Being a mormon comes at a cost. As Joseph Smith taught true religion requires sacrifice and implicit in the concept of sacrifice is a personal cost. Those who leave the church talk about the cost of leaving the church, in terms of losing friends, family and emotional upheaval. Others have pointed out to some of the psychological costs involved with being a Mormon. Today I want to work out what the economic cost is for the average Mormon during their lifetime to remain faithful.
One of the major forms that the economic cost comes in is, unsurprisingly, tithing. I wanted to work out what the total amount of tithing paid by a member over their lifetime would approximately amount to. To work out this I am using the median wages in Utah, obviously there are limitations in using this, in that wages go up through a career lifespan and not everyone will earn this amount. Further complications come come from the fact that the church is a multinational church and wages across nations differ. For simplicities sake I am maintaining a western-centric perspective, yet it would equally apply to other cultures relative to their economy. The idea of this is simply to consider the cost generally. So using the average wage for the entire period will give a reasonable approximation as hopefully the lower starting salary and higher final salary will negate each other.
The median wage in utah is $46,000 per year. This would result in a donation of $4,600 a year in tithing (I am not going to get into a discussion on if it should be gross or net income for tithing – lets just say ten percent of total earnings) which amounts to a total of $218,400 being paid over a lifetime in tithing, assuming that they work for forty years and retire when they are sixty five years old . On top of this we must add the tithing paid from their retirement income which in the USA is about $29,412. The amount paid from retirement until they die at the average age of seventy eight would be $38,235.
Adding them together the total amount that the average member will pay in tithing is $256,635
We can work out from this how much wealth the church gets from tithing from 14 million members. Given that the vast majority of the members on record are missing, fictional, or inactive, the actual amount of tithing paying members probably is no where near that high and is about a million members. That still means in a 40 year period in theory they would generate about $218.4 billion from this small group, of course this is an absurd figure as it assumes that there is no inflation over the 40 years and that everyone pays the same amount in tithing for the whole 40 years. In more realistic terms in the UK with a membership of about 186,000 the church generates about $60 million in tithing so for a million members we would expect it to be about $250 million dollars. Although I suspect that the actual total is a lot more then this. This makes the amount given to humanitarian welfare which the church says totals 1.3 Billion over the period 1985-2012 seem rather tiny. Especially when we look at the financial records in the UK (the church has to release them to maintain charitable status) which shows that the church shifted inter-compay debt of 265 billion to donations in 2006.
Tithing is not the only major expenditure that a Mormon makes. Another significant one is the two year mission. When famous people such as American Idol winner David Archuleta, or major players in NFL or Australian Rugby chose to go on a mission instead of pursuing a lucrative career, attention is drawn to the sacrifice that they are making for their religion. However, every missionary is making a large sacrifice, even those who are not famous. For instance, if instead of going on a mission they worked as a generic salesperson they would have earned $48,000 dollars. This potential earning is sacrificed in order to serve a mission. On top of this they, or their parents, have to find $9,600 for the mission fund. This is an opportunity cost of $56,000 to serve a mission. This is a bigger sum of money than I expected, as serving a mission it did not seem like I was giving up $56,000, yet, that is in essence what missionaries are doing.
Establishing the value of time donated to the church is difficult as the amount varies greatly between people. I know people who spend every spare minute wrapped up in church activities, and others for whom the three hour block is the sum total of their activity. I decided to use an average of the hours temple reccommend holding members I know spend on church-related pursuits. It is purely anecdotal, I know, but I am not making an specific claims just a speculation. It seems that they generally devote the following amount of time:
- Church 3-4hours per week (including travel and time spent after)
- Hometeaching 2-3 hours per month
- Callings 3-5 hours (this is more difficult to quantify as every calling is different but I am going to work on a minimum level here of a sunday school teacher – I spend this long preparing for my lesson)
- Gospel Study (including reading the bloggernacle) 2 hours a week.
Total Time: 40 hours per month (approximately)
To work out how much this time is worth I am using the assumption that if we used the time spent on church callings, meetings and activities in working at a minimum wage instead how much would we get. ($7.25) This equates to about 10 hours a week given to the church, although I suspect the actual total is higher for many. This is about $4,650 worth of lost time per year spent doing church callings. Obviously, if you have a job with a higher income then the cost will increase. But even at the rate of a minimum wage over a lifetime the lost time amounts to $147,900 in lost earnings through church service. Of course, this is artificial as I doubt that if people were not members that they would use the additional time in working, but it highlights the monetary value of time spent in church service.
Along with tithing and time there are various other costs which over a lifetime add up. For instance, assuming that the fully active mormon pays $15 every month in fast offerings for the 60 years of time they are active they will have paid $10,800 in fast offerings. If a member subscribes to the churches magazines as we are encouraged to do for their whole life time they will have spent $1,575 and I approximate that the cost of garments and their replacement over a lifetime is about $1,500. Added together this is $14,000, half a years earnings for some. This misses out on other costs such as fuel costs, materials for the relief society handouts, and other incidental expenses.
Adding all of the above costs together I reckon that to be a faithful temple reccommend holding member of the church for your whole lifetime it requires a donation of about $483,535 to the church in time and money. This figure is, of course, rather basic and inaccurate on many levels, but it serves as a figure for us to think about. As it is a decent guess at what being a Mormon would cost the average person. Obviously, this will be different for everyone, as we all earn different amounts and donate different amounts, but it provides a rough guide for us to adapt to work out how much it costs for us individually. When I added it up, I was stunned at just how much it costs in sacrifice to be a member. I knew the church took up a lot of time, I just did not realise the full extent of it.
So what do you get for just under half a million dollars of money and time invested?
- You get a manual every year. So you get in total 40 church publications.
- You get 2 hours of free childcare on a sunday.
- You get a free weekly youth activity for your teenagers.
- You get to enter and visit the temple. (in comparison to visiting Canterbury Cathedral that costs you $13 to visit)
- You get to not be burnt when the Saviour returns.
- You get salvation.
- You get to go to a posh mall (Utah Residents only).
What else could you get for the same amount?
- You could buy 2 Ferrai 458s
- You could buy this five bedroom house in Logan Utah.
- You could even reach the highest level of scientology with the same amount of donations.
- If you were feeling more philanthropic then you could use the money for the following:
- You could pay for 96 teachers in Zambia
- You could pay for 80 wells to be drilled, along with washrooms and hygiene workshops in Kenya. For more ideas on charitable endeavors see Peter Singer’s website ‘The Life You Can Save” that looks at how you can use your money wisely to maximise the good that you can do with it.
Ultimately, the question can be asked why bother to calculate how much it costs to be a member. For many of those who pay tithing, they have made temple covenants to consecrate all that they have to the church, so why work out what they give specifically if everything that we have is God’s anyway? The reason I raise it is to inform us about the nature of the choice we are all making to be and continue to be Mormon. Being a Mormon requires a substantial investment of our time, money, and emotion. For many their commitment began at age eight. To an eight year old, tithing just means giving 10 cents from a dollar as the Primary lesson teaches. Put in those simple terms, it’s an easy principle to support. Donating half a million dollars to a corporate church doesn’t seem nearly as reasonable as foregoing some sweets and putting small change in an envelope to proudly give to your bishop.
The fact that we are not fully informed compromises our ability to act. Even doing this simple calculation doesn’t create full transparency as there are many church expenditures that are not public knowledge. Consider the recent City Creek Mall and the recent change to tithing slips which says that:
“Though reasonable efforts will be made globally to use donations as designated, all donations become the Church’s property and will be used at the Church’s sole discretion to further the Church’s overall mission.”
I can’t help but ask: would we be comfortable with donating half a million dollars to a corporation that does not disclose how the money is used and informs us that money donated can be used however they see fit? Of course, the church is not just any corporation; it has a president at the top and twelve CEO’s whom we accept as apostles prophets, and seers. In contrast, as much as Apple fans may have loved and worshipped Steve Jobs, I never heard him claim any divine guidance. When there are so many poor and starving in the world is donating half a million to an exceptionally wealthy church the best use of my money to follow the Saviour’s injunction to help the poor and needy?
Paul said that the ‘free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.’ Is it really a free gift if it costs half a million to obtain?
- What do you think about the church’s lack of financial disclosure?
- How do you feel about the significant financial cost of being a member?
- Why do you think that the church requires such a substantial investment from its members?