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Sunday, February 20, 2011

Counting Members of the Church

I don't know how other Church's count their members, so I cannot comment on whether I think their numbers are accurate. However, I can comment on how the Church counts members and I know they can be relied on.

National numbers for the United States and Canada are compiled by the National Council of Churches' in their 2011 Yearbook of American and Canadian Churches. Their newest numbers were just released on February 14, 2011. The Deseret News evaluates their numbers in an article entitled, "LDS Church among largest, growing U.S. churches."

In academia, numbers that are self-reported are always suspect. There always seems to be differences in how people count and what criteria they use and a tendency to inflate numbers for whatever reason. Standardized counting is so difficult. Consider how hard it is to determine if someone is Caucasian or black or if they are a mixture like President Obama. Reasonable people can disagree on the classification.


Also, modern problems in counting can emerge. For example, before car-jacking was a separate category, it was sometimes counted as auto theft, or robbery, and sometimes both. Finally, the separate category was created to address all its facets.

However, membership in the Church is a lot like citizenship in the United States. The definition is well-defined, centrally controlled and verifiable.

Being a Mormon is not a vague feeling of identification or association. Also, you don't inherit membership. Membership is an actual membership record centrally controlled in Salt Lake City. You either are a Mormon or you are not. There is no gray area.  You either have a membership record or you don't.

People cannot be baptized into the Church willy nilly by anyone. The person baptizing you has to have the power and authority to do so. The Church centrally controls who can and cannot baptize and who actually performs the baptism. Records of all baptisms are centrally controlled and kept.

For example, I was baptized when I was eight years old by my father. I have an actual membership record number. That can be consulted to determine that my father had the priesthood authority to baptize me, that the baptism was conducted in Ogden, Utah, under the leadership of a particular Bishop and at a particular authorized place. Paperwork establishing and verifying all of this, including authorized witnesses, is on file in Church headquarters in Salt Lake City. I am a member, no doubt about it.

If you have been baptized into the Church you are a member. If you are excommunicated from the Church, or formally ask to have your membership removed, then you are no longer Mormon.

So, that leaves people to either die or disappear. Does the Church count them? How does it keep track?

You would not believe the time, money and resources that are expended to keep track of all the members. In every congregation there is a "membership clerk" whose job it is to manage all of this stuff. For example, when we moved into a new congregation in a new state, one of the Church members who helped us move in was the membership clerk. When we went to Church the next Sunday he asked us for some identifying information to look up our records. All he needed was our names, former addresses, and the name of our former congregation. Whatever he did, our memberships had been transferred and our membership formally established in the new congregation by midday Monday.

Theoretically, every member gets visited at least once a month by members of the congregation assigned to do so. For example, my husband is formally assigned to visit five families every month and to keep track of them. He made contact with one last night. She says she doesn't remember being baptized and doesn't think she is a member. So my husband conveyed this to his leader yesterday and the leader will check her records today at Church. My husband will then convey to her the circumstances and authority of her baptism -- where it occurred, by whom, etc. Somehow this persons membership status will be resolved, by her and by the Church.

What if someone disappears from their home and no one knows where they've gone? Answer, volunteers will track 'em down. I had to be tracked down once. I had moved so often in college that the Church lost track of me. Volunteers called my mom and my sister, asking for information about me. Naturally, they gave it. My address was established and my membership records were sent to my congregation. The membership clerk handled things from there. My husband had a relative who got lost in the system twice and we got calls asking for information about this person. Same process occurred.

In sum, it is very hard to disappear in Mormondom. If this sounds strange to you perhaps you ought to read Luke, chapter 15 again.

Sometimes people don't want to be found. Sometimes they don't want to be a member anymore. They are told how to expunge their membership. But, it is something they have to do. It cannot be done by someone else for them.

However, you can be excommunicated (membership expunged) against your will. There is a specific process for this as well, all duly witnessed, authorized, executed and recorded. Excommunication comes as a result of sin: like adultery, apostasy, etc. If you establish your own church, then you will be excommunicated by the Mormons.

What I find really puzzling are the people who don't want to come to Church, don't want to have contact with the Church; but don't want their membership record expunged either. Naturally, we respect their wishes; but why don't they want to obliterate their membership? Strange.

So, given the lengths the Church goes to to establish, count and verify its Church membership, I think the numbers can be trusted.

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