So, how many missionaries will be serving next year?

Missionaries ServingI made a mistake. The week before conference the LDS Church Growth blog, analyzing a Church news release, projected that the number of missionaries serving could pass 100,000 by the end of 2013 or early 2014. When the news appeared in a facbook group I follow, I thought it seemed overly optimistic. I realized soon after the announcement last October that we would have a surge in missionaries, as 18-year-olds joined the 19 and 20-year-old Elders serving, and as 19 and 20-year-old Sisters joined the 21 and 22-year-old Sisters serving. So, I though, the number of missionaries will jump to 80,000 or 90,000 and then fall back down to something a bit above current levels, as we get to a missionary force that mainly started at 18 (for Elders) and 19 (for Sisters). To confirm this, I put together a spreadsheet model. And I was quite surprised.

The problem I had with the 100,000 number from LDS Church Growth is that it seemed to be simply a projection based on the current number of applications coming in. The LDS Church Growth blog said:

The Church may call as many as 70,000 missionaries in 2013 if it continues to perpetuate the average of 1,400 missionary applications per week for the entire year.  This may result in the Church surpassing 100,000 missionaries serving by late 2013 or early 2014…

This left out a lot. Can you really just add the number of missionaries called to those currently serving and guess that will come out right? Some missionaries leave, right? Even if you estimate that half of those serving will return from the mission field during the year, leaving half serving, how do you know that the 1,400 applications a week will keep up for the whole year and give you the 70,000 missionaries calculated? This, among other things, made me doubt that the number of missionaries would reach 100,000.

So I took a different approach. Instead of looking at how many applications were coming in, I though it might be better to look at what proportion of members of a particular age served, and total up how many will be in the mission field based on what age groups will be serving at six month intervals over the next few years. So, if I can find a good estimate of the number of active young men and women at each age, and if I can calculate what proportion will serve a mission, I can total up the number that will be in the mission field at any point in time.

For example, at the end of this year we should have in the mission field the following:

  • young men who turned 18 during this year
  • young men who turned 19 during this year (who were also called in 2013)
  • young men who turned 20 during this year (who were called in 2012 at 19)
  • young women who turned 19 during this year
  • young women who turned 20 during this year (who were also called in 2013)
  • young women who turned 21 during this year (who were also called in 2013)
  • about half of young women who turned 22 during this year (called in 2012)
  • senior missionaries


If you know how many are in each of these groups, you can simply add them up and get the number of missionaries serving at the end of this year. For other points in time, you simply adjust the groups you add up based on whether or not they will be serving.

The problem is, of course, that the Church doesn’t report how many young men and young women are in the Church who were born a particular year, nor how many are active and how many serve missions. Except that it does report something that is perhaps just as good, at least for making rough estimates. The Church reports the number of seminary students. And the annual report the Church released this year says that there were about 390,000 seminary students in the 2011-2012 school year, up from 375,000 the previous year. The report gives the number of seminary students each year back to the beginning of seminary, allowing someone like me to estimate the number of students each year and the number of young men and young women each year.

The numbers work out to between 45,000 and 50,000 young men and the same number of young women in seminary. Comparing these to missionary service, it appears that about 45% to 50% of young men in seminary serve missions, while (up to now) 12% to15% of young women in seminary serve missions.

Of course the hope is that these percentages will change with this age change. Will more young men serve because of the age change? We don’t know — I think it is too early to say, and the fact that I’m working with estimates makes me think that I will not be able to tell from my data (the Church will be able to tell at some point in the future, because they don’t have to use estimates).

But, from the data the Church has reported in its news releases, it is very clear that the proportion of young women serving has risen dramatically. Following the announcement last October, the Church reported that as many as half of the applications it received were from women, and the numbers since January, IIRC still show 1/3rd to 40% of applications from women. Even with the fact that the number of potential sister missionaries has tripled, it isn’t possible to see so many applications without an increase in the proportion of young women serving. If my analysis is correct, the proportion of eligible young women serving will increase this year from perhaps 15% last year to almost 30% this year. So, the number of young women serving will more than triple.

So where does this leave us? I’ve put all this together, and produced the following spreadsheet, available for anyone to see on Google Docs. I haven’t made it pretty, so you may have to decipher how I came up with some details. It projects the following:

  • More than 80,000 serving by the end of June
  • More than 100,000 serving by the end of December
  • Nearly 110,000 serving by June 2014
  • Back down to a little over 100,00 by December 2014
  • A stable number of 75,000 to 80,000 starting by the end of 2015 — meaning that the bubble from more than one age group starting at the same time (as we are seeing this year with both 18 and 19-year-old Elders starting their missions this year) will have completed their missions.

Like any estimate, these numbers won’t be exactly right, and could be wrong to a large degree. For example, I’ve assumed that about 50% of young men in seminary will serve missions. It is possible that this will only be 45% or less. Or, it could be that the proportion could rise to 55% or more. Likewise, I’m assuming that 30% of young women in seminary will serve missions, rising to 35% when those who turned 16 last year enter the mission field in 2015 (i.e., young women will get used to the idea and will increase participation over time). While it seems certain that the proportion of young women serving will increase, I don’t think anyone knows how high it will go. Personally, I don’t think it will reach the same proportion as young men for decades perhaps, if ever. The 30% to 35% is just my best guess. It remains a guess.

I also assume that the number of senior missionaries will continue to increase at the same rate that it has. I have no idea if that is a good assumption or not. It could be that the increase in young missionaries might turn off some seniors and the number could go down. Or the whole environment could be inspiring, and the number of senior missionaries could increase even faster. Your guess is probably as good as mine.

As always, I’m interested in how others see these numbers. Perhaps other spreadsheet jockeys would like to take a stab at this, or someone can point out an error in my logic. I’ll be surprised if the numbers change by more than 20%, or shift by more than 6 months. But I do recognize that someone else out there might be able to come up with a better estimate than I.

In short, all this took me by surprise. I knew there would be a large, temporary increase in the number of missionaries serving, and that it would settle down later to a significant increase (because of the larger proportion of young women serving). But I had no idea that it would be this big.

What do you think?

44 comments for “So, how many missionaries will be serving next year?

  1. I’m going to suggest that something like 75% of girls who attend seminary will serve missions once they realize that not having served a mission will price them right out of the marriage market (no matter how many times GAs say that they don’t _have_ to serve.) I may be wrong about this, but I suspect that the pressure to serve will be tremendous.

  2. “I also assume that the number of senior missionaries will continue to increase at the same rate that it has.”

    This does not seem based on demographics. The baby boom is just starting to retire, and just as there was a baby boom, it seems there will be a missionary boom when that cohort reaches retirement age. Perhaps a bit less because we are also the first generation to mostly lack a defined-benefit retirement plan and thus may be employed longer, but that is perhaps balanced by the access to statin drugs and other health care improvements that may keep us healthy longer.

    Also, the impact of President Kimball’s 1974 “all worthy males” invitation may be bearing a second crop of fruit in the next decade. Young men in the 1970s who hadn’t considered a mission before that went when he asked, and now are preparing to return with their wives.

    At least at our house, we are reading scripture stories in another language several nights a week to prepare. And one of my husband’s former companions and his wife are already in the field.

  3. My take as a sociologist:
    The demographic principle is clear that an initial bump will be followed by some decline from peak as those who would have gone at 19 but leave at 18 distort the early numbers. The total number available in 3 years will not be different.

    It seems likely that more young women will serve, but not necessarily many more young men. I highly doubt that the percentage will reach and maintain at 75%.

    I predict that the rate of baptisms/conversions per missionary will decline.

  4. Dittos on what Naismith said about baby-boomer retirees creating their own surge of retired missionaries.

    I’m also of the opinion that the percentage of seminary-attending sisters who serve will be at least 50%

    Whatever the percentage of males serving in the past or up until now, the decrease in minimum age from 19 to 18 will likely have a non-negligible effect on increasing that percentage. I believe that will be due to the fact that a certain percentage of young men have gone inactive in the past between their 18th and 19th birthdays, due to the “away at college” or “I’m an adult now, and don’t have to go to church” factors.

    I’m assuming that the church loses a lot of young men (or young adults) during that freshman year, and that it doesn’t happen exactly on their birthday, but rather it’s a slide brought on by being away from home, or a gradual thing.

  5. One interesting issue will be whether the Church will create alternatives to proselyting. A pretty strong argument can be made that the current door-to-door approach hurts more than it helps. Most of my non-member friends find it plain annoying. Doing more will only make the problem worse.

    These would be a great time to up the amount of time spent on community service.

  6. AL #4, If sisters have a different baptism rate than elders, then a significant change in the percentage of sisters comprising a mission should have a noticeable effect on the overall baptism rate.

    Does anyone have any figures on sister-vs-elder baptism rates? Is it different mission by mision, or for foreign versus domestic missions?

    Years ago, in my south american mission, elders were the more aggressive proselyters, and if I remember correctly, had higher baptism rates. But I wouldn’t be surprised that if the metric were long term retention, that the sisters would win out.

    Here in the US, specifically in suburbia, my guess is that sisters would have the higher baptism rate.

    But with the enthusiasm that the sisters will bring to the missions, I’m thinking that the overall rate will go up, at least in the US.

  7. I would expect the percentage of young men who serve will be permanently a little higher and the percentage of young women who serve will permanently be a lot higher. I would not be surprised if the percentage of women choosing to serve is almost as high as the percentage of men, but as long and the service duration is 18 months for women and 24 months for men, there will be significantly more male missionaries serving at any given time. I even wonder if part of the reason the women are still only serving for 18 months is because the church does not want the “surge” to be even more overwhelming than it already is. If so, the women may be asked or allowed to serve longer once the initial surge in missionaries has subsided.

  8. My forecast of decline in success ratio is based on assessment of preparedness and skill and their effects on success and assumption that younger = less prepared, less skilled, etc.

    Male and female do tend to have some consistent differences in rate.

    Highest rate since WWII achieved in early 1960s. Declined during Viet Nam war. Increased some thereafter, but current rate is less than half of early 1960s in most countries/mission.

    As for senior missionaries, that has little impact on baptism as few of them are proselyting.

  9. “As for senior missionaries, that has little impact on baptism as few of them are proselyting.”

    Maybe not directly or short-term, but if they’re strengthening local units administratively, or working with less-actives, it means that more children of record will be baptized and stay active.

  10. Perhaps strengthening units will increase member activity, etc.

    My focus is convert baptisms which are primarily a function of proselyting missionaries.

    In re: activity rates after baptism, it does not appear that there has been a substantial increase in such as baptism rate has declined.

  11. “I’m going to suggest that something like 75% of girls who attend seminary will serve missions once they realize that not having served a mission will price them right out of the marriage market”

    So your suggesting that returned Elders will be primarily looking for a returned Sister Missionary to marry? I don’t see that happening. I guess we’ll have to see.

  12. “So your suggesting that returned Elders will be primarily looking for a returned Sister Missionary to marry?”

    Yes. It is already hard enough for women to find a spouse. When it occurs to them that a % of men (even if it is relatively small) will consider them ineligible to marry if they haven’t served, they’ll serve. And it kind of makes sense that a male RM would seek the same, because it would signal her commitment to the church in a way that 18 months of attending dances and Institute doesn’t necessarily do.

    (Just in case anyone thinks I’m being snotty here, I didn’t serve a mission myself.)

  13. I see your point but:

    1. I don’t think Missionary service is really going to cross a 21-year old male’s mind when looking for a mate. I think some will but far from a majority.

    2. I think for this to take effect, you would have to see a vast majority of YW leave on missions–around the 75% number you stated above. This would create a “left behind” stigma that would certainly attach itself to those not serving. But then we’d simply have a chicken-egg argument.

    Honestly, I don’t really ever see a majority of YW serving missionaries. I see it much closer to the 30% to 355% figure used in the OP which matches what I see in my Ward, amongst family, as well as other anecdotal evidence.

  14. I agree with Julie Smith that there will soon be “tremendous” pressure on YW to serve, just as it is for YM. We are already seeing the beginnings of this. In our stake I think that there is already an “expectation” among young women. The younger age makes it so that there really isn’t a big reason not to serve.

    I am not sure that we will see a higher rate than YM serving, but I am wondering if the rates will eventually be quite similar. This will have a profound impact on the culture of our church. This will boost the number of missionaries serving, and not so much the move from 18 to 19 for the young men.

    Finally, I disagree with the notion that the efficiency of the missionaries will decrease: that is, I doubt that the number of baptisms/missionary will drop much. I thought that this number is pretty stable over years and even decades. For example, I think that there was a drop off in convert baptisms during the time that men served only 18 months and there was an associated drop in missionaries world-wide. More missionaries will likely mean more baptisms, at least for a while. Unless non-members experience some degree of missionary fatigue.

    I also wonder, and even hope to some degree, that the glut of missionaries might result in other missionary options becoming more common such as service missionaries.

  15. I’m trying to remain hopeful that an increase in missionaries does not equal a corresponding increase in investigators “found” independent of member referrals.

  16. As far as the decline in the converts/missionary measure goes, that’s just the expected result when, with everything else held constant, additional missionaries are added to the system. The marginal return to that augmented factor (labor) decreases. That’s independent of the idea that younger missionaries would be less effective — it that’s true, the decline would be even more pronounced.

    This result could be reversed (missionary labor productivity could be increased) if the Church provided more capital per missionary, say a car for each pair of missionaries, or made the message more marketable. But capital costs money and leaders are unlikely to modify gospel content to make proselyting more successful. So expect declining conversion/missionary numbers. On the bright side, this will likely make diverting additional missionary effort to service, education, study, and other worthy goals more attractive.

  17. @chet, why? That seems a little offensive to those of us who were found through tracting, you don’t want people that someone doesn’t already know?

  18. Tim- I think Julie is right. At church schools almost twenty years ago when I went, there was a preference among some groups of men for returned missionary women. It was largely unspoken after President Hinckley’s talk, but it was definitely there. I think this will only increase; especially, as the gender dispute issues become more prominent in the Church. A mission will be a sign of orthodoxy.

  19. @chris 18 – no offense meant, I was thinking of my mission in Europe and several years of married life outside of Utah – I wonder if statistics show the retention rate of those found through various methods.

    Dave 17 hints at the overall low success rate.

    What I’d really like is for all of us to invite more of our friends – see Elder Andersen’s talk from April 2013 conference, and also a recent book “The Power of Everday Missionaries.”

  20. Hate to break it to you Julie, but I don’t think that not serving a mission will ever make a young woman less eligible for marriage; it’s probably the opposite.
    I know when I talking with my guy friends we’d mention how we’d prefer someone to court someone who didn’t serve a mission.
    And while on my mission, if my companion and I ever talked about if we’d be interesting in courting any of the sisters once off our missions, the answer was usually around about 1 out of 9 seemed like there might be a chance.

  21. have to support comment 21.currently being a return sister missionary is a minus in the courting game not a plus. One of the changes we may see with the return of the younger, larger group of sister missionaries.

  22. Notwithstanding 21 and 22, I don’t know that being an RM is a minus in terms of marriageability; in our Chicago ward, an inordinate number of couples both served missions.[fn]

    That said, Julie’s not necessarily talking about the world of today (or, more accurately, six months ago). If going on a mission becomes a social norm (even if softened by the you’re-not-required-to-go language), going v. not going serves a signaling function to potential spouses. That is, if all good Mormon girls go on missions, male RMs who want to marry a strong member of the Church will, on the margins, prefer to date and marry RMs, just like, in general, women who are faithful members of the church face cultural pressure to marry RMs.

    And I realize that RM is not a foolproof signal that someone is strong in the Church, and not going on a mission is no guarantee that someone won’t stay in the Church. But, at the very least, they work as shorthand in narrowing the set of people a young member of the Church decides he or she should date and marry.

    [fn] My wife is an RM, and that was attractive to me, both because it signalled a certain dedication to the Church and it provided a common experience before we had many common experiences. That is, clearly, anecdotal, but I don’t think it’s exceptional.

  23. Of course more girls will go. A mission will be like one big EFY. I assume my daughter (who has mostly guy friends at school) will enjoy making male and female friends on her mission. She might not marry one of them, but I wouldn’t be surprised if she ended up dating someone. At least when she goes it will be the one place where the boy girl odds will be in her favor for Mormon guys. She’ll have Mormon friends all over the country (and world) from her mission. Then they come home at the same time and the same age and close to same place in school so if she is at BYU it is a big social plus.
    I assume a mission will up my daughters’ chances of getting married because of who they will meet on their mission.

  24. “I know when I talking with my guy friends we’d mention how we’d prefer someone to court someone who didn’t serve a mission.”

    “Return missionary” was on a definite on my vague list of things I was looking for, as a proxy for maturity and experience, as well as commitment and shared mission-type experience. I ended up marrying a non-missionary with everything but the shared mission experience, and it’s worked out quite happily.

    One guy I knew in my mission got big glossy eyes talking about his reentry plan, of marrying his girlfriend (who would graduate from high school in Utah a few months after he got home) and going directly into a career of entry-level McDonalds management instead of “wasting money” going to college.
    Both of those things sounded like absolute nightmares to me, but different strokes, I guess.

  25. Flooding the world with young missionaries might be a good idea if they are doing something constructive and worthwhile out there. I don’t think knocking on doors is very worthwhile. It certainly isn’t cost effective and has never been as far as I can tell. And as has been pointed out, it may actually be counterproductive and turn people against the church.

  26. Yes, I suspect that the kind of person who uses the word “court” would seek out a female non-RM. I do not think this fact decreases the likelihood of my thesis being accurate.

  27. In re: #26 and “cost effectiveness” of tracting.
    How do you measure cost effectiveness? What is a mission for? Certainly not mostly for conversions. Not only do missions develop missionaries into better people, but tracting develops unusual skills not acquired otherwise.
    And whatever may be more cost effective in theory must also be in fact. Which is seldom the case in practice.
    I, for expl, am the third all-time top baptiser in my mission (over past 70 years) and most came from tracting (knocking on doors).

  28. Since all the commenters know tracting is ineffective, perhaps we should invite more people into our homes, get to know them, and invite them to meet the missionaries.

  29. Should I be pleased that no one is criticizing my numbers or disagreeing with my method?

    Or should I be scared that everyone will jump on me when the number of missionaries is substantially different than what I have predicted?

  30. I just did the calculation, 6 billion people in the world, 1 of 8 accessible*, with 100,000 missionaries working 60 hours a week, this gives 13 minutes/contact. Have we saturated the market? This is almost enough time to contact everyone twice. Even if 1/4 were accessible, this would allow one contact every two years. Does saturated marketing increase success?

    If we were to start contacting the inaccessible the time per contact would rise dramatically, but these people are not generally our target market being generally poorer and less educated.

    (* Not accessible: most of India, China, middle East, rural Russia and central Asia, most of Africa, large parts of South and Central America and substantial parts of rural North America and Europe, most of the south east Asian archipelago, most of southeast rural Asia)

  31. I thought that your backing out the potential missionary pool from the seminary attendance was a stroke of genius. You did a fabulous job with little information. You attempted to answer the same questions I had.

  32. Until the change, young women were encouraged to go on a mission only if they felt they were unlikely to get married in the next year or so. Whether this was official policy or simply de facto practice, it was pretty standard. Therefore, there was an assumption that young women who served missions were less marriageable. Also, 19-year-old elders were intimidated by older, more mature sisters and downplayed any interest they might have in dating them because a desire to date a fellow missionary is of doubtful propriety. These factors were a major headwind for young women who wanted to have the kind of rich, culturally and spiritually and personally enlarging experience that a mission provides, and a desire to serve the church and the world. Changing the age will effectively nullify any suggestion that missions are for women who can’t get a date. It will also lead to large numbers of elders and sister missionaries meeting on their missions, coming home at roughly the same age, and marrying. What better time to see what is best about a potential spouse than when s/he is in full-time service to the Lord? There may be downsides I’m not thinking of, but I think this change will be a huge boost for young people generally, for young women in particular, and for wholesome and lasting marriages in the church. I would not be surprised if the rate of marriage before age 25 increases somewhat (15%?) and the rate of divorce before age 28 decreases significantly (25%?), among active LDS. These are pretty much gut numbers, but the point is this policy change will have a dramatic impact on the spiritual development of young people in the church.

    It’s true that the accessible population is more or less saturated. This is sad, but if we knock on their door and get told off once every two years instead of once every three, oh well. If it does lead us to use more creativity in assigning missionaries’ time, though, all the better.

  33. “Until the change, young women were encouraged to go on a mission only if they felt they were unlikely to get married in the next year or so. Whether this was official policy or simply de facto practice, it was pretty standard.”

    Well, yeah, they weren’t getting married because they were going on a mission:) It doesn’t mean they didn’t get dates or have a husband waiting for them. My daughter’s husband waited for her. Elder Scott and President Benson both waited for their wives.

  34. In this Canadian misison the number of missionaries has gone up but the amount of baptisms has dropped, so I dunno why. I talked to the APs and said some of the elders are such pansies, be sweetly bold!!!

  35. Locally, non-Mormons are talking about more pestering by missionaries over the past few months (real or perceived?). They find it plain annoying. If this leads to more door-to-door, it is probably counter-productive.

  36. @37- In this mission tracting has been basically banned, they do some. So, as a ward mission leader I am trying to come up with stuff for them to do. Busy missionaries are happy missionaries

  37. I hope that with more missionaries, mission presidents willnot only be willing to have more missionary time devoted to ordinary service, but also to have the missionaries spend more time with the members, such as dinners and activities withyoung men and young women practicing proselyting, so theycan “sharpen the saw” and be more effective in the long run. While member r introductions are most effective in finding investigators, members need to know the missionaries well enough tohave confidence in them. Missionaries ought to know a substantial number of members so they can introduce their investigators and help them find common ground with members.The members are the most effective resource the missionaries have, but they are not given time to know that resource and how they can best deploy it. The insistence on staying busy at methods that are less effective is counterproductive. The Church has plenty of demographic research dat a to show the most effective methods.

  38. Church leaders apparently realized that the additional missionaries would need something to do besides tracting. A few months before the missionary age change announcement, a pilot program was started in a few US missions. Missionaries in those missions are assigned ten hours per week of community service, and members in those missions are given access to an LDS volunteer website (similar to the United Way website) that lists service opportunities with a variety of local organizations. If the program succeeds and is instituted in all the missions, it will shift focus for both missionaries and members toward local community service as a missionary tool.

  39. late…

    I guess we all know that the changing age requisite for serving missions is not an increasing baptisms measure but a retention measure, and not for the new converts obviously…

  40. I saw it, Jason. It was a very disappointing article, from a projection point of view. Very little information about how they arrived at the projection, or even exactly when the projection is for (Fall 2013 is a bit ambiguous — do they mean early September or late November?) And I get the idea that this projection is again just adding numbers while ignoring all the flows involved.

    But the Deseret News’ reporting is so bad that the confusion in the article could simply be the lack of attention on the part of the reporter.

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