There is a lot of talk about "accountability" these days in our United Methodist Church, and rightly so. We are in a time, it seems, when some clergy and even some bishops are not willing to be held to our Book of Discipline or to any accountability to others. Frankly, it is not easy to hold clergy accountable on any level of the church, because our system has a "presumption of innocence" when allegations are made (and that is a good thing), and because our system relies upon peer accountability. Bishops, for example, are held accountable to their regional College of Bishops. Clergy are held accountable to their Annual Conference clergy colleagues. Even when an allegation becomes a complaint and goes to a church trial (which is always a messy and expensive prospect), the accountability must be maintained by a jury of clergy peers. We have witnessed instances where a bishop fulfilled his/her responsibility and filed a complaint, but then the clergy colleagues did not follow through in the way that most of us would have expected.
The other current issue of "accountability" is that we live in an age when people generally do not want to be held accountable or to face the consequences of their action. In the 1960s the whole Civil Rights Movement was based upon the courageous witness of those who willingly disobeyed laws they believed were unjust – and part of their witness was to willingly accept the consequences of breaking those laws. Today, it seems that most people want to violate a rule or law they believe to be unjust, but they are not willing to accept the consequences. Thus their witness is diminished by their lack of accountability, and that is how our whole system of trust and accountability can break down.
While all of these issues of "accountability" are important and need to be clarified in the church and in our society in general, I also sense that we have missed one important aspect of "accountability," namely the "loose/tight" nature of effective accountability. I am remembering several leadership workshops I have attended over the years, especially among business leaders, where the point was made that our primary accountability is to our MISSION and not to the details of our various strategies. The best organizations, apparently, hold everyone very tightly accountable to the MISSION, but also hold everyone only loosely accountable to the structures and policies and strategies to accomplish that mission.
During my recent visit to England and Ireland to learn more about the Methodist Revival led by John Wesley, I was reminded how extremely "tight" Wesley was with accountability to the mission, and yet how remarkably "loose" he was in allowing new strategies to emerge in order to accomplish that mission. Here is what I mean: Wesley asked everyone (including himself) to be a part of small groups where in weekly meetings they asked one another "How is your soul progressing on the road to holiness?" and where they reported to one another how their various ministries were doing. Wesley was big on numbers and statistics to track and measure that effectiveness (his Journal is full of such details). And yet Wesley himself showed flexibility in strategies – including using Lay Preachers, allowing women to preach and lead, and ultimately ordaining new clergy to send to America – all for the sake of the mission of reaching people for Christ, growing in holiness and converting the nations.
And so ... while I applaud the desire for "accountability" today in our church (as long as it means everyone is accountable because I fear that some persons only want accountability for others), I am concerned that we focus upon the right issues for accountability. I believe we need very tight, demanding, measuring and stringent accountability to our Mission on both a personal and corporate manner. But we also need to be "loose" with our structures and strategies about how we accomplish that mission. I fear that some of the desire for "accountability" might become a straitjacket which impedes creativity and risk-taking mission.
It is quite an art form, really, to hold ourselves and one another accountable. Self-deception easily sneaks into our midst and we demand accountability for others or for our pet issues, while giving ourselves a pass. It is important that we hold ourselves and everyone tightly accountable to our Mission, while giving each other some room to risk and experiment and try new ways to accomplish that Mission. I want us to focus upon our Mission, and not to get sidetracked with endless arguments about the less-than-central issues and disputes.
Someday I expect to be accountable by the only One who really matters, and I hope to hear God say "Well done, good and faithful servant." Such a judgment, I suspect, will have to do with how well I have lived out the Gospel mission in my life and my ministry. May be it so for all of us, even now, and we hold each other accountable with the love of Christ.