Who Needs Accountability?

Everyone.

However, we’ve really messed up this concept. We don’t hold people accountable in ways we should, and hold people “accountable” in counterproductive ways. Here are six ways to insure accountability is a blessing rather than too sparse or merely a different word for control.

1. Recognize and the “intrinsic” accountability already present–and align ministry there. For instance, when hiring a new staff member, there is intrinsic accountability built into the results of the hire that insure the “hirer” will do a thorough job–if the “hirer” is the Senior Pastor. They will need to work with that person on a daily basis, manage them, and be responsible for transitioning that person if they don’t work out. Any egg on the face will be theirs. They will have to do with fewer financial resources because of the hire. So, there are a lot of built-in reasons for them to do a thorough job with the hire. Accountability is intrinsic.

Not so with a committee. They have no stake at all in the hire, and tend to underestimate the true damage a bad hire can cause because they’ve never suffered the results first-hand. This is why, in my opinion, committees are helpful in an advisory capacity, but not a “voting” capacity in the hiring process. They aren’t accountable, and have no real skin in the hire. Ministry hires are nuanced in ways business hires aren’t–and vice-versa.

2. Build in accountability for everyone, and especially those in power. I said in my class on leadership at the Pepperdine Bible Lectures (affiliated with Churches of Christ) something that stung, but got a lot of nods. “Churches of Christ are built to protect against the autocratic minister. However, they have little or no immune system to protect them against autocratic or unhealthy elders.”

I’ve never seen a true autocratic minister in a Church of Christ. However, autocratic elderships are quite common. One reason is there is no accountability mechanism for those who hold the most power. This is so dangerous. In other tribes, it’s a Deacon Board or Senior Pastor for whom there is zero accountability. In every case, in every tribe, it’s a bad thing. Whether it’s a rotating elder system, a differentiated ministry system, a by-law or policy governance accountability system–choose wisely and make sure there is some accountability for those with the most power. This is especially true for matters of character.

3. Make sure accountability and responsibility match. People should have responsibility for that which they will be held accountable for…and be held accountable for decision they actually make. If the elders, for instance, make a poor decision and fire the preacher for the results–this is both unfair and assurance of future mistakes. After all, the pastor has changed, but those who made the mistake haven’t–and there’s an invincibility quotient that is likely to factor into future decisions. If the elders grant freedom to the minister and they abuse the power given, they must be held accountable for responsible use of the power granted.

4. Don’t allow accountability to disguise attempts at control. Or, we should just call it “control.” Accountability is a good word that carries with it the connotation of doing what’s best for those involved. Accountability is something healthy people seek rather than avoid. Control is a different concept–and loves to wear the banner of “accountability” in dysfunctional situations. One of the worst things a church can do is give people legitimate reason to fear “accountability” by asserting inappropriate or unnecessary control.

5. Pay Attention to the “Shots on Goal Principle.” In baseball, a .300 batting average is considered quite good. This is in part due to the fact most advantages belong to the pitcher and it’s graded over 162 games and 600 at-bats. In basketball, shooting 30% from the free-throw line is terrible. Why? Because you’re shooting with no one guarding you, standing still, from a short distance. A good free-throw shooter needs to hit at least 75% of their free-throws. The percentage of “misses” one is allowed by a coach depends on the shot taken and the number of shots taken.

Here’s the point: The harsher your “accountability” processes are, the less risk your staff is likely to take. Fewer mistakes don’t make someone a better minister. It means they make fewer mistakes–though they are likely making the key mistake of never stretching their ministry. Highly “accountable” ministry means fewer catastrophic mistakes, but it means you’ll score fewer points as well. Your most effective minister isn’t necessarily the one making the fewest mistakes. It might be the one who misses more because of the kind of shots they take and how often they shoot. Make sure you’re clear about how many and what kind of shots you want people to take–and hold them accountable for results based on that “style of offense.”

As a rule, we at New Vintage save our highest accountability for character matters.

6. Remember grace. “Accountability” isn’t best when it’s punitive. People are going to make mistakes, and we serve a gracious Savior who is the only true Head of the Church. So, while upholding His standard, we must remember grace. Elders, pastors, committees, volunteers–they all make mistakes. Coaching, correcting, adjusting and forgiving is usually the best approach.

Thoughts? What else might you add?

Dr. Tim Spivey is Lead Planter of New Vintage Church in San Diego, California. He is the author of numerous articles and one book, "Jesus: The Powerful Servant." A sought after speaker for events, Tim also serves as Adjunct Professor of Religion at Pepperdine University. Tim serves as a church consultant, and his writings are featured on ChurchLeaders.com, Church Executive magazine, Faith Village, Sermon Central, and Giving Rocket.

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