Pastoral Accountability

A couple of commenters on my post on congregational vitality have suggested that critique of the Council of Bishop’s Call to Action report is based in a discomfort with pastoral accountability. To quote one commenter: “Spiritualize it away all you want, but the old tired notion referencing unmeasurables is a transparent attempt to avoid accountability. If church leaders cannot preach and lead in such a way as to increase attendance and giving, they should be fired.”

Well I am glad that my post was transparent, because I really didn’t want to be opaque in my attempts to avoid accountability . . . although that is in fact more often than not what happens in the United Methodist Church. Trust me that the folks who want to avoid accountability aren’t usually willing to speak up and challenge the powers that be in our denomination so as to draw attention to themselves. Nope, those wanting to avoid accountability slide under the radar, slipping from congregation to congregation, often “moving up” the salary ladder until they can retire or get appointed to the cabinet. 

No, I am happy to be held accountable, and am willing to understand that data such as worship attendance is a part of how the success or failure of my ministry is to be evaluated. The question is not whether we should have metrics of success, but rather what metrics represent a faithful reflection of God’s call upon both pastor and congregation in carrying out the task of preaching the gospel and bringing forth God’s kingdom here on earth. My argument in my previous post is that the metrics used in the Call to Action  report are the same metrics we have used for the past 50 years. They are important and helpful, but given that using these metrics hasn’t seemed to do much in motivating pastors and congregations to be more effective, might we seriously consider additional factors, and as importantly deeper understandings of congregational dynamics and community demographics that help the cabinet to be more effective in ministerial deployment, and which honestly identify those existing congregations for which growth is very difficult if not impossible regardless of who is appointed.

I absolutely believe in pastoral accountability – and regularly goo the D.S. and the SPRC for input on my effectiveness in ministry. I don’t know about my colleagues, but I am in fact my worst critic, regularly wondering if I am being effective, even while having confidence that God has indeed called me to this task and believing that I have something to offer the congregations that I serve and the world as well.  Pastoring a church well is too hard to be something that I would just want to go through the motions doing. I, and I imagine the lion’s share of my colleagues in ministry, want the congregations we serve to thrive. 

And yet, as we all know, there are indeed folks in ministry that need to consider another career. The signs are usually pretty clear:

  • A consistent pattern of short-term pastorates (2 years or less).
  • Regularly being asked to move my Staff Parish Relations Committees.
  • Unhealthy patterns of dealing with conflicts with congregants.
  • An unwillingness to participate in growth opportunities to enhance one’s ministry.
  • A cynicism about the church, both at a denominational level and in one’s ability to discern honorable intentions from congregants.
  • Lifestyles that fall outside of Christian norms, such as inappropriate relationships, alcoholism, and other destructive behaviors.

For all the concern about numerical growth as a standard of effectiveness, there needs to be a recognition that we have been unwilling to address the signs above, leading to unhealthy congregations for whom growth is hindered, sometimes for generations. Yes, this means that the notion of guaranteed appointment needs to be called into question, albeit with safeguards that ensure that effective ministers are not given appointments based on gender or race alone.  Bishops and cabinets need to be able to address persons exhibiting the signs above, for the legacy of unhealthy pastors follows them for many years . . . trust me, for all of the congregations that I have served have still borne scars from sexual misconduct and short-term pastorates.

The concern in the focus on pastoral accountability is the addition of another layer of pressure to produce that gets in the way of being faithful. My first calling before God is to be faithful to His word for me, to follow in His footsteps, and to share what He would have me share. That faithfulness will (I hope and pray) lead to fruitfulness, through the guidance and the presence of the Holy Spirit, the one who ultimately brings all into relationship with Christ and the church. While focusing on production can be complimentary to living and preaching faithfully, it can easily be transformed into a purpose in it’s own right that forgets God’s role in the work of the church.

I’m reminded of the work of Dr. Howard Snyder in his book, “The Problem of Wineskins: Church Structure in a Technological Age.”  In his chapter Must The Pastor Be a Superstar, he reflects on Paul’s teachings to the church at Corinth on the Body of Christ:

These words are for the church in every age, but to the church today they seem superflous. For we have got all the gifts organized. We do not the the Spirit (Dreadful thing to say!) to stir up gifts of ministry. We just need superstars to make the organization GO.

So we depend on our structures and our superstars, And we know the system works—just what the superstars are doing in their superchurches! We have the statistics and the buildings and the budgets to prove it.

There is only one problem.

There are not enough superstars to go around. Thousands of churches, but only hundreds of superstars.

Thank God for the superstars! They are all men(sic) most fortunate. But the church of Jesus Christ cannot run on superstars, and God never intended that it should . . . God does not promise an affluence of superstars. But he does promise to provide all the necessary leadership through the gifts of the Spirit (Eph 4:1-16) If a denomination must depend on pastoral superstars for growth, there is something drastically wrong with its structure and, more fundamentally, with its understanding of the church.

–Snyder, Howard; “The Problem of Wineskins: Church Structure in a Technological Age”; Copyright 1975 Intervarsity Press: Downers Grove, ILL

Yes, pastoral accountability is important – and I hope that all we keep me accountable. But God did not create me to be a superstar, able to leap small buildings in a single bound, or transform congregations in 6 short months. That involves a symbiotic relationship between leader and congregation. When will we start talking about congregational accountability in the same we we consider pastoral accountability. Only, I think, when we are willing to cast aside the mantle of the superstar pastor.

3 thoughts on “Pastoral Accountability

  1. Excellent post, Jay. I think the rhetoric of “you must be afraid of accountability” is telling in itself. It is not a response to an argument, but an attempt to shift the ground of the discussion. I think we will see more and more of that as the CTA gains momentum.

  2. “There are not enough superstars to go around. Thousands of churches, but only hundreds of superstars. ”

    Ah, but we’ve solved God’s problem with the development of video technology and the invention of Multi-site! Now the superstars cab be wherever we want them and the rest of us can do something else.

    I’m happy to be accountable. I’m not always overwhelmed with trust in those who are over me in the hierarchy. When I hear our system described (all these years) as one of accountability and see how that “accountability” actually works, I see a real disconnect.

    Having a shared doctrine (not merely shared official doctrine but shared operational doctrine – to use Lindbeck’s distinction) and a shared understanding of what “discipleship” is and looks like sure would help.

    1. Having a shared doctrine (not merely shared official doctrine but shared operational doctrine – to use Lindbeck’s distinction) and a shared understanding of what “discipleship” is and looks like sure would help.

      I think that is in fact what Dan Dick has been advocating again and again in his writing. Of course Dan also (rightly I believe) understands that a biblical view of discipleship may may work against growth in the short term (building foundations for the long term) in the radical nature of the gospel and Christ’s call on our lives. What do we do when leaders who are attempting to reflect the a biblical view of discipleship come in conflict with those that advocate for a “cheap grace” which is more appealing in the marketplace? If our metrics are only associated with one standard (selling product and growing “profits”) then those leaders are failures in their inability to meet the needs of the consumers.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.