To succeed, a congregation needs a lot of people to show up regularly, give generously, and work hard. Why do they do it? It’s a pressing question for religious leaders, especially in communities where religious participation is no longer a strong norm, or where paid work levies an increasing tax on every household’s time. Leaders need an answer to the question, “Why do we do what we do?”

This question stands at the center of theology and economics, which give different kinds of answers. Theology, once called the queen of the sciences, shapes the education of the clergy. Economics (a.k.a. the dismal science) influences everybody else, making it difficult sometimes for congregation leaders to understand each other when they think about motivating people.

“Why do we do what we do?” Oversimply, economists say that we pursue self-interest, maximize pleasure, minimize pain. From there on it gets complex, but that’s the basis. Theologians pay attention to the ethical dilemma between good and evil and say our actions flow out of that basic choice. In moral theology, self-interest (i.e., selfishness) tends to fall on the “evil” side of the ledger—placing the mental worlds of economics and theology in sharp contrast.

Theologians are not all alike, of course, and neither are economists—both fields breed sects, cults, denominations, and debates that are not always civil. In medieval times, wars started from religious differences. In the last century it was more often economics. Today religious wars seem to have come back.

Within congregations, an important source of misunderstanding is the difference between the economic mindset, comfortable talking about competition, markets, and incentives, and the theological perspective, fluent in ideas like cooperation, ethics, and self-sacrificing love.

“How much does it cost to go to your church?” Economists and businesspeople are used to asking questions of this kind; such talk often makes the clergy and more pious laity feel squirmy. Shouldn’t people decide where and whether they will worship based on lofty considerations, and accept the cost—whatever it may be—as part of a faith-based package? Theology may say they should; economics indicates that as a group they don’t.

Costs do influence people’s choices about worship. Most congregations overestimate the distance people travel to attend: even in a church that draws from a wide area, half the membership typically resides within five miles; those attending on a given day are apt to have come half that far. For an economist, this begins to set a market price for church attendance—somewhere between five and ten miles, the cost in time and money of attending gets to be too much.

That’s why new-congregation planting is such an important strategy for growth. Quite a bit of the decline of the “Protestant mainline” happened because this family of denominations has lots of buildings in the northeast, while population has been shifting south and west. Many families, finding themselves far from the kind of congregation they love, learn to love the one they’re near.

Another cost-related source of motivation is reflected in the so-called “80 percent rule.” According to this piece of Protestant folk wisdom, when your sanctuary gets more than 80 percent full, attendance levels off. (More precisely: when the median attendance of those who are in worship for the first half of the service reaches 80 percent of the comfortable capacity of the worship room, the situation will correct itself one way or another within a couple of years.)

A couple of years ago, I did an informal study of the 80 percent rule. I reasoned that if the rule were not true, it would be possible to find congregations that had been more than 80 percent full for more than two years. I invited the readers of Alban Weekly to boast about their bursting sanctuaries—surely this was irresistible!

Sure enough, I got a lot of boasting e-mails. Clergy (mostly) told me about sanctuaries with 100 seats that held 150 in the months before the new building was complete. Lay people (mostly) told me about worship rooms with standing room only in the months before the crisis leading to the pastor’s resignation. But in all the messages I got, not one reported attendance more than 80 percent of room capacity for more than two years. The 80 percent rule stands.

Or to put it differently, at some point the “cost” of sitting in a crowded sanctuary—or, I would add, of parking too far from the building, sacrificing soccer practice, getting up too early in the morning, waiting till too late, or skipping coffee and the Sunday Times—becomes too high a price to pay for the expected benefits of worship.

Like it or not, economic concepts do describe religious behavior. Focusing only on the moral aspects (“How can we make people better people so they will attend oftener?”) will not lead to the result we seek. We need also to look at the costs and benefits of religious activity—worship attendance, generous giving, voluntary service, even private prayer and study—as those appear to those whose actions we would like to influence.

Even clergy sometimes pursue self-interest. As the chief placement officer for my denomination I observed the career choices of a thousand or so ministers for seven years. Overall I was inspired by the nobility of my colleagues’ motivations. In choosing among opportunities for ministry, our colleagues looked for theological compatibility, exciting challenges, and a sense of inner calling. But where all else was equal (ceteris paribus, as an economist would say), clergy call seekers picked high salaries over low ones every time.

Another economic influence on the clergy job market is the fact that a lot of us are married to someone who makes more money than we do. Increasingly in clergy families, the clergy career follows the secular job hunt, not the reverse.

When a congregation’s board meets, everyone around the table brings assumptions learned at home, in school, and at work. We clergy tend to think about the spiritual and moral aspects of human motivation. Lay leaders are more apt to think in economic terms—about the influence of costs, incentives, and self-interest on the choices people make as consumers in the religious marketplace. We do our best work around that table when we sit down prepared to teach and also ready to be taught.

Dan Hotchkiss is a Senior Consultant at the Alban Institute. “Why We Do What We Do” originally appeared in the October 2006 issue of Clergy Journal ( and is reprinted with permission.



AL310_SMWhat’s Theology Got to Do with It? Convictions, Vitality, and the Church by Anthony B. Robinson

In order to be healthy and to have a deep understaning of its identity and mission, a congregation must answer the question, what do we believe? Robinson offers in-depth chapters on the essentials of Christian theology, which congregational members can use as jumping off points for discussions of sin, the Trinity, ecclesiology, the role of Scripture, and more.

AL271_SM Offerings
of the Heart: Money and Values in Faith Communities
by Shawn Israel Zevit

Setting aside the financial/spiritual split with which many congregational leaders operate, Zevit brings the depth and breadth of Jewish teachings on money and the spiritual life to all faith communities. He demonstrates how faith communities can create values-based approaches that are rooted in the very sacred traditions, principles, and impulses that bring us together.