Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. In this month’s series, we are excited to share some sneak peeks of NEXT Church’s forthcoming “Field Guide for Cultivated Ministry,” alongside articles and stories that reflect on the importance of mindfulness, discernment, and learning as crucial to the flourishing of ministry. We can’t wait to share the whole thing with you this fall! We invite you to share your own thoughts on Facebook and Twitter!
by Andrew Foster Connors
We kicked a pastor out of our community organizing group not too long ago. Technically, he chose to leave. He was in the middle of lecturing the rest of the clergy on what needed to happen. One of our seasoned leaders called him on it. “I’m asking you what are you going to do about it.” The pastor equivocated, returning to his pontifications. Again, the leader interrupted him. “We know what you think about the problem. My question is how many people are you going to bring from your congregation so you can turn your thoughts into action and actually change the situation instead of just whining about it.” I was uncomfortable in the tension, but I confess I was glad that he got up and walked out. I have little patience for people who do not want to be held accountable. There’s too much important work to do to spend our precious time and energy when people want to be “right” more than they want real change.
Accountability is one of the most challenging practices for the church and certainly for pastors. Pastors typically want people to like us and we are often better at caring for people’s feelings than we are at developing them into disciples of Jesus. I know from personal experience that I sometimes enable bad behavior in the name of pastoral care. But accountability is not just the responsibility of a pastor alone. I’ve come to see it function best not so much as a practice, but as a culture.
When I first got involved in community organizing, I developed a relationship with an organizer who met with me monthly to discuss my goals. The first difficult part of the work was moving from amorphous goals like “change our culture of leadership” to “meet individually with all Session members over the next six weeks.” Big goals are fine, he encouraged me, but you have to break them down so I can hold you accountable to them. Of course, if those smaller goals fail to produce the larger outcomes, that’s okay, we can adjust. There’s no reason to be afraid to fail. But you have to be held accountable to your decisions.
The second difficult part was showing him my calendar. “Why do you have to see my calendar?” I asked him. “This is my calendar. Nobody gets to see it.” “Don’t waste my time,” he told me. “If you tell me these are your top three goals for your congregation, I’m going to make sure you are spending your time on them.” Sorting through the calendar, the organizer helped me see that in order to focus my time, I’d have to let go of some other things.
At its root level, accountability is simply the practice of naming our work and aligning our time with what we’ve said is most important. When we fail to run our calendars, they run us. This is as true for the congregation as it is for pastors. Leadership in the church is about identifying leaders who are willing to do this work. Together they discern God’s direction, naming the work and following through on it. The culture of accountability that is built over time attracts new leaders who want to be held accountable to meeting the goals they set for themselves and dissuades “positional holders” who do not.
I realized that culture had taken shape in my own congregation when an elder threatened the Session to either take a particular action or he would resign. I felt the urge to “manage” the situation. Before I could, a ruling elder said kindly, but directly, “you have raised really important considerations that deserve careful attention, but this is not the way we relate to each other.” Others chimed in to remind him what we had named as our work and what we had discerned was not our work. He resigned from the Session. The best accountability the church can deliver is public, transparent and relational. We hold each other accountable.
This culture makes what is often the dreaded annual review meaningful and spite-free. Instead of a few lay people giving their personal opinions about what they like and don’t like about the pastor’s leadership, they are asking questions that are aligned with what the Session has said is the work of the church. “Is our pastor’s time aligned with our church’s goals?” is a much more helpful question than “do I personally like how she spends her time?” More importantly, this culture expands the annual review beyond that of the pastor to the leaders themselves. “Did we achieve the goal we set for our congregation in 2017?” “What did we learn from our successes and our failures?”
I’ve learned through the years that I function best with colleagues (pastors and lay leaders alike) who are holding me accountable to the claims and call of the gospel. That means spending time with other leaders who I respect and who are willing to be held accountable and willing to hold others accountable. In includes learning from leaders across the usual lines of denomination, race, and ideology. And it means learning from leaders who are more experienced as well as less experienced than me. Together we flesh out the specific places where the Gospel is calling us so that we can grow in our commitment to Christ and keep awake to God’s dynamic movement and mission in our own contexts.
Andrew Foster Connors is pastor of Brown Memorial Presbyterian Church in Baltimore, MD. He serves on the NEXT Church strategy team and is a co-chair in BUILD, a community organizing group in Baltimore.