Is the Church Overbuilding Temples?

Growing up in the 90s, Church growth was conceptually tied to temple building, with announcements of additional temples assumed to be a proxy for the growth in temple attending members. 

While we aren’t privy to the more precise numbers that would be required to know the true state of Church growth like the number of temple attenders broken down by age and year, from both inside and outside numbers we do have access to it’s clear that Church growth is not matching the growth in temples. I threw a graph together that looks at the number of temples and stakes relative to the base year of 1978.

Temple growth up until the late 90s more or less tracked stake growth, then we see a huge jump near the end of the 90s. Better historians than I would have a better idea about this, but I assume the late-90s bump is from the shift to smaller temples, and the slope after the introduction of smaller temples was commensurately higher compared to stake growth.  

Everything after 2022 for temples is speculative assuming three years for all temples under construction to be dedicated and assuming 6 years for all temples announced to be dedicated. Obviously it will be smoother, and I’m a little fuzzy on how long it actually takes to  build temples, but regardless of the particulars if you look at the sheer number of temples in the announced queue, there will be a tremendous jump in the temple-to-stake ratio in the next decade or so that will dwarf the small-temple bump of the 90s in magnitude. 

Now, all this might be fine. To its credit, the Church has shifted its rhetoric from building temples to service an expanding Church to building temples to make them more accessible to members. Consequently, nobody can accuse the Church of using temple announcements as smoke-and-mirrors to hide declining growth rates (as they are commonly accused of doing online)–they themselves are not claiming that one is an indicator of the other. 

Still, temples create a simulacra of growth and can form a signature legacy for individual Church leaders (e.g. President Hinckley being known as a temple builder). I’m not saying the desire for legacy is the motivation for the current spat of temple building, just that it is a temptation we should be aware of, everybody is human, and we’ve been there before (the Church’s optimistic overbuilding program in the early 20th century almost drove it to bankruptcy). 

I do wonder if we won’t be able to keep this pace up, and at some point we’ll have to pull back. If we come to expect a lot of temple announcements every General Conference, then at some point we might find ourselves with a glut. I remember the General Conference session years ago when President Monson unexpectedly announced no new temples, and being impressed with the humility to be able to do what he felt was right for the Kingdom even if it wasn’t flashy (although again, I’m not implying that President Nelson is announcing new temples because it is flashy). 

Scientology is famous for building large, generally unused buildings that don’t make sense give its growth rates, and on my mission I remembered a sense of moroseness when I saw grand cathedrals falling into disrepair with birds making their nests in them. Large, empty buildings is a risk we shouldn’t be oblivious to, especially as Church growth isn’t as robust as it once was.

Of course, making temples more accessible may significantly increase temple activity, and I assume the Church has analyzed the role of temple proximity in temple activity (if I get to the other side and find that they haven’t merged that temple recommend barcode data with our addresses to do that analysis I’ll be disappointed). Anecdotally, the Washington DC temple renovations severely cut into my own temple worship, and it was just about impossible to get a reservation at the Philadelphia temple for our youth groups because it was so busy. At first I wondered if the Richmond, Virginia temple might have been superfluous, but after driving several hours out to go to the open house my mind was quickly changed. 

The other day a Catholic friend of mine mentioned that there is a sort of “if you build it they will come” dynamic when a Catholic parish decides to offer more Confession sessions, with the lines having the same length whether they add a new Confession slot or not, and it’s highly likely that there is a similar dynamic with temples. It could be that it makes perfect sense to build as many temples as they are now, and given how much God has gifted the Church in terms of resources, I’m not going to begrudge them using it for their religious mission until we reach the Millenium and temple attendance looks more like this. 


29 comments for “Is the Church Overbuilding Temples?

  1. It is getting silly to announce more temples each conference. Some places they have announced barely have enough members to fill a stake center besides support a full temple.

  2. I have many of the same thoughts about all the temple announcing. A lot of it just doesn’t make sense and it honestly bothers me to see the resources that are put into building small temples that are underutilized. It bothers me to have leaders begging for more temple workers. I would prefer much more investment into youth programming. I see youth doing more temple work but I just think they need a much more balanced program. It would help me if there were some kind of explanation or vision to show what the thinking is on this.

  3. I used to think that it was God that picked temples. Silly me. It does appear that announcing 10 new temples at conference is somehow proof to the members that the church is “successful” or doing something right. Maybe its a “we spend the money” move. What I dont get is that where I live we are close to having 5 wards in one building. We have stakes that have no buildings and none planned. The word is that the church is not planning to build more ward buildings in our area at the moment. 100+ new temples in 5 years?? That is a head scratcher to me. My new stake building couldn’t hold 2 wards for stake conference it is so small. If the members all showed up to stake conference like the local leaders hope, we wouldn’t even come close to fitting in the building or parking lot.

    And then there is the fact that the members actually build temples. No tithes, no temples. Hinckley used to point this out occasionally and that was nice.

    I will say it, Nelson is building his legacy. It is his personality. I have no problem with it because he is doing what that position allows him to do, whatever he wants. Who in church HQ is going to question the prophet? The general membership certainly does not question him either. Nelson has probably spent more money in his 5 years than the last 4 did combined. Again, nothing wrong with it. I often wonder if Oaks actually replaces Nelson if he will put some changes in place that limit what a president can do. Legal minded people like order, protections and policies.

    Speaking of growth rates. We only had a net increase of 15 wards world-wide from 2021 to 2022. Mind blowing to me. Maybe the leaders see the downturn coming and the no ward buildings in my area will eventually take care of themselves….?

    Cool temple pics Stephen!

  4. I will push back on the idea that underutilized temples are per se, problematic. You get this from all sides: church critics gloating over sparse attendance, and devout temple-goers chastising us all because of the empty seats at their last session.

    But I’ll take underutilization over full capacity any day. If every session has empty seats, then we know that we’re all welcome and that nobody will be turned away. Empty seats means that the temple is meeting demand. Packed sessions means that no more patrons can be accommodated. Less crowded sessions are arguably more enjoyable–more intimacy and personal interaction, less sense of being herded through the temple. If every session is filled to capacity, then they should schedule more sessions or build another temple for people who live farther away.

    When President Hinckley announced the small temples, he indicated that some temples might be open for only one or two days a week, according to need. Underutilization is a feature, not a bug.

    Are we building more temples that we should? Maybe. But a small temple that might be open only on Saturdays seems like a good idea if maintaining fewer temples operating at full capacity requires a 10-hour drive or a 3-day boat trip to fill the sessions.

  5. I think the Church is definitely over-promising temples. The building of temples isn’t keeping pace with the announcing of new temples. The announcements seem speculative and wishful (wistful?). Also, what is now the point of the temple? If it’s to redeem the dead, are we building so many temples so we can plow through names more quickly? If it’s to allow more members to take out their endowments, that’s a one-time event and convenience of location isn’t really the barrier we think it is. If it’s to encourage increased temple attendance, not for proxy work but for the benefit of attendance for those who are already endowed, then attending the temple is coming close to partaking of the sacrament – a good reminder of covenants you’ve already made. If it’s to give the impression (illusion?) that the Church is growing rapidly around the globe then…well done. The push to build all these temples is evidence of something, some shift in the way leadership sees the role of the temple. So, what can we infer from how temples are announced, how many temples are announced, where they are announced to be built, and what this means to the members in areas that are supposed to get these new temples?

  6. I am rather spoiled by the number of temples in my area (Wasatch Front). But we have hit a saturation point. It seems that the people most excited by temple announcements are real estate developers, although I struggle to see the benefits of living blocks from a temple when several other temples are less than a 30-minute drive away. And the social implications for people my age border on the extreme. There is jockeying for position and cliques even among temple workers. I’ve chosen to avoid the fray. I attend to do the work for my own family and attend weddings. The whole “attend once a week” message we hear from the pulpits may cause us to neglect the other missions we have to perform in this life.

  7. The Church has been in Scotland continuously since 1840. There is no temple in Scotland. My temple-going Scottish friends brace themselves every Conference to hear the announcement of yet another temple in Utah, but none in Scotland. Someday …

  8. I live in one of those underutilized temple districts, although it might surprise you to know that the underutilized temple is Los Angeles. New temples in growing areas of Southern California have siphoned off many areas that appeal to young, growing families. The LA temple district seems to be increasingly comprised of aging legacy members who either die or take their home equity to other places.

    One thing no one mentions when talking about an oversupply of temples is the demand each one brings with it. Of course there is the obvious demand of temple workers to staff them which isn’t trivial, but there are also more subtle demands that our corporate leadership structure make almost a certainty. A sincere or ambitious bishop, stake president or area president see an underutilized temple as an opportunity to magnify their calling. Soon they are giving talks guilting the members into increased temple worship, they are creating regular and numerous ward and stake temple activities, each one with their own time demands and implied guilt if you don’t attend. An underutilized temple can be a heavy weight hanging over the head of every active member which is never satisfied.

    I’ve experienced all of that with the LA temple but fortunately the district, like the temple, is large so the guilt is defused. I can imagine that with some of these newer temples that are in areas of smaller populations of members that guilt will be more focused and less avoidable.

  9. Your scheduling issues with the Philly temple were due to the pandemic, not temple use. They recently went from 2 sessions on Wed-Fri evenings to one, due to lack of demand. And, they dropped Wednesday sessions altogether.

    Pandemic restrictions were lifted about a year ago but attendance has not returned to pre-pandemic levels or even close to pre-pandemic levels. Pres Nelson announced a temple in Harrisburg so members in the western suburbs will have another option (in about 8 yrs).

    There has to be a method to what appears like madness and I wish they would share it with the membership. Also, someone who lives in the western suburbs of Philly, the news of the Harrisburg temple was met with a (polite) shoulder shrug or “meh” as the kids say. There is nobuzz or excitement. I wonder if other areas are experiencing the same, muted reaction to temples being announced in their areas.

  10. I see the building of temples worldwide as part of the fulfillment of Nephi’s prophecy in 1Ne 14:

    12 And it came to pass that I beheld the church of the Lamb of God, and its numbers were few, because of the wickedness and abominations of the whore who sat upon many waters; nevertheless, I beheld that the church of the Lamb, who were the saints of God, were also upon all the face of the earth; and their dominions upon the face of the earth were small, because of the wickedness of the great whore whom I saw.

    14 And it came to pass that I, Nephi, beheld the power of the Lamb of God, that it descended upon the saints of the church of the Lamb, and upon the covenant people of the Lord, who were scattered upon all the face of the earth; and they were armed with righteousness and with the power of God in great glory.

    There’s no question (IMO) that increased focus on the temple will magnify its sanctifying influence on the saints.

  11. It takes recalibration to internalize that creation of a new temple doesn’t mean what we may remember it meaning forty years earlier. When President Hinckley announced in ’97 a move to small temples he was pretty open about that: temples to serve saints in remote places where their numbers were few and there was no view that the church would significantly grow in the foreseeable future. Temples were dedicated in places like Nova Scotia that served a couple of stakes, and twenty years later still serve a couple of stakes. If only the Church News could knock it off with “A hundred temples! A doubling in just a few short years! How amazing!” A second fifty temples like the first fifty would have ben amazing. The changes we’ve seen are a very interesting change, but not an astonishing acceleration of what came before.

    The shift to the pattern of the last decade, which started before Nelson became president, has never been explained to the church membership. The announcement of the Philadelphia temple in 2008 perplexed me: Philadephia was not far from a temple in any sense we would recognized ten years earlier, and the temples near it, Washington DC and Manhattan, had plenty of extra capacity. Some of what we hear from church members now sounds pretty whiny to old ears: “There’s a temple south of the city, but when, O when, will there be one on the north side.”

    If you look at General Conference reports from a century ago, you find lists read off of the branches and wards formed in the previous year and the buildings dedicated to serve them. We have very recently shifted to sustaining area seventies whose names are never spoken aloud to the entire church; go to the internet for the announcement of who they are. When the new temples announced each year number dozens each year for suburbs we’ve never heard of, maybe the lists will be relegated to press announcements too, and we will just assume every city with a stake of the church has a temple or two as well.

    Later, maybe before I die, the functions of the temple will be carried out using whatever the successor of laptop computers and tablets will be, in a classroom of the ward building that serves as a temple when needed, and our grandchildren will wonder at the shallowness of the old men like me who miss the materialistic window-dressing of big buildings used by thousands of people every week.

  12. The renovation concern is also significant. In many cases you have 50-70 year old temples servicing a very large number of people that will need to have extensive modernization renovations in the next 10-15 years. For example, the Cardston temple is over 100 years old and needs significant work. But if you shut down cardston now you’ve got everyone in Lethbridge, Medicine Hat, and Cardston that need to go to calgary! But – hey, Lethbridge temple announced last conference. Beauty.

  13. I feel like there could be ways to make Temple activities more accessible or to do more with the buildings. In the early days, people did baptisms for the dead in rivers, endowments in the Salt Lake City Council House, sealings in Brigham Young’s office, etc. I feel like you could have specific occasions when something similar could be done to make living ordinances accessible in remote places from time to time.

    If I remember correctly, there was an idea during the McKay administration to have a Temple in a ship that could travel around the world. It sounds kind of funny, but it might be an idea to look at more closely.

    I also like the idea of the multi-use buildings that have a Temple as a part of the building that we’ve seen in a couple places. Less risk of it taking into disrepair.

  14. It seems better construction would increase temple life. Office buildings with much higher use (numbers of people and hours of operation) do not require the type of recurring maintenance and refurbishing our temples seem to require. Temple worship is a largely passive activity and hardly taxing on a well constructed building.

    The lack of any transparency in the construction standards (besides bragging about fancy finishes) or who is actually doing the work, i.e. making money off of the temple building boom, seems to combine in substandard buildings, at least compared to office buildings with much more heavy use than our temples.

  15. Like REC911, I also thought God chose Temple sites.

    I was amazed when the Shanghai temple was announced.

    We have no stakes, wards or branches in China.

    We had none when the Temple was announced years ago either.

    Who is going to work in this Temple?

    Who is going to give out recommends?

    What has happened to the announced Temple for Russia, last I heard the land had not be purchased even though it was announced years ago.

    There are so many questions that we ask, it would be nice to hear the answers.

    We get no information as to the traffic in so many of these Temples.

    How many members go through each of these Temples a week, a month, a year?

    Many of the newer and smaller Temples are by appointment only which is fine but tell us how they are being used.

    Several commentators here have pointed out that it is not easy to find the information as to how the announced Temples are progressing.

    We are force fed some information on the church website and other news is almost impossible to find.

    StephenC askes the question in todays article, “Is the church overbuilding temples” and everyone has their opinion.

    He has designed a pretty good chart with stake growth compared to Temple growth doing the best he can with the info he can come up with.

    That is one problem I have with the “high level church leaders”.

    They seem to be determined to hide a lot of info from us, the members who really make things work.

    We deserve much much better.

  16. @rb – I think it is the opposite…we are obsessed with keeping the temples perfect even tho they are built with the highest of standards. Have you ever had the opportunity to clean a temple? They are also obsessed with how they are cleaned. I have no idea if this is over zealot temple presidents or if it comes from the top down. My guess it is the temple presidents.

    I bet the temple department is pulling there hair out every time another 10 temples are announced.

  17. Mobile temple is a fantastic idea! When Uchtdorf is the prophet we will have temples in airplanes which fly around the world to service remote members. You’ll enter through the back and make your way up to the veil separating coach and the celestial class.

  18. “I bet the temple department is pulling there hair out every time another 10 temples are announced.”

    Bureaucrats tend to think they should be self-directed, wag the dog, and not merely carry out tasks given them by those who hired them.

  19. Stephen, bad form to start a post with a misplaced modifier. Did the Church really grow up in the ’90s?

  20. It seems obvious that the building of temples is about taking the temple ordinances into every location on the earth so that as many members as possible can go to them. So, no, we’re not overbuilding because the building isn’t base don missionary work or the creation of new stakes. It is about servicing the already existing population.

  21. A lot to respond to here, but a few points:

    1) @Editur, good catch.

    2) I’m sure figuring out where to put temples is hard. On one hand you hear stories about Saints who have been in an area for a long time without a temple, but then you also hear stories of temples being built close to other empty temples. I don’t know what the algorithm is, maybe whether it’s the former or latter is subjective.

    3) I do like the idea of having a temple structure, and not a room set aside for that purpose somewhere else. It’s true that exceptions have been allowed, but D&C makes it clear, in the case of baptisms for the dead in rivers for example, that those are temporary responses to exigencies.

    4) I also like the floating temple idea, except now we have so many temples on the islands it might not be as much of a help as it was during President McKay’s day. Maybe if there was a branch on Easter Island, St. Helena, or the Pitcairns? Otherwise I suspect there’s a temple not that far away (especially now that Okinawa is getting one), but my temple island geography might be off.

    5) I second the point about refurbishing temples. If anything I bet the Church is quite quick to renovate temples. I have never seen any temple where I thought it was becoming run-down or could use a refurbishing. I suspect they do the facelifts well before it gets to that point.

  22. Oh, and one more point in regards to # 3: I’ve always justified the fact that our chapels lack hardly any religious aesthetic at all as compensated for by the temples. If they were merged I’d expect our church buildings to be more Catholic church-like, and less YMCA-like.

  23. I agree, Stephen. I like the aesthetic distinction between our chapels and our temples–the former being neat and comely and the latter being a reflection of paradise.

  24. I heard of some unsettling news from a neighbor 2 days ago. Although we are in a fast-growing part of Weber County, Utah (just west of the City of Ogden), rumor is spreading that no new chapels will be built for the foreseeable future. That would be bad news for a stake (like mine) that is shoe-horning 11 wards into 3 buildings. As more and more farmers are selling their land to developers, there might come a day (perhaps within a year) that each building will have up to 5 wards. I have been in situations in which 4 or 5 wards had to meet in one building temporarily for a year, due to renovation of one of the other buildings in the Stake. It wasn’t the easiest (especially for the ward that had the last Sacrament meeting of the day, which in one case the ward began Sacrament meeting at 5 PM). But, with some good will and flexibility, I suppose a 5-ward building could work. However, the rumor didn’t stop at the lack of new chapels. Rather, it continued that some chapels in the general area would be closed and converted into small temples. I couldn’t imagine that one of our 3 buildings would be closed and 11 wards (and climbing) would be crammed into 2 buildings.

    This topic raised another question, though: Reports hold that our church (through Ensign Peak alone) has $44 billion in reserves, with almost nothing in the account being spent on church-related activities (subsidizing a mall and a life insurance company do not count, in my book, as church-related activities.) One of the responses of the leaders was to say that we are saving that amount of money for the 2nd Coming. Another said that people ought to be happy, rather than complaining, that the Ensign has invested so well. I, for one, can’t think of a better use of those funds than alleviating long-term poverty around the world, including in Utah. Providing clean drinking water, wheel chairs, employment, food, clothing, and rental assistance are established ways that our church has greatly improved the lives in certain parts of the world. I would hope we could spend some of the reserves in a greatly expanded effort in every country that would allow us to operate our charitable program. We might also expand our types of efforts to such things as low-income housing construction and flood relief.

    There is a sense among some members that the church has tapped or will eventually tap the Ensign reserves for the greatly expanded temple construction effort. Some are happy that this could be a good use of the reserves; others are saying that charitable efforts should have some balance (or perhaps exceed with) temple construction. Perhaps there could be an expansion of both. It just seem proper to have so much in untapped reserves with so many needs, both in temples and in poverty-reduction.

  25. I apologize for my long post above, but forgot one little thing. I wonder of our church leaders could refocus some of the money for the construction of new temples towards building new chapels in areas outside of Utah. Many members have to drive long distances to their local chapels; if they don’t have cars, public transportation is greatly reduced on weekends and very difficult for people to navigate. I once lived in a city of 100,000 people that had one well-functioning ward but no building. Our building was in an adjacent town, about a 20 minute car ride away and perhaps an hour and a half on public transport on Sundays. While on splits, I experienced investigators being invited to Sunday services, and asking where they would be held. When they heard that there was no chapel in our city, they were confused. They obviously knew that they would be passing 10 to 20 churches on the way to our church.

    There were discussions all the way back to the 1990s about buying land for a building in our city. But they never materialized because the “price of land is too high” to justify a one-ward building. Well, the price of land certainly hasn’t dropped since, and development has consumed most of the then-developable land, so I suppose our church may have missed its opportunity. I always believed that our missionary program would be much more successful if the missionaries could point to a chapel in the city. It would also give the local population the knowledge that our church existed in our city, which would have greatly increased our invitations to become involved in the interfaith activities in the city. Of course, members and investigators would have spent less time commuting to church. Now, I have heard that there are still suburban places in the Eastern US for which many members have an hour-long commute to church to a downtown chapel or a chapel in a distant suburb. Our most committed members continue to sacrifice to make these weekly trips, but unfortunately, a lot of members simply fade away under the burden. I think a lot more (small, if necessary) chapels would help with retention more than temples (although I concede that temples do help with activity and tithe-paying where they exist).

  26. What I have seen in our region is that many faithful members are aging and the opportunities to serve in ward and stake callings are shifting to younger people. Of these older people, some already retired or about to be, find in the service in the Temple the opportunity to use their time in “the mission that they could not fulfill when they were young” when they joined the Church. I know brothers and sisters who serve two and even three shifts a week.

  27. 1) I’m all for building temples that resolve dire accessibility problems, but not on board with a temple in every suburb.

    2) The problem with too many temples or unappreciated/unused temples could be mitigated if SLC let members be a temple- building people again. Instead- they rain down from the skies like McDonalds. I don’t feel any unique connection to my local mini-temples. My heart didn’t leap when they were announced. These temples look and feel like Utah-imports, and that in turn feels intellectually lazy, hasty, and sloppy. Couldn’t anyone have given a little thought about what it means to have a temple in this particular ethnic-geographic and historical area? No. We get a cookie-cutter model “B”. Men (not women) make all the decisions. Temples feel like my grandparents’ condo; sterile, impersonal, new and devoid of the memories and homeyness of the old home they raised their family in. I am fine as a guest, but dare not move the coasters from their “spot”. I don’t “help” while there- I conform.

    2) It’s hard for men (mankind, but specifically macho men) to not succumb to the need to build edifices in their name and immortalize themselves with grand buildings, obelisks, and massive or multiple indelible footprints. The antidote to that is humility of heart and community-based ownership and contributions. Benevolent patriarchy and ego-based leadership are recipes for disaster. I don’t know where the pendulum falls for us right now, but it feels uncomfortable to me, especially when temples fall from the skies and we have nothing to do with them.

    3) Why is no one bringing up the issue of environmentalism with this temple boon? The temples built in my state’s suburbs are on prime Midwest farmland. Farmers can’t make ag land as profitable as commercial development and as a result unparalleled fertile farmland is being devoured by developers for urban/suburban sprawl – it’s a national and even international problem especially in light of both world hunger as well as threatened and endangered ecosystems. The church doesn’t just build temples-It develops suburbs around them via its’ real estate arm (homes, strip-malls, big box marts, multi-plex
    Movie theaters, streets/infrastructure, etc.). In addition to the not-so-green-footprint of a large and massively air-conditioned non-LEED certified edifices with giant concrete parking lots, chemically maintained swaths of lawns, flowerbeds of annuals, etc., you have subsumed prime food-producing or natural wildlife habitat with not just a temple, but a suburban real estate development. We really ought to be pausing to think about this.

    4) Speaking of the placement of temples, they used to be built on sacred locations- on hills with springs or other natural phenomenon, on unique locations that amplified the physical sensation of temple worship. Cultures that are closely aligned with nature tend to pick sacred sites based on some extremely interesting criteria that go back to the dawn of civilization. Early LDS temples were built on “natural”’sacred sites. Today- we choose sites based on availability, price, visibility to highways, development prospects, etc. We don’t find holy sites and build, we build and then make it holy. But, for those of us that look to temple symbolism and the spiritual meaning of a natural site, it’s confusing and feels somewhat empty. I will say that there are some fascinating stories behind the selection and character of some temple sites (from the 80’s and 90’s) that are rarely told. I haven’t heard placement stories from the temple building boon. It’s pretty formulaic.

    5) I’m pretty conflicted over a new temple coming to our area. Its location was formulaically calculated, and doesn’t align with the heart or history of the saints in this area. And of course no one from SLC says anything about the rationale. We aren’t on the “need to know” list.

  28. Did anyone notice the zombie faces in the millennium temple picture for this article.

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