Let’s think about the church in 1990 and in 2008. At the end of 1990, there were 44 temples; at the end of 2008, there were 128. At the end of 1990, there were 1,784 stakes and 18,090 wards/branches; at the end of 2007, there were 2,790 stakes and 27,827 wards and branches. This indicates a 191% increase in temples, a 56% increase in stakes, and a 54% increase in wards/branches.
Over against this we can consider the change, over that time period, in resources and committed membership. For instance, the 1990 total of missionaries was 43,651 while the 2007 total was 52,686. That is only a 20% increase. I would argue that the number of serving full-time missionaries is a pretty good proxy for the relative size of the committed membership. If that seems plausible, then we see that the ratio of committed members to temples, stakes, and wards/branches has fallen dramatically since 1990. The American Religious Identification Survey, discussed in two recent links on the BCC sidebar indicates no net growth in U.S. membership over basically the same time period. This finding deserves two caveats. First, it is drawn from a survey and the results therefore are subject to sampling error, etc. However, this is nearly not a factor; the 2008 ARIS has a sample size of 54000, which means that the sampling error is vanishingly small. For instance, if the ARIS used a simple random sample (as it almost certainly does not; this is simply illustrative), the margin of error for the estimate of the proportion of Mormons in the U.S. population is about +-0.1%. Second, the survey measures each religion as a proportion of the U.S. population, which is itself a moving target. Over the period relevant for the two waves of the ARIS survey (i.e., 1972-1990, given that the survey considers legal adults), the average annual U.S. net population growth rate was in the neighborhood of 1%. Hence, it is reasonable to suppose that the number of U.S. Mormons has also grown at about 1% per year, for a total increase of about 20% over the period in question. As a side note, our population growth rate is probably about half a percentage point higher than the U.S. average — which means that the number of children of Mormons has been growing at a faster rate than the number of self-identified Mormons; retention issues, as always, are relevant.
The slow growth in U.S. members is particularly important because U.S. membership has been the economic engine of church growth and construction. After all, U.S. Mormons pay quite a lot more tithing per capita than do Mormons in the rest of the world taken as a whole, and especially than do Mormons in growth areas such as Africa. U.S. Mormons also have provided a disproportionate share of church leadership; in this connection, it may be worth noting the close conjunction between the best estimate for the growth rate of self-identified U.S. Mormons and the growth rate of full-time missionary service.
So, we see the church committing itself to a large sustained increase in operating expenses due to the construction projects completed since 1990, as well as a large increase in leadership needs due to the expansion in units — during a period when the church’s supply of available leadership and money is probably growing relatively slowly. (1% annual growth in U.S. membership, 1% annual growth in missionaries, 6.1% annual growth in temples, 2.5% annual growth in stakes, 2.4% annual growth in wards) These numbers probably need some degree of adjustment due to the fact that not all buildings and all units are created equal. For example, old-line temples probably cost a great deal more to operate than do the relatively tiny temples of more recent vintage. However, it is substantially unclear that the differences in costs would be six-fold, as the difference in temple vs. missionary/U.S. member growth rates have been.
Let’s combine that with some thinking about the church’s assets. Some of the church’s investments, such as commercial real estate, are probably worth much less than their current book value — the billion-dollar Salt Lake mall now looks rather a lot like a spectacular example of a 2000s dumb-money investment. Church farms and some church businesses probably retain their basic long-standing value. However, you have to project a substantial capital loss for the church’s investment package over the last couple of years, and probably deep and lasting losses over the next couple of years as well. The recent announcement that the church’s management corporation is being restructured seems to read as confirmation of this assessment. Money has been lost.
So, here’s the question. Now that U.S. Mormons are no longer realizing, and paying tithing on, fantastic and unsustainable capital gains from stock and housing sales, but are instead paying more strictly on family income which has not really changed much at the median since the 1980s, is the church overcommitted? It costs money to run temples, wards, stakes, etc., and the fact that construction has been far outpacing the rates of missionary growth or growth of relatively high-tithing U.S. members hints at something like a baseball-baptisms-era if-you-build-it-they-will-come strategy. If so, we might be facing something of a debt-bubble hangover of our own…