Call To Action, Part V: A Culture of Accountability
This is the fifth in a series of blogs addressing the Council of Bishops Call to Action report (http://www.umc.org/calltoaction). One theme that runs through the document is Accountability. The Council is asked to lead the church in creating “a culture of accountability.” I presume this involves holding the Council itself accountable as well as our conferences, pastors, churches, general agencies, seminaries, etc. What are we willing to be held accountable for? By whom? How? For what purpose?
Accountability is embedded in our faith heritage. Jesus said, “For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.” We often teach this as a comforting notion about the presence of Christ. In fact, it’s about accountability: when we fall short, the community has a responsibility to engage us. In the voice and correction of our brothers and sisters in Christ we hear the truth of Christ. (Matthew 18: 15-20). And Jesus sends his disciples out “in pairs” in order for them to talk one another into bolder action and to support one another and correct one another when appropriate. Paul, independent and strong-minded, nevertheless submitted himself to the council in Jerusalem before he began his missionary travels. Timothy received rich encouragement and counsel from his mentor, but others turned away or were turned away from leadership, including Demas who was “too much in love with this present world.”
Early Methodism thrived under strong systems of personal and ecclesiastical accountability. The societies, bands, and classes supported a disciplined way of life, holding members and leaders to their commitments. The purpose of conference was to support this way of life, and the focus of the first gathering of Mr. Wesley’s pastors and lay preachers focused on what to teach and how to teach it. They wanted to improve.
Accountability has two dimensions. Horizontal accountability involves peer-to-peer, mutual, collegial relationships. How do clergy hold each other accountable? How do laity hold each other accountable? Vertical accountability involves supervisory relationships, evaluation, the willingness to submit ourselves to people and systems of authority. Early Methodism exhibited both, and many pastors and laypersons were released from their responsibilities for failure to perform the necessary work to fulfill the mission or for breach of trust or unethical behavior.
Why is there such strong language in the Call to Action about accountability? For one thing, many people perceive a crisis because there are so many ineffective clergy. They believe that if we find a language and a system to deal with ineffective clergy, we will have fixed a major problem. To some extent, I agree. However, I don’t think our central issue is ineffective clergy. At any one time, there are a small handful of ineffective clergy (maybe 5 %?), and we do need better tools to address this issue. However, I think the larger issue is our definition of effectiveness itself and how we fail to relate this to the mission of the church.
Let me explain what I mean. Imagine a pastor who serves well in a congregation for seven years. The pastor is excellent at preaching, teaching, and administration, and the congregation highly values his or her leadership. They want their pastor to return year after year. Other congregations desire to have this pastor as well. All the District Superintendents want to have this pastor in one of their churches. The pastor is highly regarded and elected to serve on various conference committees and to represent the clergy at General Conference. When it comes time for the pastor to move, the congregation pleads to have another pastor assigned that has the same characteristics and abilities of the leader they are losing. But no one notices that during his or her seven years, the average attendance has fallen from 220 to 190, and that the average age in the congregation has increased from 52 to 55. And so if the Bishop replaces the pastor with someone new who performs just as effectively and is just as well-loved, and then does the same again in another seven years and so on and on, there will be no church left in less than forty years!
How do we redefine effectiveness in a manner that attends to the mission of the church of making disciples, of leading congregations to increase in fruitfulness? Are you willing to be held accountable to this higher standard of effectiveness? Scary, isn’t it? Every church I’ve served has grown in attendance, small group life, giving, outreach, and mission during my leadership….until I became a Bishop. Now I serve an area that struggles merely to remain stable, decreases in attendance most years, and grows older each passing year. Am I willing to be held accountable for that, to take responsibility, and to reorient my leadership style in such a way to give attention to those practices and drivers that may lead to greater ministry in Christ’s name rather than less ministry each year? Are you willing to be held accountable for this as well?
Every system has people who function at different levels of effectiveness. Quint Studor, in his book Results That Last, describes the characteristics of high performers. They want more training, more responsibility, and more opportunity. They invite performance review, solicit feedback, and they never ask for money or to move to another location. They seek out learning experiences, coaches, and mentors. They are committed to the mission, and they offer their best and their highest. The role of supervision for such leaders is to ask: How can we help? Is there anything we can do to support you? What are you working on next?
Studor describes medium performers as being those who offer good, solid, reliable work. They exercise good judgment and they work hard. They are also committed to the mission and offer their best and are willing to receive feedback. They benefit from support and encouragement, opportunities for peer learning, and from coaching in a specific area or two to increase their mastery of a skill. The role of supervision involves supporting them and helping them learn to do one more thing in the practice of ministry better each year with demonstrable results, and then to work on something else after that.
Finally, Studor writes about low performers. They blame all negative outcomes on others and take no responsibility; they blame their supervisors, their peers, and even their own church members. They focus on personal issues and personal hardships in order to avoid honest evaluation of effectiveness. Numbers decline, conflict increases, and leadership teams become dysfunctional. They rely upon excuses, indignation, threat, and manipulation, and they blame the congregation, the DS, the Bishop, and the conference for their troubles. The supervisory role with such pastors involves setting clear expectations about behavior and results with strict time limits with real consequences.
What does a culture of accountability look like among pastors and church leaders? Is this something we invite or something we wish to avoid? I don’t think it’s reasonable for Bishops to hold pastors accountable unless they themselves are willing to be held accountable. In the Missouri Conference, we’ve developed a means of evaluation for pastors, for DS’s, Conference Staff, and even for the Bishop. But these are small steps in creating “a culture of accountability.”
For me, creating “a culture of accountability” includes holding each other accountable to the mission of the church, to fruitfulness in ministry, to an outward-focused, Christ-centered, engagement with the world. And it involves a willingness to require accountability to the mission, not only from our churches and pastors, but from our conferences, general agencies, seminaries, foundations, and service agencies.
Everyone thinks about changing the world, but few people think about changing themselves. What would it look like for you and your congregation to invite a higher accountability for the mission of the church, the task of making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world?
Yours in Christ,