but I thought it was interesting and worth posting.

Policy changes and God’s will

Since general conference there has been a lot of discussion regarding the doctrinal basis for the stance on homosexuality.

This arose due to comments by Elder Oaks who said “Our understanding of God’s plan and His doctrine gives us an eternal perspective that does not allow us to condone such behaviors or to find justification in the laws that permit them. And, unlike other organizations that can change their policies and even their doctrines, our policies are determined by the truths God has identified as unchangeable.”

Several people have taken issue with this, especially the notion that the church’s current position cannot change, and lots of discussion has arose on this point, and here is my response:

God makes it clear in D&C that it is not meet that we are commanded in all things. With this in mind I see countless instances in the past and presently where church leaders teach their own ideas as church policy. This is natural, and they don’t claim infallibility. Elders Oaks talk rankled many liberal Mormons due to his insistence that all doctrines and policies come from God. I think he was trying to hammer home his point and didn’t use the right method. Elder Uchtdorf’s talk from the day before admitted that mistakes have been made in the past (although we are left to determine what they are).

A good example is Blacks and the Priesthood as previously mentioned. I don’t think the ban on black’s holding the priesthood or attending the temple was ever the will and command of God. It was initiated in a racially different time and perpetuated my men sharing their own prejudices and viewpoints. It took 130 years for the church to align itself with the will of God.

Regarding homosexuality, the church has recently stopped insisting that these feelings are a choice, which is good progress. There is still some way to go.

Condemnation outright of homosexuality is quite unscriptural in my opinion. Away from Leviticus and a couple of letters by Paul there is no mention of it. The Pauline epistles are full of common contemporary viewpoints such as women wearing hats and slaves being obedient. Specifically, Christ himself never mentions homosexuality and Joseph Smith mentioned it once – when he said that the sin in sodom was actually ingratitude, a view echoed by modern biblical scholars.

Church leaders are overwhelmingly white elderly American men who are mixing their own upbringing and prejudices into this debate. They were brought up to believe that homosexuality is evil, dangerous, threatens families, can be taught/caught and is simply a lifestyle choice. These views have little basis in reality. Consequently, although I don’t anticipate this in the near future, I am convinced that the church will accept faithful gay people as active members in the future and that the current leadership stance is not in line with the will of God.

The Facebook and iPad Missionary

It’s nearly 10 years since I served my mission to Scotland. Things have changed significantly since then. The recent changes to the age of missionary service along with the shift in focus and technology seem to make modern missionary work almost unrecognisable from what it was in previous decades. The days of memorising discussions by rote are long gone (thank goodness!).

Maybe it’s because I’m stuck in the past, but I really can’t get my head around the two latest developments for missionary work: Facebook and iPads.

First, why on earth missionaries need to spend any time on Facebook is beyond me. The challenge of David O. McKay was that every member should be a missionary and my Facebook timeline testifies that enough normal members take their proselyting through social media seriously enough that the keyboard army of missionaries simply isn’t needed.

Secondly, what is the actual purpose of the iPad which missionaries are now being routinely equipped with. I’ve heard two reasons given: an organisational tool and a teaching aid. As a professional educator who runs a department with 7 staff and a £10,000+ resource budget, the iPad is incredibly bad value for money. Technology in education needs to be used to supplement secure teaching practice, not replace it. From my experience in the field and since then during splits it’s clear that most missionaries lack simple teaching skills such as writing a lesson plan, organising resources, creating engagement and differentiating materials. Zone conferences and District meetings tend to focus on organisational and doctrinal matters. I can count on one hand the number of times teaching skills were taught during my two years in the field. Educationally, the iPad is a potential disaster as young missionaries lean on the visual aids, videos and technology even more, further neglecting deficiencies in teaching skills.

Organisationally, technology has great benefits, and I love having a smartphone with synced calendar, contacts and email. An iPad to solve this problem is a nut and sledgehammer situation. A simple $50 smartphone solves that problem. Even then it could be argued that it’s a problem that doesn’t exist since paper planners aren’t causing widespread organisational issues.

The real cost of these programmes is not what they do, but the alternatives. I would much rather see missionaries spend time helping and serving than using social media. Limits to the amount of time that missionaries can provide service need to end. If a mission really is about serving then this should be the #1 priority for their time rather than being heavily pressured to baptise as fast as procedurally possible. Even more concerning is the cost of the iPad rollout. A little internet research (from LDS published sources) shows that on average between 1985 and 2009 the church donated around $13m cash per year to humanitarian aid causes. That same amount of money will buy just over 25,000 iPads. Since there are close to 40,000 missionary companionships in the world it is conceivable that this year the church will give more money to Apple Inc than it does in Humanitarian Aid.

The biggest winner from these new policies is certainly based in Cupertino, California.

Dealing with faith struggles and heterodoxy

There seems to me to be an emerging battle in the church. The emergence of this has nothing to do with how recently this has become an issue for the church, but how recently this has become personally an issue for me. The issue is the acceptance of those with heterodox views and faith struggles in a church with strict orthodoxy in teachings.

I hold many views which would not be considered orthodox. There are several simple examples. Same-sex marriage is a prominent one at the moment, and in my previous blog I shared data with showed that 23% of Mormons surveyed supported the heterodox position of marriage equality. Literality of scripture is another simple example. I don’t believe in the story of the creation and of Adam and Eve as told in Genesis as I see modern scientific discoveries to be completely incongruous with this story. Others will disagree with me, but I am still in a position that is not aligned with the accepted doctrine of the church.

Those who know me personally will know that over the last few weeks, my position in our ward and stake has been brought into question over my heterodox beliefs and my discussion of these issues on various support forums. This raises a key question – am I wanted in the church despite my unorthodox beliefs and opinions? It would be nice to know which of my beliefs has caused such an issue, but I am constantly faced with family and leaders who for whatever reason, don’t wish to discuss these with me in any detail. The overriding impression I get is that people are generally afraid to tackle these issues. It’s no wonder really that the church is facing the “biggest time of apostasy since Kirtland” (Marlin K Jensen).

We are brought up to believe that this is the one true church, the only path to true happiness and the only way back to a loving Heavenly Father. Mormons generally have a natural intelligence and studiousness, which in turn leads many to question the church when they discover inconsistencies, inaccuracies and misguided policy. The vast majority of these members wish to stay in the church. I know I do. I’ve been asked so many times recently if I’m leaving the church, and my answer consistently is that I would have gone a long time ago if that was what I really wanted. I’m trying to make my faith work.

I keep going back to an excellent study that was conducted last year titled ‘Why Mormons Question?’ (http://www.whymormonsquestion.org). The results are eye opening. The people who are struggling with faith and heterodoxy are disproportionately well educated, in high income brackets, have previously held strong leadership positions and have wide ranging issues with the church and its policies. I can only see these issues becoming bigger in the future. Many expressed issues with the way they were treated once their struggling belief became known to leaders. Below are some comments from respondents as well as a link to the data analysis and the presentation of the data to UVU. This data has been presented to high level church officials. I hope this makes a difference for some people and shows how those of us with heterodox beliefs and faith struggles often feel sidelined in the church.

Comment from Respondent 243 (Male): Please allow members that are trying to believe as much as they can to attend the temple, baptize their children, etc. Please don’t treat doubt as a sin.

Comment from Respondent 135 (Male): Welcome me as an equal in the community and culture, even if I can no longer testify that the church is the only true church on the face of the earth. Create and embrace forums for nontraditional Mormons like me, to allow for free and open discussion of ideas, and exploration of truth and happiness.

Comment from Respondent 1803 (Male): I feel that I am at a good place with my relationship with my Heavenly Father. I just want permission to remain, to belong. Just because I don’t see things eye to eye with my brothers and sisters does not mean we aren’t still family.

Comment from Respondent 548 (Male): Please make sure the Church encourages its believers to avoid ostracizing a fellow member for such member’s disbelief.

Comment from Respondent 1736 (Female): The way that church leaders demonize people like me at conference is so upsetting. I try to participate so that our family can be together at church, but it is so hard when there is such a negative attitude towards people who have lost belief.

Comment from Respondent 394 (Female): Please create a place in the church for women like me. I love the gospel and desperately want it to be true, but I have a hard time believing in a church that rejects critical thinkers and feminists as “too willful” or “dangerously intellectual.”… Thanks for all the good you do. I don’t hate the church, and I truly believe that its leaders have the best of intentions… I’m just having a hard time seeing how I fit into it, and don’t see how God could possibly create a church that doesn’t have a place for all of his children.

Data Analysis: http://www.whymormonsquestion.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/05/Survey-Results_Understanding-Mormon-Disbelief-Mar20121.pdf

Is it OK to disagree?

If you’ve read my previous blog post, you’ll be quite aware about how open I am in my support of same-sex marriage. I’ve felt this way for a long time, but have only been very open about this with others in the last few months, and this has made me question why I kept this to myself for so long. We are a very correlated church – we all use the same manuals, have the same lessons and read the same church published magazine, and whilst this has the advantage of ensuring uniformity in teaching, it shouldn’t be allowed to be extended to uniformity of belief and opinion. The church is naturally conservative and so are it’s members, and being a liberal, I am aware of that and am completely accepting of it. I have no problem being in the minority. In fact, being a Mormon is all about being in the minority. A recent survey found that 23% of Mormons ‘Favour’ or ‘Strongly Favour’ same-sex marriage:

Gay marriage support amongst Mormons is lower than almost all other denominations, but much higher than I expected.

I was quite surprised it was this high, but also really pleased that there are a significant number of members who I side with on this issue, despite feeling like the only one at times. All too often though, the remaining 77% struggle to accept that some people can be fully active in the church, yet hold an opinion which is contrary to theirs. The key issue is how far we should legislate our own beliefs, something I am strongly against.

The recent General Conference highlighted another issue that comes close to the heart of this disagreement. Obedience. We are told time and time again as members to be obedient to the commandments. This can easily be extended to obedience to church authorities and leaders. There is an adage in the church that “when the leaders speak, the thinking has been done.” The actual full quote is even more demanding:

“When our leaders speak, the thinking has been done. When they propose a plan–it is God’s plan. When they point the way, there is no other which is safe. When they give direction, it should mark the end of controversy. God works in no other way. To think otherwise, without immediate repentance, may cost one his faith, may destroy his testimony, and leave him a stranger to the kingdom of God.” – Improvement Era, June 1945. 

My problem with this is fairly rudimentary; how can anyone swallow this when there are clear mistakes that have been made in the past. A brief list would have to include the salamander letter, priesthood ban, post-1890 polygamy, failed business ventures using tithing money, blood atonement, Adam/God doctrine, 1982 worthiness letter, slavery support, fees for ordinances, denial of evolution and encouraging attempted cures for homosexuality. Plenty more things could have been included in this list, but the point is the same. A quick scan of church history shows a catalogue of errors and mistakes that have been made by Apostles and Prophets, some in matters of business, but others in matters of doctrine and policy. I’m not naive to think that ‘the church never changes’, but faith can be shaken when looking at this list.

I’ve reached the conclusion that LDS leaders have made errors in the past, they continue to make them today, and they will make many more in the future. They are good men, trying to do the best they can. Their life and world experiences are very different to mine, and maybe it would help in the future if the leadership of the church was more diverse than the current mould (old, white, conservative, American). I listen carefully to their advice, tally it with my own beliefs, opinions, feelings and views; and then accept what I believe to be true. They have more hits than misses, but for me, the biggest miss of this decade will be attempts to legislate against homosexuals rather than accepting that we can co-exist in families that are equal under the law, but different in physical form.

I heard a phrase once, I cannot recall where from, but it rings very true on this issue:

Catholics believe the Pope is infallible, but they don’t believe it.
Mormons believe the Prophet is not infallible, but they don’t believe it.

A response to arguments against same-sex marriage

Several weeks ago, a huge argument erupted on my Facebook page. When the government passed legislation to legalise same sex marriage, I posted a sarcastic status:

“Oh no! My marriage has been completely devalued because two people who love each other who happen to be the same gender can now get married”

It was lighthearted, but the central premise is still true. I could not understand how some church members could be so vehemently against it, when I took the opposite view.

Amongst the discussion some very strong opinions were expressed by a member of my ward, and this continued for days. We have since continued our discussion privately as I was not comfortable with some of his views being publicly viewable on my timeline. He posted me a link to an article by Elder Oaks from the October 2012 conference about the raising of children to back up his point (http://www.lds.org/general-conference/2012/10/protect-the-children?lang=eng).

My response went as follows:

I’ve read that article by Elder Oaks before, but read it again this evening. I agree with the sentiment and intentions of his talk wholeheartedly, with just a single reservation. There is an underlying theme in his talk that suggests that marriage is the perfect situation for a child, and that anything else is less than ideal. Whilst on the whole, this is true, there are far too many cases of children being born into homes of abusive marriages to simple hold up marriage as the ideal. Individual integrity, love, nurturing, time, care and education are amongst the key contributors to the well-being of a child, and whilst this may be more likely in a marriage, there is certainly no matrimonial monopoly on these virtues. Elder Oaks himself was raised by a widowed mother, and she seemingly did a superb job, as do the vast majority of other single parents. Single parenthood is not something that people aspire to, but something people deal with as part of a day to day struggle, and I think from my experience as a teacher that 90% of single parents do an incredible job, some even better than married couples.

As for same sex marriage, I cannot align myself with the position of church leaders on this issue. We have our beliefs and values regarding marriage, a belief that the relationship of husband and wife can stretch into eternity. 99.8% of the people in society do not hold these beliefs, and whilst it is important for the church to voice it’s opinion, I don’t believe in the assumed corollary that we should therefore legislate our beliefs.
Arguments against same sex marriage fall into one of several categories (each of which I think is fallacious):

1) The need to protect children.
2) The belief that traditional marriage will be ‘devalued’.
3) The belief that homosexual people will further their crusade to force religious institutions to do things against their will and beliefs.
4) The belief that homosexuality is wrong and should not be condoned.

None of these arguments hold water for me at all. Let me address them all individually.

1) As mentioned earlier, I believe that the most important values in the home of a child are based around love and nurture. This bears little correlation in real life to the legal status of parents. Even Elder Oaks in the article says that the future in this area is inconclusive. I would suggest that he is erring on the side of caution here and whilst refusing to suggest that it would be bad for children, he won’t admit that there is scope for it to do tremendous good.

2) Despite lots of discussion with other members, I fail to see how my marriage will be devalued by other loving couples who happen to be the same sex getting married.

3) I cannot conceive a situation where a homosexual couple try to force a religious institution to perform a marriage for them, and then attempt legal proceedings because they are denied. Religious freedom is guaranteed in the ECHR, and the government have put several ‘locks’ in place in the proposed legislation to ensure this does not happen. I am completely satisfied by this.

4) Regardless of our own personal feelings on the morality of homosexual behaviour, it is not our place to sit as judge and jury and decide on the moral validity of others. I have serious concerns over church policy in regard to this issue. In the last few years, the church has begun to admit what the scientists have been saying for years; that homosexuality is innate. There seems to be a paradox here that if God creates all men (and women!), then he has created some of his children with inborn sexual attraction to those of the same gender, yet the church teaches that acting on this attraction, which would seem totally natural to the person, is wrong and sinful. They are therefore expected to live a life of complete celibacy, which I believe could be more dangerous than condoning a committed same sex relationship. The scriptures are not that clear on the issue either (aside from Leviticus, which doesn’t sway me in the least), and this leads me to think that maybe this is another area of church policy that is a perpetuation of outdated attitudes such as the insistence of the church in the 1960s that those of African descent were cursed from being less valiant in the pre-existence and therefore should be segregated, denied the priesthood and restricted from inter-racial wedlock.

My final problem on this issue is the insistence of the church (especially in the USA) that members should join the political charge to quash legislation enacting same sex marriage. I deplored the situation in California when the First Presidency issued a letter to all congregations asking members to ‘give of their time and means’ to fight the legislation. I find it incongruous as a follower of Christ that my time and efforts are best placed in denying the right of loving couples to form a union and a family. I completely resent the fact that what is supposed to be the church bearing the saviour’s name solicited donations and volunteer hours for a cause not at the heart of the teachings of Christ.

I don’t expect you to agree with me, and I’m quite sure that some of my views are quite marginal in the church, but I feel very strongly on this issue. History has told us that the church doesn’t get policies and political positions right every time (in fact, it could be argued that they are more often wrong!). I believe that the church’s current position will be regretted in 30 years time (much the same as the 1960s racial policies).