The Church as a Franchise System

In my class on Law & Entrepreneurship, I teach a section that focuses on franchise agreements. We just completed that section last week, and it occurred to me that the Church is a lot like McDonald’s.

Franchising is simple, at least in theory: take a concept and replicate it via locally owned businesses. Local ownership by franchisees is said to offer several advantages over company ownership, including the fact that the franchisee finances the growth of the business (thus transferring some of the risk of failure) and the fact that owner-operators have stronger incentives to succeed than mere employees (local managers of a company-owned store).

The biggest challenge faced by franchisors is ensuring uniformity among the various local franchise stores. Through a combination of detailed provisions in the franchise agreement and an operations manual — supplemented by rights of information, inspection, and termination — franchisors exert substantial control over franchisees. Local owner-operators usually recognize the value of uniformity to their franchise, but they often feel that their superior knowledge of the local market justifies some deviations from the franchisor’s detailed instructions. The tension between the franchisor’s desire for uniformity and the franchisee’s desire for local customization is the source of many problems in franchising.

Of course, we see a similar tension in the Church. Uniformity — not merely uniformity of doctrine, but uniformity of practice — is viewed as highly desireable by many members of the Church, and we see substantial efforts to ensure uniformity. We have a unified curriculum for Sunday School and Priesthood/Relief Society, a handbook of instructions that is comparable to a franchise operations manual, and various conferences and training sessions that are designed to train members in the workings of the Church.

On the other hand, many perceive the need for local customization, especially in Church units with few members. My sense is that the Church does pretty well on this front, largely by granting stake presidents and bishops a large measure of discretion to tailor local practices. The result is that the Church experience is very similar from place to place, not just in the United States but throughout the world, even though slight local variations are common. Thus, visiting wards and branches of the Church around the globe is similar to visiting various branches of McDonald’s — the core menu is similar, but notice the absence of beef in India, the availability of beer in Germany, and so on.

16 comments for “The Church as a Franchise System

  1. Mark B
    November 30, 2004 at 9:50 am


    I’ve heard the architecture of Mormon meetinghouses compared to franchises, but this is a great leap forward.

  2. a random John
    November 30, 2004 at 10:19 am

    A member in my mission was the accountant for the Assembly of God church. You could actually purchase rights to an area and be the only one able to build and run AoG churches in that city. That always struck me as odd.

  3. November 30, 2004 at 10:26 am

    Gordon: It seems that one difference between the Church and a franchise agreement is the centralization of finances. I seems to me that the Church is considerably more integrated than franchising operation.

  4. David King Landrith
    November 30, 2004 at 10:32 am

    The scriptures tell us, “Behold, mine house is a house of order, saith the Lord God, and not a house of confusion.” It never occurred to me that this was somehow related to the notion that we deserve a break today.

    Of course, I can’t afford not to pay tithing, but the Church ain’t such a great money making opportunity. Moreover, we can’t fire members just for always being late or frequently not coming.

  5. Kaimi
    November 30, 2004 at 10:49 am

    Interesting analogy.

    One other difference is that you can’t “have it your way” at the church — it’s God’s way or the highway. You walk in and say “I’d like a Whopper with extra mayo, no lettuce, no tomato, and extra pickles.” And God says “you’re having the quarter pounder with cheese and tomatoes — that’s all I’m serving.”

    Kind of like the sign my mom used to have around the kitchen: “This is not Burger King, and you can’t have it your way.”

  6. Frank McIntyre
    November 30, 2004 at 10:59 am

    Kaimi, I need a sign like that for my office.

    On the other hand, God will give us exactly what we want. The problem is that that might not be what we need.

    Or, in a recent re-interpretation of the whore of all the earth and marriage to the Gospel:

    “When Ruthie says come see her
    In her honky-tonk lagoon,
    Where I can watch her waltz for free
    ‘Neath her Panamanian moon.
    An’ I say, “Aw come on now,
    You must know about my debutante.”
    An’ she says, “Your debutante just knows what you need
    But I know what you want.”

  7. anon
    November 30, 2004 at 11:00 am

    interesting stuff…I’ve heard this analogy before, but not quite in the same way. Does anyone here know where the term ‘mcmormonism’ started, and in what context?

  8. Frank McIntyre
    November 30, 2004 at 11:28 am

    Franchising happened in the Book of Mormon too.

    Mosiah gave Alma the right to set up the franchises or local units, which he did. And the curriculum was very tightly controlled, “for there was nothing preached in all the churches except it were repentance and faith in God.”. And every priest taught “according as it was delivered to him by the mouth of Alma”.

    Thus the passage is very explicit about the tight control Alma kept over the local units: In the next chapter, the priests also turn over the problem of excommunication to Alma as well.

    Of course, Zarahemla only had seven units, and so was more like a stake, whereas we now have thousands. It is a miracle we function at all. One can re-extend the analogy down to the ward and sub-ward level. At every level there is a tension between the local knowledge of the people on the scene and how far their leaders (and God) can trust them to do things on their own without a rulebook. Moses (another franchiser thanks to Jethro’s innovation) wished that all the Lord’s people were prophets. Then each could be trusted to do as the Lord would have them do without need for distant oversight.

    Thus moves by the Church to increase local control depend very much on the ability to find prophet-like righteous men and women to be the local controllers, whether at the stake level, ward level, quorum-level or auxiliary level. “One size fits all” has many advantages but also lots of problems. I think it is in large measure the price we pay for not being individually trustworthy and spriritually in-tune enough to do things the Lord’s way when we’re given more autonomy.

  9. Boris Max
    November 30, 2004 at 11:35 am

    Something to consider:

    If you spend time in an LDS chapel, your spirit will expand and your heart will be filled with joy.

    If you spend time at MacDonalds, your waistline will expand and your arteries will be filled with fat.

  10. November 30, 2004 at 11:38 am

    McDonalds has happy meals and sometimes even special play areas for kids. The Church also adapts its message to kids.

    I’m now considering the “dollar-menu” and how that might be analogous to some kind of Church practice or policy. :)

  11. November 30, 2004 at 12:04 pm

    Frank, Thank you for that comment. Very insightful, and I agree completely. Though my original post had an element of playfulness — intending to provoke fun comments like Boris’, Kaimi’s, David’s, etc. — the main point was serious, and you extended that point in an important direction. I had been thinking of revelation for a separate post, so I am happy to see you tie it in here. Revelation to members is crucial to the Gospel plan, but I hadn’t connected it to Church administration in this way.

  12. Ana
    November 30, 2004 at 1:49 pm

    At McDonald’s here in central California, you can ask for jalapenos with your Big Mac. (I don’t know how to make the correct accent over the n … sorry!)

    For our autumn ward social, we had a chili cookoff. The results were similar: Ay, yi yi!

  13. Greg Call
    November 30, 2004 at 2:39 pm


    I had wondered what that Dylan song is about, thanks for setting me straight.

  14. Frank McIntyre
    November 30, 2004 at 3:54 pm

    I suppose there are few gospel principles that can’t be tied to a Dylan lyric somewhere.

  15. Alastair Murray
    January 22, 2005 at 9:33 pm

    Speaking of McDonalds – if ever in Holland – try their McCrockets!! They are the best!! Very Dutch and very nice – you won’t be disappointed. But on a serious note, a very interesting discussion. I see comment 2 as a reason for some concern. Does anyone know how the AOG “franchise” actually operates?

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