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Why Do Church Leaders Tend to Be Wealthy?

An uncomfortable apparent pattern in the US church is that Church leaders tend to be wealthier than average. I say apparent, since I don’t have any numbers, but this pattern is stark and widespread enough anecdotally that I’m going to go ahead and assume it’s true for the purposes of this post. 

Assuming this is the case, why is it? I can think of several reasons people bring up, some of which are more ingrained in church culture than others. 

1. Prosperity Gospel Hypothesis 

According to this model, since God blesses righteous people temporally, then wealth is seen as a sign of God’s favor, and rich people are not only the financial and social elite, but also happen to be the spiritual elite. It’s usually not stated this crassly, but a version of this idea does seem to float around US Latter-day Saint culture (perhaps especially in those socioeconomic strata for which it is convenient), that ballers at work are ballers in everything in life, including God’s favor. 

I personally find this hypothesis to be unpalatable (to put it gently), not only because it conflicts with the spirit and letter of the teachings of the Savior about wealth and social status, but also because the logical corollary is that the desperate family who can’t afford the braces their kid desperately needs somehow brought it upon themselves because of their lack of righteousness. 

A softer version of this is that certain virtues are associated with both wealth (hard work, thrift, etc.) and keeping the commandments. I can buy this to a point. For example, if you’re addicted to drugs you are less likely to be wealthy. However, while keeping the commandments might help prevent you from crashing and burning, I don’t see why it would make a difference between, say, a middle class professional existence and a super-millionaire existence. Both require hard work and diligence, and I doubt the super-millionaire money manager works that much more than the freelance plumber. 

(For all his other virtues, I did enjoy watching born-on-3rd base Mitt Romney squirm when the fundraiser footage came out, because he basically said the part out loud that is unspoken but we all know is in the back of some people’s minds).

2. Extra Time Hypothesis

Church leadership positions require a lot of time, which independently wealthy people can have more of. However, I don’t really think this carries a lot of explanatory weight, since most leadership positions don’t require you to quit your day job. Besides, if the extra time consideration was a thing we’d also see more wealthy people serving in more time intensive but less glamorous positions like clerk or seminary teacher (although, again anecdotally, I have noticed a correlation between wealth and YW/YW callings, but that might just be my own experience).

The one case where this probably operates is mission presidents. I know that at least in the cases I’m acquainted with the Church specifically inquires about their ability to leave their job for three years without destroying themselves financially, and if you’re recruiting from that sweet spot of people who aren’t quite retired, but are still experienced and are in a position to take a 3-year sabbatical from their job, you’re going to end up with a lot of independently wealthy people (or Church employees), and this makes sense. 

3. Wealth as a Marker of Managerial Competence Hypothesis

This is the option that gets my vote. Church leaders are managers as well as spiritual leaders (this is especially true in positions “above” that of bishop that involve less one-on-one pastoral work). 

In my work I interact with wealthy business people a lot, and the fact is that selecting on that group is a pretty easy heuristic for selecting people that have a certain threshold of organizational behavioral competence. Of course, a lot if not most of wealth is being in the right place at the right time, and not everybody who is managerially competent is wealthy, but if you’re looking for a shortcut to select a pool potential mission presidents or stake presidents, you could do worse than selecting worthy, faithful members with managerial experience. Managerial competence is clearly not as important as, say, spiritual sensitivity, but it’s harder to find a reasonable proxy for the latter among hundreds of possibilities than it is for more earthly attributes. 

That’s not to say that these are ubermensch who are generically competent in everything and succeed in every aspect of their lives (one thing I did appreciate about the Trump presidency is that it very publicly gave lie to that idea), and personally I’m not going to honor them for their business skills (they have their reward), like I would honor somebody’s honesty or charity, but as far as being able to run an effective meeting, motivate disparate individuals on a team, and organize and execute multiple initiatives simultaneously, managerial experience would presumably come in handy. Of course, that’s not to say that management skills are the main thing, but rather one of multiple competencies that would be useful in a church leadership position.


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