Scholarly study of the Community of Christ has tended to focus on its history and theology. These are clearly important, but there gaps in Community of Christ studies that could be productively filled with reference to insight from the social sciences, like economics, political science, sociology, anthropology and social psychology. In this post, I want to highlight this potentially fruitful avenue of research by applying microeconomic theory to explore why Community of Christ congregations tend to be quite small (in the 30-50 people range).
Before I begin, I must start with a caveat. I am not actually an economist; I am a political scientist. I dabbled around the very edges of economics in my Master’s and PhD degrees, and went to a graduate school obsessed with economics. So, if there are any real economists out there reading this — feel free to comment below.
I will start with a problematic: Why is that most CofC congregations in North America and Europe rarely average more than 30 to 50 active members? My hypothesis is that they rarely expand beyond this size because of their predominantly lay leadership and middle-class members. As a result, congregations do not have have the money or human resources to attract or to minister to many more people. Pastors have other jobs, so have little extra time for counseling, home visits, outreach, etc. Moreover, a lack of seminary training reduces pastors ‘productivity’ as spiritual leaders.
The ‘Theory of the Firm‘ is one of the foundations of microeconomics. Among many other things, it tries to explain why certain economic activities are done inside a company, rather than outside it in the market place. One of its applications can be explanations for the size of a firm — why does the hot-dog stand require only one employee, but Target requires hundreds of thousands? I would like to loosely apply this idea to an assumed ‘average’ North American Community of Christ congregation, asking: Why is it the size it is? Is this because it fills a specific niche in the ‘spiritual marketplace’?
Perhaps the best place to begin is with a basic ‘production function‘: the economic Output of a firm is a function of the Labor and Capital (including Land) that is at its disposal (that’s Y=fn(L,K) for the geekier ones among you). In our context, Output, rather than meaning money, means the quality and quantity of spiritual services provided by a congregation. Labor is the work put into the congregation by the pastor, priesthood and lay volunteers. Capital includes the church grounds at building (Land) as we as the financial assets they gain through contributions of offerings and tithes. In short:
The ‘Spiritual Output’ of a congregation = Function of the Labor of priesthood and volunteers and their financial and real estate assets.
As with any production function, this one is subject to a Law of Diminishing Returns. This means that each marginal new congregant who walks in the door receives less spiritual return from their investment of coming to church. This is because the financial and human resources of the congregation can only stretch so far. In particular, a pastor who has a full time job is not going to have the time or energy to provide pastoral support to an infinitely large congregation. As s/he is not paid for his/her work and has other responsibilities, s/he likely has an absolute maximum of eight hours a day to spend on church work (eight hours in his/her paid employment, eight hours sleep, eight hours for everything else, including church stuff). Likewise, congregants do not have an infinite amount of money they can put in the offering plate. This scarcity of offerings and tithes similarly limits the amount of programs and services, and the size and quality of the building, the church is able to offer.
At a certain point, there seems to be a ‘tipping point’ where , as the congregation ‘fills’, the opportunity costs of going to a CofC congregation are higher when compared to a well-funded, well-staffed church down the road, that can devote more attention to each marginal new congregant. In the CofC, this tipping point seems to be around 30-50 congregants, before the church seems unable to accommodate more people. In the spiritual marketplace, the CofC is thus more of a niche ‘boutique’ player – the neighborhood health-food store – rather than a diversified supermarket, like a mainline denomination or a massive Wal-Mart like a Mega Church. This is not necessarily a bad thing; if the congregation is aware of this dynamic, they can exploits their comparative advantage in this niche: such as providing a small, homey, informal feel to the congregation, a family-like atmosphere.
Nonetheless, the basic production function is not an iron-clad prison. The Solow Growth Model suggests that firms are able to overcome diminishing returns if they can constantly increase the productivity of their labor (through training, mechanization, digitization, etc.) and capital (through improving land and real estate and through savvy investment of finances). For lack of a better word, all these things that increase productivity are lumped under ‘Technology’. (Mathematically, this is expressed as Y=A*fn(L,K), where A=Technology).
This would suggest that a congregation could improve the ‘productivity’ of their labor and capital and thus be able to increase their size beyond what their limited resources might suggest. This could be done through training of priesthood and pastors, better management and support of them by the church bureaucracy and through improving the site where the church is located.
While it may seem crass and mercenistic to think about religious institutions from the profoundly secular standpoint of economics, the church nonetheless operates in a world of scarcity and in a ‘spiritual marketplace’, in which there is competition with other churches. Therefore, seeing the church through an economic lens can help us understand dynamics that seem to be unexplained by theology and history.