Ruminations in Creative Tensions
For 45 years since Hirschman first developed the framework of Exit, Voice, and Loyalty, researchers from various disciplines – politics, economics, management, psychology, sociology – have incorporated the concept to help explain and understand the manner in which individuals and communities deal with dissatisfaction. In these disciplines, the hopeful intent of the environment, if healthy and seeking a functional community, aspires to develop social capital, whereby the networks of relationships actually improve the culture.
It seems only fitting that the church and other spiritual environments could also benefit from understanding the reason for and what happens when people leave, and/or speak out, or simply stay in place within a community. With a church or other Christian organization, in addition to social capital, the pursuit for a flourishing community not only seeks healthy relationships but also spiritual capital – “a practical commitment to living for a higher purpose and conducting one’s life and work in concert with this value.” For a follower of Christ and his/her respective community, the higher purpose – pursuing the Kingdom Come, Thy Will Be Done – demonstrates its efficacy in loving God, neighbor, and self.
Yet, as we all have experienced or seen ourselves, churches often encounter the loss of individuals and, at times, entire communities of people. In other circumstances, the complaints from parishioners sound deafening loud (is that an oxymoron?). And in some cases, members stick around even when it would seem the only tie that holds them is loyalty to some aspect of that church and/or denomination. How does a church or other environment create a place whereby individuals believe they are a part of something that is worth investing in?
Let me give a non-church example to explain. For over sixteen years, my husband and I have gone to our favorite supermarket in Gig Harbor, Safeway. Last year, Haggens, an original Pacific NW chain that tried to go big fast, bought Safeway. Within a month, the “exit” was obviously evident as the parking lot, typically full, was registering a handful of parked cars. Many folks made the attempt to communicate with the administration of Haggens to request certain preferences, exercising their “voice,” but to no avail. Apparently, Haggens depended on the “loyalty” of customers. Today, Haggens announced that their store in Gig Harbor will close at the end of November, part of their bankruptcy plan put into effect this month. What intrigues me about Haggens collapse is the entire disregard for consumer interest, a blatant unwillingness to listen by those who thought they knew best.
Is the church, each of our churches, the big ecclesiological community willing to listen? Listen to one another, listen to God. In some cases, like Haggens, the mission and vision of the church consists of what the senior pastor decides, often out of touch with the church body over the long haul. In other cases, the listening only consists of pleasing everyone other than what God is asking of that particular body. For a leader of an organization, it would seem there is a necessary creative tension of listening to what God wants, what the people voice, and the personal discernment of the leader. When it comes to understanding EVL (Exit, Voice, and Loyalty) for a body of people, the leader needs maturity and wisdom to navigate the complex nature of people’s motivations, influences, and decisions. But what about the larger community of many people leaving the church in general? How do we navigate that picture?
While in Hong Kong, we heard from Carol McLaughlin about the exit of the baby boomers in the Pacific NW (the “none” zone) from organized church. In our table conversation afterwards, Jason brought up a point that continues to ruminate in my heart and soul. It’s related to a corresponding idea that a researcher, M.H. Ross articulated in response to Hirschman’s framework. In an ethnographic research study on pre-industrial countries, he discovered that the “range of participation (the degree to which collective decision-making impinges on people’s lives) is increased with centralized power…[while] involvement (the degree of non-exclusion from decision-making) increases with decentralization.” Jason remarked that there are recent studies indicating that Christianity will die if people continue to leave without rejoining another community. While that person may offer that a relationship with Jesus Christ is still important, the ability to evangelize is lost. The implication for Christianity to survive, much less thrive, requires a community of believers where a synergy exists to provide “participation.” In order to get people excited about what God is doing in the world and in the lives of people, strong leadership provides the motivation.
Yet that very leadership can be the reason for people’s reason for exiting. In fact, as Ross indicates, people won’t get involved when their voice goes unheard. If organized religion operates without listening, involvement will continue to decrease. On the other side, decentralization where more voices are heard allows for the freedom to be a part of something greater than themselves, such as a church community that seeks spiritual capital.
I ruminate over Jason’s comments as I realize the need for discernment once again in another type of creative tension, that of centralized power and decentralization with the ingredients of both participation and involvement. For me, I’m convicted that even as I continue to be frustrated in my own church setting, partly because of my lack of voice, my loyalty to family, both literally and spiritually may actually provide an avenue by which something greater than by myself can occur – others may know the love of God that gave us the greatest voice to say “yes” to Him.
 Albert O. Hirschman, Exit, Voice, and Loyalty: Responses to Decline in Firms, Organizations, and States (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1970), 1.
 Keith Dowding, Peter John, Thanos Mergoupis, and mark Van Vugt. “Exit, Voice, and Loyalty: Analytic and Empirical Developments,” European Journal of Political Research, 37, (2000), 569-695.
 M.H. Ross, “Political Organization and Political Participation: Exit, Voice and Loyalty in Preindustrial Societies, Comparative Politics 21, (1988), 73–89.
12 responses to “Ruminations in Creative Tensions”
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Mary, hmmm… LOTS of possible conversations to be had here! I’ll try to focus though…
“How does a church or other environment create a place whereby individuals believe they are a part of something that is worth investing in?” This somehow reminded me of a conversation you and I had in Hong Kong. Your initial question was seemingly simple but our conversation quickly turned a corner and became complex. Part of my answer was something like “Do I want to be smarter and better or am I content for people to think I’m smarter and better? What is my real goal in all this?” So I’m reminded because your question lends itself to the same kind of reflection. As a pastor and denominational leader, do I want people to BELIEVE they are a part of something worth investing in, thereby achieving the goal of keeping more people involved in my thing? Or do I want to have something that really IS worth investing in? What is my motivation? A really BETTER organization or an organization that people think is better?
I see God working in us with layers…all He asks of us initially is to acknowledge that we want a “better” organization. Then as He permeates the desires of our heart, both the dark/shadow side as well as those that are God-created, we can then begin to ask about our own motivations. I don’t know that He judges our hearts by whether we have the motivation right (I’m sure you’ll have something to say about that :)). He just asks us to keep our eyes, ears and hearts focused on Him. The change starts to happen in our acknowledgment that something may be amiss. Then the Spirit can do the rest. Similar to the quote I told you when we spoke, “I want to want to love you, God.” Teresa of Avila
Mary, Great post. Love the thought of social capital and spiritual capital you brought up when you wrote, “With a church or other Christian organization, in addition to social capital, the pursuit for a flourishing community not only seeks healthy relationships but also spiritual capital – “a practical commitment to living for a higher purpose and conducting one’s life and work in concert with this value.” I think in a consumeristic culture these are concepts we need to surface in the Church and our churches and dialogue about because they are real “drivers” of our social and spiritual behavior. I think there is such a tension in the older established church for handling language like this because it does seem “spiritually” appropriate, but if we can see our “createdness” from a higher perspective I think we gain permission to discuss such facts and insight gained. Again great post and love all the ground you covered in it.
Whenever I use the word “flourishing,” I always think of you, Phil, with your topic. I look forward to reading what you’ll have to say about it when all is said and done (although, is it ever all “said and done”?).
By the way, did Brian send you the picture he took in the Hong Kong subway, just for you?
Mary, Thanks for sharing Jason’s comments about de-centrailized power. It’s really interesting to think about that in this context. It’s not just the ability and space to share one’s voice that is important but the ability for a group/individual to actually do something about it. The need for real leadership and action in the midst of Voice and Loyalty seems very important for the church. I’d be really interested to hear how that plays on in a de-centrailized church. Not that I’m always looking for ways to justify the institutional church but this seems to be a positive. Thanks.
In a decentralized church environment, there is a much heavier dependance upon relationship, social capital is the primary currency rather than positional. It is reminiscent of the concept of legislative leadership vs executive leadership from a recent reading. Loyalty to people rather than programs or institutions… I wonder if exit is an easier option to exercise in a highly institutional construct than in a highly relational one? It’s easy to walk away from a faceless entity, not so easy a person with a face maybe?
I would say definitely it’s easier to leave an institution that’s big, than one that is based on relationship. I’m a part of a dispersed contemplative community that says, “we’re more than willing to let you go, if you believe that’s what God is calling you to, but we are responsible for you until you find that next community.” Here’s a community (that is small now) but could become more institutionalized, yet saying, we’re still about relationships and a connection from one place to the next.
Actually, I think it says a lot for a church that has strong leadership (if that means “institutional” than so be it). I was convicted that if I say nothing to may friends who say “oh, I can do this Christian thing on my own,” that I’m actually contributing to the demise of what the Spirit is doing. That’s why I’m still mulling over it. I hope to find out the studies that Jason indicated.
God bless you Mary, you hit it on the nose about why people don’t want to get involved or participate fully with churches. When your voice is not heard you don’t want to support something where only those over you are being heard. I hate that so much. And the things is we are the supporters of the church we pay dues and assessments and we should be heard too. Out of all of my dissatisfaction I think this is the greatest one “no voice” and if you do voice your opinion from your context they look at you like you are so small who cares! Sad but oh so true!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
I can feel your emotion by the amount of exclamation points you’ve made. I hope you, as I’m trying to, find your voice and place where you can bless those around you.
“For a leader of an organization, it would seem there is a necessary creative tension of listening to what God wants, what the people voice, and the personal discernment of the leader.”
Mary, You hit on the missing element. Ultimately we need to listen to God’s voice. It seems that so many voices are heard regarding the church that it is easy to just plow ahead and not stop to listen to what God would say about his church. It reminds me of a comic I used to have that depicted the chairman of a church board reading the church manual and saying, “Our bylaws specifically state that the will of God cannot be overturned without a 2/3 majority vote.”
There is significant tension in this issue of purposefully leading while humbly listening to the church body. You speak to it when you say “For a leader of an organization, it would seem there is a necessary creative tension of listening to what God wants, what the people voice, and the personal discernment of the leader. When it comes to understanding EVL (Exit, Voice, and Loyalty) for a body of people, the leader needs maturity and wisdom to navigate the complex nature of people’s motivations, influences, and decisions.” To which I’d say amen.
Here’s the tension put another way. Reflecting on the gifts mentioned in Eph. 4 much of the church usually reflects a model of leadership that can be summed up as primarily focusing on shepherding-teaching. Minimizing the more generative gifts of Apostle, prophet, evangelist. Those gifts are can also come with vision, direction, and mission. When exercising those gifts the congregation can feel like there is a bull in a china shop, like they aren’t being heard or like their voice isn’t appreciated. I’m not defending minimizing the voice of the body, I’m just surfacing the tension of trying to be faithful to a calling while loving the body.