Opportunity Cost: The Price of Not Making a Decision

I’ve got a friend who regularly busts my chops about my tendency to overcommit. This is a good thing. Ben reminds me that, even though I sometimes fool myself into thinking so, I can’t do everything. By saying “yes” to this, I’m simultaneously (usually unwittingly) saying “no” to something else. In economics this is called “opportunity cost.” Opportunity cost is the value of what you’re willing to forgo by deciding to do one thing rather than another.

What do I mean?

Say you have a choice between taking a job at a great firm and studying abroad for a year. On the one hand, if you take the job, you may stabilize your financial situation, but in so doing you may miss out on the opportunity of a lifetime. On the other hand, if you don’t take the job you have now, you may return to find that someone has already taken your place. Whatever you choose is going to cost you something.

The cost of losing that which you decide against is what economists call opportunity cost.

You’re paying a price for every decision you make by limiting your access to other opportunities.

Should I take the new job in Seattle or should I stay where my family is comfortable?

Should I get married or should I get established in my career?

Should I pay the light bill or the doctor bill?

Should I help my son pay to afford care for his child or pay my husband’s medical bills?

Tough decisions.

Opportunity costs are much easier to calculate, however, when you know both the price and reward of each option.

“If I choose this, I’ll gain this, but I’ll lose this.”

“If I go the Lynard Skynard concert, it’s going to cost me $75 and a chance at studying for the entrance exam to Harvard. On the other hand, if I stay home and study, I may save $75 and enhance my chances at an Ivy League education, but I may miss the one show I’ve been waiting my whole life to see.”

In order to make good decisions about opportunity costs, it’s essential to know the benefits and the consequences of choosing one option over another.

But what happens when you don’t have a good handle on the benefits and consequences?

Put differently, what happens when you don’t give much consideration to the benefits and consequences of a decision because the opportunity costs are hidden?

I think this describes the situation most mainline denominations face around the issue of the full inclusion of gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and queer people. Up to now, the decision about LGBTQ folks has been a calculation centered on how many traditionally conservative folks would leave in the aftermath of a resolution affirming their place in the church as equals. I have yet to be in a conversation about this issue (and I’ve been in a lot of them) that wasn’t framed in precisely this way—by both sides.

On one side: “Accept these people as equals, and we’ll walk.”

On the other side: “Of course we want this. It’s not a matter of us not wanting to be fully inclusive. What we have to factor in is whether the _______ (fill in the blank) will leave if we do this. (Read: We’re afraid we’ll split the church by moving ahead.)”

Setting up the choice in this way glosses over two extremely important points about opportunity costs:

  1. It assumes that the people who take a particular stand for justice would be guilty of “splitting the church.” But why aren’t the people who would leave just as responsible for the split?

“Well, because you would be instituting a theological position we refuse to live with. If you’d just keep things the same, we could retain our unity.”

The first response that comes to mind is that demanding the preservation of a theological position that others have a difficult time living with (literally, in some cases) is equally divisive. Why is the narrative always, “Progressives threaten denominational unity?”

I understand that there has to be institutional deference to tradition and precedent. That is to say, I know that every new theological claim that comes down the pike can’t automatically be assigned legitimacy just because one constituency considers it important. The burden of proof lies with those suggesting change.

However, it’s one thing to say that those who want change bear a greater responsibility for making their case. This reasonable requirement merely advances the notion that institutions are better served by rigorously interrogating all appeals to change, to make sure that novelty and fashionableness don’t highjack an inheritance of considered wisdom.

It’s an entirely different thing to say that, no matter the persuasiveness of the argument placed on offer after years of deliberation and thoughtful discernment, there exists no argument compelling enough to persuade us. So, if you change anything, we’re hitting the bricks.

The former position says that change should be a measured response to a constantly evolving understanding of our context, the latter says merely that change should never be an option.

But change is always an option, which brings me to the second point about opportunity costs.

  1. It rarely considers the the fact that not making an affirmative decision carries a particularly high opportunity cost. Why aren’t we just as concerned about the people we might lose (or push away before they even walk through the door) if we fail to make an affirmative decision?

A 2011 Public Religion Research Institute survey found that “nearly seven-in-ten (69%) Millennials agree that religious groups are alienating young people by being too judgmental about gay and lesbian issues.”

David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyon, Evangelical authors of Unchristian: What a New Generation Really Thinks about Christianity, have this to say about what I take to be the opportunity costs for the church associated with not making an affirmative decision about the full inclusion of LGBTQ people:

Out of twenty attributes that we assessed, both positive and negative, as they related to Christianity, the perception of being antihomosexual was at the top of the list. More than nine out of ten Mosaic and Buster [Generations Y and X] outsiders (91 percent) said “antihomosexual” accurately describes present-day Christianity. And two-thirds of outsiders have very strong opinions about Christians in this regard, easily generating the largest group of vocal critics. When you introduce yourself as a Christian to a friend, neighbor, or business associate who is an outsider, you might as well have it tattooed on your arm: antihomosexual, gay-hater, homophobic. I doubt you think of yourself in these terms, but that’s what outsiders think of you.

After the recent vote at the Presbyterian General Assembly in Pittsburgh against changing the definition of marriage from “one man and one woman” to “two people”—a vote in which the Young Adult Advisory Delegates (YAAD) voted 75% in favor of the change in definition—Presbyterian minister, Adam Walker Cleveland, wrote:

You want to know why young people are leaving the church? Because they are tired of us. They are tired of us continuing to do things the ways they’ve always been done. They’re tired of us being too afraid to step out in justice. They’re tired of us not following in the footsteps of our radical prophet/savior Jesus the Christ. They’re tired of a polity and theology that denies marriage equality to fellow brothers and sisters in Christ that are members of our churches.

When your church’s Session asks “Where are all the young people?” or “How do we get the young people to come back to our churches?” – perhaps we should encourage the greater church to LISTEN to our young people.

Here’s the thing: Our inability to speak out in favor of God’s justice for LGBTQ folks comes with a cost.

The question is: When will we decide that the opportunity costs of inaction are unacceptably high?

That day is coming. Make no mistake. But what mainline denominations must consider is whether they will have already driven so many people away that the victory will be too late.

Because when the day comes that mainline denominations finally take that step, they’re going to lose the people who won’t change under any circumstances anyway. And the people who had been looking for a home … may have already given up.