Accountability Ability

Three “laws” of accountability:

  1. There is no progress without accountability — holding people accountable to the vows they make is the key to development, growth and maturing
  2. Actions have consequences — where there are no consequences (positive or negative) there is no accountability
  3. 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.

30 replies

  1. For too long we have held the bar so low we trip over it when we enter the church. Right you are about the analogy with the symphony. No other organization has such a low bar. For years we have, under the umbrella of christian love and grace, condoned, allowed and even encouraged poor attendance, stewardship, committment and accountability and called it leadership. The churches who hold people responsible and accountable and take seriously the vows of membership are growing. We are not! After years in the church I have become discouraged because we have allowed this behavior and said nothing- another sin.

  2. A clarification — I believe accountability is a mutually agreed upon commitment to upholding our promises. It is not policing or punishment. One “side” cannot hold another “side” accountable, nor is it true accountability when positions of power exert pressure to make those in powerless positions do what they want. Accountability is not a weapon to be used against those with whom we disagree. Accountability requires equality and respect, grounded in civility and a commitment to put the needs of the whole ahead of the needs of the few.

    • Just a few questions:
      1. should challenging the status quo be allowed in an accountable system?
      2. does language such as “hate fest” offer anything better than what you criticize in the angry negative language in the post about Sing a New Song?
      3. can accountability be defined at the fringes or does it need to represent the whole spectrum?
      4. if our only approach to accountability is remedial, will we ever use it for anything but punishment?
      5. name-calling, scoring points, launching insults — on both sides — is not going to bring us anywhere close to the kingdom of God. Charged rhetoric is why I am calling for accountability, but if polarized sides are only interested in being right, why bother? Both sides are admitting they have no interest in being the church. Are we really wishing to be better or merely to win?

      • 1. Challenging the status quo by working within the system to change it is not only allowable but encouraged. Violating a clear rule is not acceptable.
        2. Not really but it does show how far we have gone toward total polarization when one side engages in a gloating celebration because they won.
        3. The whole spectrum.
        4. The judicial process comes into play when all else has failed. By its very nature it is adversarial and punitive.
        5. Agree. But I am getting tired of being called a homophobic heterosexualist and being compared to racists and Nazis simply because I like the policy the way it is. The more this goes on the less hopeful I bocome that there will be a reconciliation of any kind.

  3. Thank you Dan. The church should hold itself accountable. I believe one of the issues is that we all want to be nice, and ignore the elephant in the room, bad behavior. Satan, the devil, evil, whatever word one chooses to use feeds on distraction, disagreement and chaos. Conflict is not a bad thing and there are always going to be persons that throw emotional tantrums when they don’t get their way.

  4. Accountability has nothing to do with winning, losing or whether or not my brother offends me. It is about helping each other to maintain established standards. If someone does not like a particular rule and seeks to change it within the system I have no problem with that. Bear in mind I may be working in opposition. But when a rule has been clearly established according to our procedures the ones in disagreement are as obligated to follow the rule as anyone else. If the voices in disagreement do not like that then they need to convince enough people to get the rule changed. For those who vow to openly defy the rule that is when accountability comes into play. I would submit that UMC has done a poor job in holding people accountable. I absolutely agree that expulsion or division are tools of last resort. Reconciliation should be attempted first. But when people say they will do it their way no matter what then we have an accountability problem.

    • This is the eternal test — are those who defy willing to suffer the consequences. Civil disobedience and nonviolent protest have been catalysts to bring about monumental change, but the pioneers of both had the courage and conviction to realize that in the short term, their actions would produce very predictable responses. Change is slow. The brutality displayed against minorities in our not-so-distant past — fully accepted and supported in its time — could not survive today. All because accountability shifted from the rights of some to the rights of more. There is no question that testing the limits of accountability is necessary to bring about God’s kingdom. But those who test must be willing to accept that actions have consequences. My post was more aimed at those who threaten physical violence, use hateful language to hurt others, lie, gossip, or terrorize. It is a bit more difficult to defend such behaviors or the people who perpetrate them, though, of course we have hate groups even in the church of Jesus Christ who defend their actions as their right, and many stand by and remain silent.

      • Civil disobedience is an action against the state with risk of serious consequences to the individual; physical harm, imprisonment, legal costs. It does not really apply within the UMC which is a covenant organization. There are no serious consequences to the disobedient. By not holding them accountable the entire UMC risks fracturing. Not a pleasant thought and it is not the proper way to bring about change. As to lies and hateful language there is plenty of that coming from those who are pushing for change. They are not being held accountable.

      • Focusing on what doesn’t work becomes an excuse to defend the status quo. I am not defending one side against another. All should be held accountable, but accountability should be built into the integrity of true Christian community, not just hauled out to punish people we disagree with. That’s a poor substitute for honest accountability. When actions do not have consequences, relationships have no value, and everything devolves to choosing sides and ignorant bickering. But what if we decided not to be defined by our flaws, but instead commit to work together to build something better? This can only happen if we build accountability into our covenants at the outset. I once got in terrible trouble when I dismissed a key lay leader who repeatedly showed up to church meetings inebriated and then was arrested for domestic violence (but refused to seek help for either condition). My determination was not to punish the man for his behavior — I wanted to help him. My greater concern was for the larger community of faith and the community beyond. His behaviors did not extend a witness that our congregation believed healthy. Yet, when I asked him to step down, the chair of our Trustees chided me, saying, “He’s been coming to church drunk for years. It’s just who he is. We ignore it.” By our fruits we will be known. Accountability is not a wedge to separate sides, but a tool designed to make everyone stronger and to put the good of the whole over any individual or sub-groups agenda.

  5. So when a pastor expresses intent to openly defy the UMC policy on conducting gay marriage ceremonies how is he or she to be held accountable? And when bishops look the other way how are our bishops held accountable? If at a national level we do not see our leaders being held accountable how does that play out at the local level?

    • Every time accountability is reduced to winning and losing it ceases to have meaning, and that (sadly) is how we have framed the human sexuality issue in all its many forms. When standards and expectations are contested, then accountability must be a primary value and work of all the people, and not just two sides debating their rule book. True accountability is not seeking a simple solution to a complex problem. Accountability is more than majority rule – it requires true community; something many voices in the current disagreement could care less about. If my brother or sister offend me, it does not mean they are no longer my brother or sister. Accountability demands first reconciliation. Division is always a last resort based in a lack of faith and imagination (though sometimes it is the only recourse).

  6. I wonder what kind of conversations or issues arose before this pair joined the church. Was there a process that might have highlighted these issues before they were members?

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