Alma, the Dunbar Number, and the Waters of Mormon First Ward #BOM2016

Mosiah 18

And after this manner he did baptize every one that went forth to the place of Mormon; and they were in number about two hundred and four souls; yea, and they were baptized in the waters of Mormon, and were filled with the grace of God.—Mosiah 18:16

waters-of-mormonOver the last eight years, my family has belonged to three different wards. We didn’t move; the ward boundaries moved around us, but we had very different experiences in each ward, which I am convinced had something to do with the size of each congregation. The narrative arc follows, albeit not sequentially, the story of Goldilocks and the Three Bears: one ward was too big, one was too small, and one was just right.

The “too big” ward had an average Sacrament Meeting attendance of more than 250 people. We always opened up the curtains and went halfway to the back of the cultural hall. We spent nearly two years in that ward without really getting to know anybody very well. Neither my wife nor I had a calling, we rarely did anything with people outside of church, and I am pretty sure that the bishop didn’t know my name. In the “too small” ward—with an average sacrament attendance under 100—everybody was too busy to have relationships with each other. Most people had multiple callings. People burned out quickly. And the Same Ten People ended up doing everything.

And then there was the “just right” ward, with an average Sacrament Meeting attendance of between 150 and 175 people.–one of the most nurturing and supportive wards I have ever been part of. People became good friends with each other. We became involved in each other’s lives to an extent that I have never before experienced. We raised each other’s children, had Family Home Evening’s together, and I even went to my first and only “Super Bowl Party” after church one day. I watched all seven innings. It was that good.

How much did these experiences have to do with the number of people in the ward? There is no way to tell for sure, but a lot of fascinating research has been done on the ideal size of human communities. In the 1990s, the British anthropologist and primatologist Robin Dunbar proposed that human beings can maintain stable relationships with about 150 other people in non-coercive communities. He estimated that this was the ideal size of the hunter-gatherer communities in which we evolved. Subsequent research has pushed the “Dunbar Number” as high as 250, with most scholars settling somewhere between 150-200.

The Dunbar Number works works on the principle that every extra person in a community doubles the cognitive resources necessary to be a part of it–since being part of a community means keeping track of all of the different ways that every member of that community interacts with every other member. The cognitive power to keep track of 150 or 200 other people in this way is staggering. Some believe that this is the main reason that humans evolved such big brains in the first place. And communities that exceed this number necessarily become coercive, top-down, and rule-governed–there is simply no other way to keep track of everybody.

So all of this was going through my mind when I noticed that Mosiah 18—which is the pivotal chapter about the founding of the Nephite church—not only names names;  it numbers numbers: ”they were in number about two hundred and four souls.” First off, who says, “about 204”? People say “about 200,” but 204 is more like an exact count. And it is an exact count that is exactly in line with what modern scientists believe about the ideal size of a human community.

And it is roughly the size of most of the LDS wards that I have belonged to. I can’t help but think that this says something about what a ward is supposed to be. We are not simply called to worship alongside one another. In the very same chapter of Mosiah, we are called to mourn with those that mourn, comfort those that stand in need of comfort, and bear one another’s burdens that they may be light. We are called, in other words, to be part of each other. There are rigid cognitive limits on how many people we can know that well.

Loving everybody in the world is easy because it is an abstract love. We can’t be part of everybody in the way that the Gospel calls us to be. We don’t know how. Our wards are the places that we learn how to do this with a manageable number of people—most of whom (if the system is working) aren’t very much like us. This is not quite Zion. But it is a training ground for Zion, which we can only build when we have learned the lessons that are available in the local communities that we have covenanted to build.


  1. Is that 150-200 people, or 150-200 adults? I ask because the ideal size for a congregation is gonna vary depending on the location. A 175-person ward in a bunny farm bedroom community in the Jello Belt is going to look very different from one in an older suburb, which in turn is going to look very different from one in a central city neighborhood.

  2. APM–it is people, not necessarily adults. From the evolutionary perspective, keeping track of the kids is just as important–especially if the average age at death in your tribe is 24.

  3. Any theories about 204? It’s such an interesting number — 12 X 17. We don’t see multiples of 17 very often.
    As for the Dunbar number, it makes sense to me that a Ward is about that size. There’s another level of complexity for me in that it seems that my Dunbar number peaked at about age 30 and has been declining ever since.
    And this brings to mind one of my favorite missed rejoinder stories. Once upon a time I was an Elder’s Quorum President (yes, really) when a visiting Authority asked me how many men were in the quorum. I didn’t know the number and was (inappropriately, in my opinion) publicly shamed over that failing. The rejoinder–true but too late–was that I did know all their names.

  4. 250-300 certainly was way too big for a singles ward.

    The reason I mention bunny farm wards is because one with 175 members including children likely will have only 40-60 adults. At the low end of that range, that’s a very stressed ward.

  5. APM: Yeah, Mormon families mess with Dunbar’s Number in big ways. Bunnies have a different optimal community size ;-)

  6. APM @8:11: 250-300 does seem too big for a singles ward, although the activity level matters too. When I once had an inside look at the process, one problem we discussed was that splitting a 250-300 person ward created two too-small wards. It is hard to get things just right.

  7. Jason K. says:

    Thanks for the post, Mike. I’m becoming increasingly convinced that most of our actions that really matter happen in relatively small spheres. Your post helps get at why that might be.

  8. Thanks for this. My current ward runs around 170 and is lovely, although lots of aging and other assorted needs mean that some members still have multiple callings (I have three, while my husband is bishop). One of my best church experiences, though, was in an Italian branch of about 70 active members where we all just loved the heck out of each other. One of my kids was the entire junior Primary and the other was the nursery, and we always felt that everyone was delighted to have us around.

  9. Something of an aside but I found it interesting nonetheless:

    I was recently listening to a podcast where an economist discussed his belief that we could take the 100 richest people in the world and place them on an island and they would end up poor. His reasoning was that we need large numbers to allow for diversification and specialisation. Without specialisation there is no growth. When everybody is a generalist, there is no time, capacity, or ability for specialisation which is what is necessary for growth.

    I wondered about this as it pertains to our congregation sizes. In Australia, we have a habit of splitting wards when they are still remarkably small. Leaders argue that this promotes growth. My experience has been that it promotes stress and that wards remain small. Members do not look happy. Investigators show up and wonder where everyone is. It’s kind of like when you are looking to dine in a restaurant. The ones that are most attractive are the ones that are full.

    What I am suggesting, therefore, is that wards that are of some reasonable size should be more successful because there is more specialisation and diversification, the load is not too great for any one person, or any group of people, and it is large enough to look and feel attractive and have a good energy.

  10. As for the “*about* two hundred and four” number, I’ve always wondered if that’s related to verse 18, which sets out a 1:50 priest/congregant ratio. Maybe it was about 200 lay members, and then the author decided to add on the 4 protests required to tend to them?

  11. Err, 4 priests, not protests. On mobile.

  12. I beleive Ella is on to something. In 1997 my Western European stake was explicitly split on the Field of Dreams premise: if you build they will come. They have not come. In fact, branches have been closed and the mission covering our stake(s) consolidated.

  13. In northern Virginia’s Colonial Ward in the late 90s/early 2000s before it split, we regularly would have upwards of 450 or more just at sacrament meeting. Granted, there were regularly visitors but there were also many who simply did not show up because they got lost in the crowd. The ward did a good job at administration (there were six relief society groups, each with their own leader, a member of the large presidency) but not so good at ministration.

    I think the Dunbar number for a ward should be near the number of distinct family units, or perhaps addresses. In my mind, I can keep track of an entire family as a unit, even if there are ten kids, unless I’m responsible for one of them as a result of my calling. As someone already pointed out, 200 people in a ward with a ton of kids becomes too stressful for the handful of adults to run the ward.

  14. Mortimer says:

    200ish people would equate to somewhere between 6 and 20 lgbt persons (low studies ~ 3% high studies ~ 10%)

  15. Low studies are as low as 1.5% or three LGBT persons in 200. Still, not negligible.

    200 people would on average equate to nearly 40 people with disabilities of some sort and about half that number with severe disabilities, a much more likely condition.

    18% of the general populations suffers from some form mental illness, including conditions such as depression, bipolar disorder or schizophrenia, or 36 out of our hypothetical 200.

    Given those numbers, it is amazing that sufficient hunting and gathering gets done to feed the group.

    A ward is, of course, different from a hunting and gathering group. A ward works as in the lyrics of “Ezekiel Saw the Wheel” put it:

    The big wheel runs by Faith
    The little wheel runs by the Grace of God

  16. Jared vdH says:


    For actual hunters and gatherers, I suspect that many of the disabled or mentally ill were likely not cared for and pushed out of the group so that the group didn’t have to support them.

    Compassion for the disabled and mentally ill is a struggle for modern humans in comfortable circumstances. I doubt that ancient humans who were struggling to survive would have had much compassion for them. But perhaps I’m a pessimist.

  17. I really love this post and the comments so far. Mormon blogging at its best!

  18. Last night I heard a CBC radio story about a man (Kelly Hofer) publishing a book of photos of his Hutterite colony. He has left his colony because he’s gay. He talks longingly about how the Hutterite lifestyle (based on farming) provides a great way for children to grow up. (The photos are gorgeous!)
    I looked up Hutterite on Wikipedia and read about the way one of the sects divides when a colony gets too large due to population growth. The size fits in the Dunbar number. All the colony members prepare a new colony for settlement and are divided into two groups (it’s unclear how much choice they have in this division process). The minister, praying for God’s help, pulls a piece of paper out of a hat telling which group will move. Seems like this structure of splitting tries to make it as painless as possible.
    But Hofer’s splitting himself off wasn’t painless at all. How can communities that are trying to be Godlike truly include all who wish to belong?
    Congregation size is certainly a factor in ward happiness, but I’d say it is much less a factor than our treatment of gays, mentally ill, elderly, and poor. We have pretty mixed results on that score.

  19. What Ella, christiankimball, and peterllc are talking about is precisely what happens when you start to view people as numbers and not as spirits with divine potential: you become obsessed with hitting numerical goals that are easy to measure and ignore the things that are difficult to quantify, like stress. (Not impossible, mind you, but potentially costly–certainly too costly for an organization that’s used to spending money on tangible stuff.) “If you can’t measure it, you can’t improve it” curdles into “If it can’t be measured easily enough on our budget, it can’t be improved–so it might as well be ignored.”

    I’m an economist who works as a quantitative analyst for an electric utility. I turn human behavior into numbers all day long. That doesn’t mean I’m gonna bring that perspective to church. If I did, I wouldn’t go to church at all, because the rational part of my brain tells me that this is all nonsense. Luckily, I don’t listen only to the rational part of my brain.

  20. The relevance of Dunbar number to ideal Ward size seems to be complicated by the fact that each Ward member presumably maintains relationships with family, friends, co-workers, etc. who are not in the Ward, thus reducing available “cognitive power” for maintaining Ward relationships.

  21. Anonymous says:

    when I was RSP, our ward on the outer rim of the Mormon Bubble had 600+ nominally, with an average Sunday attendance at about 1.5x the Dunbar number… but there were nearly 220 women on the Relief Society Rolls, with approaching 60 of those attending RS (and that was after fully staffed Primary and YW were busy elsewhere). It took a bucket-load of cognitive work to keep track of those 200+ women… nearly broke my brain, in all honesty … but I knew something about each and every sister, and had met almost every one of them personally. I first started keeping track on index cards, then switched to an Excel spreadsheet, to remember when I had seen each sister last, and what was going on in her life, and when she had last been to church, etc. There just were not enough priesthood brothers to split this ward. The percentages Leo mentions above were about right… as RSP I was buried alive under mental illness and disabilities, and yes, the numbers of GLBT at about 1.5 to 3% were also correct. It was and is a warm and welcoming ward, often considered one of the best wards, but it takes so very much cognitive work from the leadership of the ward to keep it that way.

  22. GaryK,

    It is not knowing people per se that is so cognitively taxing. It is knowing people within intricately connected social networks. I know and keep track of thousands of people reasonably well in my job, my academic field, my community, etc. But I can’t keep track of how they are all connected to each other or the thousands of people that they know. I just don’t have that kind of processing power. It is only in my Mormon Ward that I know a large number of people who also know each other in multiple ways. That is what makes it all so taxing. I know people in other communies this way, but in groups that number in the dozens, not the hundreds.

  23. Hmmm…. I live in a branch, and I’d say our average sacrament meeting attendance is about 70. I don’t think that my husband’s and my workload is much higher than it was in our previous average-sized ward in Utah. We each have one calling, both in leadership. We both held leadership callings in our previous ward, though admittedly not at the same time. The main drain on our energy and resources seems to be the travel time involved getting to and from church meetings and activities (it’s a 40-minute drive one-way to the church).

    I don’t see the people here in the branch being overly burned out on callings. What has happened is that as the numbers are so small and the distances so great, church programs have been streamlined so that there is less to do. We have no scouting program. All Primary children attend Activity Days, which is held only once a month. The young men and young women meet for activities only twice a month, and if there happens to be a stake youth activity that month, it takes the place of one of the mutual nights. All committees are smaller. Most people in the branch, that I’m aware of, have only one calling. We have only 5 active young women, so there is no need for separate classes or additional advisors. As a counselor in the YW presidency, I teach once a month, attend mutual twice a month, and occasionally drive youth to stake activities 1.5 hours away. That’s about it, and it’s a fraction of the work that my peers in regular-sized wards are doing in Young Women’s.

  24. Our Ward boundaries are being realigned this coming Sunday. The two largest Wards in our Stake, and a third Ward, will be realigned into four Wards. I will look for numbers similar to those presented here when the realignment is announced.

  25. I would love it if our local singles ward was only 350 people. We are more than twice that, if you only count the people who are on the records, and not all the floaters who are ward hopping, or custodial parents.

  26. I don’t think it is the number of ward members that is the problem. It is only a marker or an indicator of another problem.The problem is the inflexibility of the church programs. Our rigid programs only work in a narrow niche and if the rigidity increases from retrenchment the niche further narrows.

    Some might not think about it but we are not the only church and many other churches experiment with various congregational sizes and various programs with variable results. I would guess on average most congregations outside the LDS faith are larger and work better. Don’t subcome to the delusion that we work harder in our callings. I know non-LDS folks who give as much time and energy at church as any of our bishops. We could learn much from them and their mistakes.

    Our ward was split because the building was small, and the attendance increasing entirely from more young transient people moving in and right back out in a few months. We had single digit numbers of youth and so they did not split the youth. But each ward called both a YM and YW Presidency to give all the new people something to do. Four organizations of about 10 people in each- leading in total about 10-12 youth. Four organizations of mostly busy new people who did not know each other and did not communicate well. A formula for conflict and confusion. And inactivity. One ward had only one young male teenager and so we had a Young Man’s Presidency instead of a Young Men’s Presidency.

    But since we cannot make the programs less rigid………

  27. The programs are as flexible as the inspiration of local leaders. There is actually fairly little that can’t be adapted to meet local needs. In fact, “programs” are the things most susceptible to adaption according to local needs. See Handbook 2, Chap. 17.

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