Poor Wards, Wealthy Church
The year is coming to a close and wards are having their Christmas party. It’s a happy gathering. There are some decorations, activities, the primary puts on some sort of nativity. It’s simple, unremarkable, and sincere. People enjoy each other here. I have always looked forward to my ward’s Christmas parties, partially because they are simple. It’s appropriate, considering Christ and the humbleness of his birth.
And while this year’s party seems to mirror his humility, it’s actually the biggest splurge of the year. Unlike other ward activities which tend to be potluck, at this year’s Christmas party the main course will be provided, purchased using the ward’s activity budget. It’s a small budget, so members are still asked to supplement the meal by providing potatoes and desserts.
Your average US ward will have between $6-12,000 in their annual budget. According to my calculations, that’s around $40 per active member. This money covers youth, primary, ward, Relief Society, elders quorum supplies, programs and activities for an entire year. And so there’s not much money for parties or food or anything. Wards must be frugal.
And they are. Wards have developed a poverty mentality. My ward in Boston was so thrifty we managed to have a thousand-dollar surplus at the end of the year. The extra money was returned to Salt Lake. A lot of good comes from this frugality. Members give of their talents freely. No one expects to be paid for their work because there’s no money to be had. There’s little politicking for positions because no one gets a car or carries the ward credit card. Even if they did, it wouldn't be worth much. To be a part of this organization is to sacrifice. It’s to give, not receive.
But there is a downside to this poverty mentality. Because ward budgets are so small, there is little room for invention or experimentation. New, big ideas are shot down because of the simple observation that we can’t afford it. Ward expenditures become predictable and familiar. They have to be. It’s risky to do anything that hasn’t been done before. And perhaps most sadly, wards seldom get involved in addressing the needs of their communities. That almost always costs money. And so Church buildings are vastly underutilized most of the week, like a struggling restaurant that’s only open on weekends.
Here’s one impact of this poverty mentality. As a filmmaker, I’ve shown my social impact films in prominent churches across the country, including Glide Memorial Church and Grace Cathedral. My films have screened in small congregations and large parishes. The one place my films have never played is in a single LDS church building. The reason is simple: they can’t afford it. Licensing fees, advertisements, refreshments—it’s too much. Ward budgets are maxed out. There’s no room for new ideas or extra things, no matter how well-intentioned.
That’s the story of LDS wards. It’s a story of poverty, community, and service. But there is another story. This story is about church headquarters. It’s a story of wealth, empowerment, and opportunity. Unlike wards who assume they cannot afford to pursue new ideas, Church headquarters often invests in big, new, expensive experiments. From the national “I’m a Mormon” campaign, to Book of Mormon movies, to temple renovations, the Church continues to invest large amounts of money in innovative initiatives. Most recently, the Church created an amazing, elaborate, and expensive production that played across the megatrons in Times Square.
To see the discrepancy is not to say that church leaders are deceptive, disingenuous, or in any way malicious. I genuinely believe church leaders to be sincere, self-sacrificing, and humble. While general authorities receive good financial support, it’s far from extravagant pay for top positions of a wealthy organization. Many have taken dramatic pay cuts by accepting their church leadership positions. Admitting there’s an issue is also not to suggest that there’s a simple solution.
This dynamic of a wealthy central church and poor local congregations has developed for a variety of reasons and the Church as a whole has benefited from it. We’ve grown into a strong, unified, known church across the world. This is more than can be said about 99.9% of churches. Once the church had debts, now it has savings. And as it’s gone from poverty to wealth, it’s lightened the monetary burdens of its members. Annual ward dues are no longer a thing. Headquarters pays for church building construction and maintenance. Bishops are given a blank check to meet the material needs of struggling members. A strong centralized church has created state-of-the-art apps, schools, and a welfare organization unimaginable to small congregations. And the poverty mentality I mentioned has real beauty and benefits. But there are also real costs.
The biggest problem is that it undervalues local, interpersonal, grass-roots initiatives. While a ward will never place an ad that plays simultaneously across all the megatrons on Times Square, church headquarters will never be able to address the intimate, local needs of our congregations and communities. And the work of Christ is deeply intimate and personal. He seeks the one sheep, he finds the pearl, he visits the outcast. While his work is international, it is accomplished in discrete corners of the world, in one heart at a time. It is the most grassroots of all.
But as things are set up right now, being a member of the Church does not encourage us to lift our vision of what’s possible. By not spending money locally, we remain disconnected from the needs of our broader communities and disengaged from creating solutions. We’d like to help, but creating solutions to community problems takes money. Money that we’ve sent to Salt Lake, and they're doing big things with it.
I fear we’ve underfunded the most important part of Christ’s work: the local, community-created, grassroots initiatives. More money needs to flow from the trunk to the wards and branches. Of course, there’s a lot that can go wrong when we introduce more money to the equation. We risk embezzlement, social clubs, wasted funds, hurt feelings, and the list goes on.
We could use a few more, better planned activities. Elder Gong said as much in his recent talk. And a few more dollars in the ward budget would certainly help. But extravagant ward budgets risk extravagance. We don’t need more decorations or better food at our Christmas parties. But our communities do need our investment. And so I wonder if these two possible solutions, among others, could help invest more in local initiatives. The purpose of these solutions is not to solve the problem, but to open our imaginations. I’m sure there are other, fuller, better solutions out there. But for now, here are two for your consideration.
Solution one: grants. The organization Stand Together is a charity incubator that gives selected nonprofit organizations $300,000. Over the following year, they help the nonprofit develop. If the nonprofit proves effective, Stand Together increases their investment. The church could do something similar, allowing members to apply for grants. These grants would be to provide local services, meet local needs, and/or promote gospel values. While the church does donate lots of money to nonprofits already, it’s not known how these organizations are selected and the money doesn’t feel accessible to the general membership. Every member should know that it is possible to get funding for worthwhile endeavors. Their membership in the church should bolster and empower them.
The church could easily outline requirements as well as create incubators to help members realize their visions and accomplish their goals. The existence of these grants could quickly transform our wards into emboldened communities on the lookout for how they can bless and uplift the world around them.
Solution two: redefine tithing. Rather than requiring members to pay 10% to church headquarters, the church could ask members to pay 5% to the church headquarters and 5% to other (ideally local) charitable organizations.
Of course, you’d have to trust members on how they donate, and the church could develop guidelines. There’s danger of members running nonprofits attempting to receive tithing funds from other members. This could get messy. But trusting members to pray and follow inspiration is not out of the question.
And by doing this, members would automatically become more embedded in their local communities simply by giving money to local charitable organizations. Give any organization a few thousand dollars and suddenly you’re part of it. You’re invested. And the organization is invested in you. You will likely get involved in ways much deeper than giving money.
These are just tentative ideas. Mere scribbles to open our imagination to what’s possible. They are not meant to be solutions, not in the least because I have no authority or ability to make these changes. So all I can do is imagine. But we are part of one of the wealthiest, organized, and dedicated churches in the history of the world. That fact should empower us. There are no congregations better suited to meet the needs in the world around us than ours is. Somehow we need to find a way to shed our poverty mentality and empower local members to go about doing good wherever they are.
Joshua Sabey is an award-winning writer and director. His recent book, Ali the Iraqi, was published by BCC press. His latest documentary, American Tragedy, won best documentary at the Boston Film Festival where it screened alongside Taika Waititi’s Jo Jo Rabbit.