- There is no progress without accountability — holding people accountable to the vows they make is the key to development, growth and maturing
- Actions have consequences — where there are no consequences (positive or negative) there is no accountability
- Lack of accountability renders relationships meaningless — if it doesn’t matter whether or not I keep my word, why bother?
Now a story:
Four years ago I was working with a southern church of considerable size (over 2,000 members on the books) that was being systematically undermined and torn apart by two former Baptists who joined the church, then decided that United Methodism was too liberal and “wrongly-structured” for their tastes. These two toxic-influencers started spreading rumors about how apportionment monies were spent to promote abortion, fund Democratic political groups, and drive the GLBT (gay, lesbian, bi-sexual, transgender) efforts to destroy the church. They launched a whisper-campaign to attack the pastor’s reputation and undermine his leadership. They conducted an email campaign to spread rumors about misconduct of elected leaders and to encourage people to stay away from worship, withhold their giving, and to resign from leadership positions. They held a “prayer-rally” where they incited people to either leave the church or to mount a crusade to get the church to leave the denomination. Happy times all around.
My recommendation to the church leadership was to remove these two people from the membership rolls and to ask them to leave the church. The reaction I got was interesting. You might have thought I suggested they douse the pair in gasoline and strike a match. The pastor (who invited me to help in the first place) was appalled, “We can’t do that. That wouldn’t be Christian!” Others rose up in agreement. The majority thought I was grossly unfair to suggest that these people should be asked to leave. Within a week I received a call from the district superintendent over this charge, and was read the riot-act on how it is unacceptable for a “national church leader” to suggest we revoke the membership of poor members. “How might such people be redeemed?” he asked. “Well, not by ignoring their bad behavior and allowing them to destroy the congregation,” was my reply.
My rationale is/was simply this: this pair had already violated the covenant relationship with the congregation and had broken several key promises made when they joined the church. Members are asked (in The United Methodist Church) to “renounce the spiritual forces of wickedness, reject the powers of evil of this world, and repent of your sin.” Additionally we ask, “do you accept the freedom and power God gives you to resist evil, injustice and oppression in whatever form they present themselves?” Lastly, we ask, “will you be loyal to The United Methodist Church and uphold it by your prayers, your presence, your gifts, your service and your witness.” Then, together as a community of faith in covenant relationship, we all reconfirm, “with God’s help we will so order our lives after the example of Christ…” Now, call me crazy, but I do not see how any of the behaviors of the toxic duo in any way, shape or form fulfilled their membership vows and commitments.
This is simply for me an example of what we are systematically doing to destroy our church. Inadvertently and without intention, we make membership meaningless. When it doesn’t matter whether people keep their promises or not; when behaviors are irrelevant to beliefs and belonging; when everyone is treated equally without distinction between those who invest themselves in the common good versus those who merely engage in order to take and receive — then the implication is that our covenant is worthless. Why join something that has no different expectations of members than non-members? In our current situation, a person who promises to pray with and for the church, who vows to be actively engaged in and connected with the ministries, who commits to invest time, energy and resources, who pledges to not simply receive benefits of Christian service but to offer such service to others, and who promises to proclaim their faith in both word and deed, doesn’t have to follow-through in any substantive way. Once “received in membership,” a person may attend once a year, throw $2 in the plate and call it good enough — and no one says otherwise. Not only does this make membership meaningless to those outside the church, but it cheapens and defiles membership for those who take it seriously.
This always comes back to the question: “Whose church is this, anyway?” Is there anything about being a part of the body of Christ that is fundamentally different from, say, being part of a symphony orchestra? Can you imagine a violinist being accepted into an orchestra then saying, “I will only show up when I feel like it, only give what I consider reasonable, only play the pieces I enjoy, and I reserve the right to say anything I want about other musicians or the conductor?” Yet, this is normative in our congregations. No accountability for our responsibility to the will of God or the good of the community of faith — only a consumer mentality that believes the church exists for ME, ME, ME.
Do we really want to turn things around? We lament that ‘people just don’t join like they used to,’ and pull out Robert Putnam’s, Bowling Alone, to confirm our thesis — glibly ignoring the millions of people who ARE joining churches (just not ours…) and are signing up and logging onto more formal and informal associations than ever before in our history. It is not that people don’t want to join, it is simply that they won’t join that which is worthless. People are looking for associations and connections that enrich their lives and add value to their relationships. The burden is on us, not them. If we want people to join us — to want to become part of us — then we need to give them something worth joining, and not keep making the most important organization on earth — the incarnate body of Christ — seem irrelevant and ridiculous.