Pork Belly-up: Eric Facer’s winning “New Mormon Voices” contest entry

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E Facer PhotoThanks again to everyone who submitted an entry to the New Mormon Voices writing contest--the response was such that I will definitely do something like this again.

Today I’m posting the winning entry, “Pork Belly-Up” by Eric Facer. Over the next two weeks we’ll hear from the two honorable mention recipients.

Why was this the winner? As I read the various entries — some triumphant, some funny, some bitter — I kept returning to this quiet, and well-written piece. Although the events Eric describes took place over fifty years ago in a Mormon context many of us don’t remember — a time when, for better or for worse, wards and auxiliaries were in charge of raising their own funds — the essay’s themes are timeless: What’s the role of the Mormon individual, especially when that individual disagrees with leaders? — JKR

Pork Belly-up

By Eric Facer

Not too long ago, stakes and wards were expected to devise fundraising schemes—everything from bake sales, to service auctions, to car washes—in order to subsidize their local operating budgets. Today, funds are dispensed from church headquarters, and local units are discouraged from raising money on their own.

When I was a teenager growing up in the 1960s in Champaign-Urbana, Illinois, our stake decided to take fundraising to the next level by purchasing a local agri-business: a pig farm. There was a consensus in the church back then that, although it was good to raise money, it was more virtuous if the money was generated on a farm.

PigThe “porker proposition” was duly presented by our local leaders at a special Melchizedek priesthood meeting. As a lowly deacon, I was not invited to participate, but my father was in attendance. After the project was briefly explained but before a sustaining vote was taken, my dad raised his hand and, in a very gentle and quiet way, began asking questions. “Does anyone in our stake have experience raising pigs?” The answer was no. Contrary to popular misconceptions about LDS congregations in the Midwest, virtually no one in our ward or stake lived on a farm.

“What about a business plan?” my father asked. “Have financial projections been prepared? And can you tell us about the recent performance of the farm under the management of the current owners?”

All of these questions received evasive or incomplete answers, but this seemingly bothered no one—except my dad.

Don’t get me wrong: my father had no inherent objection to ward and stake fundraising activities. But because he owned a small business of his own—a successful aviation insurance company—he knew how difficult it was to manage and sustain a profitable enterprise, especially one surrounded by much larger competitors.

After voicing these concerns and not receiving a satisfactory response, he expressed doubts about the wisdom of proceeding with this undertaking. When he recounted these events to me a few years later, I instinctively assumed that others would give considerable weight to his views since he was one of the few entrepreneurs in our ward. Most everyone else was affiliated with the university or was a salaried employee of a local company. As it turned out, he was the lone dissenter, and his reservations and objections were summarily dismissed—the train for hog heaven was leaving with or without him.

Within eighteen months, the pig farm was insolvent. Because no one believed the project could be salvaged, the decision was made to shut it down and liquidate its assets. At the end of the day, there was a net loss of about $12,000. Back in the sixties, $12,000 was real money.

My father certainly never said, “I told you so,” but I thought some of our local leaders would admit their mistake to my dad, at least in private. I soon discovered, however, that there was a better chance that one of those little porkers would take to the air under his own power than someone would say to my dad: “We should have listened to you, Brother Facer.”

Instead, a few proffered rather dubious explanations for the venture’s demise, such as “the farm would have succeeded if we had all been more righteous” or “the Lord was trying to teach us a lesson in humility.”

Some in our ward were offended by my dad’s temerity, his refusal to go along with the herd, so to speak, and his willingness to openly question the business acumen of his church leaders. There was little doubt in his mind that he was not considered for certain leadership callings because of the stance he took on this issue.

I was surprised and disappointed by the way my father had been treated. But, to his credit, he never exhibited any bitterness or harbored any ill will towards his fellow saints. Instead, he quietly went about his business, attending his meetings, doing his home teaching, and working diligently with the Boy Scouts.

Four months ago, my father died. A veteran of the Second World War, the father of four reasonably well-adjusted boys, and forever a devoted husband, his ability to preserve his independence of mind while remaining loyal to his faith community is one of the things I admire most about him.

I miss him terribly.


Eric Facer was raised in Urbana, Illinois. After serving a mission in Chile from 1972-74, he graduated from BYU and then earned a JD at Georgetown. He has practiced law in the DC area for the past 35 years, specializing in corporate tax and Native American law. Eric and his wife, Margaret, are members of the Arlington 2nd Ward, where she is a counselor in the Relief Society Presidency and he plays the piano in Primary, which he says is the best job in the whole Church.

In honor of Eric’s winning essay, a $250 donation has been made to the charity of his choice, the Red Cross.

  • MagpieLovely

    This is a lovely essay.

    I’d love to read or hear an open discussion on the current state of ward fundraising. In theory, of course, it’s discouraged and the budget is meant to come from church headquarters. But in wards I have lived in for the last five years (three of them, one in Utah, two in California) there has been a creep back toward substantial fundraising. All three wards have hosted a big auction evening where ward members donate goods and services and then buy them back. Revenue “earned” has been from $5,000 to $18,000. The money is well used on summer youth camps, mostly, but the amount of money these wards are trying to rake in seems absurd. If it costs that much more to run a healthy youth program, shouldn’t the budget be more? If not, shouldn’t these wards trim their events and activities to a more appropriate scale?

    I’d love to hear if my experience with fundraising is unique.

  • MagpieLovely, that’s an interesting idea for a future post. My own ward doesn’t do any fundraising (at least not that I know about), so I admit I don’t know much about current practices other than that fundraising is officially discouraged and some wards & stakes do it anyway.

    But I was looking at that as pretty small-scale. By contrast, 5K to 18K is a lot of money! Whoa.

  • Troy Olsen

    Good choice Jana. Thanks for sharing Eric.

  • John Tensmeyer

    Our ward has done some fund raising. The Young Men have done Christmas tree pickups for several years which usually garners $1500 or so. The Young Women have done a garage sale with donated items which I believe has earned around $1000. All of those funds are used to fund summer camps which is the only officially HQ sanctioned use of outside funds for church sponsored activities.

  • John Tensmeyer

    By the way, I enjoyed the article. It reminds me of stories my Father told me about various plans the Stake(s) made while I was growing up in Indianapolis. There was certainly a lot more on the shoulders of local members and consequently a lot more room for *controversial* choices like pursuing a pig farm. The most controversial general decision I had to make as Bishop was whether to move the meeting time from 11:00 to 9:00 or cancel church on snowy days 🙂

  • Eric Facer

    MagpieLovely, Troy and John, thank you for your kind words.

    And John, you are certainly correct—local leaders had many more financial responsibilities 30+ years ago than they do today. My father knew that even when fundraising projects were carefully researched, there was always a chance they wouldn’t succeed. It was when people didn’t do their homework ahead of time that he objected. I believe Joseph Smith had a term for this: zeal without knowledge.

    By the way, a good rule of thumb for a bishop to always follow is that if he sees more than three snowflakes on a Sunday morning, cancel Church. No one will complain (except perhaps the Stake President). 🙂

  • Elaine

    Primary Pianist certainly is the best job in the church. Well done, Brother Facer. I enjoyed this essay.

  • Debbie Snowcroft

    Take a typical American ward with 90 active (tithe paying) families. Assume the median family income of about 51k/year. That works out to $459,000 in tithing every year.

    Do Mormons ever bother to stop and think about how much they send to Salt Lake City, and how little of it comes back?

    When I read about Mormons having bake sales so they can get money for youth camps I’m reminded of the battered wives who consider themselves “blessed” when their husbands give them $10 for the weekly groceries and promise not to beat them.

  • Well, this is embarrassing, Bishop Tensmeyer, because I helped with that YW garage sale and then forgot about it completely. Duh on me. 🙂 I did not know about the Xmas tree sales though. Ours is artificial . . .

  • Dan

    Eric’s dad sounds very typical of the brethren in our wards and stake. We have a large number of business people and educators who are always asking the questions that need answers. . . . nothing new here.

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  • John Tensmeyer

    Yes. We bother. You don’t need to think of us as battered wives.

  • MagpieLovely

    Yes, I think somewhere from $1000 to $2500 seems fine, but when our wards are getting into the tens of thousands, it starts to feel weird to me. As I understand it, each auxiliary is allowed one fundraiser per year. I’d really like to know if the numbers I’m encountering are abnormal. There are always discussions about where and how to tuck away that money so it doesn’t have to spent before the new year, etc. I feel like it’s a little creepy.

  • John Tensmeyer

    I feel pretty much the same about the amounts. Wish I could say I was innocent of some of the “tucking away” efforts. I always felt we were holding to the spirit of the law, but that’s often where we fool ourselves. I think the overall idea of the funding was meant to even things more across the whole church. Huge fundraisers defeat that intent. Wealthy wards should have essentially the same activities as poor wards – worldwide. That is part of why paying close attention to how much our ward sends to HQ vs how much we get back is counterproductive.
    Its a tough balancing act. Parents, reasonably, would like their kids to have good activities so they will enjoy them. HQ guidelines are often a good check of how well we are balancing.

  • “I think the overall idea of the funding was meant to even things more across the whole church. Huge fundraisers defeat that intent. Wealthy wards should have essentially the same activities as poor wards – worldwide.”

    Amen to that. Certainly, when wards were in charge of their own funding, they had a lot more autonomy about some programs, sports, road shows, etc. than we do today. But poorer wards around the world had next to nothing. The system we have now, while imperfect, tries to meet the greatest number of needs.

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  • If 90 families is average, then I have been to some severely below average wards. I moved in June and our current ward has, perhaps, 20 families. Our previous ward might have had 30. In terms of total attendance, we hovered around 125 previously and 90 now. 90 families would be 225+ in attendance each week.

    Yes, Wards get back far less than they take in. However, they have to pay nothing to keep up the buildings and other facilities…

    To the original post, it does not surprise me that someone said the venture failed “because we weren’t righteous enough.” Every time I hear someone say that I want to vomit.

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