The Church and the Debt Bubble

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…

Bookmark The Church and the Debt Bubble

Comments

  1. Very interesting analysis. If only we could see the books.

  2. Good analysis.

    There was a period during the McKay era when the church overbuilt. As a result the financials went negative. I have often wondered about the financial feasibility of having temples all over the US. Its true that the US members pay almost all the bills. Anything that reduces its size or ability to pay large tithes is problematic.

    Paying cash for everything though changes the answer to this question that you pose. “is the church overcommitted?”

    if there were large mortgages on the temples and chapels I would say yes. But the debt free nature of the church construction program changes the equation quite a bit.

  3. J. Nelson-Seawright says:

    bbell, I don’t know. The ongoing operating costs of the temples and chapels are an implicit future revenue commitment, and probably a large one each year relative to the building budget — although the details are obviously hard to guess.

  4. Mark Brown says:

    JN-S,

    I think you assumptions are likely to be true, with the following caveats:

    1. An increase in the numbers of wards does not necessarily mean a new building would be built. It would be interesting to know how many of our buildings are already used at full capacity, but lately, when wards have been created by division of existing units, they just stayed in the same building and juggled meeting times. So while the church will undoubtedly continue to build new buildings, it won’t be at a 1:1 rate with the number of new wards.

    2. For a new ward which can be accomodated in an existing building, the expenses associated with the new unit would be minimal. The per capita budget appropriation for the members would now be allotted to the new ward instead of the old one, but from a church budgeting standpoint, it’s a wash.

  5. J. Nelson-Seawright says:

    Mark, good points. I think of the number of wards more in terms of a rough indicator of staffing and leadership needs, while the number of temples may be a proxy indicator of financial needs. Both numbers seem to have grown very fast relative to the relevant resource base, even setting aside details regarding unit costs. I couldn’t find details on the total numbers of chapels over time, but my guess would be that they would grow in parallel with the temples. For many areas in the world, chapels seem to be allocated more according to geography and travel times than according to membership numbers overflowing existing buildings (which is reasonable in its own right, but potentially expensive in ongoing operating costs).

  6. David Clark says:

    I think there are two mitigating factors here.

    1) The church is getting older at least in the U.S., which is a double edged sword, though I think we are on the good edge side right now. Older people make more money and have more stability in downturns, which means tithing may be more stable than one would otherwise think. The problem may be in the next downturn when we hit the other edge of the sword because the “mature earners” have become retired and thus pay very little in tithing.

    2) Our churches have high up front costs, which are paid in full, with low continuing costs. Two big cost centers associated with property ownership, mortgage interest and property taxes, don’t exist for LDS church/temple property in the U.S., so maintaining LDS properties is much cheaper than maintaining properties owned by other churches or commercial properties.

    However, as one poster already noted, we always speak from complete ignorance on these matters because we know precisely zilch about the church’s finances.

  7. JNS,

    I agree that each building has an operating cost. I am also sure its a large amount of the cash outlays in the church budget. I know for sure that tens of thousands are paid each month in my stake for AC.

    My contention is that the church has wisely not taken on mortgages or building loans for church construction. Things could be much much worse if there were notes to be paid.

    I do agree that the economy has to be impacting the budget. Hence a hiring freeze and restructuring. I think we are in a good place to weather this financial storm though.

  8. John Taber says:

    In my lifetime, I’ve seen two different presidents of the Church initiate plans that essentially doubled the number of temples. One was by President Kimball (though most of those temples were dedicated by President Hinckley). The other was by President Hinckley, including the “smaller” temples but not limited to them – it was capped off with the rebuilt Nauvoo temple.

    It is my opinion that this second wave came a little early in terms of temple usage and needs, and this was brought on by the economic boom (and bubble) of the 1980s and 1990s. But the money was there and it made the most sense to go ahead and spend it on something useful.

  9. Doing my best to help says:

    I do know that as of a year or so ago the missionaries were directed to concentrate on middle/upper class families to convert in this area, and our BP was told that it was in part because those people would be better off financially and able to contribute more to the church. I think that is why our missionary program in this area has such visibility right now. We need more members to pay tithing in order to support the church’s efforts worlwide.

  10. J. Nelson-Seawright says:

    David, I disagree that we speak in complete ignorance. Just nearly complete ignorance. There are scraps of information, which do currently point generally in the same direction… Our mature earners may not help as much as they might have in earlier generations, since most people’s gains in standards of living over the last 15 years have been driven more by asset inflation than by wage or salary gains…

    bbell, I agree that mortgages would make everything worse.

    John, I can certainly see good reasons why the church decided to spend the money. But if the current worldwide economic decline persists or deepens (as it might), those decisions could well force very hard trade-offs.

  11. John Mansfield says:

    Gordon Hinckley, General Conference Priesthood Session, October 1998:

    In managing the affairs of the Church, we have tried to set an example. We have, as a matter of policy, stringently followed the practice of setting aside each year a percentage of the income of the Church against a possible day of need.

    I am grateful to be able to say that the Church in all its operations, in all its undertakings, in all of its departments, is able to function without borrowed money. If we cannot get along, we will curtail our programs. We will shrink expenditures to fit the income. We will not borrow.

  12. As to the downtown project looking like a “spectacular example of a 2000s dumb money investment,” for most traditional developers who would be leveraged out the wazoo, that would probably be true. And of course, the current market corrections are going to hurt.

    But the church will weather it, and given that their strategy will almost certainly be to hold for the long term, they will realize their most significant returns in the future as the area becomes an established fixture and one of the principal regional serving developments along the Wasatch Front.

    That said, I see a couple of programmatic factors that could undermine the project’s success, but I don’t expect that to be the case since the project has built in a heavy stream of foot traffic (i.e. tourists) just across the street.

  13. JNS:

    Thank you for providing this interesting observation. Very interesting to think about.

  14. JNS: I would argue that the number of serving full-time missionaries is a pretty good proxy for the relative size of the committed membership.

    The “raise the bar” movement with missionaries in the last decade+ creates problems for the potential correlation you are pointing to here.

  15. As to air conditioning and heating costs, why are our church buildings’ roofs not all covered with solar panels? We could be selling back to the grid.

  16. BTD Greg says:

    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?

    Interesting. It hadn’t occurred to me that members have been paying tithing on the equity they made on their housing sales. I have been working on the assumption that most U.S. LDS church members use income as a proxy for “increase” when calculating the amount they pay in tithing.

    I still live in my first home and will likely not make a ton of money on it when I move, so I’ve not had the chance to consider this issue personally.

    I agree with others in this thread that there’s just not enough (publicly available) data to analyze the situation. I’ve assumed that the church is operating on its massive cash and wealth reserves and isn’t in danger of insolvancy (or even illiquidity) any time soon.

  17. John Taber says:

    Indeed, the temples that are in the works right now may be the last ones for quite a while. I do not expect President Monson to double the number of temples again, nor whomever succeeds him. That makes me all the more grateful for the last wave.

  18. John Taber says:

    Marta, when I was living temporarily in Las Vegas a dozen years ago, I could spot our meetinghouses a mile away. They were the only commercial (that is, non-residential) buildings with a full lawn.

  19. Geoff (#14) beat me to the punch. The number of full-time missionaries called in a given year peaked in 2002 (36,196 called in that year) and then dropped sharply (down 16% to 30,467 in 2003) and has stayed pretty much right at that level (~30k/yr) ever since, which is pretty much the same level as back in 1995.

    Frankly, I suspect some function involving the number of stakes and the number of wards/branches in stakes is probably a better proxy. Unlike districts/branches in districts, growth in stakes/wards+branches in stakes involves serious real estate commitments.

    All that said, your core question regarding the rapid expansion of temples is valid. On the other hand, Pres. Hinckley — who set the temple expansion in motion — was very much in the thick of things at Church HQ during the financial problems of the McKay era. Given that and given his own careful nature (as evidenced by his approach during all the years when he was the only functioning member of the First Presidency), I find it hard to believe that the financial implications of the temple build-up were not examined very carefully and approached from a very conservative fiscal point of view. ..bruce..

  20. Good and interesting points in this post.

    For any of you have not been treated to the L. Tom Perry regional leadership conference yet, I see that as a direct response to the issues identified in this post. In short, the conference is meant to drum up excitement and planning around increasing the membership of the church in the United States. The reason for this initiative, at least as it was explained to me, was quite candidly in order to fulfill the needs the OP identifies–money and leadership. I was honestly somewhat surprised at how blatantly this explanation was offered.

    Anyone else attended this, or a similar, conference yet?

  21. Taylor Woodbury says:

    That is sort of a glass half empty analysis of all the new building construction in the last 20 years. Another approach might be to ask, “How bad would the membership decline have been if we hadn’t built all those structures and provided temples and churches closer to the members?” From a purely economic standpoint (ignoring the worth of a soul, which tends to complicate the math a bit), it may will prove that all of the new buildings have netted positive tithing dollars for the church. If that were the case, the church’s investment in wards, stakes, and temples may very well be the thing that helps us survive the recession.

    Also, if the church were in trouble, don’t we all feel pretty confident that the First Presidency is willing to make the “tough choices” necessary to keep the church solvent?

  22. J. Nelson-Seawright says:

    Bar-raising arguments are making assumptions that I don’t buy. The missionary level has not been flat since the bar was raised. Instead, the number of missionaries has been growing at roughly the normal annual rate. What these discussions often miss is the importance of informal policies and unannounced changes. Looking at the missionary service data, one is immediately struck by a gigantic surge in missionaries in 1996 and 1997 — a big break in an otherwise very consistent slope, both before and after the disjuncture. This kind of break in an otherwise solid line very often indicates a change in policy regime. In this instance, that break is a bit larger than the “raising the bar” drop. In fact, a regression analysis that features a fixed additive term to account for the 1996/97 jump shows no statistically significant effect of the “bar-raise.” Other than the 1996/97 jump and the 2002/03 drop, the rate of growth is very consistently about 1% per year — which corresponds pretty well to the demographic support of U.S. Mormons. This seems to suggest that the bar raise was a reversal of an informal loosening in the mid-to-late 1990s.

  23. J. Nelson-Seawright says:

    Taylor, good questions. In money terms, I doubt the new building is mostly “productive,” since a large proportion of it is in the relatively low-tithing non-U.S. I agree that new buildings have other forms of value. I’m sure the tough choices will be made — I very much doubt that there will be a repeat of past episodes where first presidencies decided to resort to debt instead of making tough choices. So we may see some lean years…

  24. John – the church has converted almost every chapel in Las Vegas to desert landscaping. The water district created an incentive plan to encourage citizens and business owners to convert their landscaping in order to save water, and the church wisely used the program.

  25. JNS: The missionary level has not been flat since the bar was raised.

    Do you know where we could find any data on the average number of serving missions per year since 1990? If my memory serves me I thought the number went from about 40k when I was out in 89-91 to more than 60k ten years later. But in the 2000s the number moved backward instead of continuing the trend. I assume the raising the bar movement has a lot to do with that break in the trend line.

  26. J. Nelson-Seawright says:

    Geoff,

    The numbers are in the annual church statistical reports. The mistake you’re making in interpretation is that the jump from the 40,000s to the 60,000s wasn’t part of a trend, but rather a two-year anomaly in 1996 and 1997. Aside from those two years, and the two years of the bar-raising counter-adjustment, the trend is basically constant at 1% growth from 1990 to 2007. The bar-raising was associated with a one-time drop in the level of missionaries, as was the jump in 1996 — since 2004, the number of missionaries in the field has been growing at about the normal 1% annual rate.

  27. That’s a compelling argument JNS. Alright — I’m buying what you’re selling on that point now.

  28. The modern Church doesn’t borrow money. As a consequence it has always has a highly positive net asset value and essentially zero risk of insolvency. If the world economy craters and tithing contributions drop in half, the only action the Church has to take is to reduce current expenses to match current income.

    That might mean halting all new construction and other internal initiatives. It could mean the unheard of contingency of laying off church employees. But whatever happens, tithing will be more than adequate to pay the minimal operating expenses of existing buildings, so long as the there are tithe payers who attend.

    A typical U.S. ward might contribute ~$500,000 in tithing every year. That is more than adequate to cover their share of the electric bill. The forced sale of physical assets is not in question.

  29. I’d be interested in any “front lines” experiences with how units are coping with the mortgage crisis in Las Vegas, Phoenix, and other hard-hit areas. Are wards noticeably leaner, has there been any contraction of wards, consolidation of buildings? It might be too soon for such effects but that could be in the near future.

  30. J. Nelson-Seawright says:

    Mark D., the point I think you’re missing is that the typical U.S. ward (which may well pay less than that in tithing, actually — median U.S. household income is about $50,000, which obviously translates into about $5,000 in tithing, so if we make the generous estimate of 50 active households per ward, we only hit $250,000) has to support not only its own costs, but also a substantial share of the costs of some number of deficit-running non-U.S. units.

  31. J. Nelson-Seawright says:

    By the way, BTD Greg raises the fascinating idea that, perhaps, “…most U.S. LDS church members use income as a proxy for ‘increase’ when calculating the amount they pay in tithing.” This is interesting to me, in that it seems to propose a separate tithing rate of 0% for capital gains — making tithing far more regressive than the already regressive overall U.S. system!

  32. Natalie B. says:

    Great post and comments.

    I am interested in what happens to buildings when the ward membership shrinks. For example, many articles recently have been predicting that more people will move into cities, abandoning far away suburbs, some of which presumably had Mormon churches. Will we see wards disappear in some areas but new wards be created in other urban areas? And, if so, what happens to the old buildings? And can some of the increase in building be explained not by an increase in membership but by the membership shifting its geographic locations? Don’t have any data, so I’d be curious as to what others know/think.

  33. Not sure if our ward’s is an isolated case or whether it has become standard Church-wide, but we were slated to have construction on our new chapel start this Spring. That has since been put on hold until the economy recovers. Word was that all/most scheduled construction that had not yet begun would be halted for the time being.

  34. From my informal polling of a small sample (people I know), BTD Greg’s fascinating idea is wrong. Pretty much all the people I have asked are people with capital gains and they all pay tithing on those gains. FWIW.

    JNS, one interesting angle might be to consider how the investment in temples compares to other places the church could have invested its money. For example, would the church be better off financially if it had bought mutual funds instead of building temples? Have temples been hit by the housing bubble or have Gods many houses held their value?

  35. J. Nelson-Seawright says:

    Jacob J., temples have obviously been hit by the real estate bubble in the sense that the ground they’re standing on has less market value than it did recently. But I don’t really think most of us would regard that as a reasonable estimate of the value of a temple. Indeed, even in a financial sense, that seems odd, since we don’t probably imagine the church selling many of them off. A better way, perhaps, to think financially about the value of a temple is in terms of the marginal tithing generated by the presence of that temple. I don’t have any data to even think about answering that…

    Natalie, great question regarding population relocation. In our area, population shifts have already made the church’s building arrangement awkward. The temple is on distant suburban land, as to a somewhat lesser extent is our stake center. Our stake only has one relatively urban chapel, and so most other people have long trips to buildings that aren’t particularly close to Mormon population centers anymore. This is especially problematic for the young single adults branch we’re currently serving in, where most people live in downtown Chicago and have commutes of an hour or more each way on Sunday. I doubt that the existing buildings will be abandoned, though; instead, we’ll simply continue the trek to them…

  36. John Mansfield says:

    The Church regularly sells buildings that cost more to keep up then it’s worth. It’s a bit sad on a local level when it happens, but the central organization doesn’t seem to be sentimental about ward and stake buildings.

  37. John Taber says:

    Indeed, if you walk around Salt Lake City proper you will find plenty of former LDS meetinghouses used by a different organization, sometimes for a different purpose. (And how they’re used can be somewhat creative at times.) The architecture is still there, though (sometimes) and it’s a testament to those who built and used that particular building.

  38. This is only anecdotal evidence, but about three years ago, the Church sold off a wooded lot next door to our chapel in the Seattle suburbs, which was then developed into probably about 20 to 25 homes in the $700K to $800K range (the church sold the property to the developer, and did not develop the property itself). At the time, the property was likely at it’s peak value, and probably netted the church at least $1,000,000, and maybe a little more. Church growth in the Bellevue, WA area is following a typical urbanization trend, with more older couples, fewer families, with one ward disbanded and consolidated about 8 years ago, and I suspect that another might happen in another 4 to 5 years. The sale of the property certainly recognized that in this part of the stake, expanding our building would not likely be required, and the property sold to help with expansion elsewhere.

    I do know that even in our relatively affluent area, fast offering receipts are not keeping pace with local demand as the economy suffers. Higher incomes mean higher exposure when something goes south, and often our bishops’ recommendations to families that are struggling financially is to move to a less expensive area as rents for a 4 bedroom home can exceed $2,000 per month.

    Also, the church has relied more and more on volunteer and service missionaries at Church HQ in Salt Lake, and for many other positions at canneries and bishop’s storehouses that in the past may have been paid positions.

    JNS, you have an interesting analysis, but I suspect that the current economic situation has been anticipated, and actions taken to prepare for the possibility. Being debt free really does enable the church to be more flexible in dealing with these cyclical developments, and we may see other adjustments over the next couple of years.

  39. nasamomdele says:

    I think we have to wait out the commercial real estate investments. The downtown project has enormous potential and support, publicly and financially.

    Its no Trump towers.

  40. If you want to use full-time missionary numbers as a measure of progress, it has to be considered against demographics. If families get smaller and the Church consists more of single adults (both true in our stake, at least), the portion of Church members who are missionary age decreases. In such times, maintining the number (or having it grow) could actually represent an improvement.

  41. Temples and wrd/stake buildings are all smaller with smaller parking lots than they used to be. Also I believe temples are built out of special fund that is assessed when they announce new temples not from tithes. They have cut costs by having ward members clean and do basic maintenance. Now stakes will have about the same staff that each meeting house used to have for maintenance. If it. Seems to me that we have a very sustainable trend.

  42. JNS said:

    By the way, BTD Greg raises the fascinating idea that, perhaps, “…most U.S. LDS church members use income as a proxy for ‘increase’ when calculating the amount they pay in tithing.” This is interesting to me, in that it seems to propose a separate tithing rate of 0% for capital gains — making tithing far more regressive than the already regressive overall U.S. system!

    Then Jacob said:

    From my informal polling of a small sample (people I know), BTD Greg’s fascinating idea is wrong. Pretty much all the people I have asked are people with capital gains and they all pay tithing on those gains. FWIW.

    I’d like to clarify a couple things. My original statement re: paying tithing (or not) based on equity earned on a house was not meant as any sort of proposal, just an observation. Capital gains (i.e., investment income) probably would cause most church members to pay tithing as it usually causes income tax liability and is pretty clearly income.

    With equity from the sale of a house, however, most people roll that equity into their new home and are able to defer paying any taxes. I’d be surprised if church members are paying tithing based on the appreciation of the value of their houses. For this reason, I doubt that the collapse of the housing market has directly affected the amount of tithing that the church collects–except as it relates to the member’s decreased incomes from the effects of the housing collapse on the economy.

    Feel free to correct me if I’m wrong, but I’ve just never heard of someone who, for example, makes $500,000 from selling their house in Southern California paying $50,000 to the church based on that sale.

  43. J. Nelson-Seawright says:

    BTD Greg, change Southern California to Northern California, and I’ve known a number of people who’ve done just that.

  44. As to the downtown project looking like a “spectacular example of a 2000s dumb money investment,” for most traditional developers who would be leveraged out the wazoo, that would probably be true. And of course, the current market corrections are going to hurt.

    Wouldn’t it help? Costs would likely go down significantly and I suspect the Church has enough cash reserves to help finance it. (And Zion’s probably still has a lot of Church ownership and can probably give the leverage)

  45. Interesting. Maybe this a result of California (formerly) being a place where people think of their homes as a real estate investment. Here in Texas, house prices have been flat for so long that most people think of their homes simply as a dwelling.

  46. Also, what is this downtown Salt Lake development that everyone is talking about? Could I get the background? I don’t generally follow Utah’s current events, even when it involves the Church.

  47. This seems like a totally silly thing to worry about. Do we forget that this is God’s church? The value of a temple is infinitely more than the land upon which it is built. Furthermore, that Land is God’s anyways.

    I guess I think this is kind of a waste of time. The Lord constantly reveals. For years, we have been warned of economic problems. President Hinckley and other GAs warned us to get out of debt and have money prepared for a rainy day. Surely, they are privy to information we don’t have – and I don’t limit this to mean the financial books of the Church.

    Anyways. sure, hard times are here, and changes will need to be made – on a personal level, and on a church-wide level, but it doesn’t seem like we really need to worry about it. We just need to keep doing as we’re doing: keeping the commandments and trusting in the Lord. And who knows, perhaps the church is in a great position now. Perhaps they have been saving, and they have money to buy real-estate now that the prices have gone down so much. President Monson did just announce 5 temples last conference.

    In the end, we really can’t know, we simply must exercise faith.

  48. Thomas Parkin says:

    “It could mean the unheard of contingency of laying off church employees”

    I’m personally aware that in some places the church would like to replace employees with full-time couple or service missionaries – to the sometime consternation of paid employees.

    re: downtown SLC. It was my understanding that “sacred tithing funds” were not being used to finance this project. Since the church is also not taking on debt, my assumption is that this was paid for up front. I’m not sure that there would be any painful ramifications of a short term devaluing of the property. The church will also not be using the value to borrow against. The only real financial misfortune is that they might have waited a couple years and bought it on the cheap. In any case, it is going to be worth it to provide a buffer against the augmenting nastiness that is SLC. ~

  49. natalie B. #32

    Our stake is in Santa Cruz county, CA. It has been decimated (not quite literally) over the past decade. Our ward is representative of the stake. We started with maybe 300 active members in the mid 90′s. Now we are maybe getting 100. The stake has shrunk by about 2/3. What is going to happen? The inactives have stayed about constant near 800. Lots of people come here to get away.

    Two factors. It is very expensive to live here and hard for families, especially large ones, to buy houses and live on a reasonable income. Secondly, we have had two waves of layoffs here, the dot.com bust and now. Each time the young families leave and fewer return.

    Our building was dedicated by Spencer Kimball and will probably never be decommissioned. Ever, until the earth is destroyed by fire.

    kevinf: Likewise the church had bought a lot here for a new chapel during the dot.com boom. They sold it near the peak of the market for, I am sure, several million dollars to condo developers. Great planning.

    My guess is that one of the great variable expenses of the church is building. If the church stopped building for a while it would cover a substantial drop in income. Each building receives much more in income than it generates in expenses. I think the church management overhead is relatively small due to the lack of bloated managerial salaries. (The general authorities make money on books and serving on boards of directors, my guess, with relatively small salaries. Lower level GAs receive more or less modest living expenses for being mission presidents, area 70′s, etc.) A very big fixed expense are the church universities, probably the biggest.

  50. Michael R. says:

    Here in California we just went through a wave of ward and stake consolidations due to demographic shifts. Just before the housing bubble burst, many couples cashed in on the equity in their homes and retired. I believe that many of these families moved to Utah or other western states. Presumably some of the construction boom in the church was to accommodate these members in their new locations. I believe that shift is mostly over now.

    What the CA diaspora left behind are various under-used buildings. Our building only had one ward meeting in it after the reorganization. This was a building that in the distant past had been a stake center, so we aren’t talking about a small building. Only 10 minutes down the road is another stake center that only has three wards meeting there (2 family, 1 singles ward). It seems feasible to have 3 family wards and a singles ward meeting in the same building). I’m confident that if things got bad, there are property assets here in CA that could easily be sold off with minimal impact on the membership. Granted, this isn’t the best time to get the best price on property from a seller’s perspective but some of these properties were constructed over 40 years ago. It would seem that even in this weak market, the sale of this property would still represent a hefty return on the original investment. It could be really smart to sell off some of our older buildings in CA that are costly to maintain. I’m not too worried about the church’s ability to make it through. The economy will recover eventually so this isn’t a permanent problem. We don’t have debt and we have under-used assets that we can liquidate. I think if President Monson could figure out how to deal with welfare issues in an economically challenged ward with 80 widows, he is a person that knows how to maximize the resources available to him.

  51. J. Nelson-Seawright says:

    “Each building receives much more in income than it generates in expenses. ” IN THE US!!! Not everywhere else.

  52. Here’s a link for the City Creek Development in downtown Salt Lake:
    http://www.downtownrising.com/city_creek/

  53. Jim, thanks for the link. I didn’t know anything about this. Very interesting.

  54. JNS, Whether it is $250,000 or $500,000 dollars that is a lot of money to sustain a purely operating budget, including a healthy subsidy for the operations of overseas units, which have minimal to non-existent operating budgets in my experience. If I were to guess, the Church could cut its current outlays in half just by putting all capital projects and other one time projects on hold. Without laying off any actual employees.

  55. “Each building receives much more in income than it generates in expenses. ” IN THE US!!! Not everywhere else.

    And not in all areas of the U.S. Considering the costs of land acquisition and construction in Manhattan, and the demographics of the wards there (128th and Lenox Avenue, in the middle of Harlem, anyone?), or looking at ownership or rental costs of facilities in other parts of New York City, then adding substantial fast offering and bishops storehouse expenditures, it’s unlikely that tithing, fast offerings and other contributions match the expenses. (In fact, they likely don’t even reach operating costs, to say nothing of the capital costs.)

  56. It’s also probably worth noting (although keep in mind that I am not your tax attorney and I don’t practice in this area) that the exclusion from income of the proceeds on the sale of a principal residence if a new residence is purchased was repealed in 1997. Today, you get the first $250,000 ($500,00 for a married person filing jointly) of proceeds tax-free.

  57. Don’t know if someone already mentioned this but the Church made it very clear that the new Tanner building extension at BYU couldn’t happen without not only building costs paid for, but also operating costs paid for 30 years’ time.

    I can’t help but wonder if this kind of planning has also gone into our buildings and temples.

  58. A loan is not income. It simply matches a new asset with a corresponding liability. One of course typically has to have real income to make the loan payments, and that income is what tithing is paid on. I don’t think anyone expects people to pay tithing on their house twice.

  59. I’m personally aware that in some places the church would like to replace employees with full-time couple or service missionaries – to the sometime consternation of paid employees.

    Yes. However, such changes are generally made by attrition, as existing employees retire, leave, or transfer to other positions.

    re: downtown SLC. … The only real financial misfortune is that they might have waited a couple years and bought it on the cheap.

    The Church previously owned almost all the land that the project is built on, as well as most of the buildings. They might have saved money on the value of structures they didn’t own. If those owners were brought in as equity partners, perhaps not even then.

  60. Warno et al

    In my home of Las Vegas, certain areas have been hit, but the biggest hit occurred prior to the bust. Many young lds couples, attracted to Las Vegas by relatively high wages and low home prices, found they were priced out – and moved back to Utah, or other. Or, many people having moved here before 2003 sold their homes for fantastic gains, and moved back to Utah.

    Many other areas that were booming, with huge wards of 700 active members and a 12 mile commute to the nearest chapel (relatively far here, nothing compared to places outside the mormon intermountain west), are now back down to large, but more manageable sizes.

    But give things a little longer – and we will see how bad they get.

  61. BTD Greg says:

    How come some comments in this thread keep disappearing? Are there certain topics we should steer clear of?

  62. StillConfused says:

    The Church could also get a little innovative in income sources. I am picturing a credit card / temple recommend swiping center at the entrance area of each temple. Pay per visit program. Okay, maybe that is silly, but it sure would look funny.

  63. Greg, aren’t there always?

  64. Steve Evans says:

    Greg, no clue, but yes some comments seem to be disappearing. The Management has no knowledge of why this is so.

  65. Molly Bennion says:

    Property sales and purchases allow a rare and encouraging view into church money management. Where I have seen them purchase stake and ward buildings, they have used experienced, respected, non-Mormon agents (avoiding conflict) and bought excellent long-term locations. I also was impressed to see them sell an older, not unique or historical, stake center in a commercial district, build a new stake center just down the street but out of the higher-priced retail area which had grown up around the old stake center, and no doubt pocket some change.

  66. Thomas Parkin says:

    My Top Ten Subjects BBC Steers Clear Of:

    10. The little known Priesthood Ban exemption of Idi Amin.
    9. The unfortunate Sonny Bono/God theology of the early 70s.
    8. How the Three Nephites are pulling strings on American Idol.
    7. Tithing funds used to buy massive fleet of Camaros.
    6. The Spoiled Canned Peaches Cover-up.
    5. Joseph Smith letter stating he was lead to Golden Plates by “Darby O’Gill and the Little People”, forgery, or death blow to Mormon truth claims?
    4. How Utah leads nation in “Casual Cannibalism.”
    3. Portrayal of LDS Temple Endowment on Sesame Street
    2. Zool.
    1. Obama, Schmobama.

    ~

  67. Bar-raising arguments are making assumptions that I don’t buy. The missionary level has not been flat since the bar was raised. Instead, the number of missionaries has been growing at roughly the normal annual rate.

    Actually, that’s wrong. Here are the stats for missionaries called each year for 1990 through 2006 (source: 2008 Church Almanac, p. 655):

    1990 — 26,255
    1991 — 24,861
    1992 — 28,716
    1993 — 28,774
    1994 — 27,912
    1995 — 29,015
    1996 — 31,227
    1997 — 33,726
    1998 — 33,229
    1999 — 33,915
    2000 — 34,503
    2001 — 34,684
    2002 — 36,196
    2003 — 30,467
    2004 — 29,548
    2005 — 30,587
    2006 — 30,653

    As you can see, a sharp drop in 2003, and no growth at least through 2006, with that whole period (2003-2006) at the same level as 1995-1996, when church membership was only about 75% of what was in 2006. Do you have different numbers? ..bruce..

  68. Steve Evans says:

    TP, I can affirm that the BBC steers away from all those.

  69. I know a little about Real Estate and other investments. But mostly, I do know when you are in a ‘cash burn’, you are in trouble, and things are going to happen very quickly. I have no idea if this is the case for the Church. But the only way to stop a ‘cash burn’ is to increase income, dump Real Estate and investments, cut costs, or borrow. Something to watch.

  70. Thomas Parkin says:

    Steve,

    These things happen after I’m waaaay too tired.
    Pretty much all the time. ;> ~

  71. Dang it. I totally want to talk about Zool.

  72. Groundbreaking for a new building in So. CA is scheduled this month. We have been crowding three wards in a small building for years. So. CA has been hit hard by the recession but it hasn’t stopped this project.

  73. Holden Caulfield says:

    well, prop 8 cost the church my $15,000 a year…….

  74. John Williams says:

    Cool post, I like it. It would be interesting to see annual percent increase plotted against the annual percent increase of the stock market. I imagine they move somewhat in tandem.

  75. John Williams says:

    re 74

    I meant annual increase in temples plotted with annual increase in the stock market.

  76. MikeInWeHo says:

    I’m interested in the fact that the Church’s finances are kept so secret. Why is that? It leads to so much speculation, and fuels the anti’s too. Does anybody know what other denominations do?

  77. Bruce, yeah, I have very different numbers. The numbers of missionaries in full-time service from the annual Church Statistical Reports flatly contradict your figures.

  78. nasamomdele says:

    Are the Church’s finances kept secret?

  79. nasamomdele says:

    #77,

    Bruce has numbers for missionaries called each year. Those will be very different from those serving full-time missions.

    It seems that you fellas are looking at entirely different numbers.

  80. Mike #76, I’m sure there’s a lot of variation across denominations, but some are hugely open about finances. When Taryn was an Episcopalian, her parish’s newsletter always published financial updates, as did her diocese. So there are far more open and public denominations. Indeed, ours was one until the financial difficulties of the McKay years.

  81. nasamomdele, nope. Can’t be very different, since all missionaries who serve are called, and mostly only serve for at most 2-year terms. The fact that the two data sources have profoundly different trend lines is incompatible with this. One or the other source seems to be wrong.

  82. nasamomdele says:

    J.,

    Not all missionaries who are called, serve, and not all missionaries who are called are full-time missionaries or even proselyting missionaries.

  83. nasamomdele says:

    Pardon the threadjack,

    J.,

    Gathering from Bruce’s description of his data set and your reference to yours, y’all are looking at:

    Numbers of “called” missionaries each year.

    and

    Numbers of serving full-time missionaries in a given year.

    Numbers of called missionaries probably has been increasing steadily, but a greater share of those called are most likely elderly or service missionaries that are not full-time.

    Personally, I assume that raising the bar has reduced young adult missionary service, but I only have anecdotal evidence from being married to a woman who has worked at the MTC the last 5 years.

    And I think it’s a good thing.

  84. Nasamomdele, your reasoning doesn’t quite track. The number of full-time missionaries serving has been increasing faster than the number of missionaries called. Elderly/service missionaries are typically called as full-time missionaries, but my understanding is that they’re a relatively small component of the whole.

    I agree that the data suggest a change in the kinds of young people serving missions from immediately before the “bar raise.” The data I have suggest that the change is a reversion to the pattern in the early 1990s and before — and that the looser recruitment patterns of the late 1990s may have been the historical anomaly. This is, of course, consistent with your wife’s MTC experience — she evidently wasn’t serving during the earlier historical period before about 1996.

    In any case, I’d submit that this argument is somewhat pointless. If we reject the post-bar-raise data as contaminated, and follow my suggestion that the 1996-era sudden jump in missionary service was also contaminated, then our best move is to project forward the historically standard 1%-ish rate of growth in missionary service (a rate that my data also find during the interstices between policy changes). Missionary service is almost certainly more responsive to change in U.S. membership than in total church membership, so Bruce’s appeal to the overall on-the-books size of the church can be discarded. Overall, the basic argument of the post stands — and more so if, as seems right to me based on the church’s statistical reports, the bar-raise was a constant adjustment in thresholds for missionary service rather than a cap on total numbers of missionaries.

  85. I wonder to what extent building outpacing growth now is simply preparation for future (unanticipated) growth. Could we be on the cusp of a significant upswing in both bapism and retention rates? Will retiring baby-boomers go on missions en masse and be a game-changer, conversion-wise? Will low temple attendance now, which makes 120+ temples seem unnecessary, change drastically somehow in the next few year and make that number seem more logical?

  86. J.

    I’m still not sure where you’re getting your numbers. I just went through the Church Statistical Reports at April General Conference from 1991 on, and it tracks the same drop (with some delay, since my first set of numbers were “missionaries called” not “missionaries currently serving”). So, for example, the statistical report for 2002 shows 61,638 missionaries serving at the end of 2002 (source: May 2003 Ensign); that drops to 56,237 at the end of 2003 (May 2004 Ensign) and 51,067 at the end of 2004 (May 2005 Ensign), a drop of 17% in just two years.

    That’s very much in line with the “missionaries called” number (which is almost always between 0.54 and 0.60 of the “missionaries serving” number, reflecting that not all missions last two years). After than 17% drop from 2002 to 2004, the number of full-time missionaries serving has remained (a) largely flat (it actually dropped again from 2006 to 2007), and (b) at or below the number of full-time missionaries serving back at the end of 1996 (52,938).

    I’m interested in what your sources are and the actual numbers you are using. ..bruce..

  87. Here’s an Excel spreadsheet with all my data (and a nifty graph as well):

    http://adventures-in-mormonism.com/wp-includes/docs/ChurchMissionStats.xls

    The “ratio” column is simply the # called / # served; as I said, it reflects the fact that not all missionaries called serve for two full years. ..bruce..

  88. But wait! There’s more! I’ve now updated the spreadsheet (see comment #87 for link) with Church membership stats and a column showing the % of Church membership serving full-time missions.

    Again, from 1990 to 2002, that percentage is very stable, ranging from 0.52% to 0.56%. (Note that that’s a fraction of 1%, not “52%”.) Then it drops significantly:

    2002 — 0.53%
    2003 — 0.47%
    2004 — 0.42%
    2005 — 0.41%
    2006 — 0.41%
    2007 — 0.40%

    I’d say that “raising the bar” has had a very real impact on the number of missionaries serving. ..bruce..

  89. I don’t have anything to add, except this is a really interesting post. I can’t seem to find the data from the links in the OP about LDS membership staying flat though, am I missing something obvious?

  90. My Top Ten Subjects BBC Steers Clear Of

    BBC?

  91. Matt, they’re linked to the words “recent links.”

  92. When did the Church stop being Millennial? We’ve reached almost 100 posts about the biggest worldwide financial calamity since the Great Depression, and not one brave soul has suggested that this could be the wrapping up before Christ comes again. Maybe the missionary, Temple and chapel stats are where they need to be for the imminent Millennium, and President Monson knows it?

  93. Yes, but all I see is our being lumped in with protestants and non-denominational. That’s a pretty big lump.

  94. cinepro, that’s an idea, but I’d suggest that the odds are pretty poor. Believers have pretty routinely expected the millenium in their own generation since the beginning of Christianity. I’d guess that our odds of being the ones who have that right are not 100%.

    Matt, on the USA Today article, go down to the table at basically the very bottom of the page. We’ve got our own row.

  95. As “Depressions” go, so far this one is rather mild. We are not even in 1982 territory yet. If the unemployment rate rises above ten percent and stays there for five years or more, then we can talk. The Great Depression had unemployment in the fifteen to twenty-five percent range for almost a decade.

    I am not confident that the government is capable of a repeat performance, but they sure are trying really hard. Can’t let a crisis go to waste, as they say. What is a lost decade or two, as long as we end up with economy of France?

  96. Oh, I see it, sorry, I was looking at the wrong chart. LDS.org reports that we have 5,873,408 members in the US. from this we can see that 55% self-identify as LDS. That’s about 10-15% higher than what I project the activity rate to be. That’s pretty interesting.

  97. MikeInWeHo says:

    re: 95

    The French are laughing all the way to their solvent banks right about now:

    http://www.chicagotribune.com/business/columnists/chi-fri-burns-france-mar06,0,5756067.column

  98. MikeinWeHo, If indefinite eight to ten percent unemployment and much lower average standards of living is the goal, then the French model will certainly get us there. There are certain upsides to a welfare state of course.

    The problem is that the current financial crisis has little or nothing to do with the level of government spending, and using it as an excuse to turn the country into a welfare state doesn’t address the problem. In the long run, spending money we don’t have will make the problem much worse. A trillion here, a trillion there…

    The responsible way to get to a French welfare state is to raise taxes across the board by about fifty percent. In the long run, it is the only way. The alternative is hyperinflation and Latin American style economic collapse. 401Ks are down about fifty percent. If we borrow or print enough money, they can be zero. Just wipe out the value of all savings, pensions, retirement funds, and life insurance plans overnight. That is not the French model. That is the Argentinian model.

    The real problem with the world economy is the inherent instability of fractional reserve banking and other centuries old means of creating credit bubbles. This is not a U.S. only problem. Most foreign countries, including most European countries engage in the same banking practices, and have for centuries. One of the deleterious consequences of FRB is major financial crises every ten years or so.

    In the thirties, we had major economic reforms that moderated the severity of financial crises for many years (if at the cost of making the big ones bigger). So where is the Democrats economic (and particularly financial) reform plan?

    If we have to have a fundamentally unstable financial system that is in violation of traditional legal principles, where are the bills to regulate credit default swaps, ratings agencies, financial transparency, the shadow banking system, systemic risk, and so on. We can debate a welfare state another day. Even a welfare state needs a sound financial system.

  99. Regarding the debate on missionary numbers: It seems possible to me that the larger number reflects senior couples plus young single adult missionaries. The smaller number likely only counts young single adult missionaries. I suspect that the number of senior couples serving missions has declined sharply over the last few years as retirement funds and home values have severely contracted.

  100. #99: Actually, the missionary numbers cited only go through the end of 2007, which is really before the collapse in home prices and well before the stock market collapse (the DJIA was up around 14,000 at the end of 2007). And the decline in missionary numbers didn’t happen in the last few years; it happened in the 2003-2004 time frame and has been pretty steady since then. ..bruce..

  101. MikeInWeHo says:

    re: 98
    I basically agree with you, Mark, and certainly agree with your third paragraph (although I don’t think the tax increase would need to be that high to get there). As for our supposedly higher standard of living….well, personally I think ‘quality of life’ means a lot more. I’d gladly trade some of my disposable income for a society that provided univeral health care and pensions, for example.

  102. Bruce’s numbers are too high in the early 1990s, when the total number of missionaries in service was about 10-20% lower than his statistics according to many different church sources. They are too high also at present. They simply don’t correspond with most of the other numbers published by the church on this topic, whether broken down by junior/senior service, etc. They look like errors.

    Regarding the allegedly higher standards of living in France, it’s certainly difficult to observe such a thing. In 2004, for example, the median household income in France was about $US42,451, while the median household income in the U.S. was roughly $US43,389. A large difference? Different data sources make different purchasing power corrections, with the result that the gap might be as large as $US5000, or as small as $US1000. That’s it.

    There are larger differences at the top and bottom of the income distribution. Our richest people are much, much richer on average than France’s richest people — and our poorest people are poorer. But the average person in France has pretty much a comparable standard of living to the average person in the U.S., systemic differences notwithstanding. I’d also note that, in strictly economic terms, one would be better off as an unemployed person in France than as an adult trying to live on the minimum wage in the U.S.

  103. Note that I don’t mean that Bruce is in error in his reporting of the numbers, but simply that the numbers Bruce reports seem to be erroneous in that they don’t correspond with most other church data sources. It could certainly be the case that the other numbers (in press releases and annual statistical reports, for example) are the numbers that are in error. Our church has never been particularly intense about the accuracy of quantitative data.

  104. J’aime la vie francaise.

  105. Rameumptom says:

    One point not mentioned in the original OP is the reason our missionary force has not grown is because we “raised the bar” for quality missionaries about a decade ago.
    We’ve rejected many young men, who would have qualified in 1990, for missionary service in 2008.

    As it is, the Church is beginning to feel another problem growing: a dirge of 19 year olds. Our Church is growing older, but is not having as many teens prepared for missionary work. The raised bar is part of the problem, but the other part is that we’re having a harder time keeping our youth active. It may be that the heighth of the bar may need to be adjusted.

  106. Absolutely fascinating post. Thanks for the insights!

  107. Rameumptom, I think you missed the discussion of the “bar” above. I would agree that we reject many young men who would have qualified in 1999, but the rejected young men probably would have been rejected in 1990…

  108. Bruce’s numbers are too high in the early 1990s, when the total number of missionaries in service was about 10-20% lower than his statistics according to many different church sources. They are too high also at present. They simply don’t correspond with most of the other numbers published by the church on this topic, whether broken down by junior/senior service, etc. They look like errors.

    Well, they’re straight out of the ‘Church Statistical Report’ in April General Conference (May Ensign issues 1991 through 2008). I’m still not sure what other sources you’re using; you have yet to cite any numbers or sources. Mine are all out there, sources documented, and can be independently checked. ..bruce..

  109. You’re making some assumptions that I think could reasonably be challenged:

    1. The Church was operating at the margin in the 1990′s. Frankly, I doubt the Church ever operates at the margin anymore. Since President Hinckley was telling the members to save and get out of debt since he was first sustained, I’m guessing the Church was doing the same thing.

    2. The Church’s investments are volatile. I’m sure the Church has sustained some losses, but I’d guess their investment strategy is ridiculously conservative. I know if you donate stock, they liquidate it immediately. My guess is they’ve had some losses, but not anywhere near enough to materially affect them.

    You raise a good point about the restructuring but that may also be more of a proactive response to the changing economy than a reactive response due to severe pressures. My two cents, anyway.

    Sorry if this is a repeat, I’m not going to read all the other comments.

  110. This is a fascinating discussion, but I think we’ve dropped a critical element, one which JNS alluded to in the original post (and is personally well qualified to address). This is the international angle. Using Church-wide growth in wards and stakes as a proxy measurement for the growth of the Church’s fiscal burden overlooks the greater burden imposed by growth in poorer areas (in the US as well as abroad as noted by Mark B above). I suspect a new stake in Nigeria or the Philippines is going to have a different fiscal impact on the Church than a new stake on the East Bench.

    Of course, the Church’s international growth has slowed both due to massive retention problems and a shift of missionary resources back to the US, but the long term trend remains that the Church is going to become continuously poorer on average as it grows outside the US. I have no idea how one would estimate the comparative net fiscal gain/loss of new stakes in different locations. One could make assumptions based on local income information, but we wouldn’t know if local Mormons matched the average local income or what the costs of Church operation were. However, at the least we have information on where the stake/ward growth is occurring. It would be interesting to break JNS’ data down on that basis to see how fast growth in poorer areas was outstripping growth in wealthier areas.

    That said, contrary to some of JNS’ assumptions, at least one category of Church resource does not necessarily equal fiscal burden. That is leadership. With our lay leadership model, new stakes/wards outside the US are not (very) dependent on US resources. It is true that the US contributes disproportionately to higher level leadership, but I suspect that is an artifact of cultural attitudes which could easily be ended at any time (and the sooner the better IMHO) without serious disruption to the fundamental operations of the Church.

  111. Bruce, I checked the Statistical Reports and they don’t match your numbers. I think we’re at an impasse, and I suggest dropping the point.

    m, regarding the “conservative” nature of church investments, this was indeed the case — the church has concentrated in real estate, which was thought to be safe. But it wasn’t safe.

    JWL, I’m not sure regarding leadership. As things stand, many or most leaders above the stake level in the international church seem to be U.S. Americans. It could be the case (indeed, I think it is the case) that this is a cultural artifact and should change. But I’m not sure that expecting swift cultural change in our church’s leadership is always a fruitful move. My guess is that we will continue to rely on such leaders for some time to come, and also that this will place an increasingly large burden on the not-overwhelmingly-large body of U.S. American Mormons who have the time and money to participate.

  112. A few points I can offer:
    -Everyone seems to be ignoring cohort effects on the available populations of young men available to serve missions. Check census reports and school enrollments. Baby boomers have kids, and it creates the baby boom echo, etc., which I think would account for the peak in the mid-90s. You have to adjust for regional factors, taking into account where the missionaries are coming from as well. Count me with those who think the number of stakes is the best proxy for measuring strong, solid membership. Missionary numbers are too vulnerable to cohort effects. The larger point, however, is valid, and not just in the US. It’s pretty clear that Church membership growth has stalled. Since the late 80s, the number of baptized converts has hovered around 300,000. This number should be steadily increasing, because as membership increases, a constant rate of increase in percentage terms should translate to greater numbers every year. It is not. Why? Perhaps better for a separate discussion.
    -The Church’s for-profit downtown SLC project is still looking fine. While any typical developer would probably be in trouble, I happen to know (it’s my line of work) that the condos the Church is selling as part of the residences are all pre-sold with waiting lists and values well above other asking rates. Meanwhile, condo prices at other downtown developments have collapsed. The Church’s for profit real estate development arm is doing just fine, even if (and I’m not aware of any, and in my line of work, I think I would have) “mistakes were made” leading to someone being sacked there.
    -Re: land not being a safe investment. Declining real estate values, for most people, are a serious problem. This is because it affects your ability to sell the land in a liquidity crisis, makes it difficult to service the debt, and your ability to borrow (or leverage) that asset. Since the Church has no carrying costs on its land, and pays no property taxes, never intends to borrow against the land it owns, and doesn’t need to sell any of its land, declining real estate values present no problem for the Church at all.
    -From what I hear from people involved in the Draper temple, ongoing maintenance costs at the “small” temples is roughly an order of magnitude cheaper than regular temples. It is requiring a ton of volunteer labor from the stakes in the temple district. If we say conservatively that you can operate 8 small temples for the price of a regular, traditional temple, and adjust the new temple numbers accordingly, the number of temples being constructed isn’t a bubble at all. In fact, if we take temple operating costs as a percentage of total membership, I’ll bet it’s probably declined somewhat since President Hinckley instituted the small temples project.
    -I have alluded to it earlier, but the amount of free labor the Church gains is massive. In an economic downturn, the Church should have even more of this labor available.
    -Household income is a poor measure for income growth, since household size has quite dramatically declined. Anytime someone uses household numbers to make an economic point, you are having the wool pulled over your eyes. You gonna believe statistics, or your own lying eyes? Look at what is in people’s garages, the appliances in their homes, the food on their tables, and the size of those homes. These things don’t lie, and they are not all fueled by debt, but by increasing productivity. In purchasing power and other measures, our standard of living has increased remarkably since the 70s.

  113. Mr. Nelson-Seawright, why not post your numbers, or post the exact place you got them from? I ask, because I went to lds.org, and looked at the Church Statistical Reports from several General Conferences, and they all matched Bruce’s numbers. If you have different numbers, that would indicate that the church has two sets of books, which we all know is impossible.

    Bruce’s numbers are accurate, and until somebody posts different numbers, and says exactly where they got them, there’s no reason to believe that his numbers are incorrect, and every reason to believe that people who assert differently are wrong.

  114. Billgaima says:

    Hey everyone… how do I search for more than one word in other posts, so that it returns only posts with those two words?

  115. Goldarn, you’re wrong. The lds.org accounts all fail to match Bruce’s numbers about missionaries called from the LDS almanac, although they do match his numbers about total missionaries serving. For the latter numbers, if we look at trends, there is a one-time unaccounted-for spike in service in 1997 that is basically exactly off-set by the one-time “bar-raise” drop. Trends are constant otherwise. So Bruce and I have the same data, but Bruce is simply not getting the argument — his data, like mine, show one-time bumps early and late in the series.

    Bruce’s percentage-in-service argument, though, is misleading. There’s no good reason to think that this number would be stable through a time period when we’re about 18 years after the international explosion in Mormonism started — because a much smaller proportion of 19-year-old sons of foreign converts serve missions than is the case for U.S. members.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 7,786 other followers