I’ll put up my next post on Mormon ways of knowing shortly. In the meantime I just wanted to touch upon some things I’ve written at my blog on LDS retention. I’ll not go over my main analysis again. (You can read it at my blog: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, and Part 4) What I wanted to go into is just how hard it is to figure out how well the Church actually is doing in terms of retention. I will only deal with the Church population in the US. If knowing what is going on here is hard, knowing what is going on in the international Church is probably a lost cause.

First it seems like most of what I’ve read comes from just a few studies. The best and most informative is the ARIS self-identification study which has statistics for 1990, 2001 and 2008. They have a separate report with the information on Mormons broken out and analyzed. (They also have a report on the rise of the Nones – which is probably as important since half of those leaving Mormonism appear to join the Nones) What’s best about the ARIS study isn’t just the three periods allowing us to identify changes but the relative size of the samples. The 1990 survey interviews 1742 self-identified Mormons our of 113,723 people total. The 2008 survey had 783 Mormons out of 54,461 people. That isn’t quite as good (more than half as few) but still enough to give some reliability to the study – especially considering the overall survey size.

The next most mentioned are the various Pew studies. I’ve been pretty critical of the recently released study. I just find some of the figures pretty hard to accept on their face which I think undermines the entire study. Pew also did a study in 2007 (released in 2008) which found a self-identified Mormon population nearly 2% of the population versus ARIS’ which found a 1.4% rate. That’s a pretty big difference. The sample of size of Mormons was also much smaller at 580 people. That’s getting down to the level where issues can start to pop up. (Of course I’m from the hard sciences – but I really do understand it’s harder to get data in sociology) Yes you get a margin of error of only about ±4.1% at 95% confidence or 5.3% at 99% but errors of other sorts can start to crop in due to the lack of diversity in the population. (Admittedly the 2008 ARIS is only a bit better at 783 but a different sort of questions are asked there where I’m not sure the diversity matters as much) An other problem with the recent (2012) Pew study is that my understanding is that the same people who had been contacted in 2007 were recontacted for the just released study in order to save money. (Presumably some people couldn’t be contacted and so the sample size is even smaller)

A source I’ve seen quoted (such as by Joanna Brooks) are some studies by Phillips and Cragun. However a lot of their data – especially for the period before the ARIS data – comes from the GSS. The problem is that the total number of Mormons across the GSS is only about 500 and for most types of questions you might ask it is much lower. I tried to replicate the retention figures quoted by them and wasn’t able to using the gss. (You can try yourself if you like – the data is easy to work with online) Anything I came up with had a sample size so small as to really be largely worthless. So you can use this data but I’d be really, really careful comparing it with other data to discern a trend. It’s just problematic.

The official Mormon numbers can be helpful at guessing at trends. However they don’t tend to publicly break out US vs. International numbers that I’ve been able to find. What we do find though is the start of a significant drop in convert baptisms in the 90’s that has continued to increase. Probably the best source of analysis of this information is They have the official growth rate declining from 4-5% through much of the later half of the 20th century to less than 3% in the new century. The number of baptisms per missionary has dropped in half.

I should also note the book American Grace goes through a lot of data. Unfortunately they don’t give their raw data. Much of what they mention comes from the above along with a few other surveys and polls such as Gallup. If you haven’t read the book it really is worth checking out.

I’ll not bore you with all my analysis of retention. The most interesting thing to me is that despite a lot of hue and cry about retention numbers the evidence seems to suggest that Mormons have among the best retention of most Churches. Around 70% of those born in the Church remain in the Church. That might be shockingly low to some but I think if you take a step back and think about it that it is actually quite good.

The second thing I discovered is that the growth of the Church in the US in terms of self-identification has actually increased.  To quote from my blog.  “The US population grew at 15.6% from 1990 – 2001 while [self-identified] Mormons grew at 7.7% during the same period. However from 2001 – 2008 the US population grew at 8.9% while the Mormon population grew at 15%.”

What’s remarkable are the implications of this for retention. Convert baptisms are down significantly yet our growth in self-identification actually increased fairly significantly. That suggests, even acknowledging the error rate, that our retention is getting better and not worse. Still it’s been four years since that study and a lot can happen in that time. One big change is the candidacy of Mitt Romney in 2008 and 2012 which has brought a lot of media scrutiny of the Church. Has that affected retention? Thus far we just don’t have data to tell.


26 Replies to “Retention”

  1. Very interesting analysis and some encouraging conclusions. One thing I like to see is that we are creating many more stakes then we are discontinuing at a rate of at 8 to 1 on average over the last 5 most recent years excluding the new YSA stakes. (See side panel of

    Given you can’t create new stakes with less-active members, I think the growth of active members is still going strong. Seems to imply that, though there are less convert baptisms and unfortunately too many new converts fall away quickly, at the end of the day we gain 8 active members for every one active member we loose. (But I guess I need to be careful reading to much into that an 8 to 1 growth in stakes.)

  2. That is a helpful observation, JS, but I think it only holds if whatever measure is used to trigger the creation of a new stake (1) is constant over time, and (2) is a two-say street, applying to dissolution of stakes when crossed the other way.

    I think neither of those requirements hold. First, the requirements for establishing a stake have eased over the years, so some new stakes are created not because numbers have increased but because the requirements are easier to meet. Second, I am sure there is resistance to disbanding an existing stake just because numbers are down. Once you’re a stake, things have to get really bad before you are carved up and given to other, healthier stakes, or (even worse) simply allowed to lapse back to district and branch status.

  3. That’s true Dave and the Church has shifted the size of both units and stakes in the past. However an 8:1 figure does suggest growth – not to mention that remarkable 15% self-identification growth over 7 years that I don’t think gets mentioned enough.

  4. In Greg Prince’s Oct. 2011 D.C. Mormon Stories conference, he explained his retention rate triangulation rate as follows:

    “A stake, by definition, is approximately 2,500 warm bodies. They don’t have to be active in the Church. There have to be enough of them active that they can adequately staff the ward and stake apparatus, ok? So every increase of 2,500–if you were at least hanging on to them so that you knew where they were and they acknowledged that they were LDS even if they weren’t showing up–that should give you one stake. In the 1990s, you had to have twice that number to get one stake. In the most recent decade, you have had to have four times that number to get one stake. And those numbers you can pull directly out of the Church Almanac. But they don’t know that; if they knew it, they probably wouldn’t publish them. But those are hard numbers to hide from, because all you need to do is take the total membership number and the delta of stakes since the previous year, and you’ve got it. … If you were identifying all of your converts so that you knew where they were, and they at least identified that they were LDS, you would get one out of every 2,500. Now you’re getting one out of every 10,000. So that tells you right off the bat that three-fourths of what you call ‘increase’ is gone–you can’t even find them–and then of the remaining one-fourth, half of that will be inactive. (Sorry, ‘less active’.) And when you consider that that delta in total membership includes baptism of children of record, who are more likely to stay, then it’s an easy triangulation to say we’re probably keeping one out of every ten converts as an active church member.”

  5. Could the rise in identification possibly suggest that even less-active Mormons still want to be identified as Mormons? That we might be seeing a rise of cultural Mormons even amidst a decline in “active” Mormons?

  6. It’s hard to say. The Pew data has us as overwhelmingly active among those self-identified. (They didn’t specify what counted as a Mormon but elsewhere said 96% were LDS) However as I mentioned I’m pretty distrustful about the Pew data. They have an astounding 77% of those self-identifying as Mormon attending Church weekly. (Yeah, I don’t know what to make of that – I’ve gone stretches where for various reasons I couldn’t claim weekly attendance although I went regularly)

    It’s interesting comparing the ARIS self-identification stats about Utah religion which has the state at 57% Mormon whereas the official census puts it at 68%. That’s a fairly significant difference. I’m not sure what to make of it. It may be that the sample size within Utah simply was small enough that the error rate was increasing. Or it might indicate a difference between stated religion and self-identification. I’m not quite sure. On the other hand Pew had us at 2% of the national populace versus the ARIS 1.4%. So perhaps ARIS is just undercounting Mormons due to some statistical fluke. I’m skeptical of that though given the other problems of the Pew data.

    Sadly the ARIS data is more about general demographics rather than activity so we can’t glean much there.

  7. While I appreciate Greg Prince’s back of the napkin calculation via Stakes I’m not sure I’d push it that far. There are some complications to Stakes due to geographical realities. Still a 10% retention of baptized members would be better than I remember back in my home ward as a kid and better than what I saw in my mission. So it doesn’t seem that far off.

    Once again it’s shocking to people (much like that 70% birth member retention rate) but when you take a step back and think about it a 10% success rate is actually remarkably high. I think one thing to keep in mind (and the stuff at points this out) is that under Pres. Hinkley there was a focus away from number of baptisms in order to increase convert retention. I’ve no idea how successful that is. If we really are at a 10% rate I wouldn’t be shocked to find the rate in the 80’s was 5% or lower.

  8. Trevor, there are a large number of factors that could account for much of the difference that you describe, including economic strength, construction priorities, geographical distribution of converts, migration patterns, and general policy changes. It is certainly not unheard of for an area to be ‘overbuilt’ or to be split into more units than are easily sustainable, and for unit growth to slow (if not occasionally retrench) as a consequence.

    Another major factor is tithing contributions, which the state of the economy has a significant effect on, and more especially on more well to do contributors. That will slow down building construction schedules (and as a consequence unit divisions) to some considerable degree. Migration into areas that have buildings that are relatively underused has a similar effect.

  9. Clark,
    I was shocked at at a 20% retention rate but you thought it was remarkably high now 10%! I really don’t understand your position unless you are a die hard apologist. Baptize 10 to keep 1? Really? And you think that is remarkably high? How low would it have to be to surprise you?

  10. I don’t think I’m being an apologist in this. First I think we have to ask what a baseline is. What’s a reasonable retention rate for someone curious about a religion who decides to join? One problem is that most religions don’t really proselytize much. Further the methods of proselytizing have changed. (Tracting, never that effective when I was on a mission 20 years ago has steadily become less effective due to social expectations within our culture) But it’s reasonable to ask if there are other faiths that do better than us. (Once again let’s ignore the international Church where I actually do think we do worse than others for various reasons and keep a focus on the American Church)

    There’s not a great way to conceive of a baseline but let’s look at other changes in behavior people engage in and their success rate. Consider how packed all the gyms are in January and how empty they are by April. People arguably have pretty big incentives in our culture to be slender yet what is the success rate for dieting and exercise?

    Maybe that’s not an ideal comparison for religious change but I think that it indicates a more general figure for people changing behaviors. And Mormon religion is a very “expensive” religion. We stop a lot of social behaviors like drinking coffee, alcohol and smoking. Many of those are addictive and very hard to change. Then you have the changes in socializing – do people stop going to bars or nightclubs with friends? I think many Mormons don’t think through the big changes investigators face. Then you have tithing – 10% of ones income which is a lot. Then you have weekly three hour meetings – doubly difficult if they are at 9 AM. One could go on.

    The point is that the incentives for failure are huge for a new investigator. Further most of the issues really aren’t necessarily religious issues. For instance how long does it take to make friends in the new ward? What about transportation? It goes on and on.

    What’s remarkable to me is that when you stop and consider all the forces working against a long term conversion (and I’ve not even touched on the mainly theological or “spiritual” issues) that people see a 10% retention rate as low. To which I have to ask – what are you comparing it with? What types of major behavioral and social changes have a success rate higher than 10%?

    Further think back to your mission if you went on one. Think of all the investigators you had or other investigators you knew. Even among those excited about baptism I think you could often pick out who was likely to remain just by their personality and the social conditions they found themselves in (or were likely to confront in the new ward). I had a lot fewer baptisms than most other missionaries in my mission but was fortunate that most stayed active long after I’d gone home. Well over 60%. But those ones who went inactive I could tell most likely would or that they were going to have struggles that would make it very hard. (Addictions, friends and acquaintances pulling them away, etc.) When I looked at many of the people I interviewed for baptism I have to be honest that the best case I saw was less than 20%. I wasn’t going to turn them away of course and I was pleasantly surprised by how well many did (and disappointed that some I thought would do well didn’t). But honestly a 10% rate for say 2 years would have made me pretty happy.

    Part of that is the wards. I think members often can do a much, much better job socializing with other members and especially new members. But once again the realities of that situation are more complex than they appear at first glance as well.

  11. Thanks for the analysis. These types of numbers are very hard to determine, even if you have good data. I talked to a church leader here in SL about YSA activity rates, for example, and even the Church doesn’t have a great “tracking” mechanism. YSA are notorious (as was I) for going to different wards from week to week (homecomings, farewells, cute girls, work schedules, etc). One proxy used at one point was “Declared tithing status” – didn’t matter what they declared, didn’t matter how many times they actually attended during the year, etc. They figured if they took the time to declare their tithing status, they were “Active”. And even this rate was quite low – in the teens, even along the Wasatch Front. So, it’s a hard thing to track and I appreciate the effort you put into looking at things.

    Just for fun, along the lines of teasing trends out of vague numbers, my post tomorrow on Wheat & Tares is on predicting the membership statistics they are going to announce at General Conference next week. If anyone is interested in throwing their hat in the ring and hazarding a guess, here is a link to the post: 2nd Annual General Conference Statistics Predictions (With Poll). The post isn’t technically “live” until tomorrow (Thursday), but the link will probably work.

    Thanks again for your analysis.

  12. Actually, please ignore that link until tomorrow. If people start commenting, I think it will mess things up. Thanks….

  13. I don’t think I’ve received anything (yet) that I’d really consider criticism. Howard is referring to some comments we had over at New Cool Thang a few weeks back. I can understand it a lot since we have a completely understandable sense of sadness and responsibility when someone leaves the Church. But I really think many of us have too much invested in fast growth. I also don’t think we have a good grasp on conversion or what reasonable numbers would be. There’s too much narrative tied to conversions of huge groups (especially Wilford Woodruff in England) But the culture of the 19th century was very different than today.

    Since we don’t have something concrete to compare to I think it makes analyzing the numbers difficult. As I said, even if you are critical of the numbers who do you point to who is doing significantly better?

  14. This is interesting to me. I’m not a statistician and these kinds of analyses are not generally my “thing”, but I have been sort of surprised by all the talk of declining activity rates among young adults in the church. I live in the SLC area and all of my extended family are members, so obviously my experience is just my own and not generalizable, but I just don’t see young adults leaving the church or becoming “less active” in general. In my current ward when we moved in several years ago, there were 60 young women, all of whom are now in the young adult category. I think all or nearly all are still active in the church (not that they are attending my ward). I don’t know of any of the young men in that group that are inactive either. In my extended family, everyone has stayed active.

  15. The big drop in retention among singles is, I believe, among those over 25. Part of the problem though is in figuring how to measure it. I heard the Church attempted to measure it by checking who declared tithing in a tithing settlement. That’s not ideal for a variety of reasons. (Someone may pay but not pay to a ward they have their membership in, some people may be coming to church regularly but not paying tithing etc.) The figure I heard (and I can’t verify this in the least) was that about 1 in 10 fit that criteria. I’d not put too much stock in it as my experience is that third hand accounts like this aren’t terribly trustworthy.

    The other problem is that the ARIS data I mentioned, which appears to be the most trustworthy, has a 70% retention rate of those raised in Mormonism. So it’s hard to reconcile those two figures. (Although that 70% rate includes those raised in Mormonism who now are in their 60’s)

  16. #16 Clark:

    Your comment was correct about using tithing settlement as a proxy and the 1 in 10 number along the Wasatch Front, as I’ve heard it first hand. It may not be the correct proxy, but your information is accurate.

  17. I just don’t think that a good measure. For instance in my late 20’s through early 30’s I was regularly attending Church but was doing a lot of ward hopping and never attended a tithing settlement.

  18. Is there a way to compare these statistics with other religions, say, Catholicism? Is there a point where any established Christian religion reaches a relative zero growth (allowing for births into the churches). Although, Catholics don’t proselyte. But couldn’t you say they proselyted in the years after the death of Christ then reached that zero growth point. And how important is retention anyway? Statistically. As usual, I find much of the discussion on your blog above my head, but I’m interested in this retention thing. Does it really matter? Sort of off topic, I just bought the book “Why I Stay” and have started reading it. So far, it reflects my experience.

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