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 Slate.com 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?