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Relative Deprivation – A Deterrent to Healthy Change

For Or Against Keys Show Pros And ConsWe all have people to whom we compare ourselves, it’s natural. But relative deprivation is when you have the perception that you are worse off than other people you compare yourself to or your current situation falls short of your standard.

A feeling of deprivation occurs when you perceive something has been taken away or withheld from you, usually unfairly.

Relative refers to comparison. This means your perceptions come about as a result of comparing your current situation to another situation you believe is better, and that you deserve. This situation then becomes your standard for comparison.

Relative Deprivation Leads to Dissatisfaction

Consider the following example: Mobile phones are common today and most people feel they deserve one. Hence an individual unable to afford one might feel deprived. Fifty years ago, when there were no mobile phones, such a sentiment would not exist.

An example from the church realm: Moving a Sunday School Class to what is perceived as a less desirable room will create feelings of relative deprivation among members who feel their current room falls short in comparison to their previous room.

These feelings and perceptions are usually counterproductive, especially to effectively implementing change. They frequently lead to high levels of dissatisfaction, distrust, criticism, low morale, and sometimes open rebellion.

Three Situations That Cause Relative Deprivation

In one of the first formal definitions of relative deprivation, Walter Runciman in his book, Relative Deprivation and Social Justice, noted there are at least three preconditions of relative deprivation (of object X by person A):

1. Person A does not have X

2. Person A knows of other persons that have X

3. Person A wants to have X

Put in other terms, feelings of relative deprivation arise as a result of comparing your current situation to three different kinds of standards:

1. What you wanted

2. What you had

3. What others have

What You Wanted. This is the situation when you find you haven’t received or achieved what you wanted, expected or feel you deserved.

For example, when a church member’s goal is to be a deacon, yet after a reasonable length of time is not selected,  a feeling of relative deprivation arises because he has not achieved what he wanted to achieve – the position of deacon.

What You Had. This is the situation when you compare your current situation to what you had in the past and find it lacking in comparison.

For example, when a worship guest comes from a church that offers a contemporary worship service yet finds only a traditional style of worship at your church, they experience relative deprivation because they feel your church offers less than their standard – a contemporary worship experience.

What Others Have. This is the situation when you compare what you have to what others have and find that they have more than you do.

For example, if your church doesn’t offer a Children’s Worship Service and a member visits a church that provides one, the next Sunday they experience feelings of relative deprivation when they are required to have their child sit with them in worship.

A Strategy For Coping With Relative Deprivation

Feelings of relative deprivation are a part of church life, particularly when leaders initiate change. In fact, most decisions by church leaders will result in relative deprivation for someone.

Therefore, you should anticipate the inevitability and impact of relative deprivation upon people each time you initiate change. And, if you anticipate strong feelings of relative deprivation it’s a good idea to have a strategy for dealing with them.

The best strategy usually involves clearly communicating the reasons for the action and trying to favorably frame the situation.

Communicate The Reasons: People want to know “the why” behind the action, decision or situation that is creating relative deprivation. Make certain you have a strong rationale, including a sound theology and philosophy for a particular methodology and communicate it in as many ways as possible.

Favorably Frame The Situation: People will naturally negatively frame a situation where they feel relative deprivation unless you provide an alternate view. Sharing unobserved, immediate and long term benefits are effective ways to present a positive perspective on a given situation.

When church leaders observe feelings of relative deprivation in their staff and membership they should provide as much information as possible to help the affected individuals put their standards and situations into a proper perspective.

And for those with the courage to confront it, the ultimate and biblical perspective on relative deprivation may be best captured in the opening sentence of Rick Warren’s classic book, The Purpose Driven Life……“it’s not about you!”



Posted on October 21, 2014

Jim Baker

Jim is a Church Organizational Leadership and Management Coach, Consultant and Trainer. Throughout his career Jim has demonstrated a passion for showing Pastors and Ministers how to use organizational tools for church and personal growth and health.

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“For I may be absent in body, but I am with you in spirit, rejoicing to see how well ordered you are and the strength of your faith in Christ.” Colossians 2:5