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. Point #1:

    Proverbs 26:20 NASB
    For lack of wood the fire goes out,
    And where there is no whisperer, contention quiets down.

    21 Like charcoal to hot embers and wood to fire,
    So is a contentious man to kindle strife.

    Proverbs 22:10 NIV
    Drive out the mocker, and out goes strife; quarrels and insults are ended.

    Perhaps we SHOULD be a more biblical church.

  2. Point #2:
    Regarding the comment:
    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.

    In order to understand the codependency and insanity of this comment, let’s just demand equality for clergy … that they are not to be removed, EVER, from their membership in the conference because there is the POSSIBILITY that they might stop destroying churches.

    The double standard is amazing … we have no problem holding clergy accountable, at least to the point of declaring high standards for them. Let’s provide high standards and accountability for all leaders – clergy and lay.

    • I have lived in five different annual conferences as an adult and have rarely seen clergy held accountable within the structure for high standards. Instead I see clergy that have high standards because they are motivated by their call to ordained ministry. Other (too many others!) not so much.

      Setting expectations is a good idea. An effective way to encourage people to be accountable is to set the expectations around the commitment to faithfully steward or prayers, presence, gifts, service & witness. We are good at reciting this vow, but often the church leadership fails to define exactly what that means – or what the community needs or expects.

  3. Point #3
    We are a connectional denomination; connections in a network provide feedback, encouragement, guidance, mentoring. To me that’s a healthier model than an idea of accountability that could be abused because it, too, focuses on criticism and problems rather than encouragement and potential.

    When dysfunction reaches the point that “accountability” is needed as a correction, pastoral care has had multiple, significant failures. Wesley’s idea of a connection was that every member, every week, would receive spiritual supervision in the context of a caring group relationship.

    It’s tragicomic (just my opinion here) that all we really need to do is to begin to communicate and enforce the provisions of our own Book of Discipline. If we set a higher standard, a higher expectation, a holiness and wholeness in leadership, people will rise to it.

    • Well, I certainly seem to have struck a chord with you on this one. Just one note, though. Accountability as I am using it is not to be equated with punishment. Accountability is not punitive by nature. Recgonizing and acknowledging covenant kept is as important as addressing covenant broken. Also, accountability is not top-down policing. Healthy accountability exists when “we” hold “us” accountable — when we all live within covenenat that gives us both the right and the responsibility to live our promises and to name it when we fail. This is so very difficult in the individualistic culture of modern America (U.S.).

      • Indeed!

        If the goal of human development and growth is differentation and effectiveness, we speak of mentoring rather than accountability.

        This situation was one that required accountability – it had gone too far for encouragement and positive reinforcement.

        Accountability identifies right/wrong behavior and administers consequences. Like the law, accountability is a school master to bring us to a functional maturity. It is nice to think that it is possible for accountability or grading to be something other than “top down” or involve policing … accountability will involve authority and allow authority to act freely.

        You spent last Saturday with a mutual friend, helping her to deal with a situation that was the result not only of a lack of accountability but also the result of a lack of authority stepping in to ensure that the healthy thing was done in a timely fashion. We need more situations where people like you, with the expertise you have, speak that wisdom into the lives of churches just like you did with that Southern church long ago. Every word I’ve said is with the intent to turning people like yourself loose to speak freely within our church. We need more of that, I feel.

        Differentiation, coaching, mentoring, supervision, etc. all requires a focus on individuals. Dialogue requires an individual to communicate with another individual. It’s this kind of involvement in relationships with individuals that helps those individuals grow and overcome their problems. Individuals need individual help to grow up.

        We have these problems developing not because we have an individualistic culture but because individuals do not receive the guidance they need as individuals. There’s an old saying about children that goes something like “if you don’t have time to spend with children teaching them the right way to live, they will be at the mercy of someone with more time who will teach them the wrong way to live.”

        Every member of John Wesley’s movement received individual personal supervision in living a spiritual life every week in the context of a caring group relationship overseen by a lay class leader. That’s our heritage and it’s a good one.

  4. Point #4
    Putnam isn’t just an excuse, but also can point to a solution.

    The place for accountability throughout church history is in small groups that encourage growth toward maturity. The idea of “manufacturing disciples” in a “spiritual factory” – the idea that we can do everything in a service of worship with hundreds if not thousands of people listening to a monologue rather than participating in a dialogue – is a contradiction not only of our Wesleyan heritage but the New Testament itself.

    Dialogue requires small groups. Small groups require leaders who can mentor people to spiritual maturity. Small groups increase social capital by linking people in community. Small groups raise up healthy leaders. Raising up leaders for that kind of ministry is what Paul meant by

    1. equipping the saints
    2. for the work of ministry
    3. for the building up of the body of Christ (community building)

    We’ve finally got the message of #2 going … the work of the church is moving into the hands of the laity where it belongs, if we accept the priesthood of all believers. But we need to move on to #3.

    It’s strong lay leaders who would nip this sort of behavior in the bud, and should have a long time ago. Strong lay leaders are the immune system of a healthy church. We’re equipping people to do tasks of ministry … when we need to be equipping them to do ministry in relationships that help believers become disciples and disciples to become disciple makers.

    My DMin project focused on adapting methods from third world disciple making movements (cell church & CPM) which (1) are incredibly effective at making disciples because (2) they are very effective at raising up just that sort of disciple making leaders. Wesley did the same thing in England in the context of the Church of England.

    • Putnam is right to the extent that people aren’t joining the same things their parents and grandparents did — he just neglected to note that our parents and grandparents didn’t join the same things that their parents and grandparents did, either. Also, the number of choices to join has increased. However, I am right there with you on small groups — and everything I said about accountability applies in spades to small groups as well. Wesley understood this with the classes, bands and societies.

      • We agree on Putnam’s diagnosis of the problem.

        I just want to go beyond diagnosis to emphasize his solution … that we need to “connect” people together again in relationships that nurture “neighboring” – i.e. small groups. The number of choices as to activities has grown while a person’s alienation – the lack of a significant relationship of growing trust and intimacy – has increased amid all those choices.

        Randy Frazee provides a very interesting description of the problem here:

  5. I don’t think there’s any doubt that people are “looking for associations and connections that enrich their lives and add value to their relationships,” but that’s sort of like saying the sun shines. That has always been a factor in history. We do give them something worth joining. It’s Christ. I think that generally for some as long as Jesus is held as an abstract idea. But then we realize the wood from the cross really hurts. The places we go on our walk with Jesus, however adventurous they may be, are filled with potential life-ending issues. Etc. Etc. Etc. This is not an organizational problem. It’s an existential problem. To borrow from Henri Nouwen, being a Christian means being completely irrelevant to the [secular] world. Changing the guy who drops two dollars in the plate once a year won’t happen with organizational dynamics. It will happen only when he/she extracts him/herself from a superficial view of Christian reality and provides a willingness to see him/herself as God sees. Most people don’t want to do that. It’s easier to swim in the shallow water. Clergy are often as guilty of this as laity. They enjoy the benefits of guaranteed appointments and the prospect of an ever increasing salary, all the while accompanied by generous benefits and free housing. Put a big church pastor who’s paid 90k a year in a small country parish on a 3/4 time salary…will that pastor even go in the first place (even though Christ is as present there as anywhere else)???

    Again, the “incarnate Body of Christ,” is irrelevant…just as Christ is irrelevant. We are an army of misfits changing the world in a variety of inconspicuous, sometimes terribly inefficient ways that have nothing to do with the rules of the [secular] world. We are ridiculous. We are goofy. We are out of place. […by the standards of the secular world]

    As I type, I realize that I’m not exactly arguing anything different than what you argue. But… I’m suspicious when I hear talk about an ideal organization that means what it says. Lots of people still join up to the very best organizations that really stand for something. And there are still lots of people who still only show up when it’s convenient and do only what they want to do. It makes me wonder what Jesus meant when he said “on this rock I will build my church.” What kind of church? If his behavior (and the behavior of early Christians) is any indication, it will not be something that is attractive. My theory, recovering cynic that I am, is that the church exists in spite of the organization.

    • The two conclusions I draw from your comment is that any kind of human institution called church won’t work and that accountability won’t make a bit of difference. Unfortunately, we are human, we are flawed, we don’t get it all right, but in my mind that gives us no excuse to simply act any way we want to and say organizations can’t be better than they are. Those who do show up because they believe something is important should not be dishonored by allowing the toxic and dysfunctional behaviors of those who do not to set the bar. We can do better than that — and our human social institutions are the vehicle we have.

    • I’m not quite sure I understand what you intended either, RH … but it sounds like you are on the track of something and I’d like to hear more as you clarify your own thoughts.

  6. Thank you Dan! I agree almost completely with everything you’ve said. Baptist’s joining the UMC only to then start complaining about and undermining the UMC is akin to someone ordering a hamburger and then complaining that it’s not a hot dog! How ridiculous that we find ourselves defending who we are to such people. But as you say, we have only ourselves to blame for not: a.) not holding membership vows as sacred ( a scary thought in a system anxiously wringing its hands over decline numbers ) b.) better educating people in preparation for membership, and c.) keeping who we are / what we believe constantly before our congregations. Crazy thought, but maybe “provisional membership” ought to be applied to laity as well. Welcome to the family, you have two years to show us you really intend to live out the vows you just made.”

    • David – John Wesley’s original small group system included participating in a probationary class meeting prior to being assigned to the regular class meeting. (Tom Albin is the best source for this information.) The full system of graduated small groups never caught on in the USA.

      • Of course, John Wesley didn’t believe there should be a Methodist Church. (But for a revolution, we’d be Anglican; but for a divorce, we’d be Roman Catholic.) Without being a church, we can’t claim to be the only right one. Once we accept the idea that there are different people and different ways to Christ, we can then accept that people can go (be sent) elsewhere without dishonoring the Body of Christ in any of its parts. As the individual members mature, so does the corpus – humility in particular. The corporate ego becomes less important than the larger Body of Christ. When a congregation decides to leave the UMC (or Episcopal Church), the conference trustees must make a decision about the property. The knee-jerk reaction is view the issue form the financial perspective, rather than the spiritual. How often do they ask “What is best for the larger Body of Christ?” We can send someone away in love and encourage their growth elsewhere.

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