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

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Author: Matt Martinich

Posted: November 8th, 2013

Called conferences prior to the late 1920s, districts have functioned since the early days of the Church in the nineteenth century.  A district is an administrative unit comprised of small congregations (branches) within a specific geographical area.  Within the past two decades the number of branches in a district has ranged from as few as two to as many as 17 and membership has varied from as few as 200 to as many as several thousand.  Districts generally service three to 10 branches and 500 to 3,000 members.  Ordinary member branches are not the only kind of unit that may pertain to a district.  Dependent congregations such as member groups and dependent branches may also pertain to a district.  Another kind of administrative unit called a "district branch" operates in approximately two dozen districts that generally cover large rural areas where multiple groups operate or where many isolated members reside.  There does not appear to be any specific criteria for a district to operate.  True to the Faith notes that districts may be organized where there is an adequate number of branches in a specific geographic area.  Branches must also be close enough to one another for church leaders and members to attend district conferences and communicate with ease.[1] 

The geographic size of a district is comparable to a stake.  Some districts include branches in only a single city and at times even a small portion of a city where other stakes and districts operate.  Other districts include branches based in several cities clustered in the same vicinity.  Most districts that include branches in multiple cities generally have the most distant branches no more than 100 kilometers away from the district center.  However, there are some districts that encompass areas 500 kilometers or more across such as in Russia.  Developed transportation systems, few communication challenges, and self-sustaining local church leadership have generally made it possible for these extraordinarily large districts to function.  Some districts include congregations in more than one country if these units are within reasonably close proximity to one another.  For example, in late-2013 the Chisinau Moldova District included three branches in Moldova and one branch in Romania.

Some districts service a specific population such as speakers of a minority ethnolinguistic group or military personnel.  For example, in 2012 English-speaking military districts operated in Afghanistan, Japan, and South Korea.  In 2012, a Vietnamese-speaking district serviced three branches in Phnom Penh and several English-speaking districts serviced expatriates in China and Hong Kong.  In these situations, language-specific or mililtary-designated districts generally service large geographic areas that are also serviced by multiple ordinary stakes and districts.

Districts operate in many ways like a stake.  Both districts and stakes provide organizational infrastructure for congregations in a specific geographic area that is led by a presidency of three priesthood holders who reside within the boundaries of the stake or district.  Both districts and stakes hold conferences biannually for all members within their jurisdictions.  However, districts exercise less leadership autonomy and often have fewer members on church records than stakes.  Districts do not have a high priests quorum and consequently no male members can be ordained high priests in the Melchizedek Priesthood.  There is no designated patriarch within a district.  If available, traveling patriarchs appointed by area leadership and ordained patriarchs among senior missionaries or mission presidency members generally provide patriarchal blessings to members in districts.  Mission presidents preside over districts.  The mission presidency conducts temple, priesthood, and missionary preparation interviews and many other functions traditionally carried out by a member of the stake presidency.  Districts cannot administer wards.  Some districts, particularly those preparing to become stakes, have a district counsel similar in function and organization to a high council in a stake to handle various administrative and church disciplinary actions.  The Church once had a previous distinction of "district stakes" to indicate those district that were actively preparing to become stakes.  This designation primarily occurred during the early 1990s.  However the distinction of "district stake" appeared to vanish by the mid to late 1990s.  Due to the lack of local priesthood holders qualified to hold district leadership positions, senior missionary couples have frequently served as district presidents in districts that have been recently organized, that have are remote, and that have few members.

In 1981, the Church began reporting the total number of districts worldwide in statistical reports released at General Conference.  At the time there were 342 districts.[2]  The number of districts reached 400 in 1988, 500 in 1991, 600 in 1992, and 700 in 1994.  The rapid acceleration in district growth occurred in part due to the opening of many Eastern European nations to LDS proselytism.  However, the primary driver for district growth was in the Philippines and Latin America, particularly Argentina and Brazil.  The Church reached a high of 709 districts in 1994.  The number of districts declined to 618 in 2001 and rebounded to 646 in 2004.  In 2011, there were 608 districts worldwide.[3]  In late 2013, there were approximately 575 districts.

Large numbers of districts operating in a country can be due to many factors.  These factors range from steadily opening new areas to proselytism to poor member activity rates and local leadership development problems preventing the advancement of districts into stakes.  In late-2013, the 10 countries with the most districts were the Philippines (83), Brazil (40), Mexico (36), Argentina (34), Chile (23), Peru (21), Nigeria (19), Guatemala (19), Japan (13), and Papua New Guinea (12).  Low member activity, few active priesthood holders, poor convert retention, and leadership development problems appear the primary reason for the large number of districts in the Philippines, Brazil, Mexico, Chile, and Japan as most districts in these nations were organized 15 years ago or more and have appeared to surpass the threshold of 1,900 members needed for a stake to operate.  The opening of new areas to proselytism and the growth in the number of branches in lesser-reached locations are factors that have led to the inclusion of Nigeria and Papua New Guinea into the list of the 10 countries with the most districts. Districts servicing rural areas with small, dispersed populations and transportation difficulties that favor the organization of administrative units that encompass smaller geographical areas are a major reason for the large number of districts in the Philippines, Nigeria, and Guatemala.

The creation of new districts generally indicates expansion and growth of the Church into lesser reached areas.  Districts require some aspects of local member self-sufficiency and activity in order to staff leadership for both branch and district callings.  Increasing numbers of branches in an area often give rise to the need to form a district and increasing numbers of branches occurs when sizable numbers of converts join the Church, remain active, and hold callings.  The creation of stakes in lesser-reached areas of the Church does not occur as the number of members and congregations is often insufficient, few male members hold the Melchizedek Priesthood, and many lack the needed church experience to know how to carry out basic member responsibilities.  In other words, districts often act as the vehicle for the Church to move from a handful of mission-administered branches to ultimately establishing a stake.   

There are several methods in which the Church organizes new districts.  Districts are most commonly organized from mission branches that did not previously pertain to a stake or district or from congregations previously assigned to another stake or district.  Distance is one of the major predicting factors for the Church to split a stake or district in order to form a district in an outlying city where there are a sufficient number of congregations.  In situations where a stake is divided to create a district, some branches in the new stake were formerly wards in the stake prior to the creation of the district.  Another less common method that the Church organizes districts is from discontinued stakes.  Discontinued stakes are often consolidated with neighboring stakes but in more remote locations or where church leaders intend on focusing on reactivation efforts, discontinued stakes can be divided into multiple districts.  For example, the Church discontinued the Camiling Philippines Stake in 2003 and divided it into two separate districts that continued to operate as of late 2013.

The delay in a district maturing into a stake signals a variety of alarming concerns for church growth.  Generally high convert attrition, low member activity rates, and insufficient numbers of active, worthy Melchizedek Priesthood holders prevent districts from becoming stakes within a reasonable period of time.  Some districts qualify to become stakes in as few as five years from when they were first organized whereas others can take several decades to become stakes.  Other districts struggle to reach the needed number of members to qualify to become a stake due to few convert baptisms.  There are also districts that do not have the minimal number of congregations required to become a stake due to a combination of all of these issues. 

Like other kinds of congregations and administrative infrastructure, districts may consolidate with neighboring stakes or districts or be disbanded altogether.  In the latter situation, branches no longer pertain to a stake or district and are administered directly by the mission or area presidency.  The closure of a district may occur for several reasons such as a decline in the number of branches in the district to an insufficient number for a district to properly function, sustainability problems with local leadership, a lack of active members, the staffing of district leadership positions siphoning needed priesthood personnel to properly operate individual branches within the district, unforeseen transportation and communication challenges due to the geographical size of the district, and disappointed expectations for greater growth and leadership self-sufficiency.  Oftentimes the Church will close a district for a combination of these issues.  For example, the Church closed several districts in the Caribbean in the early 2010s as many of these districts encompassed multiple islands (resulting in communication and transportation challenges), had multiple branches consolidated resulting in an insufficient number of branches to permit the continued operation of a district, experienced low member activity rates, and suffered from insufficient manpower to staff both branch and district callings.  At times church leaders consolidate a district with a nearby stake to form wards from ward-sized branches in the former district, especially in locations where there are few convert baptisms and transportation and communication systems are reliable and convenient.  Since 2008, district consolidations with nearby stakes have occurred in several countries such as in Brazil, France, Puerto Rico, and the United States.  There are also instances of the Church consolidating two or more districts into a single district to prepare to form a stake.  For example, the Church consolidated its two districts in Trinidad and Tobago in 2008 in preparation to form a stake in 2009.

Prospects for the organization of additional districts within the next decade appears most favorable in Africa, Asia, Latin America, and Melanesia as the Church has readily expanded missionary work into additional areas and receptivity remains high.  Few, if any, new districts appear likely to be organized in Europe and North America.  The number of districts in these two regions may decline due to consolidations with neighboring stakes and some districts becoming stakes. 

[1]  "Church Administration," True to the Faith, p. 37

[2]  "Statistical Report," General Conference, April 1982.

[3]  "Statistical Report, 2011," General Conference, April 2012.