SALT LAKE CITY — The cost of serving a mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints will rise 25 percent next year to $500 a month.
The first increase in missionary living costs since 2003 will be effective July 1, 2020, according to a First Presidency letter sent to the church's international leaders and local leaders in 18 countries in North America and Europe.
The cost increase applies only to missionaries from those 18 nations, which also include Australia and Japan.
The announcement is a response to rising costs to missionary expenses over the past 16 years, including rent, food, utilities and transportation within the mission. Some missionaries pay for their own missions. In other cases, parents help or pay all of a mission's costs. In still others, other family, friends or congregation members contribute some or all of the expense.
Church leaders made the decision after "careful consideration," according to Thursday's letter, which was signed by the church's leader, President Russell M. Nelson, and his counselors in the First Presidency, Presidents Dallin H. Oaks and Henry B. Eyring.
In 1991, the church equalized payments for missionary costs to a flat monthly rate of $350 a month to address "a great and growing disparity in the cost of missions in various areas of the world." Before that, some missionaries were spending as much as $900 a month while serving in expensive countries like Switzerland while others paid less than $50 a month in places such as Micronesia.
A dozen years later, the church raised the monthly cost of a mission to $400. Since that cost update in 2003, the consumer price index has risen 39 percent, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ consumer price index. Most missionaries stay in rented apartments, and rent is one of the biggest drivers of inflation today, especially in larger markets. Rental rates have gone up more than 60 percent over the past 16 years, according to economic data from the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, Wilson said.
Increasing the monthly payment to $500 actually won't completely make up for how inflation has eroded the worth of a dollar since 2003, said Riley Wilson, who teaches macroeconomics at Brigham Young University.
What a missionary spent $400 on in 2003 now requires $556.
"Four hundred dollars isn't buying you as much as it used to," Wilson said. "So when missionaries pay $400 these days, they are paying less in real dollars than they were 16 years ago."
Under the equalized contribution system, the missionary and his or her family and friends and members of the congregation (called a ward or branch) contribute to the ward or branch missionary fund. Every month the $400 payment is deducted from the ward missionary fund of the missionary's congregation.
Dex Cowley, 19, of Plain City, Utah, has been serving in the Mexico Saltillo Mission for nine months. His brother, Tyrel, 18, entered the Missionary Training Center on Wednesday and is headed to Washington state. For the next year their parents will pay $800 a month to cover their mission expenses. Their mother, Sheila, took a part-time job at McDonald's to help defray the expense. When mission payment rises a year from now, they will pay $1,000 a month for three months until Dex returns from Mexico.
"I don't love it, but at the same time, I understand it," said the missionaries' father, Justin Cowley, a surgical center administrator who is in the midst of launching his own business. "As a business owner, I recognize that nothing is free. The money has to come from somewhere, and if you figure just the food bill alone, for what our kids eat, there's probably $400 month right there between the two of them."
In all, the cost for a man to serve a two-year mission will rise next year to $12,000 from $9,600. The overall cost for a woman to complete an 18-month mission will be $9,000, up from $7,200.
Church spokesman Daniel Woodruff said church leaders wanted to give prospective missionaries and their supporters a year's lead time to plan for the increase in expense.
"They should counsel with their families, ward or branch members, or others who may choose to assist," he said.
Missionaries do not cover all the expenses of a mission.
"This adjustment will better help cover costs for missionary needs," Woodruff said. "The church will continue to pay for training, transportation to and from the mission and other expenses incidental to missionary work."
The cost increase does not apply to missionaries from Asian countries other than Japan or to those from Africa and Latin America. Costs for those missionaries are determined by area leaders based on a missionary’s circumstances.
The church has 67,561 missionaries serving in 407 missions, Woodruff said. When monthly mission expenses were equalized in 1991, the church had 44,000 missionaries assigned to 256 missions. Approximately 70% of those missionaries were from the United States and Canada.
"We love and are most grateful for the many young men and young women who answer the call to serve the Lord as full-time missionaries and express appreciation for those who support them," the First Presidency said in its letter. "We know that many sacrifice greatly to help share our Heavenly Father’s love and the Savior's restored gospel."
The 18 countries listed in the First Presidency letter are Australia, Austria, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, France, Finland, Germany, Iceland, Ireland, Italy, Japan, the Netherlands, Norway, Switzerland, Sweden, the United Kingdom and the United States.
Correction: A previous version of this story misspelled the Mexico Saltillo Mission as the Mexico Saltio Mission.