The Demographic and Financial Future of the Community of Christ

A fun personal anecdote. When I was doing my postdoc at Baylor I was made aware that there was a dataset at the Kirtland Visitor’s Center that had information on early converts that would be useful. After back-and-forthing it with the missionaries there it became clear that it would be much more feasible for me to just go there in person and download the materials myself, so I scraped together some funding and flew out. During my time there I had the opportunity to stay as a guest of Karl Anderson, who is a local Kirtland legend, essentially the Church’s man in Kirtland for decades. He had one of those homes that feels like a temple and makes you want to be a seminary teacher with 20 kids. He graciously drove me around to the different sites, and somehow we started talking about Wallace B. Smith, the last Smith prophet of the Community of Christ who effected its change to a more Mainline Protestant model, and who Brother Anderson personally knew. 

As a fellow Brighamite, I was expecting at least a nod to the problems and complications that arose from them de-emphasizing the Book of Mormon and other restorationist claims, but I got none of that. Instead, it was clear that his main emotion was love for the man as a friend, and empathy and sadness of him being in a situation that he clearly did not want to be in. This was no public relations spin, where everybody is expected to put on a smile to hide what they really think; I was a rando young Brighamite with no important connections and nobody else there while we were driving around in the Ohio rain. I do not know what role, if any, Brother Anderson had in the recent events, but I suspect that the warm relations we have gradually developed over the years have been at least in part because of his 100% sincere, loving attitude towards our restoration cousins. 

Another fun personal anecdote. Knowing that they are extremely transparent about their data, years ago I emailed the folks at the Community of Christ and offered to do a professional cohort-component projection of their membership for free if they would give me year-by-year, single-age membership and other numbers and would let me publish the results. I was met with very gracious enthusiasm and it was forwarded along up the chain until it got to a member of the First Presidency who was quite solicitous and gracious but ultimately declined my offer.  

Anyway, with the hubbub surrounding the Kirtland Temple sale, they once again released their financials and demographic numbers. Not enough to do a precise, gold-standard projection, but in relatively broad strokes it kind of shows where they are going. 

One of the toplines is that, according to my reading at least, they will still clearly need to make cuts. They expect the money from the sale to generate 5.8 million dollars in annual income from the endowment, which is great, but they have an annual worldwide mission budget of 15.46 million dollars (I’m not sure what else they have to pay for outside of that budget). They make an allusion to “engaging a new generation of disciples” and “exploring new funding models” but looking at the age distribution of their tithe payers I have a hard time seeing that happening enough at a scale necessary to avoid cuts. (My debbie-downerness extends to our Church too; I was always that annoying missionary who called out unrealistic baptism goals as unrealistic, no matter how much faith the Zone had). 

First of all, their number of tithe payers in the US and Canada has been showing a clear decline, halving in the past decade alone. 

When we look at their tithe payers broken down by age the situation looks even more dire. I’ve been beating my demographer’s drum for some time now that a lot of the growth for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is probably coming from our formerly high birth rates, and isn’t a good reflection of current childbirths and inflows/outflows, but the CoC appears to have a very different situation. The modal age for a tithe payer is in their 70s. 

Of course, when looking at a chart like this the temptation is to just imagine that every cohort will move forward as time progresses, but that doesn’t take into account within-cohort outflows. From comparing 2022 to 2023 there appears to be a net outflow within cohorts: more people are leaving the CoC (or at least tithing to the CoC) than are joining their tithe-paying ranks. When we take the average from the 24-29 to 90-94 cohort there’s a decline of about 6% per year within each cohort. Of course, we don’t know how much of that decline is from a portion of the less numerous cohort behind moving in while a portion of the more numerous cohort is moving on (that’s where the single age-level data comes in), but however you splice the data it does not look good. While we can’t disentangle cohort effects from leaving effects with the data available in the report, if we back-of-the-envelope calculate a 6% loss per year at 5,861 tithe payers in 2023, that leaves 3,156 tithe payers in ten years (a little over half). Of course it’s stupid to take any extrapolation like this seriously after a little bit, but if we keep going for fun with that rate, by the time I reach my 100th birthday in 2087 there will be a little over 100 tithe payers left. Of course it’s hard for religions to completely die off. My understanding is that there are still some Strangites left, in addition to Sabbateans, Samaritans, and the Mandaeans (who may or may not be descended from the early John the Baptist disciples). So, as the resident debbie downer about unrealistic goals, my take is that they will clearly need to downsize to stay afloat; it would take some kind of a miraculous revival to swim against this kind of demographic tide. 

As an important caveat, nothing in this should be seen as the Brighamites rubbing it into the Josephites. It was interesting that almost immediately after the news hit the kind of people you suspect have back channels to the COB made it clear that the Church did not want anybody to “spike the football.” I saw the “spike the football” metaphor around enough that I suspect that the terminology actually came out of the COB. And for the most part I didn’t see many people doing that (of course there are always some, and I’m sure if you go into enough corners of Twitter you can find some more). 

Still, the CoC’s trajectory is interesting sociologically. They essentially moved into the mainline Protestant religious market at the same time that that market was contracting. It’s like creating a start-up mail order company right as Amazon is coming online. As has been noted elsewhere, it, along with other mainline churches, is also a not insignificant data point against the attitude that being ambiguous about truth claims and emphasizing the cultural or humanitarian aspect of a faith is the route to institutional growth. That shifting our policies on hot-button social issues to appeal to a more liberal base of youth is key to stopping hemorrhaging, when one is hard pressed to find an example of traditions moving in that direction that are doing better in terms of growth than the more conservative faiths such as us, Jehovah’s Witnesses, or the Haredi Jews. 

Of course, growth is not everything, so I am not saying what they should or should not do; that’s not my place, just making an observation about religious institutions in general. While the different religious trajectories support my baseline sense about these things, I don’t relish the final outcome. I live on the East Coast where there are a lot of mainline (and yes, other) churches shuttered and converted to other uses (or sometimes just abandoned and rotting like an open sore). I always feel a sharp pang of morose depression when I pass by them. I mean, it’s great that the private school has super neat architecture, but the people sacrificed to build these structures as monuments to God, not monuments to Montessori. These were thriving communities full of life and vivacity, with thousands of personal memories and stories; where children once played, people spoke to God, young lovers flirted, and lifelong marriages were solemnized. And now their windows are shattered and their dusty halls are silent.  

4 comments for “The Demographic and Financial Future of the Community of Christ

  1. Thank you for the explicit kindness and generosity you used in writing this analysis.

  2. Cool stuff! Thanks for sharing. CoC needs a good investor for the $192 mil as they should be able to get way more than $5.8 mil a year from the 192. They should also figure out a way to make tithing more than a suggestion. (I am guessing that its not tied to salvation like it is for LDS) That worked for us really, really well.

  3. Good commentary, I must confess I’m trying to resist the “spike the football” attitude. As an unrepentant Brighamite who has always been interested in Church history, I must say I’ve never had too many positive feelings about the Community of Christ and, like others did not have a very positive experience with their overly secular tour of the Kirtland Temple I had back when I visited in 2011. Especially when contrasted with the Church’s nice tour and experience at the Newel K. Whitney store.

    That being said, I feel very sorry for their faithful members who have been watching their church decline for years and are now dealing with a demographic and financial winter. I mentioned on Dan Peterson’s blog that the Community of Christ serves as a powerful warning to Latter Day Saints about what would happen to our Church if we got more “worldly” as they clearly have, while keeping some Mormon elements like the Book of Mormon or a First Presidency. It’s almost like a lab experiment, with us being the “control group” and the CofC being the “treatment group” adding in variables such as “women ordination” and “deemphazing miraculous claims”.

    Whether you agree that these changes should have been made or not is frankly irrelevant. What is not debatable is that beginning in 1984 when they instituted women ordination they have shed massive amounts of members who obviously take their wallets with them.

    I have nothing against their leadership and faithful members, obviously they can run their Church however they want. But I thank God the Main Church has not gone down their path and pray it never does.

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