The Church's Growth, Structure and Reach

How fast is the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-day Saints growing? How far has it spread?

Church statistics cite nearly 12.9 million church members worldwide in 2006, organized into 27,475 wards and branches.

The Mormon church's membership has more than doubled since the early 1980s, and the church says it is growing at a rate of roughly 1 million members every three years.

Of its total membership, 14 percent live in Utah, and more than 50 percent live outside the United States. More than 50,000 Mormon missionaries are said to be active across 162 countries, distributing church materials translated into over 93 languages.

Although the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints continues to grow in numbers, the rate of growth has slowed. Nowadays, much of the growth is due to natural increase (children born into Mormon families). Conversions to the faith have declined somewhat in recent decades and, as is the case in most churches and denominations, a large percentage of the newly-converted Saints -- perhaps as many as 50 percent in some areas -- will fall away from their faith. A 2005 Salt Lake Tribune article cited research indicating that the church's active, churchgoing membership may be limited to approximately 4 million.

In the developing world, Mormons are increasingly challenged by the Pentecostals and other churches whose number of conversions is rising faster in some countries.

How significant a presence is the Mormon Church in Salt Lake City and in Utah?

Mormons make up roughly two-thirds of Utah's population. While the church maintains a policy of political nonpartisanship, the impact of the faith's popular majority is clear in state politics.

Utah's Gov. Jon Huntsman, Jr. (R), U.S. Senators Orrin Hatch (R) and Bob Bennett (R), and all three of the state's congressmen are Latter-day Saints. Since becoming a state in 1896, Utah has had only two non-Mormon governors.

Within the city limits of Salt Lake City, Utah's capital, the population is about 55 percent non-Mormon. However, the city limits circumscribe a very small part of the county of which Salt Lake City is the county seat. In the suburbs surrounding the city, the population is overwhelmingly Mormon. The election of the city's current mayor, Ross "Rocky" Anderson, a lapsed Mormon, has been credited partially to his support among non-Mormon residents. The mayor has advocated gay rights and called for the impeachment of President Bush. In contrast, the majority of Utah residents statewide voted for George W. Bush in both presidential elections, and in 2004 they voted for a constitutional ban on gay marriage.

How is the Mormon church organized? How is its president/prophet selected?

The church operates under a strict top-down hierarchy. The highest office is that of the president, Gordon B. Hinckley, who is regarded by believers as the church's "prophet, seer and revelator." The president serves a life term and selects his first and second counselors, who are also believed to possess prophetic abilities. These three men together form the First Presidency.

Below the First Presidency is the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, also comprising male members believed to be prophets. The Quorum technically elects the church president, but tradition has it that the apostle who has served longest in the Quorum of the Twelve will automatically become president/prophet. The Quorum of the Twelve acts under the First Presidency to lead the church at the global level.

The church divides the world into geographic "areas," which are led by the next strata in the power structure: five Quorums of the Seventy, led by seven male members known as the Presidency of the Seventy. The First and Second Quorums of Seventy are considered "General Authorities." Like the First Presidency and apostles, they have authority in any region of the world. Members from the Third, Fourth and Fifth Quorums of the Seventy only have power within their designated area.

Areas are subdivided into "stakes," (dioceses) each of which is overseen by a stake president and two counselors, mirroring the structure of the First Presidency. The average stake contains about 3,000 members divided into five to 12 "wards" (large congregations) and "branches" (a smaller congregation of at least two families), which are headed by bishops and branch presidents, respectively, who have two counselors apiece.

Regions without adequate membership to create a stake are designated as "missions," overseen by a mission president. As the number of branches within a mission grows, they are organized first into "districts" and then, once large enough, into stakes.

What is the Mormon priesthood? What are the priesthood ordinances? Who can become a priest? An elder?

Mormons believe that an 1829 revelation to Joseph Smith from John the Baptist gave the church an exclusive right to the Christian priesthood, meaning the ability to perform prescribed spiritual services and blessings, also known as "ordinances." The ordinances learned and practiced in the priesthood include the blessing of sacramental bread and water, eligibility to be sealed into eternal marriage, and the right to instruct and ordain other members.

Mormon males typically enter the first order, the "Aaronic" priesthood, at age 12 as "deacons." As they learn more, they progress to the levels of "teacher" and then "priest," usually by age 18.

At age 18, the average Mormon man enters the second (higher) "Melchizedek" priesthood as an "elder." It is at this point that they become eligible to serve on a mission, take on such leadership positions as bishop (local pastor) and stake president, perhaps even advancing to higher ranks within the church, such as joining a Quorum of the Seventy or becoming an apostle.

How is the church financed?

The Mormon church has become the wealthiest church per capita in America. It does not disclose its finances, but attempts have been made to estimate church revenue and assets.

In 1997, Time magazine estimated church assets totaled "a minimum of $30 billion." Richard and Joan K. Ostling in their 1999 book Mormon America put a "conservative" estimate of total assets at $25 to $30 billion, noting that it was likely "well beyond that." Though the church criticized Time's calculations as excessive, according to the Ostlings, it "did not provide even the vaguest hints as to what was wrong and what the truth might be."

The Mormon church's financial growth has been fueled by "sacred taxation" -- tithing. To be of good standing, all Mormons must tithe, or give 10 percent of their gross income to the church. The Ostlings' research concluded that annual tithing revenue, as of the mid-1990s, was likely between $4.25 and $5.3 billion.

Not all Mormons tithe, but tithing is a requirement of keeping a temple recommend allowing Mormons to enter the temple, and the percentage of members who pay tithing is very high, probably well over 60 percent.

The church also manages a large amount of commercial investments, mostly through its Deseret Management Corporation. The Ostlings estimate revenue from those enterprises at $600 million annually and describe the holdings:

"Their enterprises range from a $16 billion insurance company to perhaps $6 billion in stock and bonds, if not more. There's a $172 million chain of radio stations (seventh-largest in the country). The church's more than 150 farms and ranches, including America's largest cattle ranch, make it one of the largest landowners in the nation. The farms and ranches encompass somewhere in the neighborhood of 1 million acres, roughly equal to the size of the state of Delaware."

The church's religious buildings and property, while included in the asset estimates, are considered expenses and not sources of revenue. The church also channels significant funds into humanitarian work; it claims annual donations in the tens of millions of dollars and activities in 147 countries.