LDS Growth Encyclopedia on Missionary Work and Church Growth (Missiology)

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Address Unknown File

Author: Matt Martinich, Psy.D.

The address unknown file consists of the membership records of individuals whose whereabouts and activity status are unknown to church leaders. Many, if not all, countries have an address unknown file to help keep track of members who were previously assigned to a ward or branch but can no longer be located. Many membership records are added to the address unknown file due to less-active or inactive members moving to an unknown location. The Church retains unaccounted members on the address unknown file until age 110 unless proof of death can be obtained. As a result the address unknown file likely contains thousands of members who have died considering life expectancy in most countries with significant LDS populations is less than 80 years.

The size of the address unknown file is astounding. In 2000, there were 984,801 members on church records in the United States that were not assigned to a specific congregation according to church spokesman Scott Trotter.[1] Most, if not all, of these members appeared on the address unknown file at the time; otherwise they would be assigned to a specific ward or branch. Some church members can have their names temporarily placed into the address unknown file when relocating to another congregation, but this period of time is generally brief and such individuals likely account for a small minority of the nearly one million "lost" members in the United States in 2000. For example, 90% of new names added to the address unknown file from Utah are found within the first year of being placed in the file.[2] In 2005, Elder Merrill Bateman reported that there were 180,000 names on the address unknown file from Utah alone,[3] or 10% of official LDS membership reported for Utah. At the time there were more members on the address unknown file in Utah than the Church reported in all but the eight countries with the most church members.

The majority of individuals on the address unknown file exhibit few, if any, behaviors that indicate activity in the Church and are essentially only nominal members that often do not self-affiliate as Latter-day Saints. Considering the United States has one of the most advanced and persistent efforts to keep track of less-active and inactive members among countries with a sizable LDS presence, the percentage of nominal membership on the address unknown file appears less in the United States than most other nations. The size of the total number of individuals worldwide on the address unknown file may be as high three million assuming about 20% of worldwide membership is on the address unknown file. However, this estimate is conservative considering the United States has one of the most organized and proactive lost member finding efforts.

The address unknown file presents a picture of a larger church presence in most nations than in actuality. This results in limited utility in examining membership numbers for tracking church growth. In 2006, former Chilean mission and MTC present Ted Lyon reported that 200,000 of the 535,000 members on church records in Chile were on the address unknown file,[4] or 37% of nominal church membership at the time. In other words, the Church in Chile would have only 335,000 members if members on the address unknown file were omitted from official membership figures.

Address unknown files do not present a complete and accurate picture of membership accounting. Many unaccounted members assigned to wards or branches cannot be located. Members and missionaries outside the United States report that in many countries there are often scores to hundreds of members on church records in individual wards and branches that do not have current addresses on church records. Members and missionaries report that they at times face limitations on transferring membership records for these individuals outside of the original unit. These difficulties can be complex. Most commonly, members and missionaries in many areas report a lack of leadership accountability to update and make unit membership lists accurate. This lack of responsibility is not always blatant and due to carelessness; rather a small number of contributing priesthood holders with limited leadership training often lack the knowledge and understanding of the importance to update and keep accurate membership rolls. Some intentions have appeared more intentional and manipulative. In a few locations, missionaries have reported that local leadership has objected to removing too many unaccounted members in a ward and branch because reducing membership numbers in the unit could jeopardize the status of the unit and lead to its consolidation. Missionaries report frustrations and difficulties maintaining accurate and up-to-date unit membership lists in many undeveloped and developing countries due to informal address systems. Church leadership has advocated for missionaries to use GPS to map member homes to help alleviate this challenge on maintaining accurate addresses.

Senior missionary couples and young full-time missionaries often head efforts to clean up lengthy membership lists that contain at times several hundred unaccounted members. In Palau, a senior missionary couple in the early 2010s took painstaking care to update the membership records for the sole branch in the country. This task took six months to complete. Missionaries reported that out of the 356 members originally on branch records, approximately 80 had moved away from Palau but another 20 unknown members were found due to membership list cleanup efforts. Missionaries serving in one branch in Argentina reported nearly 1,000 members on church records but that several hundred members appeared to had moved away or died. Missionaries appear to strongly contribute or at times even lead efforts to update membership records in most countries.

The address unknown file stands as a testimony to the invariably disastrous effects that accompany quick-baptism tactics and often little care given by church leaders, missionaries, and ordinary members for the long-term retention of new converts. These findings limit the utility in using membership statistics to gauge and study real growth, requiring church growth researchers to cautiously interpret membership figures due to membership statistics providing no insights into activity rates and measurements of " real growth."

[1] Stack, Peggy Fletcher. "Change lowers Mormonism's growth rate," The Salt Lake Tribute, 2 May 2012.

[2] Canham, Matt, "Church Won't Give Up on 'Lost Members,'" Salt Lake Tribune, October 17, 2005.

[3] Canham, Matt, "Church Won't Give Up on 'Lost Members,'" Salt Lake Tribune, October 17, 2005.

[4] Stack, Peggy Fletcher, "Building Faith. A Special Report: The LDS Church in Chile," Salt Lake Tribune, March 31, 2006.