Hirschman’s “Exit, Voice and Loyalty” may have been written as social theory to be consumed by economists and politicians, but having watched the EXIT door of the church for a couple decades I can see correlations to the church. My comparison may be off-putting for some church folks; we’re often apprehensive when secular theories are applied to the body of Christ. But no need to worry in this case—I don’t propose secular answers. But I do recognize that Hirschman’s work can speak a prophetic word to the church even if it addresses how consumers respond to the markets, their response to low quality products and poor service by use of their exit and voice.
“Exit” is when “some customers stop buying the firm’s products or some members leave the organization: this is the exit option. As a result, revenues drop, membership declines, and management is impelled to search for ways and means to correct whatever faults have led to exit.” “Voice” is when customers “express their dissatisfaction directly to management or to some other authority to which management is subordinate or through general protest addressed to anyone who cares to listen” Because “exit” is final in its application it offers a sign of decline but it does little to improve the organization. “Exit” and “voice” together can provide a sounding board for change.
“Loyalty” is a third factor. Some customers are very brand loyal; for example I only buy Hondas. If a consumer like myself gets a bad product I’ll complain. I’ll work with my dealer and even reach out to corporate headquarters to resolve a problem. Because of my loyalty to Honda I’m much more likely to use voice over exit. But if I don’t see any change, I’ll look elsewhere for my next car. The extent to which an organization understands the interplay among “exit,” “voice,” and “loyalty” is a strong determinant of its ability (and willingness) to change in order to regain its customers.
My pastorate has focused primarily on redevelopment churches. Perhaps numerically or spiritually plateaued, my role is not unlike a business leader trying to regain market share or turn around a sales slump. My motivation is love for the body of Christ and its local members, not numbers. Church leadership needs to know why each person exits so relevant issues can be addressed. This is not something I do well. In the churches I’ve pastored, about half of those silent exits have gone unpursued. In fact, I’ve often been relieved when some difficult members have slipped away. For most, however, I know them well and understanding of their motivation for departure. And in many cases, their loyalty to our church simply declined over time and they silently moved on, looking for more than what our church could provide.
As mentioned earlier, the leadership team must understand the reason(s) people leave. The Pastor may not be the most effective person to solicit this input; many feel uncomfortable speaking to the pastor about such things, especially if the dissatisfaction is a reflection on the pastor’s ministry. My Elders are often the ones doing this, especially if several slip away over a number of months. In that case, we make a concerted effort to reach out with some open questions to find reasons and discover any commonalities.
Voice, however, isn’t just interplaying with an exit from the church but with loyalty as well. Members need clear ways to voice their concerns to church leaders while they are remaining committed to the church. I imagine most churches, like ours, have leadership that is available to listen and take action. This isn’t always a formal and thoughtful process. My experience is that some people catch me after a worship service, or after a group meeting, or they may chat with an Elder or deacon with whom they’re comfortable, making their complaint “quick and painless,” while trusting that leader will make things right. And yet, if their voice really matters, shouldn’t we have a clear process that makes the most of it and ensures the right leader(s) hear it fully? Furthermore, wouldn’t we want to enter into a dialogue about the concern to best understand it? Clearly, a defined process is called for.
For example, about a year ago I was facilitating a deacons meeting at which one deacon shared a concern unrelated to the discussion topic—it wasn’t his concern but he was representing several members of the church who had chosen to remain anonymous. After the meeting I met with the deacon and we discussed the principles of Matthew 18:15-20, I encouraged him to go back to these members and ask them to come directly to the deacons or Elders with their concerns so we can have a conversation and discern what actions might be needed. This could only be done with those who had initiated the concerns. The following month the Elders and I introduced a policy on “open communication” to the church leadership; it offered a clear process for everyone to have a voice. This was in keeping with what Hirschman says about voice: “it is direct and straightforward rather than roundabout”. Our policy was also consistent with biblical principles. To implement it we highlighted the policy and process at the Annual meeting and will continue to discuss it during our membership classes – we want members to know their voice matters.
As a community of Christ-followers on a mission together we should value the principles of exit, voice, and loyalty; these principles respect the person and can be done in ways that follow a biblical process.
 Albert O. Hirschman, Exit, Voice, and Loyalty: Responses to Decline in Firms, Organizations, and States(Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1970), 4.
 Ibid., 41.