Why new rules for creating stakes, wards may not inflate the perception of LDS Church growth

Uniform standards around the world may make it harder to add congregations.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) A steeple rises at 95 State for a meetinghouse of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in 2022. The church has established global guidelines for establishing wards and stakes.

Top officials in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints just announced new minimum requirements for setting up or realigning “wards” and “stakes,” a move that will establish unified global standards.

Starting next month, creating a stake (a cluster of congregations) will require “2,000 total members,” the church’s governing First Presidency wrote in a letter to all Latter-day Saint bishops, stake presidents and other male leaders. “Stakes in the U.S. and Canada previously needed to have 3,000 members; stakes outside these two countries needed 1,900.”

With the exception of its hierarchy in Salt Lake City, the global church of 17 million members is run by local volunteer leaders.

Members are assigned to attend a congregation based on where they live. If a ward grows beyond several hundred members, it is divided. Thus, there are no megachurches in the Utah-based faith.

“There is genius in the organization of local church units based on geography. We don’t choose a congregation based on who we like or want to be with,” apostle D. Todd Christofferson wrote on social media. “Wards are chosen for us based on a reasonable geographic alignment, and we learn to live with, serve, and love people who might well be different in background, preferences, and opinions.”

Some argue that the change from 3,000 members required for a stake to 2,000 could prompt the establishment of more stakes, inflating the perception of church growth.

Independent Latter-day Saint demographer Matthew Martinich insists the opposite is true, not because of the total number of members but because of the new guidelines for “participating adults.”

What the new guidelines spell out

Come 2024, a church news release states, stakes will need 150 active, full-tithe-paying adult male priesthood holders capable of serving in lay leadership posts. They will also need 500 participating adults.

Similarly, wards must have 250 members, 20 full-tithe-paying men capable of being leaders and 100 “participating adults.”

“These changes will undoubtedly result in fewer stakes and wards being organized outside of the United States and Canada,” Martinich wrote on ldschurchgrowth.blogspot.com, “as it will take longer for total and active membership to grow to the point of being able to meet the minimal requirements.”

As of the end of 2022, the church reported having 3,521 stakes around the world and 31,330 congregations.

Martinich reported that leaders recently formed five new stakes in Utah (in South Jordan, American Fork, Lewiston and two in Lehi) and eliminated one (in West Valley City).

He noted that six Utah stakes have been discontinued this year — the most in any year in the state — but 10 new stakes have been established. The Beehive State is now home to 633 stakes.

In addition, he reported three stakes recently set up in Chile, two in Ivory Coast and one apiece in California, Madagascar, Mexico, Missouri, Nigeria, South Carolina and Zimbabwe.

A ‘welcome change’

(Michael Stack | Special to The Tribune) A stake center and church offices in Kowloon, Hong Kong. The church has established global guidelines for establishing wards and stakes.

Martinich, who uses congregational growth to determine how many participating members the church has, pointed to the updated standards for the number of “active members” needed for these stakes and wards.

The church release states that “participating adults” and “participating youths” are individuals “who pay full or partial tithes, hold a current temple recommend, have a calling in the church, are new members who are attending sacrament meeting during their first year of membership, or are youth enrolled in seminary.”

The participation measure is meant to “assist leaders,” the First Presidency said, “in identifying members who participate in a meaningful way and to help evaluate the strength of a boundary proposal.”

It is likely that fewer “branches” (smaller congregations supervised by stake leaders) will become wards, Martinich said, because they don’t meet the “stringent criteria.”

This will also result in “a greater focus on ensuring congregations have a sizable number of active youth,” he explained, “to permit greater fellowshipping with adolescents and children — a sensitive age group that requires special attention and care from local leaders.”

Overall, it was a “welcome change,” Martinich said in an interview. “It will strengthen congregations, making it more methodical about creating new stakes.”

It shows, he said, the church “has matured internationally.”

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