LDS Growth Encyclopedia on Missionary Work and Church Growth (Missiology)
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Author: Matt Martinich
Posted: December 30th, 2013
The members-to-units ratio is a statistic that provides insight into member activity rates by ascertaining the ratio of LDS Church-reported membership to wards and branches for a particular geographical area. This ratio indicates how many church members on average are assigned to a ward or branch. Tracking how the members-to-units ratio changes year to year provides insight into how member activity and convert retention rates change over time. The importance of calculating the members-to-unit ratio year to year hinges on the logic that the average number of active members per congregation remains relatively stable over time and that an increase in active membership prompts the organization of additional congregations to prevent overcrowding, make church services more accessible to members, and provide meaningful callings to every active member. Commensurate membership and congregational growth rates suggest steady member activity and convert retention rates whereas higher membership growth rates indicate worsening member activity rates and higher congregational growth rates indicate improving member activity rates. In other words, an increasing members-to-unit ratio suggests worsening member activity and convert retention rates, a decreasing members-to-unit ratio suggests improving member activity and convert retention rates, and no change in the members-to-unit ratio suggests stable member activity and convert retention rates.
Over the past two decades the members-to-units ratio for the entire Church has increased from 430 in 1991 to 437 in 2001 and 502 in 2011. Church leader, missionary, and member reports around the world indicate that member activity rates have fallen over the past 20 years due to quick-baptismal tactics and increasing secularism in some countries. Although there are no reliable estimates for worldwide member activity rates in 1991 and 2001, the worldwide member activity rate for the Church appeared to decline during this 20-year period by as much as 10% due to poor convert retention in countries where the Church has baptized the largest numbers of converts such as in Latin America and the Philippines.
Some church members or leaders may assume that an increase in the members-to-units ratio indicates a growing and maturing church or that this occurs simply as the result of increasing church membership. However, statistics indicate that this assumption is generally incorrect. Church leaders indicate that a ward generally requires about 200 or more members on church records to function outside the United States and 300 or more nominal members to function within the United States whereas branches require only a couple dozen members to operate in most locations. These standards suggest that an average ward or branch outside the United States would include less than 400 nominal members and an average ward or branch inside the United States would include less than 600 nominal members as there would be a sufficient number of members to divide a congregation in either situation. The Church in the United States experienced virtually no change in the members-to-units ratio between 1991 and 2011 (458 and 457, respectively) suggesting stable member activity and convert retention rates during this 20 year-period notwithstanding membership increasing by two million. To contrast, between 1991 and 2011 the members-to-units ratio substantially increased in all other countries that reported more than half a million members in 2011(478 to 637 in Mexico, 546 to 605 in Brazil, 346 to 592 in the Philippines, 544 to 921 in Chile, and 414 to 646 in Peru). Considering at least 200 members are required for a ward to function outside the United States, the Church could theoretically create as many as four times the current number of wards in Chile and three times the number of wards in most other Latin American countries if member activity rates were high enough to have a ward properly function with 200 nominal members.
The members-to-units ratio has steadily increased in most countries over the past two decades. Between 1991 and 2011, there were 67 countries that experienced a members-to-units increase of over 100. In 1991, the ten countries with the highest members-to-units ratios were Ecuador (648), Hong Kong (621), Colombia (551), Brazil (546), Chile (544), Uruguay (527), American Samoa (524), Bolivia (504), Samoa (500), and the United Kingdom (497). In 2001, the ten countries with the highest members-to-units ratios were the Northern Mariana Islands (897), Chile (612), El Salvador (577), Bolivia (560), Hong Kong (514), Mexico (503), Suriname (495), Colombia (493), the United Kingdom (484), and Ecuador (483). In 2011, the ten countries with the highest members-to-units ratios were Chile (921), Northern Mariana Islands (753), Hong Kong (750), Nicaragua (745), Bolivia (696), El Salvador (691), Ecuador (665), Honduras (658), Macau (654), and Peru (646). The number of countries that had a members-to-units ratio greater than 550 increased from two in 1991 to four in 2001 and 25 in 2011. Provided with the 2011 members-to-unit ratio and ranked from largest to smallest decrease, there were seven countries that reported a decrease in the members-to-units ratio over the past two decades: American Samoa (417), Fiji (354), Vanuatu (180), Singapore (325), Niue (138), the United States (457), and Germany (222). Seven additional countries reported virtually no change in the members-to-unit ratio as indicated by an increase of ten members per congregation or less: Nauru (100), Cyprus (102), Denmark (191), Reunion (173), Finland (157), Mauritius (209), and Suriname (210).
The rapid increase in the members-to-units ratio during the 2000s occurred for several reasons related to slowing congregational growth rates and steady membership growth rates. First, many converts baptized during this period. Quick-baptismal tactics remained widely enforced and missionary principles emphasized in Preach My Gospel were not consistently followed. Second, the Church increased the minimal standard required to form new wards and branches in most areas of the world. This resulted in the Church organizing fewer new congregations. Third, the Church consolidated many wards and branches that did not meet heightened operational standards to function particularly in Eastern Europe and Latin America. For example, the number of wards and branches in Chile declined by over 300 between 1999 and 2004. Fourth, some mission and area leaders changed policies on mission outreach expansion and advocated for a centers of strength paradigm resulting in the consolidation of branches and wards with smaller active church memberships to create congregations with more active members. Fewer cities opened to missionary work in the 2000s compared to the 1990s resulting in reduced congregational growth. The consolidation of branches to form ward-sized units in aspirations to create stakes also contributed to the noticeable increase in the members-to-unit ratio for many countries.
As of late 2013 there appeared to be no clear evidence that the Church was close to reversing its trend of incommensurate membership and congregational within the foreseeable future due to reluctance in opening larger numbers of cities to proselytism and low convert retention rates in many of the highest baptizing missions.