What Are The Odds of Being A Church Leader?

An issue that came up in my last post on church leadership as a marker of righteousness is that people are occasionally told that they are going to be the future bishops and stake presidents of the Church. There are a variety of problems with this: 1) it clearly implies a hierarchy when in theory hierarchy isn’t supposed to matter, 2) it can cause spiritual anxiety if that person does not, in fact, get called to be a leader, and 3) it’s kind of pyramid scheme-ish, since most people are not called as leaders.

Point 3 made me think: about what what percentage of priesthood holders will at some point be called as bishops? Now, I’m about to layer speculation on top of speculation, but I suspect these numbers are in the correct ballpark. However, if something is off let me know in the comments. 

According to the Church, at a minimum a ward requires at least 20 temple recommend-worthy Melchizedek priesthood holders, and a stake requires at least 180 of the same

Now, this is a minimum. Many of us have been both in wards that flirt with this line as well as wards with, for example, multiple quorums of deacons that are bursting from the seams. Since I have no hard data to go by, let’s assume that the average ward globally is 25% bigger than the minimum, which would give us an average ward size of 25 temple recommend-worthy priesthood holders for a ward, and 225 for a stake. 

If we take an average priesthood holder who spends their whole life in an average ward at the same time as other average people (it doesn’t matter that this person is artificial for purposes of calculating aggregate averages), the next numbers that matter are: the average tenure of a bishop and stake president and the average leadership consideration lifespan. Bishops serve for about five years, and Stake Presidents serve for about 9 years. If we assume that somebody is leader eligible from 20-70, that gives us 50 years. For bishops, 50 years= ~10 bishops served in that time. Meanwhile, 25 MP holders in our artificial average wards lived their lives out in that ward. So 25 MP holder-lives across 5 bishops during their life= a 40% chance of being called as a bishop at some point in their lives. (People obviously move in and out of wards, but in general strokes it shakes out to the same as if we think of it as a cohort of bishop-eligible MP holders who are all born at the same time and all enter the ward and 20 and leave at 70, since somebody moving out  means somebody moves in if averages are consistent across time). 

For stake presidents it is much more rare, both because they have longer tenure and because the pool is larger. Here we have 50 years/9 years= 5.6 stake presidents during that time across 225 lifelong MP holders, which gives a 2.5% chance. 

Now that I’ve gamed this out, the bishop numbers are much higher than I thought, but this is all assuming an “international ward,” if we take a life lived in strong “Mormon corridor” wards of, say, 100 MP holders then the chance is almost in the single digits across a lifetime of temple recommend worthiness. 

Of course, it’s more complicated than this. People are sometimes called as bishop twice, people move in and out of activity, people at certain ages are probably considered more “eligible,” and stake presidents are generally drawn from previous leaders, so there’s a bayesian component here, but this is probably in the right ballpark.  

So in conclusion, it would probably make much more sense to talk about a cohort of active priesthood youth as future leaders of the Church if you’re talking to members in, say, Bern or Tijuana, but not so much in Phoenix or Logan.  


8 comments for “What Are The Odds of Being A Church Leader?

  1. Small point but I’d say that the age range of leadership is closer to 30-60 or at least 25-65 to significantly affect your probabilities

  2. Interesting. I agree with AJ that the age range in reality is probably narrower, at least for bishops (stake presidents, as you point out, tend to have served in other callings and an upper limit of 70 is probably not unheard of). Then again, SPs in their 20’s are probably rare.

    I’d be interested to see, in a few years, if the push to have the bishop’s primary focus be the youth results in younger bishops being called. It would be mostly anecdotal, but would be interesting!

  3. There are some additional hard requirements for being a bishop, notably being married. And there are more “soft” requirements where not meeting them would make someone very unlikely to be called as a bishop, like your spouse being an active member, reasonably good mental and physical health, not having to travel too much for work, etc. Then there’s the whole having some leadership/management abilities thing that we’ve been discussing. The result is to further reduce the number of people who could serve as a bishop in practice.

    I’d guess that if you’re in the pool of people who meet those requirements, your odds of being called as a bishop at some point in your life are better than even. That probably doesn’t help anyone who is feeling left out or unworthy because they haven’t been called as a bishop (though I hope the rest of this extended discussion has), but it may help anyone who feels like being called as a bishop makes you some sort of spiritual elite.

  4. I’d bet that there are very few wards with 100 active MP holders, even in Logan. But 50 would not be crazy. I’d also bet the average service ends up lower than 5 due to churn and unforeseen circumstances. I’ve known people who were Bishop for a year or two, but none that were Bishop for 10 (anymore).

  5. Some 40 years ago I did a research project on the projected personality of the Church. At Sunstone Symposium I had a session take the Myers-Briggs personality profile giving the answers which they thought represented the Church. The Church came out overwhelmingly Sensing Judgmental and Thinking. As far as extraversion and introversion went it was a draw.

    Sensing people see the world as a set of facts, not necessarily related. (Their opposite see the world as a jigsaw puzzle with interlocking pieces) Judgmental people are uncomfortable with non-closure, i.e. do not like uncertainty. Thinking people do not really deal with emotion very well and prefer logic. In other words, the personality of the Church fits the manager of a brick yard or a shift supervisor on an assembly line.

    As a corollary to this is that if you do not have the STJ personality, you will not do well in Church leadership. Among the 12 the outliers are Uchtdorf and maybe Renlund. The last best non-STJ was Hugh Brown who died 50 years ago. Uchtdorf did not last in the first presidency. (I think he got in by accident.) So if you are not a Myers-Briggs personality profile of STJ, the probability is much reduced.

  6. The complex thing is that young people are very susceptible to this type of approach, which can produce in some very self-demanding people an inadequate projection of their long-term future. The focus on being a child of God, a willingness to serve others and establish Zion, to strive to provide for the family, and to develop spiritually, physically, socially, and intellectually is much more balanced.

  7. @svbob: Sounds like you measured Sunstone Symposium attendees’ perceptions of the Church. You might get very different results if you had a random ward complete the same exercise. And different results again if you did it in a ward in a different culture, whether that’s US/not-US or just Utah/not-Utah. (Of course, given that it’s Myers-Briggs, you might get different results if you had the same people do it again.)

  8. It isn’t just bishops and stake presidents who are church leaders. EQP and RSP are now shouldering much of the work of leadership. And all of them have counselors (which make it not a solitary job).

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