Doctor of Leadership in Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

Exit, voice, and loyalty within the church

Written by: on October 10, 2015

In his book Exit, Voice, and Loyalty: Response to Decline in Firms, Organizations, and States, Albert O. Hirschman discusses the reasons for people’s decline in loyalty to today’s organizations. When people are dissatisfied, they leave, voice objections or become disloyal.[1] These behaviors give us valuable insight into the level of satisfaction of the people we serve, and also into how well we are doing to serve them.

Statistics show that many people are exiting church organizations in America. Approximately 1/3 of Americans are now secular in their beliefs and practices. Since 1990, the percentage of unchurched adults in America has risen from 30% – 43% of the population. In other words, Christianity is loosing market share. There are more churches closing than opening.[2] People shop for churches and attend the one that seems to be the best fit. If members become dissatisfied, they are quick to leave. When a church is having struggles or when members aren’t satisfied, membership declines as people leave, complain, or gossip.

Today, many secular organizations place an emphasis on managing their relationships with customers and seeking to understand their needs. This is monitored through growth and retention behaviors exhibited. The way that an organization services their customer has a direct impact on their success. Companies pay close attention to their customer’s needs. People tend to remain loyal to organizations that treat them properly and provide them with value.  Even new products are developed based on consumer behaviors.  Organizational growth is reflection of they way customer needs are met.

In church, we often fail to manage relationships with members properly. Members respond to church in similar ways as consumers do in the business world. The heartbeat of a church is evidenced in talk amongst groups or on social media. Many times people’s voice is evidenced in a lack of growth or decline in membership. Hirschman gives an example of a declining public school system, where parents speak by sending their children to private schools.[3] Similar scenarios are happening daily in churches around the US. Issues are evidenced when people leave, stop giving financially, or spread gossip.  Churches can best serve their members by listening and seeking to connect with them, and by allowing members to have a voice. Creating a safe and inviting place for new ideas and sharing of concerns is critical. If voices aren’t heard, then problems can’t be resolved.

Given the exit of people attending churches in America, what can we do to be better listeners? What do these trends tell us? Churches must connect in the daily lives of individuals, and become a meaningful part of the communities in which they operate.

[1] Albert Hirschman, Exit, Voice, and Loyalty: Responses to Decline in Firms, Organizations, and States (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1970)

[2] Dr. Richard J. Krejcir, “Statistics and Reasons for Church Decline,” Francis A. Schaeffer Institute of Church Leadership Development, 2007, accessed December 9, 2014, http://www.churchleadership.org/apps/articles/default.asp?articleid=42346&columnid=4545.

[3] Albert Hirschman, Exit, Voice, and Loyalty: Responses to Decline in Firms, Organizations, and States (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1970) 45.

About the Author

Dawnel Volzke

Christ follower, wife, mom, teacher, student, professional...my passion is to serve Christ and my calling is to help organizations become great at fulfilling their mission.

11 responses to “Exit, voice, and loyalty within the church”

  1. Brian Yost says:

    “Churches must connect in the daily lives of individuals, and become a meaningful part of the communities in which they operate.”

    Great insight, Dawnel. We can preach from the pulpit, but we cannot listen from there. It is much harder to leave a community than it is to leave an organization or institution. It is also easier to listen to people in an informal conversation within the context of meaningful relationships than it is to wait until people “blow-up” and cause a scene. At that point, we would sometimes prefer Exit so we can stop listening to “angry” Voice.

    • Dawnel Volzke says:

      Thanks Brian,

      In any type of an organization or group effort, it is critical that the leaders get into the trenches so that they can keep a constant watch on the heartbeat of the group. In this way, they can listen and learn. This, combined with regular reporting and analysis of trends can help to proactively address issues instead of waiting until there are fires to put out.

  2. Phillip Struckmeyer says:

    Dawnel, I have heard most recently, Alan Hirsch say that if the Church of North America doesn’t find a new form or expression of “church” it will stay in rapid decline until we look like Europe. He suggests we need a “movement form” that changes the “packaging” of the Gospel and develops relevant models that connect with how God is moving in culture. De-institutionalizing the Church is key and I think like you say … listening becomes the best route to seeing such changes. What form can the spread of Christianity take so see a resurgence of faith in North America?

    • Dave Young says:

      Phil, I’m interested in getting the source of Hirsch’s remarks – sounds like something I need to look at in my research. Thanks, Dave

      • Jon Spellman says:

        Hirsch has struck a chord here in the states but it’s interesting to me that he is now the guy that stands in front of thousands of church folks talking about how missional (think “smaller”) is better! Kind of a paradox…

    • Dawnel Volzke says:

      Warning, I’m going to get on my soap box for a moment:) I agree with the fact that we need to begin doing church in drastically different ways. But, I don’t agree that we need yet one more ‘movement’. I believe that we need to better understand and serve the people within the scope of our work. By this, I mean that we need to run churches in meaningful ways to connect within each unique community. We need to stop trying to craft movements or to be the next greatest church model, and we need to start simply loving and serving individual people. The church needs to find it’s place and role within the community in which it resides. It needs to get out of it’s bubble and get into the real world. Individual churches need to have unique metrics and the ability to measure their effectiveness within their specific community. For example, if hunger plagues their community, then the church should measure how many people they are feeding and look at solutions to fix the issue.

      • Jon Spellman says:

        Dawnel, it is an oft-overlooked reality that when Jesus sat with his disciples and talked about “I will build my church…” he was articulating a plan for an organization that would be derived from the communities of man and operate in the best interests of the communities of man… The church we see in most neighborhoods isn’t very interested in the needs of the community that surrounds it. Oftentimes the church is more interested in strategizing for self-preservation than community restoration.

        Good soap-box!

  3. Travis Biglow says:

    Amen Dawnel, one of the ways I have started to connect with my church members was to start having home bible studies at their house. I only had one home we were attending until the mother of my church passed away to Friday we were in Hong Kong. We had it at her house. Today i will see if we can have it at another persons home. My house is at least 15 – 20 minutes away from most of the members so i don’t want them to have to come that far i want to go to them. I loved the atmosphere and i feel it allowed me to get closer to the members who attended. And i am looking for new ways to do this because it so personal and we should be more connected then just Sunday morning!

    • Dawnel Volzke says:


      It sounds like you are building an awesome community both in and outside of the church walls. It is my opinion that the best pastors are those that come alongside and live life with those that they serve.

  4. Dave Young says:


    What can we do to be better listeners? Great observation and a thoughtful question. A couple weeks ago a couple in our church reached out to one of our elders. Both the couple that reached out and the elder couple lead very hectic, very full, stressed lives. But this couple did the best thing possible – they asked ‘can we talk?’ They got together simply to be an encouragement to each other and it was restorative. Some times we make this more difficult then it really is. We need to be with each other and frankly we live very compartmentalized and busy live. Thanks for the thoughtful post.

    • Dawnel Volzke says:

      Hi Dave,

      What a great question. It would be ideal if everyone reacted as this couple when they want to address concerns. But, I’ve found that most speak by exit, voice, or loyalty. So, to listen we must monitor trends and listen to the indirect messages that people send. In the business world, we see this when people do or don’t buy products, when they purchase or quit using services, when they call in with complaints, or when they grumble on social media. There are entire teams that monitor and manage relationships with customers. The observations from these teams are taken into account when developing services and product offerings. Too often, churches fail to measure or monitor the status of those they serve. Or, if they do measure the status, then they fail to make adjustments when they see trouble. Why do you think the church fails to react? Is it because they aren’t sure how to? Is it because they are fearful of change? Sometimes I wonder if the church wants to listen. Despite clear evidence of people leaving and churches closing everyday, the church (in general) is failing to implement changes drastic enough to make a difference.

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