ACCOUNTABILITY – and why I don’t like it

Oxford English Dictionary definition :- accountable – required or expected to justify actions or decisions.

1. used by leaders to justify taking decisions which the people they are leading do not agree with.

They use the idea of “being accountable” to some people outside the church/organisation and argue,

“Because I am accountable to them, I am right in taking this course of action – and am not answerable to you.”

I have found that leaders use this when they are taking a course that they have chosen without the agreement of those they are leading.

I can think of three major leaders I have known who have gone wrong in different ways who have used this as justification for their actions –e.g. one in a disagreement said that he was accountable not to the others in leadership in the fellowship but to some senior leaders elsewhere

Another stressed publicly that he was accountable – the people he said he was accountable to were church leaders all external to the church, and he as a matter of course refused to justify or moderate his actions in relation to the people in the congregation.

Another leader who went wrong in a major way also used to stress how he was accountable to a group of people, when in reality he was using their names to give him credibility in what he was doing.

So if anyone says to me “I am accountable to…..” in this way, I wonder why they are trying to hide, I doubt the reality of such accountability, I would want to ask when they have ever been corrected by those they say they are accountable to, and who else they allow to talk to those they are accountable to about their actions and decisions.

 Much of the so-called accountability of “boards of reference” and suchlike are not actually accountability (whether that accountability should be seen as good or bad), but are rather a using of people’s names and approval to influence others positively in relation to the leader.

2. used by leaders e.g. church leaders to get their people to do what they want them to do.

“I am your leader therefore you are accountable to me”

This is religious control and has the habit of creeping into church relationships – right the way from the old Catholic idea of, “The priest has the Bible – not you – you do what he says”; through to the more recent “heavy shepherding” of one sort or another in new charismatic churches in recent decades, where leaders dictated family, lifestyle, monetary choices for their people.

The best quote I have heard on this area was from an African London church leader –(I think it was Tayo Adeyemi) who said, “Leaders are not given to tell us what to do, but to help us get to know God better.”

None of the church gifts – apostle, prophet, evangelist, pastor, teacher imply or suggest a relationship in which others have to justify their actions of decisions to these people, but rather that these “leaders” have a responsibility to fulfil for the sake of others.

3. used by people e.g. church members who seek to be, or agree to be accountable to a church leader. that is to be required or expected to justify their actions or decisions to them.

At the root of this is what my brother Ian used to say, “Everybody (or most people?) wants to have a priest.” – that is somebody else to make the decisions for me, to do things instead of me.

So instead of leaders performing a proper priestly function of teaching God’s ways and leading people into developing their personal direct relationship with Father, Jesus and the Holy Spirit, they become priests who in some way replace the person’s personal relationship with God with a personal relationship with themselves as a go-between.

This also breeds a dependence on the “priest”, an immaturity in the person, and a transfer of decision-making from personal responsibility to the advice/decisions of another.

How much has gone wrong because we have said, “We are doing this because this is what the church leaders have decided – and we are accountable to them”

“Submit to your elders” and all that.

In my early days, in struggling with this verse and seeking to be true to it and to God’s call on my life, I eventually realised that submitting to elders does not mean only doing things which they agree with (which is how some would term being accountable to them), but rather taking care not to do anything which usurps their position and responsibilities as elders. These responsibilities biblically are tending the flock – making sure they are provided with enough good food and water, protecting them from attack, being prepared to lay down their lives for the sheep, and “not lording it over those entrusted to you” 1Peter 5v3. Might one say, “not putting them in a relationship to you in which you make them accountable to you.” ?

4. used by people who want another’s input into their spiritual life – having someone as a “spiritual director” to whom they agree to be “accountable”.

This bothers me. However useful it is to have someone to talk with openly about issues of life, and to get their wisdom and counsel, the idea of having a spiritual director is one that tends again to an abdication of personal responsibility – am I only going to do the things that my spiritual director agrees with? While it may be portrayed as a brave and challenging relationship – and it no doubt can be, in sharing openly with someone on a deep level in honesty, it also has the “comfort” of someone else having to come up with the answers to my problems and telling me what to do – and therefore being the one who carries responsibility instead of me, and whose approval or disapproval governs my decisions.

Being accountable to a “spiritual director” invades the space of two very important relationships – one’s personal relationship with God, and one’s relationship in fellowship. I believe that we are meant to have the “benefits” that come, not in the exclusive relationship of chosen accountability to one person, but in the life of fellowship that from our background we would call housegroup relationship.

Mind you, when I look at things another way, I wouldn’t mind being a spiritual director myself!! I have loads of good things I could say to people and I believe I have a good awareness of what other people should be doing with their lives. As I said on one occasion to a visitor in our kitchen in London, “Do you just want to talk about your problem or do you want an answer to it, because if you want an answer, I can tell you what it is.”

In fact I recently thought of writing my ministry autobiography entitled, “If Only They Had Taken My Advice.” perhaps subtitled, “If Only They Had Been Accountable to Me.” !!!!!!!!!!

A friend of mine at Bible College said, “There are only two sorts of people in the world – those who are Scots, and those that want to be”! Whatever the truth of that statement, I was wondering whether it is true that there are two sorts of people – those that want to be accountable to someone, and those that want others to be accountable to them.

It is interesting to note that those of us who would like others to be “accountable” to us (to do what we think is best) are those who do not want to be accountable to someone else ( to have to do what they think is best)

So you can see that it is not just the word, “accountability” that I have problems with, it is much that goes with it.

Accountability is seen as something going in what I believe is the wrong direction.

So with leaders and people, or shepherd and sheep, the emphasis is always on the sheep’s accountability to the shepherd to follow instruction, rather than what I believe it is biblically of the shepherd’s “accountability” (if you want to use that word) to the sheep – to serve them, lead them to good pasture, protect them at the cost of his/her own life.

My answer to the problem of the word “accountability” and its associations is to not use it – and to replace it with the term, “relationship responsibility

Relationship Responsibility

Every relationship carries with it responsibilities for those in that relationship – different relationships have different relationship responsibilities. It is important obviously to find out from the Bible what our relationship responsibilities are for all the different relationships in life, – and one of the relationship responsibilities of anyone in church leadership is to be an example to others in carrying out relationship responsibilities, and to instruct the church in their relationship responsibilities – marriage / children / parents / brothers and sisters/ church / work / society / government / enemies / foreigners / Father/Son/Holy Spirit and any other relationships I have missed out.

Bringing “being accountable” into these relationships confuses the issue. (except in our relationship with God – Romans 14v12 “So then each of us will give an account of himself to God”)

In, for instance, the relationship of husband and wife, their relationship responsibilities are described and include: the husband has a relationship responsibility to love his wife following the example of how Jesus loves his people, and the wife has a relationship responsibility to submit to (not to usurp the place of) her husband.

But if instead it is said that they are “accountable to one another” in these things, you soon end up with a grotesque scenario of wife saying to husband at the end of the week, “ I now require and expect you to justify your actions and decisions this week in relation to your loving of me. We’ll start with what you said on Monday morning………………..”

And the husband to his wife, “I think that first, before we do that, since you are required to submit to me, I would like you to give me an account to justify your actions and decisions this week in relation to the extent to which you have fulfilled this God-given responsibility. Remember you only got 4 out of 10 last week.”     !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

I accept that “accountability” does have a proper place for instance in employment relationships. If you are being paid to do a job, then it is right for you to be required or expected to justify your actions and decisions in that work. So I accept the place and value of “being accountable” in Christian businesses and organisations.

However problems arise when “employment” with its attendant “accountability” is brought into church life.

I well remember being in a meeting, when it was announced that the fellowship was going to move to employing workers rather than the free partnership of self-employed workers co-operating to serve the fellowship, which had operated until then.  I felt the life draining out of the building – and the announcement was followed by the inevitable? “accountability clause” which was worded like this, “So if you are not 100% with the direction that the leadership are taking, perhaps this would be a good time to be thinking of doing something else.” 

That move and the re-organisation  had at their heart (although not thus stated), “ to be accountable” – or perhaps rather – “to make people accountable” – and to me they robbed us of the life we had enjoyed until that time.

If we are to be “accountable” then we are to be accountable to God to fulfil all our relationship responsibilities. That is even more challenging, demanding, and potentially comforting than any other relationship of accountability.

I like what I once heard that a minister said to the church that he had just gone to at his first church meeting, “I want you to know that while I am with you I will always be your servant, but you will never be my master.”

Relationship responsibility – not accountability.

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