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.