Billions

This morning my wife mentioned that she’d like to go back to visit the people and places she knew when she was serving a mission. In the conversation, I mentioned that I too had been thinking about my mission. That surprised her, and she asked me for details.

I explained that I had just been thinking about some of the experiences of my mission, how I had interpreted them at the time, and how I was trying to reinterpret them now after the intervening years and knowledge.

I told her about one experience I had when my missionary companion and I were walking down the street and we passed a little old man, hunched over from age, shuffling down the middle of the sidewalk ahead of us. We passed on either side of him, and as we did, I had a sudden impulse to put my arm around his shoulder, slow my walk, and just be friendly and talk to him. Ask him about his day, how he was feeling, nothing really specific. I ignored the impulse. I’m not an extremely outgoing person, and I had no idea what words I would have said had I actually tried to do it. I’m sure I would have just made a fool of myself and ended up scaring or insulting him by being so forwardly friendly.

After we had walked about 100 feet past him, my companion turned to me and said, “You know, it’s weird, but as we walked past that old man back there, I had a feeling I should just put my arm around him and ask him about his day.” I told my wife that at the time, I was sure that it had been the spirit, and that we had both ignored it, and missed out on an opportunity. I also said that I didn’t feel the same way about it now. Now, I told her, I feel like the situation presented an image to both of our minds that we coincidentally interpreted in the same manner.

I told her about a missionary companion I had who chewed me out several times for having a different approach to the work than his, and how after one  of these sessions I thought to myself, “I have never in my life been treated as poorly as this. And he’s a servant of the Lord, and I’m doing my best to complete the Lord’s work. What’s up with that?”

I told her of the countless efforts that we put forth, striving to hear and follow the spirit, and not really feeling any indication of what we should do except follow the mission rules and get out there and knock on doors all day. I told her of our ambition, our desires to do good, our desires to purify ourselves and bring the light of the gospel to this people who, for the most part, seemed to be largely ignorant of spiritual things and were just living their lives. I said, “And you know what? All along they probably had a better understanding of God than I had. And I was trying to teach them.”

I explained how my instinct was to feel anger for the two years of my life that I wasted on this fool’s errand. But that at the same time I had a hard time feeling angry, because there was both good and bad about the experience. I talked about going to a foreign country, immersing myself in a culture and loving the people, learning a new language, seeing amazing sights and incredible architecture, being there long enough to be able to truly love new foods. I wouldn’t have gotten any of that had I missed out on the mission experience. I would have finished my college degree much earlier in my life and at far smaller expense. I would have had different experiences that would also be good, but I’m not sure they could really compete with the experiences I had on my mission.

About this time, she added, “Yeah, and where else could you experience all of that for only $400 a month?” The insinuation was that since the church averaged together all of the costs of all of the missionaries around the world so that each missionary had to pay the same amount of money toward his or her mission, that I was getting a really good deal because it only cost me $400 per month.

I laughed and said, “Well, in real life, if you’re working 70+ hours a week for somebody, you’re being paid enough to cover your living expenses and then some.”

She agreed that maybe that wasn’t the best argument in favor of a mission. But I got thinking about it, and continued the discussion. “You know, I was probably living in one of the missions that would have cost me more than $400. I was probably being subsidized by all the missionaries whose missions may have cost them $75 per month but were contributing $400. But think about it this way. Each of those missionaries, and their friends and families, however they are doing it, have to come up with this $400 every month. It’s a big strain on them. Then the church goes and spends over $5 billion dollars–billion with a B–on revitalizing downtown Salt Lake. $5 billion dollars!”

“Yeah, but could they pay for the entire missionary program? How many missionaries are there?”

“I dunno, maybe 50,000.”

“And how much would that be each month if it’s $400 per missionary?”

Quick math in my head: “Yeah, that’s a bit expensive, $20 million per month.”

“So how many months could the church sustain that if they had spent the $5 billion on missionaries?”

“Let’s see. $20 million times 5 is $100 million. Times 10 is $1 billion. Times 5 to get to $5 billion. That’s 250 months. Or a bit over 20 years. Assuming, of course, that the missionary pool and the cost remain constant.”

“So they could completely fund the missionary program for over 20 years. Then what? They’d be out of money, and missionaries would have to start paying their own way again.”

“Well, wait a second. Just because they are willing to spend $5 billion on Salt Lake doesn’t mean that $5 billion is all they’ve got. In fact, it more likely points to the assumption that they have far more than $5 billion dollars. Why would they spend every last dime on one project? They wouldn’t. Then let’s look at what the missionary program provides for the church. Let’s say that every missionary who serves for two years ends up converting just one person who ends up being a lifelong faithful member of the church, paying 10% of their income back to the church as tithing. If that person has a job that makes $4000 per month, then the church gets back its $400 per month. But not just for the two years; for an entire lifetime. Not to mention any children that person has, or friends that are converted by that person outside of that person’s official mission. Financially, it’s a huge win for the church to take that $5 billion and send out missionaries.”

“Wow.”

“Yeah. And instead, they take the money from these faithful individual families who are already paying huge sums of money in tithing, who are donating their time in other ways, when they could be placing that money in college funds, or paying for weddings, or any number of things that have a direct impact on their lives, and instead they are spending it in benefit of a church that makes promises it has no power to fulfill. What a travesty!”

Then I got thinking about it more. “Maybe,” I said, “it costs more than $400 per month already. Maybe it costs $1000 or $2000 per month for these missionaries, and the church is already subsidizing all but $400. And you know, maybe that’s the smart thing to do. Make it a stretch, but don’t make it impossible. If they have to pay for it themselves, it will mean more to them; they will be more invested in the outcome, in working hard, in being there because they really want to be, not because they could get an all-expenses paid two-year vacation to a foreign country. I guess I really wouldn’t want the church to pay the entire cost, and maybe they already subsidize far more than we think they do.”

But then, I realized, the true problem is transparency. “Of course,” I told her, “if they would just do what every other church does these days, and open up their financial statements for review, then we wouldn’t have to wonder. But since nobody knows where the money goes, it makes you wonder just a little bit when you find out how much they’ve spent on downtown Salt Lake. $5 billion!”

“So you think somebody’s making a lot of money off the church?”

I’m not that cynical. Maybe I should be, but I’m not. “No. I think that the top leaders of the church are being paid. Salary may be too harsh a word, but however you want to say it, stipend, allotment, whatever, yeah, they are being paid for their service. And even though I doubt it’s a small amount of money, I don’t think that they sit there in the temple and say to themselves, ‘Yeah, it’s all a crock, but hey, the pay sure is good.’ I think they dedicated their lives to the church, and only after serving selflessly as bishops, stake presidents, area authorities, presidents of BYU, etc. did they arrive at a place where the church asked them to devote their entire lives to the service and offered financial remuneration for their services. But I don’t think that’s why they lived their lives that way up to that point. I don’t think they are primarily motivated by the money. But I just wish one of them would have the personal integrity to say, ‘Hey, you know what? Things I thought were true all my life just aren’t adding up.’ But they don’t see it, and I don’t think it’s because they see it and know it and ignore it. I think they just plain don’t see it. They have to go through a lot of mental gymnastics to explain away some of the evidence, but they do it and don’t question.”

It was only at this point that I realized maybe I was being a little too open with my wife. “I’m sorry,” I told her. “I don’t have to talk about this kind of thing to you. I didn’t mean to bring all this up.”

“No, it’s okay,” she told me. “I find it interesting.”

“So do I,” I told her. So do I.

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