NPR Guest accused the United Methodists of…flockstealing??

What are we organized and incentivized for?


I was alerted by my twitter friend Rev. James Hunt in Broken Arrow, OK, that the United Methodist Church in Oklahoma became a talking point on NPR’s “Talk of the Nation”…a talking point about disfunction and stealing people from other churches!

I’m not really a listener of NPR — although I was a guest on their show once — so I was curious about why United Methodists were included in the episode. The subject was on organization and an interview with “The Org” authors Ray Fisman and Tim Sullivan. It’s primarily about “what are organizations organized for?” conversations and one caller invoked the idea of the church. Listen to it at the 19:00 mark (transcript here).

Anyway, the guest basically says that the UMC is structured to reward…flockstealing! Really!

Here’s the transcript of the section at the 19:00 mark:

NEAL CONAN [Interviewer]: It’s interesting though that our caller mentioned the Methodist Church. You write a chapter about the incentives that are provided. There’s effectively a reward for pastors who gain new converts, new members of their church. Yes, new converts are good, but they also gain by stealing members from the parish across town.

FISMAN: Right. So this is really about how one would design an organization. And so the way the Methodist Church in Oklahoma works, and in fact in the country overall, is that as Tim described previously, there are certain decisions that the Bishop passes down to local committees. And among other things, local committees are charged with setting the local pastor’s pay. Which makes some sense, because the Bishop off in the state capitol – in the case of Oklahoma, off in Tulsa, doesn’t necessarily see all of what’s going on at the local church and can’t necessarily collect all the information that’s needed to tell whether the pastor’s doing a good or bad job. So he lets the local community set the pastor’s pay.

But the local community may have incentives and interests that are at least somewhat at odds with the Bishops. And in this case, they may have an incentive to try to poach other Methodists from neighboring congregations.

CONAN: Flock stealing, I think you called it.

FISMAN: Yes. It’s not – we didn’t coin the term but we borrow it from elsewhere. So the Bishop does have the last word, in a sense, because to, you know, put limits on poaching from other flocks, essentially the promotion decisions within the church – so again promoted to big congregation in Tulsa or Oklahoma City, is associated with much higher pay and better perquisites like a fancy house and so on. That is much more determined by how many conversions you create for the church, rather than stealing from other’s churches.

So a factual error: The Bishop in Oklahoma Conference resides in Oklahoma City, not in Tulsa. [“BOOM” drops the mic]

But besides that, the Interviewee is technically correct: the Bishop decides where the pastors go but allows the local congregations to set the pastor’s pay. So the question is then is he also correct that “we have incentivized a ‘grow at all costs’ mentality for our clergy so that they might one day be appointed to a larger steeple church?”

This is not a new topic, apparently. In 2010, an article at about an academic paper by two preacher’s sons (Here’s a PDF of the academic paper) also studied the United Methodist Church…in Oklahoma…and asked this same question: do we incentivize new converts or new members more in the United Methodist Church?

Here’s the results (and talk about church metrics on overkill)

 To test whether ministers in Oklahoma get incentive pay, Hartzell and Parsons photocopied accounts from all Oklahoma churches dating back to 1960 and shipped them to India to be entered into a massive spreadsheet. The numbers included, among other things, a complete accounting of each minister’s compensation as well as congregation membership and church revenues…

The researchers examined whether pastors earned more in years when their churches saw congregations grow and their pay suffer if membership declined. It turns out United Methodist congregations gave their leaders a $15 boost (in 2008 dollars) on average for each new member added (about 3 percent of new revenues generated from the membership increase) and cut their pay by about $7 for each member lost

The authors also compared the payoff from converting non-Methodists to attracting new members from other United Methodist congregations. Much to their surprise, ministers received nearly twice as much for “stealing sheep” from other United Methodist flocks than for bringing in congregants from other faiths.

Goodness. So going through the Statistical Reports over 42 years at the UMC in Oklahoma (my home state), on average new members increased the clergy’s compensation by $15/new member but only about $7.50 for every new convert to the faith. We keep those in separate lines (“Professions of Faith” versus “Transfers of Membership”), so such church metrics would be calculable.

Is correlation causation? Does it matter? If the general result is that the clergyperson gets $15 per new member increase in annual salary, I really don’t think that’s an incentive for the clergyperson because, honestly, it costs more than that in time and real costs (dinner, gas, paper materials) to get to know visitors enough that they become members.

But the argument is that the structure creates a backwards incentive as the bishop determines placement not salary. If the bishop linked placement AND salary and prioritized converts rather than member-transfers, then the entire system would be incentivized towards converts. Some bishop dashboards do this now, as they only count worship attendance, dollars in the plates, members in mission, and professions of faith. As it is, an increase in any type of new member – convert or transfer or even confirmand – results in an increase in local salary. A small incentive and no doubt minuscule compared to other benefits (new energy in the congregation, longevity, assurance of call in ministry, etc), but an incentive nonetheless.

Let’s be clear: I think it is an odd critique of the United Methodist system, and honestly one that I don’t think figures into 99% of the clergy out there. It is therefore not a critique of the individual clergy but a question of whether the organization of the United Methodist Church is organized for growth by converts or growth by any means necessary. And if we choose to incentivize converts over other aspects of ministry – mission, education, justice-seeking, etc – do other areas lose out in the church metrics game?

So, thoughts? Does our church system incentivize growth by any means necessary or does it incentivize professions of faith at a higher level? And are clergy “rewarded” by this growth more at the local church or at moving up the church ladder under the current system? If rewards have to exist, which is better?

Interesting conversation on NPR and interesting research into my home conference of Oklahoma. Thoughts?

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  1. says

    I have long argued the problems of metrics in the church. I understand that they are necessary but wonder if we are not honestly looking at a congregation’s strengths as opposed to whether or not they are bringing in $$$ and bodies in the pews. I served a small church in which the overall membership rarely fluctuated from year to year, but I considered them one of the more solid congregations I have served. They were an aging congregation, so there were a few deaths each year, but there were also new members added each year so the overall figures remained the same. The congregation was missional and for their size, as well as the location of the church, they were incredibly stable (meaning not decreasing or diminishing). The DS however was less than impressed with the unchanging numbers, and for that matter, the pastor’s salary, year after year.

  2. says

    I understand the math, but there are all sorts of other dynamics that determine what a pastoral salary is. Yes, the local congregation sets salary – but it also does so with certain conference minimums in mind. Here in Iowa, I would venture to say that many of the rural/small churches use that minimum salary as the basis for their pastoral salary. I know mine did. So the increase I recieved in salary each year was not necessarily based on the performance of “sheep stealing” or a reward for new members, but was in reality the most the church could pay and the least amount they were mandated to pay. Sure, they would have liked to have done more, but it wasn’t really an option. Other churches are not able to even meet that conference minimum. In my limited experience, I have never heard an SPRC ask how many new members were added or new converts were created in the setting of salary.

    There is a whole different question you raise, however. Are we, or should we, be structured TO incentivize the making of new disciples in our churches? If we really want to put our money where our mouth is… if that is our mission… should the organizational structure and pay system seek to reward those who are doing so? In some ways, if a pastor is effective and doing well, they are “promoted” up the chain to larger churches with greater salaries… but simply doing that doesn’t take into fact call, gifts, and community needs. I think if we really wanted to do that kind of incentivization it would have to be based on a conference-pay system, rather than from local congregations with missional appointment making being a priority. It would also have to take into account population and the mission field … its not fair to appoint someone to a county with 1000 people and expect them to make 100 new disciples in a year, but that might not be out of the question in an urban area.

  3. Sue Kimmet says

    I’m practically rolling on the floor with laughter. In my experience (because of long distance moves, I have served on the SPRC/PPRC in 3 different congregations of the UMC), the pastor’s salary is set more along the lines of “How much money can we afford?” rather than “How many new members did we get this year?” We have used the minimum salary as a guideline and tried to add an increase when possible, but in the end, it’s the dollars available that make the difference. And that, of course, is dependent on how many active members a congregation has. In essence, that could be seen as getting paid for bringing in new members, but in reality that has never been mentioned in any church where I have been involved. We only wish we had enough money to reward a pastor/minister that way!

  4. Sean Johnson says

    I think an easy way to fix the issue is to move away from a corporate mindset. I grew up as a PK and I had the understanding, that moving was a lot like getting a promotion. Every time we moved we went to a bigger, better paying church. We have a tendency to appoint younger clergy to small, churches in stagnant or shrinking communities because those are the churches that pay the lowest or “entry level” salary. We have a minimum required salary, but not a salary cap. Why not? Why should the pastor of a big church make close or over to $100K while the small church pastor is only making $38K? Ideally, both are marking a difference for the Kingdom in a their context. Also, ideally both churches should be equally important to the UMC since they are both serving different communities.

  5. John says

    My understanding of the categories “profession of faith” and “transfer of membership” differ from what appears to be the basis of the studies and discussion. A transfer of membership is a transfer from any Christian body, with which the individual claimed an affiliation. A profession of faith is for those who have not been affiliated with any Christian body. Given the social affiliation with the church that prevailed until relatively recently, it is quite possible to have someone, without a relationship with Jesus Christ or any recent relationship with a church, join a church by a transfer of membership (e.g., from the church they were confirmed in as an teen 20 years ago and had never attended since). In the same way that John Wesley never preached to the unbaptized in England( all babies were baptized into the Church of England) but still led many to the Lord, many, if not most of our transfers of membership are actually leading people to Christ, not “sheep stealing.” Thus the distinction between making new converts and sheep stealing is not nearly as easy to make as the authors believe it to be. The one question in my mind is, if our pastors are so incentivized to grow their churches why aren’t we better at church growth?!

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