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.