We might think of accountability in one of three ways.

A politician speaks before ravenous reporters and promises that “going forward there will be greater accountability.” We like the idea, and our community’s anger may be somewhat mollified, but deep down we’re really not sure if anything will come of it.

A church member, incredibly frustrated at the repeated failure of the pastor and budget chair to provide information, enters the committee meeting with dread. She knows that accountability is needed, but these are people she cherishes, and holding them accountable is painfully regrettable, to be done only in the most extreme circumstances.

Augustine writes in chapter 10 of his Confessions, “A brotherly person rejoices on my account when he approves me, but when he disapproves [i.e. holds me accountable], he is loving me.” Here, accountability is an integral, indeed necessary part of the Christian life for communities and individuals.

Churches often think about accountability in one of the first two ways – either as a word to be thrown around to appease immediate sentiments, or as an anguished last resort, deployed only when there are no other options. Augustine’s recognition of a love that underlies accountability seems rarely shared.

Churches may have a hard time with accountability for a number of different reasons:

  • church members feel it’s not their responsibility or within their competency to question what the pastor does
  • holding a committee chair accountable might mean needing to find another chair (or losing him and his stewardship pledge to a neighboring church)
  • to speak up is to risk losing friends or starting a conflict, and Christians don’t get into conflicts
  • Christians believe Jesus wants us to forgive, not judge
  • a pastor’s ego may be so fragile that no one wants to risk saying anything negative
  • a pastor’s ego may be so colossal that no one believes raising any questions would do any good

In contrast with these attitudes stand biblical views of accountability, discipline, and Christian flourishing. Proverbs 15:10 declares that, “He who hates correction will die” (NKJV). Listening to the wisdom and guidance of others is a life-and-death matter! Jesus’ inspiring declaration that “Where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them” (Matthew 18:20, NRSV) occurs in the midst of His instructions on how to deal with problems in the community. Jesus is not abiding in the group that doesn’t make a fuss; rather He promises to be in the congregation that works through mistakes and reconciles brothers and sisters.

Paul, a slave of Christ Jesus, reminds us that “Each of us will be accountable to God,” (Romans 14:12, NRSV). The term translated here (and elsewhere in the New Testament) as “accountable” is logos. This critical word also means reason, inner logic, word, and ultimately the Word, Jesus Christ. So when Christians practice accountability in the congregation, they are, in some sense, abiding in the reason-for-being of the congregation, the inner and ultimate ordering of a community that follows the incarnate Logos. This is no small matter. In some sense we should all rejoice in this blessing, not run away from it.

Given such biblical principles, it is hardly surprising that the authors of the Scots Confession connected accountability to the integrity of a church. A genuine church includes “true preaching . . . the right administration of the sacraments . . . and . . . ecclesiastical discipline uprightly administered, as God’s Word prescribes, whereby vice is repressed and virtue nourished.” Christ promises to be in the midst of such a community (see chapter 18).

Indeed, practicing accountability is one way congregants and pastors become more Christ-like. Thinking back on times when I’ve been held accountable, I realize that these difficult moments helped me to be a better pastor and a better Christian. I developed the capacity to listen to congregants, respecting the awkwardness they might have felt or accepting the presence of anger in their voice. I learned how to be more faithful to our community, and my relationships with congregants improved.

The times when accountability broke down remain painful. What could I – what should I – have done differently? How could other members of our community have been helpful so that tensions would not have developed into conflicts and resignations? How did we miss opportunities to serve Jesus and strengthen our community, not weaken it?

If indeed holding each other accountable for the good of the church is essential for living out God’s call, how can we develop the habits necessary for this? Many churches have an annual review process for staff and/or committees, and these remain an important part of accountability. But the kind of accountability that develops a community and allows it to pursue its mission is the gentle, week-in, week-out process of helping each other to improve. How can we develop this?

Such habits develop much more readily when we Christians regularly confess our sins together and hear the good news of forgiveness. Good news! None of us are perfect! But God is, and God desires to sanctify us and perfect us through our liturgical community. When we allow such worship to shape us, we develop the recognition that we need one another’s critical eye in order to be more faithful.

We often imagine that the community of Hebrews 12’s “great cloud of witnesses” includes all the tender Christians who affirmed us with loving kindness, but Hebrews 12 also reminds us that love includes accountability. Evoking Proverbs 13:24 (“Those who love them [their children] are diligent to discipline them,” NRSV), Hebrews 12:6, 10-11 states, “The Lord disciplines those whom He loves. . . . He disciplines us for our good, in order that we may share His holiness. Now discipline always seems painful rather than pleasant at the time, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.” Discipline (accountability) is required for the formation of disciplines.

Thus, holding someone accountable is one way of loving someone deeply. When I failed to hold a church member accountable, was this because I did not love the person enough? Did I prefer my comfort, my own personal desire to avoid an unpleasant conversation, to this person’s (and our church’s) well-being? Augustine, Proverbs, and Hebrews all suggest that the failure to hold one another accountable is a failure of love.

How do we think about accountability? That’s another way of asking, How much do we love each other?

David Keck is the Chaplain at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach. A Presbyterian minister, he is the author of Healthy Churches, Faithful Pastors: Covenant Expectations for Thriving Together (Rowman and Littlefield). Accountability is one of the central principles of this book.

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