Two Ways to Vote

by Dan Hotchkiss

We vote a lot in congregations. Sometimes we do it with our hands—and sometimes with our feet.

By “voting with our hands,” I am referring to the politics of congregational decision-making: conversation, group discernment, and consensus-seeking, in which voting may play only a small role. Boards and committees often wrangle and discuss until consensus has been wrested from the grip of an exhausted disagreement—the vote itself may be anticlimactic. At congregational meetings, voting may be the most scripted, least important thing that happens. Mood and tone may matter more, and carry a more nuanced message to the congregation’s leaders, than a formal motion.

But politics is not the only way to influence decisions in the congregation. Congregants are not just voters—we’re also customers. We vote with our feet by simply showing up or staying home, by giving or not giving money, or by participating in one program and avoiding others. Our choices about where and whether to participate exert a great effect on what a congregation does, because a congregation can thrive only if it can attract enough support. This gives the foot-voters quite a bit of influence, whether or not they have the right to vote, or choose to exercise it.

Many congregations encourage the “hand” option, either on principle or from habit. Hand voting assumes that every member has something of value to contribute and is willing to engage the group until it reaches a decision. Like every principle, democracy can become a fetish. In some congregations, “we vote on everything.” In such congregations, it sometimes appears that the main goal is to keep people happy by letting them decide everything. Except of course, that making decisions is not what most people come to church for in the first place. The constant invitation to discuss and vote repels more people than it draws.

Other congregations favor the “feet” style of voting. They put forward a clear sense of purpose, typically articulated by the clergy leader, and let others vote entirely by foot—joining in if they are happy, walking out if they are not. These congregations can be quite energetic and efficient, if perhaps a bit more vulnerable in times of leadership transition, scandal, or uncertainty. Perhaps the biggest loss, by contrast with the “hand” approach, is that such congregations do not offer many people chances to participate in finding meaning or defining purpose. If congregants are only customers, are they becoming all they should become?

It’s easy to see why “foot” voting is unpopular, especially in congregations where political decision-making is the norm. At worst, it sounds like this: “If this church ever votes to move out of this neighborhood, I will quit!”

You can fill in the blank and substitute the outrage of your choice. Instead of “move out of this neighborhood,” you might say “call a woman minister,” “bless a gay marriage,” “set a national flag up in the chancel,” or “let non-Jewish parents read the Torah.”

When I hear this kind of threat my first reaction is to disapprove. “OK, fine,” I say to myself. “Thank you for resigning. Real members accept the will of the majority and don’t use threats to get their way.” Threatening to leave (and take your money with you) feels like a breach of covenant—a form of dirty fighting that should never be rewarded.

But like many first reactions, I’ve come to believe that this one is too simple.

Whether we say so or not, each of us has a breaking point, a threshold beyond which we would leave rather than accept a decision we object to. Being honest with myself about this helps me to feel respect for others who decide to exit rather than persist at politics when it has become clear that they are always going to lose.

The exit option—voting with our “feet”—has become more important in the lives of congregations than it used to be. Even in communities where religious affiliation is a strong norm, people have more options than they once did and feel more free to exercise them. Some people under 40 still feel obligated to attend a congregation—but almost none think they have to attend yours. Increasingly in mobile, metropolitan communities, newcomers arrive in a frank, “shopping” frame of mind. For a growing number, leaving is much easier when a congregation does not please them than sticking around to try and make things better. A great many have voted with their feet to exit organized religion altogether.

For all these reasons, I have reconsidered my knee-jerk preference for “hands” over “feet.” For me, the most telling reason is that, at meetings, future members never get a chance to raise their hands. This group—who, if all goes well, will constitute a large majority of those affected—can only vote after the fact, and with their feet. So we who hold the franchise need to pay attention to those who don’t, and try to imagine their likes, dislikes, and motivations. Otherwise the most important people in the congregation—those who have not yet arrived—will be left out of the choices that could make a transforming difference in their lives. 

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“Two Ways to Vote” originally appeared as the Unconventional Wisdom column in the second 2013 issue of Congregations magazine. Copyright © 2013 by the Alban Institute. All rights reserved.

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