On Those Latest Missionary Numbers

There’s been a bit of controversy in social media over the recent missionary numbers that have leaked. Deseret News has up a story about missionaries that mentions there being 68,500 missionaries out. The new numbers shocked some people but actually are much more in keeping with what we should have expected. It’s just that some expected higher numbers based upon the surge numbers from around 2013.

When you look at missionary numbers for the past two decades the current numbers seem much more inline with past numbers.

While we don’t have a breakdown of current numbers it appears that the numbers were kept slightly higher than we’d have expected the past two years due to women going on missions. While we can’t tell for sure, I would not be at all surprised to see that the percentage of missionaries who are women are coming back closer to trend.

Part of the issue may be a story in the Salt Lake Tribune from a few years ago in which Elder Holland misspoke with numbers. He said there would be 100,000 missionaries by 2019. However that figure was just a linear extrapolation based upon increases during the surge of 2013-14. Whoever it was that gave him the numbers didn’t consider that this was artificially high due to the change in the age young men and women could go on missions. It made no sense then and it’s unfortunate it continues to set unrealistic expectations.

For more information I’d check out from when the numbers were released at conference. While I remain convinced the younger age for missionaries is a problem, I don’t think these new numbers really add or subtract to that hypothesis. Rather we need to see retention numbers and converts per missionary numbers to really say much there.

34 comments for “On Those Latest Missionary Numbers

  1. Fascinating title for this post!

    The numbers are returning to where we should expect them to be. More troubling is the continuing drop in convert baptisms per missionary. They are now lower than they have ever been. I’m not sure what effect sending boys out straight from high school is having, but some anecdotal evidence suggests there may be a correlation. I have a friend who works for the Church and visits missions regularly. He says the mission presidents are up to their ears in babysitting kids who weren’t ready for what they’ve gotten themselves into. Just hearsay, but worth considering.

  2. I would have struggled going straight from high school to my mission. I needed that year of college to figure out how to do things on my own (laundry, cooking, managing my own day, balancing work and relaxation, calling the doctor on my own, making and keeping my own appointments, etc) while I still had the option of calling my parents to ask for help and advice.

    I also needed that year to learnt that I still wanted to go to church and read my scriptures even when I didn’t have parents there to make me. (Granted, I was at BYU, so it’s not like nobody was watching what I was doing. But still.)

    I remain baffled by the age change for males, and I hope it turns out to be a wise decision.

  3. Sorry, I have no idea why or when WordPress changed the title. I changed it back.

    I don’t think we have new converts per missionary statistics. So while I think that’s something to watch it’s too early to say much yet. That said I’d be shocked if they were different from what we discussed in that prior post.

    I definitely agree there’s a lot of maturity issues with the change to 18. People simply mature at different speeds. I was frankly pretty immature at 19 but I think many more people are at 18. I can’t imagine possibly being ready at 18 thinking back to where I was cognitively and emotionally. That extra year made a huge difference and arguably I could have used one more.

  4. I asked my neighbor who was serving as a mission president at the time of the age change if there was a difference in the missionaries between those that went at 19 and then the later ones that could come at 18. He said there was no difference between them. He had good and bad from both groups and without looking it up he couldn’t have told you who was 18 and who was 19.

    I look back on my mission and I didn’t see much difference between those that turned 19 soon after high school and went and those, like me, that were too young and had to go to a year of college first.

  5. What were the numbers in social media? I didn’t see those so I am not really sure what this is about.

    Are those numbers just for young missionaries? Because the retirement of baby boomers is bringing a flood of senior missionaries into the field right now as well.

  6. All the social media discussion I’ve seen came off that DesNews story. The number there (that I put in the graph) was 68,500. They didn’t break any other numbers out beyond older missionaries.

  7. I’ll throw out a possible explanation for how the numbers could drop a bit in 5 months–

    Suppose that sister missionaries who have Sep-Dec birthdays tend to begin their missions after a full year of college–they don’t leave on their birthdays or at the end of fall semester, but they wait to go until the summer. These sisters will come home somewhere around Dec-January, and hence the total missionary numbers will be lower in the first half of the year than the second.

    Don’t know if my assumption is true–sisters probably prefer to time their missions so they get home in time for Christmas.

  8. “Don’t know if my assumption is true–sisters probably prefer to time their missions so they get home in time for Christmas.”

    I’m not sure anyone has that amount of control over departure and arrival, since some missions take more time from letter to entry. My daughter got her call in May, didn’t leave until September (Brasil). Foreign MTC, so visa required before leaving.

  9. Not sure the whole missionary forecast looks good. Anyone here banking on society at large returning to twentieth-century levels of religiosity and unborn Mormons being less sensitive to faith crises than the generation before them?

  10. I wouldn’t count on it in the short term, but there are pretty broad changes in religiosity. They change with time. I’d also add that often people would espouse belief in God but not particularly be religious. I’m not sure that’s much better than espousing agnosticism myself. So I’d be careful assuming it’ll only get worse – especially as so many other things in the world have gotten better. On the other hand we do appear to be at a transition point. So things may change rapidly over the next few years in ways I don’t think we can predict. I’m praying it will be for good but fear it may not.

    Lemuel, I think that’s possible which is an other reason to be careful. These figures aren’t really in a form we can do year to year comparisons. I’d just say that if you look at the period 2004-2010 we appear to be well above trend.

  11. I’m confused, then. The 68,500 in the Deseret News story is the “leak” you mentioned?

  12. If I fit the missionary numbers to church stats on births and seminary enrollment, it actually fits quite nicely, assuming an increase in the rate of sister missionaries, post-surge. I first started this model when the age change was announced, and it easily predicted the current drop. It’s a normal population-based fluctuation before the projected increases in the 2020s. Link to chart:

  13. Allredj, where are you getting seminary stats? That is very interesting. Also what calculation are you using? You go out quite a ways so I assume that’s not seminary information then. Given there’s some controversy over sister missionary numbers (which the church said last year was around 27% going by memory) how are you dealing with that?

    Scott, yeah I remember that data. Unfortunately the current numbers are only a part year so it’s hard to do YtoY comparisons. One way to read the data is that there’s a slight drop in females. Although there’s really not enough data to know for sure.

    By Holland misspeaking I meant that he probably had just been given incorrect data from a linear extrapolation. People have made a lot of that as if he was reflecting the actual internal numbers. I’m really skeptical of that given that the church has the data Allredj mentioned.

    Left Field, yeah “leak” probably wasn’t the best word choice since I’d assume the DesNews got the info from the newsroom or somewhere else at church headquarters. Looking back I can see people thinking that weird wikileaks like group was doing it. But that’s not what I meant. My apologies.

  14. Here are published seminary stats through 2013: https://www.lds.org/manual/by-study-and-also-by-faith/appendix/appendix-6-seminary-and-institute-enrollment-by-year-1912-2013?lang=eng

    I used the seminary numbers to get a better relation between births and active graduating high school seniors, and to backfill for the 8 year gap in data from when the church switched from “8 year-olds baptized” to “increase in children of record.” Then I used that info to extrapolate seminary numbers for future years. Then if you take the extrapolated number of graduating seniors and map it to a distribution of birthdays and a distribution in the delay from qualification date to actual mission start date, then you get a pretty good model. Then, I fit the model to the actual missionary numbers to get a better idea of what percentage of seminary students actually go on missions, and it required that I increase the percentage of sisters serving, post-surge. This particular projection assumed that pre-surge, about 1 in 8 female seminary attendees went on a mission, whereas post-surge, about 1 in 4 female seminary attendees are going on missions now.

    Of course, this is not very rigorous, and it’s going to be off because some people go on missions who never attended seminary, and church activity rates fluctuate over time, etc.

  15. I’m still a little baffled by the age change for males. For females, it was a common-sense move. But for boys (and I use that term intentionally) straight out of high school, I can think of only two reasons for sending 18-year-olds on missions. First, they wanted a big bump in the numbers to promote the “hastening the work” slogan, which is pretty much what it was. They had to know at the outset that the surge in numbers of male missionaries would be temporary, although it probably would settle in at a slightly higher level in the long run, and that leads to my second reason: They probably hoped that by reducing the age from 19 to 18, they would reduce the number of boys who fall away from the Church during that one year of college (or whatever) that followed high school. And that’s probably the primary reason for the age change. I wonder if there will ever be statistics published, though, on the number of returned missionaries who fall away after the age-change as opposed to before. Will going on a mission earlier result in more or fewer losses in the college years? Regardless, since the numbers for convert baptisms continues to fall, I suspect that the focus was always more on saving our young people rather than the folks they might bring into the Church.

  16. Clark, don’t you think you’re watering down Elder Holland’s prophetic calling a bit when you argue that his prediction on the area (missionary work) he has devoted the bulk of his apostleship to was merely based on some numbers given to him by some staff member in the COB?

    Does defending the Church in these situations really require such a dramatic underselling of it’s leader’s purported abilities?

  17. MH, no. First off it seems undeniable that’s how the figures were arrived at. Second I don’t think misspeaking says much about his apostleship. We don’t need near infallibility for our apostles and they don’t claim it.

    Allrej, even if not terribly rigorous it’s amazing how well it fits the data.

  18. Clark, your idea that an apostle predicts dramatic growth in missionary work in the absence of divine direction just doesn’t quite do it for me. Am I wrong to suspect that you would cite such inspiration if his prediction were actually turning out to be accurate?

  19. MH, it would depend upon the evidence. Sometimes a guess is just a guess. I don’t assume everything Apostles do is micromanaged by God. Nor do I automatically assume their successes were micromanaged. I tend to think it’s more like what the Brother of Jared had – some vague divine direction and an expectation they are competent enough to find a good implementation. Humans being human sometimes that works and sometimes it doesn’t. By and large though I have very little to criticize and I’m extremely confident they are more in tune with the spirit than I. I just don’t think that entails infallibility especially if they’re repeating what they’ve heard. It seems an easy mistake for someone with a busy schedule to make. I honestly don’t quite understand why so many people read so much into it.

  20. Just a little pushback on a detail from allredj:

    The comment . . . “to backfill for the 8 year gap in data from when the church switched from “8 year-olds baptized” to “increase in children of record.”

    I have a kept a spreadsheet on all the key statistics to come over the General Conference pulpit since 1971 and I can find no logical explanation for the disappearance of 8-year old baptism statistics (since 1997 data). You are implying that they were absorbed into the Children of Record stats, but when you place the two categories side-by-side over the decades, that just isn’t feasible. If it were the case, the number of Children of Record would have skyrocketed as a result. The trend lines don’t seem to accommodate your theory. What adds more to the puzzle though is that from 1988 to 1996 the Children of Record stat was not given over the pulpit, but then reappears from 1997 on.

    Just curious if you know something I don’t know regarding the two different sets of statistics or any rationale behind the changes?

  21. Richard, if I understand correctly, before 1996, the church published “Eight-year-olds baptized.” And then from 1997 on, they published “Increase in children of record.” I don’t mean to say that the one statistic was absorbed into the other, but they started reporting a different statistic.

    The first statistic gives us a rough idea of how many people were born in the church 8 years previously, whereas the second statistic gives us a rough idea of how many people were born in the church in the current year.

    So, for example, the 1996 report of “8 year old baptisms” would help us estimate how many births occurred in the church in 1988. So, using the reports up until 1996, we can estimate birth numbers up until 1988. However, the 1997 reported the “increase of children of record,” which is a fairly good representation of the number of births in the church during the year 1997. So, using reports from 1997 onward, we can estimate births from 1997 onward.

    That leaves a gap from 1989 though 1996 (inclusive) in which we don’t have accurate statistics on the births that occurred in the church for those years. However, we do have the seminary enrollment stats for those same individuals, and we can use the data to back fill the missing birth information for that 8 year gap.

    In order to backfill, I convert the seminary data from school years to calendar years, and I use the info from the age groups for which we have both birth and seminary enrollment info, in order to correlate seminary enrollment of a given year with the birth numbers for the years 14-18 years previous. That helped me estimate the births for the years 1989 through 1996.

  22. Could you flesh out a bit more how you extrapolate from that graph to the graph you have. Do you have an equation to convert from this estimate of numbers to missionaries? If you have raw data in a Google Spreadsheet that’d be very helpful.

    To make things easier for readers here are the two graphs. (Click on the graphs for bigger versions)

    Estimated LDS Births

    Estimated Missionaries

    It’s just not at all clear how to get from graph 1 to graph 2 given there’s no bump in the data from 1980-1999 yet there’s a huge bump in the number of missionaries. I assume he’s adding in the age change but I’d love to see the raw data.

  23. Allredj– Your chart is fascinating. Mostly, I’m commenting to follow the string.

  24. allredj:

    Thanks so much for your detail. I took time to go back to several of the statistical reports on lds.org just now and have discovered that in reality, the term “increase in children of record” was first used for the end of 1982 statistics in the April 1983 general conference by Michael F. Watson. Prior to that conference, we literally were provided the number of “children blessed.”

    Bottom line, the term “increase” had slipped past me this whole time until your comments and I appreciated getting back on track. The mystery continues for me in the sense that Church statistics still indicate annual converts then why not annual 8-year old baptisms? It seems a bit odd to not provide both to give us a better picture of overall growth.

    Just a thought.

  25. Richard, I think that they use “children of record” because children who have been blessed are included in the membership totals. If they reach the age of 9 without being baptized, then they are no longer included (based on my inference).

    Clark, I think it’s pretty easy to see the correlation between the two charts. The increase in births from 2001-2003 correspond to the increase in missionaries from 2020-2023, and the increase in births from 2007-2008 correspond to the increase in missionaries from 2026-2028. The bump in 2013 and 2014 is simply due to overlapped age groups serving simultaneously due to the age drop. Overall, the missionary numbers are smoother than the birth numbers because of the different ages for men and women serving, as well as the fact that not everyone serves as soon as they are eligible. So, often the missionaries serving in a given year come from a larger span of birth years, causing a sort of a running average between years.

    I hesitated to provide the whole spreadsheet, because I just threw it together, and that was several years ago. But I just updated it, and I fixed an error I just found (so the chart is now just slightly different). So, here’s the link (but it’s still quite a mess to weed through, since I wasn’t worried about its presentation quality at the time).


  26. Allredj, the only issue I’d have that someone else brought up to me is that you appear to be doing a bit of curve fitting by adjusting the numbers of potential elders who go on missions as well as the numbers of couple missionaries. Although that seems to primarily be for the period before ’93. Other than that to my eyes it seems like a pretty good analysis. Although I didn’t have as much time to look at it as I’d have liked.

  27. Oh yes, I definitely did some curve fitting to get the parameters for the projection into the future. Like I said, this isn’t very rigorous, but it should give us a good idea of when to expect significant increases or decreases in the number of full-time missionaries. My original point was just that the current post-surge drop is expected, and we should continue to see a slight decrease through the end of this decade before it starts rising significantly.

  28. I think the problematic curve fitting is with the sisters where it’s not clear why you changed the value. I agree it gives a qualitative sense, but if you pick a consistent % of sisters — 14% in this case — rather than changing it you get the following:

    Sorry, didn’t spend the time to clean up the graph in Excel so 0s make it look a tad ugly. Red is actual and blue is projected by the model. But it does indicate we’re actually doing better than predicted due to increased numbers of sister missionaries.

  29. Yeah, the most intuitive explanation for the actual rate over the last few years is that there was a significant increase in the numbers of Sister missionaries serving, due to being able to serve at 19 years old instead of 21 years old.

  30. That has lots of interesting implications. I suspect what’s happening is that women are now viewing a mission the way men did in larger measure. Because they are allowed to go earlier they can pick to do that before they get into a serious relationship.

    It’ll be very interesting to see ten years from now what social effects that has. I’d imagine right off that it helps with marriages. Marriage is, I think improved by dealing with sometimes hard to live with companions full time. At least I learned a lot of both patience but also understanding of social dynamics I didn’t have.

    The other effect will be more women delaying marriage though which of course is already going on but will be accelerated. I’m not convinced that’s necessarily a bad thing. It was good for me. I can’t imagine getting married in my early 20’s. For me personally it’d have been a mistake even though I know many were more than ready to handle it. One of those things that I wasn’t happy about at the time but that in hindsight I see as a huge blessing. Yet there’s clearly also the issue of people getting set in their ways and thereby perhaps making marriage harder when they reach their late 20’s.

    Anyways, I think this indicates there are more big social changes ahead.

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