By Eddie Pipkin
Football season begins in earnest this weekend, and if you’ve read any of my blogs for any length of time, you’ll know that I love sports in general and football in particular, so I’m happy to renew my fall obsession with teams and contests. Last week I wrote about accountability, and one of the things that will define the football teams that rise to the top this season – both at the college and professional level – is the degree of accountability that is part of the culture of any winning organization. Every year we see teams flounder when that authentic commitment to one another is NOT in evidence. Teams unravel because coaches don’t believe in their players, players don’t believe in their coaches, and teammates turn on one another when the going gets tough. Teams that win, on the other hand, are inevitably defined by a high level of trust among coaches, players, and management. It’s true in ministry, too. Accountability is an essential part of any successful mix.
Accountability should be a part of all aspects of church life, since it is one of the foundational principles of discipleship: the whole concept of a covenant relationship (which is what we have with God and God has with us) is anchored in accountability. The relationships between fellow believers, working together in organizations like local churches, should also be covenant relationships, anchored in accountability. God pledges to love us and be faithful to us no matter what. We pledge to love and serve God, to be faithful. Church members / partners in ministry should model that covenant faithfulness to one another. Leadership has a special fiduciary responsibility (*) to live out this principle of covenant accountability.
- Leadership should be accountable to the congregation and those who are served by the ministry:
- Leaders should welcome feedback – should, in fact, provide systems that strongly encourage and respond to feedback.
- Leaders should pledge accountability to their own continued spiritual growth. (In matters of discipleship, they should practice what they preach . . . literally).
- Leaders should adhere to a publicly proclaimed series of transparent governance practices and encourage congregation members and ministry participants to stay informed and involved in ministry governance.
- Leaders should remain faithful to biblical principles of leadership, governance, and stewardship (and these principles, as understood and practiced by the ministry leadership, should be publicly proclaimed and easily accessible to those who are working to be informed and involved).
For clergy leaders, there are, of course, multiple layers of accountability, especially if you are part of a highly organized denominational structure. Clergy leaders are accountable to their denominational chain of command, as well as to their local congregations. In both cases, however, the effectiveness of those accountability systems is dependent on the clergy leader’s dedication to maximizing their effectiveness. There are many useful denominational resources to seek out, and there are many ways to encourage your congregation to hold you accountable in a healthy manner, or you could set yourself up as someone uninterested in useful resources from outside sources or as an imperious loner leader sending down edicts and decrees from the mountaintop. Clergy leaders face complex pressures, so it is a great practice for them to also cultivate peer support groups that are independent of both denominational chains of command and their local church responsibilities. That neutral perspective can be a life saver. (That’s not bad advice for professional ministry folks either or even for key volunteer leaders. I was once part of a support group of youth leaders from multiple local churches, and those conversations and collaborations were game changers for me.)
For clergy leaders, staff people, and volunteer ministry leaders, accountability within the context of the local church can take many forms. We should promote systems that encourage people to hold us accountable to our stated vision (including to having a stated vision), leading by biblical principles (including leading at all times in love), and doing the things we say we are going to do (including communicating clearly and regularly what is we are planning to do and exactly how we are planning to do it).
Being open to accountability means, by default, that we will regularly be learning more deeply about humility (as well as all sorts of other fruit of the spirit, e.g. patience). The opportunity to practice more patience and humility will not hurt us at all.
Meanwhile, we are building an institutional culture of accountability. As we are demonstrating accountability ourselves as ‘servant leaders,’ we are now in a position to insist on accountability on the part of the leaders who report to us. All leaders, up and down the chain of command, are called to embrace accountability in their leadership relationships in both directions, to and from those to whom they report and those they are charged with leading. It’s a beautiful system, which, done with love and faithfulness, leads to a promised land of everyone being the best person they can be.
For all people in the congregation, whether they are leaders or not, we should be encouraging spiritual growth partnerships that are anchored in accountability: small groups, spiritual mentors, discipleship coaches, and spiritual friendships all have an aspect of accountability. We should help people understand why this is important. We should give them the tools for accessing such relationships for themselves. We should instruct them in the guidelines of how accountability can be safe and healthy, the key ingredient of which is always that all accountability should be based in love and wanting what is best for the accountability partner (*). Faithful, relationship-based accountability doesn’t mean that someone is calling us out on our mistakes and leaving us to dangle in our despair; it means that they are helping us be honest about our struggles and challenges and pledging to walk with us as we work to overcome them. (That’s the covenantal part!)
In our discipleship training, accountability is wholesome, useful, and essential when done in love and with positive purpose with a ‘coaching’ attitude – remember, the coach’s job is to raise up the person being coached to their fullest, unique potential – to realize their unique strengths and capabilities (not to mold them into some generic, cookie cutter form).
Even in supremely awkward chapters of local church life, such as the inevitable conflict that will arise between individuals or factions, wholesome biblical accountability is the healthy path forward. The Gospels give the conflict resolution strategy of Matthew 18 as a clear path to reconciliation and resolution. It is a powerful model.
It is, however, neither an easy model nor a model embraced by the conflict-oriented, litigious attitude of the culture at large. Establishing a culture of accountability flies in the face of our deep desire – reinforced by the world – to “do our own thing,” so, as we discussed briefly last week, it seems counterintuitive to insist on this old-school accountability model if we want to be relevant in the here and now. But maybe that’s exactly what people have been missing, a community to which they can be deeply connected – a community which not only professes clear principles for living, but holds its members responsible to one another for the faithful practice of those professed principles! And then gives them the tools to live that life confidently! Pretty cool, right? Worth evangelizing about.
Building a culture of accountability in our institutions (and in our own lives) is promoted by regular practices, including . . .
- Good training, regularly scheduled.
- Strong communication.
- Encouraging active engagement in governance and decision-making.
- Robust feedback systems.
Accountability makes us stronger, and it can be practiced in many variations, adaptable to local or personal contexts. It can be painful because it’s honest, but it’s pain that comes with considerable gain: our growth, our transformation, our courageous, open-hearted embrace of what comes next.
(*) A side note on the use of the term “fiduciary responsibility,” which is a concept anchored in good governance and the law: By definition a fiduciary responsibility involves “trust, especially in regard to the relationship between a trustee and a beneficiary.” It’s a servant leader kind of relationship. Among professional realtors, for instance, the recognized principles of fiduciary responsibility include . . .
- Duty of Care. A pledge to make choices that are healthiest for the beneficiaries, to always look out for the beneficiaries’ best interests.
- Duty of Confidentiality.
- Duty of Loyalty. Different from the duty of care in that it stresses putting the beneficiaries’ interests above one’s own personal interests.
- Duty of Obedience. A pledge to follow the rules and procedures, as well as to honor the wishes of the beneficiaries when those wishes are clearly understood.
- Duty of Accounting. A commitment to transparency, faithful record-keeping, and good stewardship practices.
It’s a reminder that the underlayment of most of our law is based on good old-fashioned biblical moral principles. These fiduciary responsibilities (covenantal in nature, you will note) would be worthy of reviewing for any leader gathering in any local church. They would be a great mantra to review before any church staff meeting. They would be a great reflection and meditation for any small group leader in the quiet space before the small group begins. Leadership, sadly, too frequently loses sight of these fiduciary principles in the intense passions of deal making and decision taking. Leaders routinely put their own priorities ahead of the people they lead, cut corners with rules in the name of expediency, avoid transparency because it’s easier when people don’t ask questions, and gossip in pursuit of political leverage. A clear statement of and regular revisitation of guiding principles like the “fiduciary rules” is in itself a strong form of accountability.