The Trouble with the 80/20 Rule

You know the 80/20 rule. You probably heard about it from your pastor. The 80/20 rule is the statistic which says that in the average church 20% of the people do 80% of the ministry. There is a problem with the 80/20 rule and it’s not the uneven distribution of labor.

Before I go any further I need to confess that when I was a pastor I used the 80/20 rule to try and motivate the congregation. It’s a helpful statistic, if your main goal is to get people to hang their heads in shame. It is also good for reinforcing the pride or the resentment of those who see themselves as part of the 20%. What it does not do is motivate the 80% to greater involvement. I know this from personal experience. I have been on both sides of the statistic.

But that’s not the reason the 80/20 rule is problematic. The real problem is the way this statistic defines ministry. When church leaders (and let’s be honest it’s usually only church leaders who use this statistic) speak of ministry, they almost always mean church programs. They are talking about the nursery or the Sunday school program. They mean VBS or the weeknight kids club or the latest short-term mission trip to some country that also sometimes shows up as a destination for the prize puzzle on Wheel of Fortune. What they don’t mean are the kinds of things you and I spend most of our time doing. Things like working at our jobs, raising our kids, caring for our families, relating to our neighbors, or being a citizen.

There is a reason for this. It has to do with the competitive environment in which the church does business. Most churches use the term ministry to describe the religious goods and services they provide. Those goods and services are the main product they offer to their customers. The more product they offer, the larger their customer base. Because most churches operate with limited staff, they rely mostly on volunteers. Those volunteers carry out this work in between everything else they are doing in their lives. It is their ministry. Everything else is pretty much dead space.

So what’s wrong with the 80/20 rule? The trouble is that the 80/20 rule is a calculation based on a definition of ministry that concerns itself with far less than 20% of what we do with our lives and leaves the rest out. It might be better described as the 90/10 rule or even the 98/2 rule. It is limited not only because the things that it defines as ministry fall outside those areas where most of us expend the majority of our energy but because of the limited number of options it provides. By this definition, there are only a handful of things that really qualify as a ministry.

This is more than a bad definition. Ultimately it reflects a failure of the church’s mission. The function of the church is not to train workers for the spiritual marketplace. It is to equip its members to live the Christian life. They live out this calling as a distributed community, dispersed in their various locations, jobs, and circumstances. Their ministry is to bear witness to the grace of God and the transforming work of Jesus Christ in whatever context they find themselves.

My friend Al is a good example of this. Before he retired, Al worked as a special education teacher in the public school system. Now he spends much of his time as a caregiver for members of his family. He not only tends to their practical needs by preparing meals or providing transportation but maintains a spiritual presence. Al prays for his family and talks to them about God. He doesn’t teach Sunday school or go on short-term mission trips. He doesn’t serve on church committees. In fact, most of what the church is concerned about seems removed from Al’s life. The church does not seem especially concerned about him except as a potential laborer. He is part of the 80%.

In reality, there is no 80%. There are only followers of Jesus, dispersed in their various callings and contexts and charged with the task of living for Christ. Some do it well. Some fail. Most muddle through without much encouragement or instruction from the church. When the pastor mentions the 80/20 rule, they hang their heads in shame.

1 thought on “The Trouble with the 80/20 Rule

  1. Wow! You could not have published this at a worse/ better time! VBS week just ended and I am concerned about getting more of the 80% involved so that the rest of the church’s programs will function. Thank you for this necessary reminder!

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