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

Voice and Exit in (and out of) the local Church

Written by: on October 26, 2017

There is a lot of technical economic language in Exit, Voice, and Loyalty: Responses to Decline in Firms, Organizations, and States by Albert Hirschman, in spite of the struggle I had following some of the language – not to mention much of Hirschman’s prose –  I found this relatively small book to be both interesting and insightful.

The interplay of ‘exit’ – or as we might more commonly say ‘leaving’ – with ‘voice’ – or as we might more commonly say ‘complaining’ or ‘speaking up’ – and loyalty is, truly, fascinating to me.

I think anyone that has spent any amount of time in a church, and especially those that have worked in a church have some understanding of a relationship between ‘exit’ and ‘voice’ – even if though most of us would not necessarily have used those words.

Interestingly, while Hirschman deals with the three forces (exit, voice and loyalty) as separate – albeit related forces – I have found that in a church setting voice, exit and loyalty are inextricably connected.  This happens as voice is ‘found’ or ‘given’ because of either the threat of exit or because of the perceived loyalty of a long tenure of membership.

While there is a considerable number of areas  that could be considered, I want to focus on two areas where I found Hirschman to intersect in important and insightful ways with churches and church leadership.

In this program we are primarily focused on how to lead well in our increasingly globalized world.  Last week we learned about the importance of self-differentiation and understanding that much of leadership is an emotional transaction, not a set of guidelines or principles.   This fundamental truth is missed by many and results in much wasted time and effort in pursuit of the ‘right’ program or ‘skills’ to lead well.

This week, another curtain was removed to reveal a primary cause for the lack of quality leadership.  In his explanation of ‘Lattitude for Deterioration and Slack in Economic thought’, Hirschman highlights a key reason for the presence of sub-standard leadership and/or the lack of good leaders:

The reason for which humans have failed to develop a finely built social process assuring continuity and steady quality in leadership is probably that they did not have to.  Most human societies are marked by the existence of a surplus above subsistence.  The counterpart of this surplus is society’s ability to take considerable deterioration in it’s stride.  ………. The wide latitude human societies have for deterioration is the inevitable counterpart of man’s increasing productivity and control over his environment.  (Hirschman, 6)

As I read that, I couldn’t shake the parallel to the church, which has existed without good leadership or even a concern for good leadership for most of the last century because it didn’t need it.  Church involvement was a cultural expectation – the Field of Dreams mentality (If you build it – or open the doors, or schedule a service or event – they will come) worked not because all of these churches, their worship lives and ministries were vital and well led, but because showing up was part of the expectation of the culture.

In that space, the forces of voice and exit, particularly have been allowed to run rampant in far to many churches, further crippling those church’s ability to respond to the changes in our culture or, even more importantly, live into the call that they have been given as the body of Christ.

The rise of the ‘nones’ (those that don’t self-affiliate with any religious organization or faith tradition) in our current context hasn’t caused the problem for the church, but rather has simply exposed it.  In this way – with an understanding of Hirschman’s concept of slack and deterioration – that, we are seeing a revitalization in the church in some (often unexpected) places.  With the deterioration of our churches now laid bare, the counterbalancing effect can begin to take place, as Hirschman says, ‘it is likely that the very process of decline activates certain counterforces’ (Hirschman, 15).   The very acknowledgement of a problem, of deterioration clears the way for better, maybe even good leadership and practices to rise to the surface.

The second area I want to briefly look at is the somewhat unique interplay between voice and exit in our churches.  In some ways our churches act in ways very similar to the organizations Hirschman looks at, I am thinking specifically of the Nigerian railway example.  Many of our churches are in communities where there are a multitude of other, similar organizations.  Rather than spurring each other onto better and more effective ministries and more and more dynamic worship, the presence of these alternatives has the opposite effect.  Speaking of the railroads, Hirschman says:

The presence of a ready alternative to rail transport makes it less, rather than more, likely that the weaknesses of the railways will be fought rather than indulged.  With truck and bus transportation available, a deterioration in rail service is not nearly so serious a matter as if the railways held a monopoly for long-distance transport – it can be lived with for a long time without arousing strong public pressures for the basic and politically difficult or even explosive reforms in administration and management that would be required. (Hirschman, 44)

With many other churches to attend and ministries to become involved with, the forces of ‘voice’ that might drive change, instead often simply exit.  This process, then, only strengthens the voice and power of those that are perceived to have ‘loyalty’.   This cycle, usually only reinforces and strengthens the systems and practices and the type of leadership that lead to or at the least allowed the deterioration to begin with.

One of the primary responses to to the deterioration – when it has been recognized and responded to – has been to ‘lower the bar’, to try and ostensibly make it easier to be a part of the church or the faith community.  This, though, misses the point.  As Hirschman says, ‘the consumers who drop out when quality declines are not necessarily the marginal consumers who would drop out if price increased, but may be intramarginal consumers with considerable consumer surplus; or, to put more simply, the consumer who is rather insensitive to price increases is often likely to be highly sensitive to quality declines’ (Hirschman, 49)

Translated to the church world, the ‘dynamic’ members that churches crave, aren’t looking for a ‘lower price’ – and will likely not balk at the ‘higher price’ of more rigorous expectations.  At the same time, however, these members are likely to be very sensitive to the quality of the experience in worship or ministry.  Again, Hirschman confirms: ‘those customers who care most about the quality of the product and who, therefore, are those who would be the most active, reliable, and creative agents of voice are for that very reason also those who are apparently likely to exit first in the case of deterioration (Hirschman, 47).

I remember hearing Princeton Theological Seminary professor and Youth Ministry thought maker Kenda Creasy Dean discuss the results of an extensive survey on worship at a Princeton Forum on Youth Ministry.  She remarked, much to the surprise of many, that they found that, according to their data, quality of the worship experience was clearly the most important element in an participants view of the service.  Quality, it turns out, was far more important than style – even when participants had a strong stylistic preference.

I imagine the forces of Voice, Exit and Loyalty will be ones that church leaders have to deal with as long as there are churches.  I am thankful for Hirschman’s work and insight in wrestling with these powerful forces.




About the Author

Chip Stapleton

Follower of Jesus Christ. Husband to Traci. Dad to Charlie, Jack, Ian and Henry. Preacher of Sermons, eater of ice cream, supporter of Arsenal. I love to talk about what God is doing in the world & in and through us & create space and opportunity for others to use their gifts to serve God and God's people.

6 responses to “Voice and Exit in (and out of) the local Church”

  1. Stu Cocanougher says:

    “One of the primary responses to to the deterioration – when it has been recognized and responded to – has been to ‘lower the bar’, to try and ostensibly make it easier to be a part of the church or the faith community.”

    I believe that this is a reality that all churches must struggle with. There is one church in our city where you cannot join the church on a Sunday morning. The ONLY way to join the church is via a small group. Small group attendance and participation comes first. The small group leader then can present the person as a candidate for church membership.

    I visited this church about 25 years ago. I do not think that it has grown much since then. Yet, I wonder if they do a good job of keeping the members that they do have?

  2. Jennifer Dean-Hill says:

    Interesting… quality wins out over style. Then I guess doing church with excellence is a note-worthy goal. I wonder if this would also be the desire of the millennials or if this was unique to a certain generation? It seems to me our younger generation might prefer style over quality. Have you discovered any studies on this?

    Yes, I had a hard time with the language as well. Seemed like lots of run-on sentences with confusing word combinations. But like you, the concept of leaving, staying, or speaking up is a real issue for everyone. I see people constantly wrestling with this in companies, families, and churches. Sadly, I rarely find people having successful experiences when they speak up in church.

  3. Jim Sabella says:

    “In that space, the forces of voice and exit, particularly have been allowed to run rampant in far to many churches, further crippling those church’s ability to respond to the changes in our culture or, even more importantly, live into the call that they have been given as the body of Christ.”

    You make a good point with this Chip. Voice and exit are often played like pieces on a monopoly board with the goal of total domination in the church. The result is a crippling of the church and its mission. Thanks for making that connection.

  4. Christal Jenkins Tanks says:

    Chip this book was not the easiest book to read for sure! I agree with you that there is an interplay between all three voice, exit and loyalty. Your data/survey results on quality over style speaks to the power of voice. A survey is a collection of voices. People complete surveys because they know that their voice/opinion can and will lead to change. In doing so, people will participate. It is empowering the voice as a valued agent of change.

  5. Mary Walker says:

    Ok, ok, so my undergraduate degree was in business and this book was way easier for me that Dr. Friedman’s because I know zilch about psychology. I loved the charts!
    Anyway, you made a lot of great points as usual and I will respond to one that the others didn’t.
    “The rise of the ‘nones’ (those that don’t self-affiliate with any religious organization or faith tradition) in our current context hasn’t caused the problem for the church, but rather has simply exposed it.”
    We attend the kind of Reformed church that would just say all of those people are lost. The problem can’t be with us. Our theology is perfect.
    For a Presbyterian you ain’t bad, and may I respond to your other post by saying that my husband and I ARE Presbyterian so you don’t have to convert us. There are different kinds of Presbyterians and I like yours better than ours.

  6. Lynda Gittens says:

    You had a lot to say.

    In our church, we have business meetings twice a year to share what plans of the church, elect officers, and member/leaders have an opportunity to address what was discussed or their concerns. I guess I would label the acts as a voice/loyalty.
    Does your church have business meetings for the members?

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