The 80/20 rule is a problem for churches

So why do so many of them embrace it as a solution?

When I started pastoring, at the ripe old age of 27, a more seasoned pastor took me to lunch and gave me some advice. Most of it was really useful. But at the end he said something I’m guessing a lot of readers have heard before. “And one more thing,” he said, “find your leaders. You’ve heard of the 80/20 rule, right? Only about 20 percent of the people are going to do more than just come to worship. They do everything for the other 80 percent, so find them and you’ll be fine.”

It’s not terrible advice. It certainly resonates with what we see happening around us. A vital few do the work for the many. And so it follows that if you concentrate on the few, it will buoy the many. Consciously or not, we faith leaders often abide by this: the members who do the work—or give more money—are considered “more vital” than everyone else. So we cultivate them, to the extent that the 80 percent may feel totally disconnected. We follow the logic of this well-known but widely misunderstood 80/20 rule.

First, the origins. In 1895, an Italian economist named Vilfredo Pareto recognized that 80 percent of the land was owned by 20 percent of the people. This led other social scientists to notice similar patterns across society, and the Pareto principle, or 80/20 rule, was born. In his recognition of the “vital few” and the “trivial many,” however, it’s important to recognize that Pareto was describing a problem, not a solution.