Understanding incentive

In metaphysical churches and centers that are struggling, I often hear people tell stories of the Christian churches in their neighborhoods that are bustling with members and activities. They point to these as examples of how it is possible to grow a congregation.

For assistance in answering this I turn to the authors of the Freakonomics series; Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner. One of the (many) key points I extracted from reading the 3 Freakonomics books was that to understand behavior, we must discover the underlying incentives.

The primary incentive for church-going Christians is salvation. The community affiliation that they experience is an added bonus, not the primary reason for attendance and participation. Learning and Christian Education, I would argue, are also a lower priority although some communities will place more emphasis on this than others do.

In the wake of declining church membership and attendance, the one sector that is NOT in decline is the Evangelical wing, and for clarification, there can be mainline denominations who are by definition “evangelical” based on their leadership, even if the rest of the denomination is solidly middle of the road.

This also happens to be a place where the incentive for salvation is most pronounced. Attendance at church, and praising God (and more often Jesus) are taught as requirements, or at the very least – good deeds that Christians can and should do and that please God.

“When God sees you praising Him in the storm, praising Him in the loss, that’s what He calls a sacrifice of praise.”

Joel Osteen, Twitter

As metaphysical spiritual folks look longingly at the full parking lots and busy calendars of the Christian Churches in their neighborhoods, they need to understand that concept and how it drives attendance and participation as well as how very different the incentives are in their own houses.

Early metaphysical spirituality was intended and deployed as a TEACHING. Ernest Holmes famously fought against the establishment of a religion or church, wanting instead for the teachings he had learned in Divine Science and Christian Science to be carried back to people’s home churches and applied there.

Herein lies the core reason why the movement has “failed to mature” as Mitch Horowitz posits. It was built in the mold and model of the church, because in the early 20th century, these institutions were robust and financially strong. Unfortunately, the shortsightedness of those wanting so badly to make the teachings a business is obvious today – especially when you understand the diverse mission of New Thought as compared to Christianity.

An organization whose core mission is teaching people how to use spiritual principles to live better lives and that doesn’t believe that attending services is a requirement to please the Divine needs to understand that – like the college classroom – it is designed to serve people for a season. It also needs to remember that many of the things that fill the church pews up the street are non-starters in the metaphysical spiritual community (guilt, fear, belief that praise and worship is a mitzvah, or good deed).

People very often come into New Thought to put their lives back together after making a mess of them one way or another.

It’s for this reason that I believe that the business model borrowed from the Christian tradition is not working for most metaphysical spiritual churches and centers. People come, they learn (in varying degrees) how to apply the principle that if they “change their thinking” their lives will change.

While some will make connections and remain as part of the community, the leadership challenge now begins to grow in complexity. Almost anyone can lead a small group with a singular focus: learn new things. This is the model in the military.

Enlisted Sergeants and Chiefs lead small teams with singular-focus goals. For multiple teams with varying goals, and larger strategic needs, the military places Officers in leadership positions. Officers are highly educated, experienced leaders – able to see big picture concepts, think strategically, and unemotionally and make hard decisions for the highest and best good for their local organization as well as the country.

With only the skills and vision of what is the equivalent of line, enlisted staff leaders, leading an organization into growth and expansion becomes complicated on a logarithmic scale as the various levels of seekers have vastly different levels of interest and need. Suddenly, it’s not so easy to wave a basic book in front of wide-eyed newbies and impress them. People are using and applying the principles in their own lives, and now the bar is higher.

They may even begin to ask why those who “teach” it, can’t “do” it.

Inevitably what happens is that the veneer begins to crack, and the value proposition comes into question. People with busy lives, multiple responsibilities, and limited time during the week are going to, at some point, question the value proposition in showing up to an organization that is stuck in first gear.

Here’s where the reliance on the Protestant Church model starts to fray. People whose incentive was to learn, and who received what they came seeking will “graduate themselves” and move on, visiting on occasion, and still holding fond memories for their time there – like many of us do when we look back on our college years. But the purpose of weekly attendance is often a declining value proposition.

For organizations that live and die based on what is thrown into the offering plate on Sunday morning, this is a significant weakness, and threat to their survival.

For these reasons, the model would work better if it looked more like the business model in higher education, than the Church. After all, it is a movement built on the concept of TEACHING!

Without the divine mandate, there must be a value proposition in place that people can buy in to. This value proposition has generally been teaching the “change your thinking, change your life” concept.

It’s a great concept and it works, but once people learn “how to use it” the Law of Diminishing Returns kicks in.

This economic law holds that when any factor of production, such as labor, is increased while other factors, such as capital and land, are held constant in amount, the output per unit of the variable factor will eventually diminish.

In spiritual speak, when any input is increased (attendees, members) while other factors are held constant (message, class offerings, activities remain the same basic level/content), the output per unit (e.g. growth, expansion) will eventually diminish.

There are clear and compelling reasons for creating metaphysical spiritual communities where people can learn, grow and find support. The problem lies in trying to apply a model that works in another tradition without a) understanding why it works there, and b) attempting to force that model onto an organization that has very different beliefs.

Repeatedly trying to make something work because it’s “the way we’ve always done it” is the modern definition of insanity. It could also be ‘Exhibit A’ as to why Officers lead large organizations and enlisted staff are required to remain in their defined lanes of responsibility.

An Officer reads across disciplines about trends in community affiliation, explores the underlying differences in different communities, thinks deeply about the many implications and ramifications of his/her decisions, and makes a strategic plan to capitalize on that knowledge for the best interests of the team. The very best officers are also capable of, and regularly practice, self reflection and awareness.

A Staff Sergeant will keep telling the Commanding Officer that s/he can take the platoon up that hill,… they can do it, s/he knows they can and they’re all willing.

The Sergeant’s heart is admirable; his/her tenacity is a core strength of our democracy and the stories from individual life examples make compelling blockbuster movies.

It takes the wisdom, intellect and vision of an Officer to not only see the battle on the hill; but to understand the war, the environment, his/her people, the peace time that lies on the other side – in other words, the much bigger picture.

We don’t live in a Hollywood movie, and the truth is the truth – even when we don’t want it to be.

(C) 2020 Practitioner's Path

The author is a US Navy Veteran, and holds a Master’s Degree in Public Management from Carnegie Mellon University. She currently works in a leadership position in the healthcare industry and is a popular blogger in that arena, and speaker at local, state and national conferences where she shares best practices “from the trenches” in leadership as well as advice on personal growth and development based on wisdom from many corners of history.

One thought on “Understanding incentive

  1. Pingback: Understanding life's seasons | A Practitioner's Path

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