Michael McBride on Religious Free-Riding and the Mormon Church
Date: October 18th, 2010

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Prof. Michael McBride — associate professor of economics at the University of California, Irvine — discusses how the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day States (known informally as the Mormon Church) is organized to overcome free-rider problems.  We begin our podcast with an observation that the LDS Church has maintained a high rate of growth, members show remarkable satisfaction with their church, and how the church relies on a remarkable network of unpaid volunteers serving as clergy and in other organizational positions.  Mike then lays out the theory of religious clubs that has been used to explain the growth of strict churches.  We then focus the majority of our attention on how the LDS Church is organized and how they overcome the common tendency of individuals to free-ride on the voluntary efforts of other.  Perhaps more than most denominations, Mormons have been able to solve this problem and obtain high levels of participation from their members.  McBride also notes that some free-riding is actually important for church growth and discusses how the LDS works with “free-riders” to increase their levels of engagement.  At the end of the podcast we speculate as to why other denominations haven’t adopted the LDS form of organization.    Prof. McBride is also affiliated with UCI’s Center for the Study of Democracy, the Institute for Mathematical Behavioral Sciences and the university’s Religious Studies Program.  Recorded: September 20, 2010.


Prof. Michael McBride’s website.

“Club Mormon: Free-Riders, Monitoring, and Exclusion in the LDS Church” by Michael McBride.

“Why Churches Need Free-riders: Religious Capital Formation and Religious Group Survival” by Michael McBride.

UCI’s Religious Studies Program.

Why Conservative Churches Are Growing by Dean Kelley (Mercer University Press, updated edition 1996).


Marc von der Ruhr on Megachurch Recruitment and Retention.

Eli Berman on Religious Terrorism.

11 Responses to “Michael McBride on Religious Free-Riding and the Mormon Church”

  1. […] here to see the original:  Research On Religion | Michael McBride on Religious Free-Riding … By admin | category: Irvine, University of CALIFORNIA | tags: associate-professor, […]

  2. William J. Riggins says:

    I listened to the podcast today and was very impressed. I just wanted to congratulate Tony and Michael for a very interesting, thought provoking, and insightful podcast. Michael’s knowledge of the LDS Church and its organization and his comparisons of the organization to organizational and economic theory was very impressive. You both demonstrated great professionalism in the questions that were posed and the answers that were given. Wonderful work! I will listen again.

  3. Karen Schultz says:

    I really enjoyed the discussion. As an active member of the LDS faith it’s always interesting and encouraging to hear knowledgeable parties discuss the details of our religion objectively, without prejudice.

    I was surprised as economists, however, that both Mike and Tony didn’t consider the paid vs.lay clergy difference when wondering why other churches (except the mega church to some degree) don’t pick up on the model of the LDS church. Have any surveys been conducted of non Mormon congregations inquiring as to their participation level if they were NOT paid for their services? The LDS model succeeds in part because there are SO many people contributing to the organization at all levels in the wards without pay.

    I definitely think more research can be done re the effect that money plays in religious organizations. For instance, if a pastor is being paid essentially by the congregants, how will that effect his message? If he asks for more volunteer hours, his congregants might go looking to another congregation where so much is not asked of them. Then his/her congregation disappears!

    Thanks again for your research,
    Karen Schultz

  4. Mike McBride says:

    Karen, Glad to hear you enjoyed the podcast. Your points about the lay vs. paid clergy distinction are great ones. I’d like to see more work on it, too.

    I should say that people have acknowledged its importance and can cite some evidence that particpation and contribution rates are higher in lay churches. I’ve heard researchers conjecture that it is the lay structure that leads to the higher participation.

    However, the challenge in an empirical study on this is identifying the direction of causality. Suppose lay churches really do have higher participation. Is it because having a lay church leads people to participate more, or is it because people who want to participate more join lay churches? Or is there a third factor (e.g., doctrinal teachings, community norms, etc.) that leads to lay structure and to high participation? Sorting this out is a non-trivial matter, and to my knowledge it has not been done. Topic for future research, as Tony says.

    In any event, Adam Smith (yes, that Adam Smith!) noted that established paid clergy face different incentives that result in different manifestations of religious practice. So you are in good company with your observation! Maybe we should recruit you into this line of research…

  5. […] orgtheory guest blogger, Mike McBride (UC Irvine, Economics), was recently featured in a podcast on club models of organization, religious free-riding, etc.  Interesting discussion not just for for economists and sociologists […]

  6. […] Michael McBride on Religious Free-Riding and the Mormon Church. […]

  7. […] Michael McBride on Religious Free-Riding and the Mormon Church. […]

  8. […] Michael McBride on Religious Free-Riding and the Mormon  Church. […]

  9. […] Michael McBride on Religious Free-Riding and the Mormon Church. […]

  10. […] Michael McBride on Religious Free-Riding and Mormons. […]

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