I believe there are some useful ideas for United Methodists in Albert Hirschman’s Exit, Voice, and Loyalty: Responses to Decline in Firms, Organizations, and States. We know we have decline in the United Methodist Church. We have fewer members in the United States every year. Because we close many more churches than we open, we have fewer congregations each year. If the general population were in decline, this might not be so bad, but as the population increases, we decrease. We also have an aging population, and that mostly aging in place. We’re getting older without adding younger people (younger than our current average age).
But why read Hirschman? He’s an economist, not a theologian. I don’t even know if he was a Christian.
As United Methodists, we confess with other Christians that the church is one, holy, catholic, and apostolic. We claim with scripture that the church is the body of Christ, united and animated by the Holy Spirit. When we stray from these theological descriptors we damage the church. When we fail to experience the church as so described, we miss out on tremendous blessings.
But the church is also a human institution. We experience it as an organization – one of the targets Hirschman has in view. When I read Hirschman, I see application to what I see and experience in the church.
Hirschman’s thesis is that all organizations experience decline and deterioration. People “inside” the organization (the meaning of “inside” varies depending on what type of organization is in view) have limited options when dealing with this decline. They might decide to bail on the organization altogether. If I have a bad experience at a restaurant – poor service or nasty food, for example – I will stop going to that restaurant. Hirschman calls this option “exit.”
Suppose the restaurant belongs to some close friends or plays an important role in my community. I have sufficient connection to the restaurant that I want to stay attached. I would like to see the restaurant be better. In this case I exercise “voice” – I speak up and give my input.
Some kinds of organizations make exit very easy. If I live in an area with many restaurants, it’s easy to drop one and never return. There are plenty of others I can choose. Churches are this way too. Exiting any particular church, whether a specific congregation or a denomination, is easy. If I don’t like something about First Methodist, I can go to Second Methodist. If I don’t like something about Methodists in general, I can go to the Presbyterians, Baptists, or Catholics.
Exit is very difficult when it comes to some other social entities. If I don’t like the local public school, I may or may not have any option. Exiting the school – dropping out – has a huge cost associated with it. Or consider the nation state. In recent election years we hear of rich celebrities declaring that they’ll move to another country if the candidate they despise is elected. Being rich, that might be a live option. For most people, it’s not an option. Exit is too difficult.
Sometimes our role in the organization can make exit more difficult. As a ordained elder in the United Methodist Church I’m deeply committed to the church. I haven’t just declared my allegiance to the institution when I was ordained, but I’ve invested over thirty years of my professional life into the church. As a pastor, I can, through the agency of the Bishop & cabinet, exit one appointment and move to another. Institutionally, that’s an easy and common thing to do. I can’t however, easily move to a church of another denomination. Exit costs me not just relationships but my livelihood.
When exit is difficult or impossible, the importance of voice rises. I find myself in an institution. I’m personally and deeply invested in that institution. I not only care what happens to that institution, and what it does, but to a significant degree, my success or well-being depends on its success and well-being. When I see or experience decline in the organization, I have to speak up. By exercising voice, I aim to shift the trajectory of the institution, to redirect it toward health and/or growth. If exit is difficult or impossible – and I have no voice or feel like I have no voice, I might withdraw into passivity and neglect and depression.
Hirschman’s third word describing a possible relation to an institution is “loyalty.” Loyalty speaks to the degree and quality of our connection to the institution. Sometimes, and our normal relationship to businesses like restaurants, our relation to an institution might be based on what we get out of it. We patronize the restaurant because we like the food, the atmosphere, the people we find there. Choice plays an important role. Churches are different. While some current people were raised in that church and may perceive themselves as lacking a choice, the church “market” is such that many options exist in most places. It is true that some people choose a church based on what they get out of it. They are consumers, and they approach their decision to adhere to a particular church as a consumer of goods and services. For many, however, the connection is much deeper. Many join and adhere to a church out of conviction and love. They understand themselves not as consumers of the church’s goods and services but as part of the church itself. Our nation state represents a third type of relation. Choice plays a much smaller role when it comes to our connection to our nation state. Sure, there are conditions under which we can migrate to another country. The decision is much more momentous, difficult, and costly.
Loyalty can function in each of these kinds of institutional relationship. My loyalty to a restaurant will lead to my regular patronage and my referring others to it. My loyalty to a church entails my dedication to and participation in achieving its mission. I want it to succeed in terms of that mission. My loyalty to my nation can be expressed variously. I obey the laws and encourage their enforcement. I serve when called on – for the country’s defense or on a jury. I cheer for my country in international sporting events.
Loyalty, as Hirschman conceives it is never blind loyalty. True loyalty wants the institution and its constituents to prosper and do well. Loyalty takes the mission and purpose of the institution into account. Loyalty may push voice over exit, but exit can remain as an option of last resort. Institutions that want loyalty from their participants or adherents must keep the possibility open for exercise of voice, lest those who are experiencing decline or deterioration are forced to exit.
In future posts I will interact more with Hirschman’s book and its application to our current United Methodist situation. In those I will go into greater detail as to how I think it might help us. Keep reading.