Also Known As the Pareto Principle
It’s sometimes called the Pareto Principle, named after the Italian Economist Vilfredo Pareto, who noticed that 20% of the people in Italy owned 80% of the land.
The rule in its most simple phenomenological form states that 80% of effects come from 20% of the causes.
80% of Legos are sold to 20% of the customers. It’s why Lego started making giant Millennium Falcons –they realized they had super customers who would buy everything.
Or in the United States in 2018, 20% of tax payers paid about 80% of the federal income tax. Which, by the way, is a good thing, because they can afford it.
But the context in which I end up talking about the 80/20 rule the most frequently is at church. And in the church context, specifically it is leadership of the church who often feel they are the 20% doing 80% of the work.
We Need To Get The New Members To Do More
I’ve never been in a church where I didn’t hear this sentence at least a couple of times per year. Or variations on it.
I sympathize with the feeling. I coach soccer, and volunteer in political campaigns, and I often feel like I’m the 20% carrying 80% of the load.
However, in the church contexts in which I’ve served as pastor, the 80/20 rule didn’t always apply, or if it did, it applied in ways that might surprise many of the leaders.
So, bottom line, in various parishes I’ve reviewed the giving break-down. And it turned out, although it was true that some of the top givers gave a large percentage of the total, it wasn’t quite 80/20. And one thing that singularly WAS NOT true was that longer-time members gave a lot more than new members. In fact, most of the time when I’ve run those numbers, the ratios were representative.
That is to say, the long-time members and the new members all seem to carry their own weight.
Or anecdotally, just this past weekend, we did a church clean-up day, and of the 17 people who came out to paint and clean power wash sidewalks, well over half were new members THIS YEAR.
This shouldn’t come as a surprise. Those new to a congregation are new for a reason. They may be recently inspired to deepen their faith and commit or re-commit. They’re looking for connection.
Conversely, those who have served in leadership roles for some time, or have carried volunteer load in a particular ministry for years, may feel (rightly) tired, so their desire for newcomers to pick up some of what they have done and carry it for a time arises not so much out of judgment as it does out of a need for rest and renewal.
Remember, the Pareto Principle is actually about effects and causes. It might just be that those who are tired need permission to refocus so that they can give energy to the 20% that will produce 80% of the fruits.
Pareto Was Right (About the 80/20 Rule)
Nevertheless, I don’t want to over-state the extent to which churches belie the Pareto Principle. In many ways, they model it. Probably 20% of our congregation is very active in programs and ministries. Of that 20%, about 20% makes up our church council. Not unlike the way Jesus had the 12, and sent out the 70. 12 is about 20% of 70.
Our church choir is about 20% the size of our traditional worship service, where they sing.
I’d venture to guess that about 20% of our regular worship attendance volunteers in worship roles like lector and usher.
And so on. Because the church is nothing if it is not also a sociological entity just like any other institution.
Stranging the Pareto Principle
But, if the Pareto principle is going to help congregations renew their energy, creatively engage the 20% of causes that will accomplish the 80% of effects, we will need to strange it. So I offer these… consider reading them with your leadership team some time soon. It might spark some good conversation.
- Let’s say your new members over the past few years make up 20% of your total membership. It’s very likely that those 20% are the ones who know 80% of all the unchurched folks known by your congregation. They have more open connections to those outside the congregation.
- I’d almost guarantee that only about 20% of your congregation prays fervently and with discipline, and just so accomplishes 80% of the interceding.
- I’d venture to guess that your top 10% of givers and bottom 10% of givers relate to people groups in your community outside the norm of the 80%. They might live in a mansion on a hilltop, or in a trailer park. Their friends may be into LARPing, or belong to the Masons. Whatever is outside the norm of your 80 percenters.
- 20% of your congregation serves on the board of or takes some significant role in an influential non-profit in your community, shaping 80% of the social ministry impact of your membership.
- 20% of the 20% of your congregation who are social justice activists will show up for community protests, but they’ll appear in 80% of the photos.
- In a church council meeting, those who take up only 20% of the time talking will effect 80% of the change/action.
- 10% of members will say no to everything, no matter what, and 10% will say yes to almost everything, no matter what, and the congregation as a whole will take action 80% of the time based on who is loudest between these two groups.
- 20% of the congregation reads the Bible sometimes, 20% of that group reads the Bible regularly, and 20% of that group really knows Scripture super well, and this group will end up leaving you to do global mission or study at seminary. So be careful to whom you give a bible.
And so on. If I were feel especially spunky, I’d make one up about reading the Greek New Testament. But it’s late, and I’m sure you can add lots better ones.