Exit, Voice, and Loyalty

I am playing off the title of A. O. Hirschman’s book “Exit, Voice, and Loyalty: Responses to Decline in Firms, Organizations, and States,” but I have to admit that I have not yet read the book.

I am telling you my thoughts and associations when I heard the title.

There are three ways to react to a community when the going gets tough:

  • you run
  • you let your voice be heard
  • you are loyal

Why do I say “when the going gets tough”?

When you are well-integrated and in agreement with the group,

  • There is no need to run.
  • Your voice is irrelevant because it is a mere echo of the current ideology.
  • Loyalty comes cheap. It is easy to agree with those that agree with you.

But imagine times when you have a different opinion on things that matter to the group. Imagine you had another view of why Jesus went to the cross or what sin is all about in a fundamentalist evangelical church setting.

Imagine you believed in free speech in a woke setting, more state and rigid gun control in a conservative environment, or degrowth in a capitalistic society. I am sure you will find more examples.

You could do what I did.

You could be loyal. For many years, I submitted to the church’s doctrine and teaching. I believed it was paramount to meet the people where they were in their understanding and not to rattle their chains and confuse them.

I did that for 29 years, and in the beginning years, this was healthy and good. I shed a lot of bad behavior and corrected a lot of destructive thinking. But there also was this other dimension. I let go of many precious beliefs and held back a lot of insight that the church lacked and needed.

For 29 years, my voice was rarely heard. I concurred with the doctrine. I was a replaceable vessel. Anybody could have echoed what leadership, elders, and my head pastor said. It does not need any courage or unique gifts and skills to concur.

In the latter years, I voiced my differences and opinions towards leadership. Usually, I faced harsh winds and was put in my place for doing so.

As avid readers of this blog know, it took some pretty stern and radical experiences for that to change. I was healed of suppressed emotions and sensory inputs and was given a cancer report shortly after.

I started to taste, smell, and see, but also to feel stuff more intense than before, and then I was confronted with the possibility of death and my finiteness.

I started to shift gears. I redefined loyalty from serfdom to doing my part, and I raised my voice.

I started to give the other interpretation of a Bible verse. I began to show people alternative concepts of the bigger picture. And I started to ask uncomfortable questions.

I tried to make people think for themselves, have their voices count, and contribute instead of obeying and fulfilling somebody else’s vision.

I did that for five years. The gap grew, trust waned, and anger mounted within the head pastor.

There came the point where the only way to make my voice count even more was to leave.

My exit was the best thing that I could do. It had a healing effect on myself, my wife, my family, and, I hope, some other people. Most in the church decided to stay loyal.

After this report of my personal example of the three strategies, let’s look at this from a broader vantage point.

I believed that loyalty in combination with raising my voice softly, respectfully, and carefully in the right setting would allow me to change the church from within, leading it to maturity, openness, and growth.

I was wrong, as much as Luther was wrong and the prophets of old were wrong. I did not expect the closed and arrested state of the worldview I was up against. Absolute truth had ceased to allow for alternative thinking. Faith had become synonymous with certainty.

Loyalty had won in that worldview. You either were absolutely loyal to the doctrine of your tribe and only raised your voice in unison with the other members to condemn and call to change those that did not belong, or you had to exit.

I am not saying that the change strategy through loyalty is never successful. But it never works within an arrested and closed mindset.

My conviction now is different. I believe that the church cannot be reformed from within at large, but that God has called out (ekklesia) a people that start to manifest his personality on this earth afresh and anew.

I am using the word personality on purpose instead of the more common phrase “to do his will.” God is not after our obedience, as it is not about his will. He is investing in our maturity, as it is all about love.

What I am saying about the church can easily be adapted to other settings.

I have told some of my clients that it would be easier to rebuild their core business from the ground up than replace an old computer system central to their processes and organization.

The solution for climate change will not come from capitalism or communism. We must exit both and adopt a new worldview, designing a system like degrowth or the like.

Let’s put it in clear terms, even though that might be too rigid. I am proven wrong gladly.

Exit seems to be the right strategy whenever you find yourself in an arrested or closed worldview that you cannot agree with any longer.