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

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Author: Matt Martinich

Posted: March 8th, 2014

A ward is a large congregation led by a high priest in the Melchizedek Priesthood called a bishop that services a specific geographical area. Bishops have two counselors that assist in meeting local leadership and administration duties that together form a bishopric. Wards only operate within stakes. Stakes must have at least 1,900 members, generally 120 active, full-tithe paying Melchizedek Priesthood holders, and usually at least five wards to operate. The Church may only call men as high priests in the Melchizedek Priesthood within stakes and bishopric members must be called as high priests. In general, wards operate in locations where there are sizable numbers of members, large populations or high percentages of members within the population, and where an official church presence has been established often for at least a decade.

The standards for a ward to function have varied over time and differ by location. There are no minima criteria outlined for a ward to operate in the Church's gospel reference True to the Faith although minimal criteria for a branch to function are provided.[1]  The Church has appeared to increase the qualifications for a ward to operate over the past half century throughout the world in order to create stronger congregations that are more resistant to consolidation. Church leaders and missionaries indicate that the Church generally creates a ward outside North America if there are at least 200 nominal members within a specific geographical area, at least 15 active full-tithe paying Melchizedek Priesthood holders, and if membership in the area meets other activity indicators that suggest the congregation can sufficiently staff callings and leadership positions. For example, a ward must also meet a certain ratio for active Melchizedek Priesthood holders to general church membership in order to operate; a ratio of one Melchizedek Priesthood holder per 20 or less nominal members. In other words, if a congregation barely meets this criteria (one active, full-tithe paying Melchizedek Priesthood holder to 20 church members), there would have to be at least 300 nominal members. Church leaders and missionaries indicate that the qualifications for organizing a ward within North America are the same as elsewhere except the minimum number of members on church records is generally 300 or more. The one exception to this standard is for young single adult (YSA) congregations as these units appear to follow the same guidelines as wards outside North America and Canada, or approximately 200 or more nominal members within a specific geographical area. In North America, most wards have between 300 and 600 members on church records whereas outside of North America most wards have between 200 and 600 members. In some locations with major inactivity challenges the number of members on church records for wards can surpass 1,000 such as in Hong Kong and areas of Latin America. In recent years, the Church has created new wards in a variety of locations ranging from rural communities that have a high percentage of members in the population and fair to high member activity rates (Intermountain West, Oceania, southeastern Nigeria) to major cities with relatively few members and often low to moderate member activity rates (Latin America, the United States). The creation of new wards around the world is largely contingent on increases in active membership and advancing males to the Melchizedek Priesthood but in some areas the creation of wards has been motivated to help improve mission outreach. More commonly, outreach expansion efforts focus on creating groups and branches due to less stringent criteria to operate as lesser-reached or previously unreached locations generally have few members and extremely limited numbers of active priesthood holders.

The Church organizes wards through several approaches. Most commonly, the Church creates new wards by dividing one or more preexisting wards to create a new congregation. This division occurs once a ward has too many active members to effectively administer by a single unit. The Church generally creates a new ward from two or more congregations if there is an insufficient number of members and active full-tithe paying Melchizedek Priesthood holders within just one ward to create a second ward but the creation of another ward is merited due to growing membership in the area. The large geographical size of some wards can also be a motivator for church leaders to create a ward from two or more congregations. The second most common method that the Church creates new wards is through advancing a branch to ward status. This process is relatively simple as the branch can become a ward once it meets the minimal criteria for a ward to operate and if it is located within the geographical boundaries of a stake. There are times when the Church will make a ward from two or more branches or from portions of preexisting wards and branches in order to meet operational standards. When a district matures into a stake, generally five or more branches become wards.  Although infrequent, the Church will at times create a ward from a group or dependent branch that experienced rapid growth, permitting church leaders to surpass receiving approval for the unit to become an independent branch. In many areas with moderate to high rates of receptivity, the Church frequently creates a new branch from a portion of a ward in anticipation that the new branch will become a ward one day once the congregation meets the minimal operational requirements.

The process for stake leaders to obtain approval to create a new ward is lengthy and administratively taxing. Church leaders carefully consider how to create a new ward by considering where boundaries should be placed, avoiding uneven splits that result in large disparities in active membership, and seeking inspiration and revelation on how to best accomplish this feat. The process to obtain approval to organize a new ward can take several months or even a year as multiple church leaders must consent approval. There are times when the First Presidency will deny the petition to create a new ward, resulting in local church leaders returning to the drawing board on how to revise or postpone these plans.

Specialized wards designated to service a special subpopulation or ethnolinguistic group overlap ordinary wards and branches. Hundreds of language-specific wards function in the United States; over 300 of which are Spanish-speaking. In late 2012, other countries and dependencies with wards designated as speaking a language other than the primarily spoken language within the country or dependency included American Samoa, Canada, Fiji, Germany, Indonesia, Japan, Mexico, New Zealand, Puerto Rico, Russia, Singapore, Switzerland, Taiwan, and Thailand. At the time the Church maintained approximately 950 young single adult (YSA) wards for adult members ages 18-30 in several countries and 13 single adult wards in the United States for single adults over age 30. There were five wards worldwide designated for American military personnel located in the United States and Japan. There were approximately 40 student single wards that operated in the United States, Canada, and Mexico for single members attending a college or university.  There were 112 married student wards that functioned in the United States, almost entirely in the Intermountain West at colleges and universities with sizable percentage of Latter-day Saints. 

The growth in the worldwide number of wards has varied over the past 25 years.  The number of wards increased annual at a steady rate of three to four percent from 1987 to 1995. The number of wards reached 10,907 in 1987, 11,520 in 1989, 12,184 in 1991, 13,255 in 1993, and 14,336 in 1995. During this period the Church experienced steady ward growth due to districts maturing into stakes and the creation of new wards in established stakes. The annual growth rate for wards spiked in the late 1990s reaching a high of eight percent in 1996 and 1997. A reduced standard for wards to function in many Latin American countries and in the Philippines appeared responsible for this acceleration in growth. From 1998 to 2002, the percentage growth rate for the number of wards significantly declined from three percent in 1999 to two percent in 2000, one percent in 2001, and 0.4% in 2002. This decline primarily occurred as a result of the consolidation of hundreds of small wards in Latin America. Since 2003, the annual growth rate for the number of wards has varied from a low of 1.2% in 2003 to a high of 2.1% in 2005 as the Church reversed the trend of ward consolidations in Latin America and achieved steady growth in the number of wards for most of Latin America, the United States, and Africa. The number of wards increased from 16,678 in 1997 to 17,994 in 2000, 18,860 in 2004, 20,205 in 2008, and approximately 21,365 in late 2012.

The creation and consolidation of wards is important to the study of missiology and church growth for many reasons.  A ward is the largest type of LDS congregation and has the highest operational standards. Increases in the number of wards serves as a powerful indicator of real growth as new wards can only be created due to increases in the number of active members and the number of active, full-tithe paying Melchizedek Priesthood holders. On a local level, the advancement of a branch to a ward indicates an increase in active membership and local leadership self-sufficiency. The increase in the number of wards in a stake can prompt church leaders to split a stake to form a new stake; another indication of meaningful growth as stakes also have specific activity requirements. Increases in the number of wards in a city or country suggests that the Church is successfully building up large congregations that can meet their own needs with minimal outside assistance from mission leaders and full-time missionaries. However, increasing numbers of wards serves as a poor indicator of outreach expansion considering there are few, if any, members in newly opened areas where only groups or branches are able to function.

Recent worldwide trends in ward growth will likely continue to be perpetuated into the foreseeable future. These trends include the number of wards increasing by at least 200 a year and new ward creations and branch advancements being equally responsible for driving ward growth. Recent changes in the number of members serving full-time missions and focus on reactivation and convert retention may increase ward growth trends.

[1]  "Church Administration," True to the Faith, p. 36