Sunday, August 4, 2013

Recession and Missionary Service

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints experienced an 18.0% decline in the number of missionaries set apart over the two year period beginning in 2003.  Many observers attributed the decline to a policy change announced by Apostle M. Russell Ballard in the October 2002 General Conference that “raised the bar” or worthiness standards for missionary service (see Peggy Fletcher Stack. “Unintended consequence of church's 'raising the bar'” for example).  I doubted that increasing worthiness standards would dramatic reduce missionary numbers and began considering alternatives.  In addition to policy governing missionary service I thought war, recession and demographics would influence young men and women considering missionary service.  This post updates past work by adding recessions to the mix of war and Church missionary policy as determinants of missionary numbers.

My time frame begins in 1929 and ends in 2011.  In a series of four posts: A Second Negative Effect of the Vietnam War on Missionary Work, Many Were Drafted but Few Were Called: Missionary , The Impact of WWII and the Korean War on Missionary Work, and War and the Missionary Force, I examined some impacts of war on the missionary work of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.  Simply stated, war reduces the number of missionaries set apart. 

To evaluate the simultaneous impact of policy, war and recession, I present data in two graphs that split the period.  Both graphs show the number of missionaries set apart each year as a line that is divided into a blue segment representing periods of peace and a red segment representing periods of war.  Also in the graph are gray rectangles representing periods of recession.  Data on recessions was provided by The National Bureau of Economic Research’s Business Cycle Dating Committee.  Finally, the graph contains black vertical lines on the dates that the Church made major policy announcements concerning missionary service.  A summary of important announcements and the dates they were make is provided below the main body of the post.  


The Great Depression beginning in 1929 changed the relationship between the government and citizens through the New Deal.  It motivated the Church to improve its welfare program.  It had an enormous impact households that was reflected in a sharp 66.6% decrease in the number of missionaries set apart. 

The next recession began in May 1937 and ended in June 1938.  John Steinbeck novel, “The Grapes of Wrath,” describes the plight of sharecroppers during this recession.  The recession was sharp but missionary numbers increased rather than declined.  This may be the result of January 19, 1937 announcement that the length of service for Elders in English-speaking missions would be two years and Elders in foreign-speaking lands would be two and a half years; Sisters would serve for eighteen to twenty-two months.  I do not know the length of missionary service prior to the announcement.  If it formalized or shortened the length of service, more young men and women should have prepared for missionary service.  If the announcement did increase missionary numbers, it could be the first instance of two coinciding events one increasing missionary numbers, the other decreasing.  If these assumptions are correct, the impact of the Church announcement was larger than that of the recession.

As Allied troops advanced and the end of WWWII drew near, many people in the United States believe that the economy would return to depression era levels of unemployment.  A recession did begin in February 1945 but it ended in October of the same year.  Missionary numbers dipped.  Again, recession overlapped with another event, war.  Without a more sophisticated econometric analysis, it is impossible to separate war from recession to determine why the number of missionaries fell in 1945.

The missionary program made up for lost time after the war.  In 1946, the number of missionaries set apart reached 2,297 compared to 400 the previous year and nearly twice as high as the 1,257 set apart in 1941.  The economy slid into recession in November 1948 but rather than decline, the number of missionaries set apart grew slowly reaching 2,363 in 1949, the year the recession ended.  Growth in missionary numbers may have been helped by a September 21, 1948 announcement that temporarily lowered the age of lady missionaries to twenty-one years rather than the preferred 23.

The next recession came in July 1953 during the Korean War and as the Church was instituting a quota system that would begin on July 10, 1953 that would allow one young man to serve missions and postponing potential eligibility to the draft.  The number of missionaries set apart in 1953 doubled to 1,750 from the previous year. 

The recession beginning in August 1957 and lasting through April 1958 to place without war or changes in missionary policy.  It had the intended impact of reducing missionaries set apart by 2.1%. 

The final recession in the first graph began in April 1960 and ran through February 1961.  It overlapped with a June 28, 1960 announcement reducing the age requirements for young men from 20 to 19 years old and for young women from 23 to 21 years old.  The impact of the announcement overwhelmed the impact of the recession.  Missionary number soared 65.3% to 4,706.

At the same time the Church lowered age requirements, it sent out a letter stressing moral worthiness as a prerequisite for missionaries.  I would anticipate that any policy change increasing worthiness standards would lower the number of missionaries set apart.  If it did, the impact was overwhelmed by the impact of lowering missionary age requirements.  Stressing worthiness as a missionary prerequisite happens again in October 2003 and this time, many observers believe that the impact of “raising the bar” was large.

Recessions3A long period of prosperity began in February 1961 and did not end until December 1969.  The recession bisected the Vietnam War and any analysis of the impact of the recession must include impact of the war and the quota system that was imposed on young men desiring to serve missions. 

The recession that began in July 1981 was bisected by the April 27, 1982 policy announcement that shortened the length of service for young men to eighteen months.  The recession should have cut the growth of missionaries and the announcement, increased it.  The number of missionaries set apart grew, but slowly. 

Recession, war and two changes in missionary policy coincided in 1992.  The build up to the Gulf War began on August 2, 1990 and ended on February 28, 1991.  The duration of the recession was somewhat longer, beginning in July 1990 and ending in March 1991.  The policy changes were announced on November 20, 1990 and February 8, 1991.  The first equalized the cost for missionaries called from US or Canada to be effective 1 January 1991, and the second equalized the cost for missionaries called in all countries.  The war and recession should lower the number of missionaries set apart and the two policy changes, raise the number.  Missionary numbers declined .6%.

The new century brought new challenges to the United States and the Church’s missionary program.  Recession struck in March 2001 and extended 8 months through November.  Terrorists commandeered jet liners destroying the World Trade Center and part of the Pentagon, killing thousands.  The U.S government began military preparations to topple Taliban rule in Afghanistan and destroy the terrorist camps they protected.  The number of missionaries fell 1.83%.

In October 2002, the Church raised worthiness standards for missionaries.  In isolation, this action should have reduced missionary numbers but the number of missionaries set apart climbed a modest 4.36%.

The U.S. campaign against terrorism lead to an attack against the Saddam Hussein government of Iraq.  The number of missionaries set apart declined 8.8% in 2003 and another 9.2% in 2004.  Those who argue that “raising the bar” must explain why a similar announcement made in 1960 had little impact and why researchers should ignore the influence of war.

The final event was the “Great Recession” that began in December 2007 and ended in June 2009.  It hit as the United States was winding down wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Missionary number increased, but below trend. 

In conclusion, recessions do seem to at least reduce growth in missionary numbers but this impact is generally weaker than that of war.  An econometric analysis must be used to sort out the impact of war, recession and policy because these events often coincide.  In particular, I had difficulty in deciding when the Vietnam War and the War on Terror ended.  A better proxies for war, perhaps casualties might more accurately measure the influence of war on missionary recruitment than a simple dummy variable.  Similarly, GDP growth or the unemployment rate might be better proxies for economic activity than dummy variables for years of recession.  Finally, I need to add a demographic variable that tracks the availability of young men and women for missionary service.  The number of seminary graduates might be the best measure, but the closest variable I could find was the number of seminary students and I will examine how this variable affects missionary numbers in my next post on the causes of growth in missionaries set apart.  

Major Announcements on Missionary Service

19 January 1937 – Length of service: Elders in English-speaking missions serve for two years; Elders in foreign-speaking lands for two and a half years; Sisters for eighteen to twenty-two months

21 September 1948 – Age limits: temporary exception for the age of lady missionaries is to be twenty-one years (the preferred age was twenty-three years).

27 September 1950 – Age limits: men should be twenty years of age unless they have two years of college or military service, in which event the age required is waived.

15 June 1960 – Moral worthiness stressed

28 June 1960 – Age limits: young men may be nineteen if he has completed two years of college or one year of college with six months military service. Lady missionaries may be twenty-one years of age (for office duty). Length of service: older couples may stay as long as two years; however, they are called initially for only six months.

21 July and 26 August 1960 – Age limits: young men may be nineteen even though they do not meet previous educational and military qualifications.

26 May 1961 – Older couples in good health needed.

13 November 1973 – Age limits: recommendations may be made for local young men in foreign countries to serve at the age of eighteen.

27 April 1982 – Length of service: young men will serve for eighteen months.

26 November 1984 – Length of service: young men will serve for twenty-four months.

20 November 1990 – Equalize cost for missionaries called from US or Canada to be effective 1 January 1991.

8 February 1991 – Equalize cost for missionaries called from areas outside the US and Canada to be effective 1 March 1991.

6 October 2002 – Worthiness standards for missionaries raised.

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