Accountability. This has become a new favorite buzz word that belongs in a long line of buzz words in recent history among United Methodists. What does it mean? Merriam-Webster’s Online Dictionary defines accountability as: an obligation or willingness to accept responsibility or to account for one’s actions. The church has been in a recognized decline for a few years now. And in stressful times such as these, pastors are being looked to for more accountability for their work. This seems to be the driving force behind why the term accountability has become so much a part of the mainstream conversation of church leadership.
I wonder, however, how many of us are willing to admit in a larger gathering why we’re focusing so much on accountability. We talk about it in small, intimate settings. But we seem to dance around the issue in a larger setting, failing to name the emblematic “elephant in the room.” The truth is we’re not nearly as worried about measuring the fruit of a pastor’s work as we are in measuring the lack of fruit in a pastor’s work. If the church is on the skids then someone must be to blame for it. If it’s not the message or methods of ministry, and it’s not the people in the pews, then it must be the person(s) charged to lead and/or carry out the ministry.
In my conference pastors are asked to enroll in an accountability program that rewards them for meeting particular benchmarks of ministry. If pastors meet these marks [and fill out their paperwork] they are recognized at our Annual Conference as an “effective” pastor. We do this as a means of keeping pastors accountable for their productivity and merit in ministry. The hope is that all pastors would want to be recognized publically for doing good work. Never mind that an emphasis on public accolades and recognition goes against the very nature of the vocation of pastor. That may be a rabbit to chase another day.
All of this raises an interesting discussion for pastors and lay people alike. Pastors do the work of ministry professionally [they are paid for their work] but lay people do it on a volunteer basis [they do work and are not normally paid for it]. The concern to be raised is not in expecting pastors to be accountable for ministry but rather the posture in which we expect such excellence. Are we mutually bearing the burdens of accountability by supporting, loving, and constructively growing together? Or, are we instead constantly looking over our shoulder in fear at our conferences (or institutional superiors) as though they’re our dreaded elementary school teacher who would stand tapping their foot and pointing their finger at us in indignation? However we seek to be accountable to one another, it has to be somewhere between lazily ignoring the issue of accountability, on the one hand, and expecting a trophy for just showing up, on the other.
I can understand creating measures, or benchmarks, for effectiveness. But really, how do you go about creating metrics for accountability. I wonder if at the very heart of it all, do we even know how to speak the truth in love to one another? Or, does the system itself encourage competition and stress among and between colleagues to the point that we have no idea how to love one another enough to hold each other accountable for the work we strive to do together for the Kingdom? I suppose, then, that the answer of accountability may not lie as much with our hierarchy or institutional superiors as we might think. Maybe the answer really lies with well,us.
How do we measure effectiveness in ministry? What about accountability? Is accountability viewed as an individual effort or a communal endeavor? Can we collectively be accountable without expecting special praise for the work we should be doing in the first place?
The Rev. Ben Gosden is associate pastor of Mulberry Street UMC, Macon, GA.