A Common Misconception – Does the Church of Jesus Christ have an unpaid clergy?
In January of 2017, a group known as ‘MormonLeaks’ – led by Ryan McKnight – released financial information regarding stipends, compensations, or salaries of General Authorities of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The compensation is distributed to about 100 individuals for their administrative responsibilities, who serve in full-time capacities for the worldwide organization of 15 million people. This revelation has been used as a point of contention by critics of the Church, who call for more transparency.
Among those who could come across this information as it circulates online, in newspapers, or social media can be former members of the church whose one-time membership in the Church taught them that “our church leaders do not get paid.” To see and hear this from a group known as ‘MormonLeaks,’ can only reinforce the reason they no longer affiliate with the Church. As members, we shouldn’t take this information lightly.
Information like this reveals a commonly-held misconception among critics and former Mormons, and frankly, those still exploring and are getting to know the faith they were raised in. Is this information new or a surprise to some? It depends on the member and if they were around the last time it was publically mentioned.
The bigger question I will address is why are some making this into an issue.
First, the leaders, especially at the regional and local level are all unpaid volunteers who serve in “callings” – positions of leadership that one cannot apply for and which are filled from among the members of the congregation. Most offices of leadership in the Church are voluntary in nature but guided by inspiration as to who is appointed. It is safe to say this applies to probably 99% of church positions. Members then sustain and support these chosen leaders, callings which last for only a few years, giving most members an opportunity to participate throughout their life.
We need to look at a few areas for context. First, what are our missionaries saying? What do the scriptures say? Is the compensation consistent with both? Where do the funds come from that pay the compensation to leadership at the top and how are tithing contributions spent? From this information, maybe we can clear up that while the Church of Jesus Christ is not wholly without paid leadership, the Church still differs from other churches in terms of local leadership and the priesthood. Lastly, what would critics say if the Church didn’t compensate some and only allowed the wealthiest the opportunity to serve?
What do the missionaries say? How is tithing spent?
Other than hearsay or Church folklore, what is the source for this idea that none of the leaders are paid? According to Preach My Gospel, an official missionary tool of the Church:
“Tithing funds are used to support the ongoing activities of the Church, such as building and maintaining temples and meetinghouses, carrying the gospel to all the world, conducting temple and family history work, and many other worldwide activities. Tithing does not pay local Church leaders, who serve without receiving payment of any kind.”
Tithing is the ten percent members pay annually. This is what the missionaries teach from, and it should clear up where and how members’ tithing contributions are spent, and it is not on compensation for General Authorities. That revenue comes from somewhere else, which will be discussed. Speaking in the context of local callings the missionary manual says:
“Soon after baptism new members receive from priesthood leaders the blessing of a responsibility to help in the Church. This is referred to as a calling. All of the work in the Church is voluntary. No one is paid for such service. When we accept callings, we are sustained publicly in a Church meeting so that other members can acknowledge our calling and provide support. We are also set apart by a priesthood leader and given special blessings to help us fulfill our callings. The Church needs the talents and abilities of every member to fill a wide variety of callings.”
This paragraph has the intention of speaking to new, or potential new members, about immediate opportunities, at the local level, and does not reach into the administration and callings at the head of the church who do receive compensation. When it says “no one is paid for such service,” this does not include the rare opportunity to serve as one of the few paid administrators. Teaching this information without this full disclosure clashes with the idea that the church has no paid leadership.
The question is, why is anyone making that claim in the first place? The only reason I can think of, is that members of the Church pass along information to one another, parent to child, Sunday school teacher to student, that just isn’t true; i.e., “our church has no paid leadership like other churches.”
What do the Scriptures say?
The New Testament offers some insight into compensating figures at the top, like the apostles:
1 Corinthians 9:7-12:
7 Who goeth a warfare any time at his own charges? who planteth a vineyard, and eateth not of the fruit thereof? or who feedeth a flock, and eateth not of the milk of the flock?
8 Say I these things as a man? or saith not the law the same also?
9 For it is written in the law of Moses, Thou shalt not muzzle the mouth of the ox that treadeth out the corn. Doth God take care for oxen?
10 Or saith he it altogether for our sakes? For our sakes, no doubt, this is written: that he that ploweth should plow in hope; and that he that thresheth in hope should be partaker of his hope.
11 If we have sown unto you spiritual things, is it a great thing if we shall reap your carnal things?
12 If others be partakers of this power over you, are not we rather? Nevertheless we have not used this power; but suffer all things, lest we should hinder the gospel of Christ.
13 Do ye not know that they which minister about holy things live of the things of the temple? and they which wait at the altar are partakers with the altar?
14 Even so hath the Lord ordained that they which preach the gospel should live of the gospel.
Where some members get into trouble is claiming that the Church is more consistent with the Bible in not having paid local preachers. However, I believe the Bible is silent on that issue. If you want to make a distinction, the focus should be on how the Church has received the priesthood, not on administrative work and compensation. Before we go there, where is the compensation in the Church of Jesus Christ raised to pay these 100 administrators, prophets (presidents), and apostles?
Where does the compensation come from?
The compensation for General Authorities, as Gordon B. Hinckley acknowledged in 1985, does not come from tithing, but from other sources:
“I should like to add, parenthetically for your information, that the living allowances given the General Authorities, which are very modest in comparison with executive compensation in industry and the professions, come from this business income and not from the tithing of the people.”
None of this compensation comes from the members.
A more detailed explanation came recently, in response to the MormonLeaks revelation, from the church-owned Deseret News which explained the salaries this way:
“General Authorities leave their careers when they are called into full-time church service,” said Eric Hawkins, spokesman for the church. “When they do so, they focus all of their time on serving the church, and are given a living allowance. The living allowance is uniform for all General Authorities. None of the funds for this living allowance come from the tithing of church members, but instead from proceeds of the church’s financial investments.”
How does the Restored Church of Jesus Christ differ from other Christians?
But doesn’t the Church pride itself in not having an unpaid clergy as a characteristic of its truthfulness? Do these findings from MormonLeaks mean the Church is hypocritical?
FAIRMormon, a non-profit group, and defender of the faith clears up this disconnect:
“The practice of not paying our ecclesiastical leaders is not evidence of the truthfulness of the Church. As with other issues, the real question regarding the “truthfulness” of the Church hinges on the endowment of priesthood keys and authority on those who lead the Church (emphasis added). Temporal matters and how they are handled are governed by spiritual principles. Leaders who serve faithfully should be sustained regardless of their personal finances or needs for modest financial assistance.”
The main distinguishing factor of the Church of Jesus Christ from other churches should stem from more precise arguments, such as the priesthood, but not to place our faith above another simply because their administration operates differently. It is easy to get caught up in this trend of patting ourselves on the back for having a mostly all-volunteer organization as we see people like Joel Osteen and other “mega-preachers” making obscene amounts of money from their craft.
According to FAIRMormon, it is not compensation in itself that is wrong, but when money becomes the main motivator or a corrupting factor. Contrasting against a professional clergy of most Christian churches, leaders in the restored Church are called into voluntary service, up to a point. There are no jobs to apply for and a college degree or any other kind of certified training is not required. Literally, anyone can be chosen from among the membership. Every apostle and prophet took this same path, beginning at the local level. At least in this way, the Church of Jesus Christ is different from other churches who rely on college-trained clergy.
What if the Church didn’t provide this allowances to full-time service?
FAIRMormon provides a well-reasoned explanation to this questions:
“If provision did not exist for allowing those who are not “independently wealthy” to provide full-time Church service, critics might well then complain that the Church “favors the rich” because it would not allow those of lesser means to serve. Without some mechanism for providing for the needs of those giving full-time service, only the worldly elite would be able to serve. This factor becomes increasingly important as the Church expands out of North America, especially into nations in the Southern Hemisphere who are less materially well-off than the industrialized west.”
An Age of Transparency
The nature of Ryan McKnight’s vetting and receiving his sources are put into question. He calls for transparency, yet provides none of his own, suggesting that even he is not sure who sent him the documents. Should there be a “MormonLeaks-Leaks,” suggests one commenter? Deseret News writer, Tad Walch, concludes that McKnight’s method of presenting “transparency” is, therefore, suspect, as well as the authenticity of the information that suggests the Church’s Apostles receive $120,000 a year for their services.
Whether or not any official statements will come from the Church addressing this issue or not, other more prominent figures in the community do not question the amount or think it to be anything to be concerned about. BYU professor of Islamic Studies, Daniel Peterson, concluded that $120,000 is modest, even for the middle class in Salt Lake City. Through the grapevine, Peterson also heard that some General Authorities often direct their book royalties to the Church’s missionary or humanitarian fund and that some might even not take their stipend if they do not need it. Although most General Authorities are at an age when they may not have children at home, many still have large families that depend on them throughout their working lives, and especially so if they are asked to leave their careers for church service.
Peterson put into the perspective the number of church leaders who do not receive stipends to about 34,000 leaders (bishops, stake presidents, area authority seventies, district presidents, and branch presidents – not to mention counselors, Relief Society presidents, etc.). Compare that to the 100 in the office of the Seventy, the apostles, and prophets who receive $120,000. That is about one dollar per tithing payer per year.
Not to knock on other churches, but Peterson noted that Franklin Graham earned about $633,722 in 2008. The Catholic Church pays their priests less than the General Authorities of the Church of Jesus Christ, but often provide an episcopal mansion, limousines, cooks, and servants. The work of General Authorities includes “managing a large and complex international organization that operates in multiple legal and other environments” and that stipends go to such “secular work” that consists of everyday work all week.
Other Resources on Church’s investments:
 Lesson 4: The Commandments – Preach My Gospel: A Guide to Missionary Service, (2004), 71–81
 Lesson 5: Laws and Ordinances – Preach My Gospel: A Guide to Missionary Service, (2004), 82–88
Scott Thormaehlen received his Master’s in History in 2016 and taught U.S. History in the Lone Star College system in Houston, Texas and for Alvin Community College. His writings have appeared in Accuracy in Academia, the Journal of Multidisciplinary Studies at Sam Houston State University, LDS Living, Meridian Magazine, and East Texas History – a project by Sam Houston State University.