Exit and Voice are expressions of two ways to affect change within an organization. However, I tend to disagree with Hirschman in his book Exit, Voice, and Loyalty. He states that within many organizations including churches, voice is almost the only way to be heard when dissatisfied with a situation (p. 76). Perhaps this highlights the age of the book or the reality years ago with smaller churches in rural communities. Today, few would argue that voice is the only viable method in church settings.
In America, “church shopping” has become a Christian pastime! As I host a Q & A meeting each week after our church services, a phrase I often hear is “we’re just church shopping and heard about KCC.” These are Christians who were dissatisfied with their church and expressed their displeasure by leaving – exiting. Many times we don’t even know it’s happened until a call goes unanswered or we see an absence in an area of responsibility. Most times there is no consultation with a pastor, they just vote with their feet.
Hirschman speaks of loyalty as a precursor to either of the exit options and if loyalty exists, generally voice is a first option. But then he continues by saying that when members are unsure of their voice altering the deterioration of the product (service) or when they realize there is little ability for influence, voice is replaced by exit.
This is very common in large churches which are “pastor driven” and the lead pastor or a small leadership team or elder board makes the decisions. In these environments I empathize with those members that would like to be part of change but unable. If a small church experienced a downturn and just a few families or important givers suggested a needed change, there would generally be an ear to hear the complaints because of the threat of exit. And form that “voice” potential alterations or changes may take place. But in a large church in which hundreds can leave without perceptual financial or leadership damage, voice is often overlooked or in extreme cases, scorned.
I have even seen boycott used to exercise change – but only in small churches. Again, in a large church, a majority would have to threaten boycott of monies or leadership before their complaints or suggestions would be heard.
Hirschman makes the most sense when speaking of Spatial Duopoly. He understands that most decisions and most changes for the better, or to increase quality, will please and displease some. When it is know that there will be happy and unhappy customers, or members, then the organization needs to reflect a decision that that will increase their quality or in economics, the bottom line. Hirschman speaks of the need of “earning goodwill” or reducing the hostility when contemplating a direction. Compromise can be built gauged by the strength of the discontent of either group. This balancing act can use voice as an instrument to determine the point in which the company will cease its plans for change.
If a company or a church is experiencing decline, the most equitable response would be to be sensitive to both exit and voice. Sensitivity can be the key in church situations. Hirschman acknowledges that in many cases, allowing voice a place in the mix can be a valve to “let off steam,” and once that’s done, the issues is resolved. As voice or exit can be used to help rectify a decline, the key would seem to be the sensitivity that we as leaders employ. When decline happens, dissatisfaction will occur. Members or stake holders have two options: to leave and exit or to voice complaints and suggestions. Both can or won’t have an effect, depending on the reception of the power group. As leaders in churches, we can’t eliminate either, but we can be sensitive to both and learn as people react to the organization. What shouldn’t be said is, “don’t let the door hit you on the way out!”