The popular image of a church is that of a selfless organization unconcerned with financial gain. It is reflected in the fact that churches receive tax-exempt status from federal and state governments. And without question, most churches do engage in substantial charity work.
But that doesn’t mean that churches are not, at least partially, money-making enterprises. Though official records are scarce, the world’s major churches are all believed to collect annual revenues in excess of several billion dollars. Like any other institution, these churches work hard to earn the highest possible return on their investments.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints
Otherwise known as the Mormon church, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints has long been one of the world’s wealthiest religious groups.
Like most major churches, the exact tally of LDS assets is difficult to come by. In July 2007, the Salt Lake Tribune covered an Oregon Supreme Court ruling ordering the church to publicize its financials in connection with a lawsuit from an alleged abuse victim, noting that it had not disclosed such information since 1959. In 1997, Time Magazine found that current LDS assets totaled $30 billion. If LDS were a corporation, Time continued, its estimated $5.9 billion in annual revenues would have placed it midway through the Fortune 500.
The LDS church has taken ambitious strides to preserve and grow its wealth over the years. Beneficial Financial Group, a $3.1 billion insurance company with annual revenues exceeding $600 million, is wholly owned by the church. LDS also owns the Deseret Morning News, Utah’s second-largest newspaper. Bonneville International Corporation, which controls over two dozen top radio stations across six states, is also wholly owned by LDS through Deseret Management Corporation, the church’s for-profit arm. Another $6 billion of church money was said by Time to be tied up in “unspecified investments.” All of these activities, it should be noted, are categorized as “unrelated business income” and subject to state and federal taxes.
Roman Catholic Church
In 2005, MSNBC reported that the Roman Catholic Church owned more real estate globally than any other organization or individual on earth. Interestingly, a surprising amount of this land does not produce income for the church. Gabriel Kahn, a Rome Correspondent for the Wall Street Journal, told MSNBC that the church’s land assets “are not liquid and they can’t be put to use for the Catholic Church in the way they could be for, say, a corporation.”
But just five years earlier, the church’s own financial statements told a different story. In 2001, an official report stated that the church’s real estate activities in fiscal year 2000 produced $81.7 billion in revenue on $51.8 billion in expenses: a nearly $30 billion profit.
Outside of real estate, MSNBC suggests that the Catholic church maintains a portfolio of conservative investments. In 2006, the Boston Globe revealed that the church turned a profit of roughly $55 million on a portfolio heavily concentrated in government bonds. The Vatican’s TV and publishing operations, too, were said to have produced an unspecified surplus.
Of course, the bulk of the Catholic Church’s yearly income continues to come in the form of donations. The Boston Globe found that “contributions from worldwide dioceses” totaled $92.9 million in 2005, while individual donations made directly to the Pope neared $60 million.
In recent years, the Vatican has suffered from having a portfolio biased toward dollar-denominated investments. The UK’s Guardian found that in 2008 the church suffered its first loss in four years, owing to the decline of the dollar relative to the stronger Euro.
Evangelical Lutheran Church
The Evangelical Lutheran Church is less guarded than either the Catholic Church or Church of Latter-Day saints, releasing detailed yearly financial reports on its website.
In fiscal year 2009, the church claims to have earned $1,698,336 from “investment income”, $2,238,629 from “bequests and trusts” and another $1,003,420 in rental income. The same report lists a separate column of “temporarily restricted” revenues, on which another $1,625,000 in investment income is reported.
While the exact nature of these investments are not specified in the report, the church appears to derive substantial income from its Mission Investment Fund.
Through the Mission Investment Fund, the ELCA has made “nearly 800 active loans totaling over $475 million” to affiliated ministries located in the United States, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands. The purpose of loan proceeds is to help these organizations buy land, expand operations or in some way improve the Lutheran experience of nearby worshipers.
At time of writing, the Mission Investment Fund is offering 3.25% interest on four year, fixed-rate CDs, as well as 5.00% on one year, adjustable-rate mortgages. Members of the church are also encouraged to buy high-yield CDs, contribute to Health Savings Accounts, and use checking and savings accounts administered by the ECLA.
In total, the church claims that a significant number of “schools, colleges, universities, social ministry organizations and outdoor ministries” are invested in the Mission Investment Fund.
Despite its un-businesslike nature, a church requires capital to carry outs its operations just as any other organization. In 2005, MSNBC’s Nanette Hansen even wondered if Pope Benedict XVI would “have to be a money manager as well as a spiritual leader.”
Regardless of the use to which church investment proceeds are ultimately put, there is no denying the financial clout that their activities provide them. Both the donations they take in and the investment income they earn help make the world’s major churches serious financial players.