Spiritual Disciplines: Accountability
This afternoon is our annual Charge Conference at Arlington United Methodist Church. Heute Nachmittag kommt unsere Gemeindekonferenz. Charge Conference is the annual business meeting of the congregation, though these days there isn’t much business actually transacted there; most Charge Conferences are done with clusters of churches, and the items they act upon have all actually been agreed to by their respective Church Councils, so why do it? Warum?
That’s NOT a rhetorical question, by the way. Lots of people are asking these days why we still do Charge Conference, and the process is still evolving. That said, decision-making is only half the reason for an annual Charge Conference; the other half is accountability. Durch die Gemeindekonferenz ablegen wir eine Rechenschaft über unsere Dienst. Not only do the various committees and officers of the congregation submit reports to be considered, but the congregation as a whole reports on all their activity to the Annual Conference through this mechanism. And that’s not necessarily all cut and dried, either.
The first Charge Conference I ever witnessed was the one that recommended me to be a min candidate. Ich erinnere mich an meiner ersten Gemeindekonferenz. In order to proceed further in the process of answering God’s call, I had to be recommended by my home church, so I was there to be presented and for people to say whatever they had to say and for them to vote on me. But there were other ministries to be considered, too.
Der Superintendent saß am Tisch mit unser Pfarrer neben ihm. We were gathered in the sanctuary of Terre Haute First United Methodist. The DS, Charlie DuMond, was seated up front behind a table that had been set up by the communion rail, while next to him was our pastor, Don Wade, shuffling various papers to hand to him as he needed them, as we went through the business. Charlie asked the next question on the agenda in that big, gruff voice of his, “Do you have any persons to be recommended or continued to be Lay Speakers?” Don continued shuffling his papers and said, “No,” in a sort of distracted way. Er fragte, “Haben Sie einige Laisprecher zu empfehlen?” “Nein.”
“Well, why NOT?” asked Charlie. “Warum NICHT?” At which point, Don looked up, completely lost. He didn’t have an answer. He just knew there weren’t any that year. And now, the DS had gone all off-script on him and he didn’t know what to say. Now, Charlie was smiling -- he was just yanking his chain, I guess, but the question was a real one -- die Frage ist eine wichtige -- and there are any number of local churches who need to be challenged with similar questions:
Why DON’T you have any Lay Speakers to recommend? Why DON’T you have any new members to celebrate? Why DON’T you have any mission teams to record? How long has it been since anyone answered the call of God to the ordained ministry from this congregation? If your worship attendance is flat – or shrinking – what are you DOING about that? Was haben Sie gemacht?
Charge Conference is a mechanism for accountability, and we as a congregation and as the various leaders of the cong need to be held accountable for what we have accomplished – or failed to accomplish. That’s what healthy organizations do.
Right now, there’s a terrible fight and scandal going on all through the UMC, mostly over Same-Sex Marriage, where several clergy and bishops have decided they just won’t obey – or won’t enforce – our rules any more. And while you can have any opinion OF those rules you want, what is NOT a matter of opinion is that an organization that will not hold its members and leaders accountable for obeying whatever the rules ARE is in deep trouble. Accountability is a good thing, a necessary thing – and not only for congregations and Conferences. Die Rechenschaftspflicht ist eine gute Ding -- eine notwendige Ding -- und nicht nur für die Gemeinden und Konferenzen.
I, as a clergy member of the Indiana Annual Conference, am accountable for how I conduct myself. I have rules I have to obey, mandatory standards I have to meet; I have a bishop and superintendent over me, as well as my fellow clergy I am in covenant with. Der Pfarrer auch eine Rechenschaft ablegen müssen -- und er hat ein Bischof und anderen über ihn und mit ihm.
Every year at the clergy executive session of Annual Conference – which you probably don’t know even if you’ve been to Annual Conference, since lay members attend a different executive session – each DS stands up and makes an official motion for the clergy of his or her District, stating that all the clergy of the District are “blameless in their official life and conduct and that no complaints or charges” – meaning, church charges – “are pending against any of them.” If any official complaints or charges against a clergy member WERE pending, they would have to say so. Assuming there are not, we then vote to officially declare that everyone, so far as we know, is on the up-and-up.
Ich muß über meines Leben, meine Dienst, meine Lehrung eine Rechenschaft ablegen. I am accountable not only for my “official life and conduct” but also, in theory, for the content of my teaching – something I take very seriously – and more than that . . .
Years ago, a guy dropped by my office in the town where I was serving. He said he was an old friend of my father’s and just thought he’d drop in and say hello. Einst kam mir ein Mensch und zu sprechen begann. As the conversation developed, he mentioned that he was part of a new church in the Evansville area. I recognized the congregation: it was a breakaway group from one of our UM churches over there. And it came to me in a flash of insight that he wasn’t just dropping in on an old friend’s son. He was shopping for a pastor: someone with a Methodist background who might be frustrated with all that we have to put up with in The UMC, someone maybe looking for a chance to do something exciting, like get in on the ground floor of a new church start. Er suchte einen Pfarrer die Methodistichekirche verlassen möchte.
All I had to do was say the next word, express some kind of interest in an opportunity like that, and, well, I felt sure an invitation to apply would be forthcoming. It was all so easy – just say the next, obvious word – that’ll lead on to the next one, and the next one, and who knows? But I didn’t say that next word. Ich antwortete ihm nichts. I kept it polite — Ich war höflich — but I expressed no interest, and he eventually made a noise like a hoop and rolled on down the road.
Now, I was in a very difficult church, and I was having a very hard time. I knew what he was hinting at me, and it would have been a ticket out of that situation. But I had made a vow before the Annual Conference, and my word meant something to me – even if I was mad at the people who held that vow; and besides, I didn’t fancy being my own bishop and Board of Ordained Ministry. Ich wollte nicht, mein eigener Bischof zu sein.
To whom would I be accountable, if I were just out there, on my own? I know, lots of guys do it. And some of them get themselves in trouble. Perhaps worse, some of them stay out of trouble, but they get off course in their teaching and in their organization – and there is nobody who can call them to account. Not that I thought then – or think now – that I’m likely to do anything crazy or heretical or whatever; but still, it’s not healthy to have no one to be accountable to. Es ist nicht klug — es ist nicht sicher — niemand über sich zu haben.
This used to be the very genius of Methodism – the accountability of ALL Methodists. Rechenschaftspflicht ist echt methodistisch. The General Rules of the Methodist Church, which were handed down to us from the earliest days of our movement, even before we were a Church, say that there was only one requirement for admission in the beginning, and that was a desire to flee from the wrath to come, and be saved from one’s sins. BUT, the Rules go on to say, “It is therefore expected of all who continue therein that they should continue to evidence their desire of salvation, first, by doing no harm . . . second, by doing good, esp to them that are of the household of God . . . and thirdly, by attending upon all the ordinances of God."
The early Methodists were organized in classes or groups that met weekly to “watch over one another in love.” Wöchentlich trafen sich die Ur-methodister zusammen, in Liebe über einander wach zu halten. You had to have a ticket to get into a class meeting. Anybody could come to a preaching service, but the real fellowship and spiritual growth was in the face-to-face accountability of that small group that met every week to talk over the path they had walked, and wanted to walk, in the days ahead.
If people wandered off, got bored, quit coming regularly – not to mention did something scandalous, but it needn’t come to that – if they just couldn’t be bothered to keep up the effort, even though their fellows besought them in love, they were dropped. Their quarterly ticket would not be renewed. Es war leicht, ein Methodister zu werden, aber wenn man faul oder weltlich werde, könnte man seine Eintrittskarte verlieren. It wasn’t unusual for Mr. Wesley to come to a town and examine the societies and drop a third or even a half of the membership. Hey, if they weren’t going to actually keep it up, why let them drag everybody else down?
And the Methodist movement grew by leaps and bounds! Why, if they were so strict? Because it wasn’t felt as harsh, but as loving. It wasn’t about knocking people down, but catching them whn they fell and not giving up on them so easily.
Well, the class meeting and ticket system lasted about a generation in America before it died. It’s always difficult to call someone socially important to account, and Methodists were rising in social class because of their sobriety and frugality. Besides, the spirit of America was “I’m as good as you!” Americans didn’t like to be held to account. Then too, the age of the great camp meetings and the revivals was upon us, and the model of discipleship was changing. But still: the issue of accountability wouldn’t go away; it still won’t. Rechenschaftspflicht ist doch heute wichtig.
Churches which lay out high expectations of their members will generally have members who try to meet those expectations. And churches which lay out low expectations – either because they’re afraid to ask for higher ones or just want to show how easy and friendly they are – will generally struggle to get their members to meet even the greatly reduced standards they’re given.
But it’s not just about laying out expectations of others. Accountability is a spiritual discipline: it’s part of our walk with Christ to walk with each other. Die Rechenschaftspflicht ist eine geistliche Gewohnheit. Paul talks about it here in Galatians when he mentions restoring those who sin and bearing one another’s burdens as fulfilling the law of Christ.
You see, it’s just about impossible to walk the Christian walk alone. We all need somebody to make the journey with, somebody to share the struggles and celebrate the joys and make up for what we lack in wisdom or prayer. Wir können Christum allein nicht folgen -- wir müssen ihn zusammen folgen.
Accountability, like all Christan practices, is about love. In our lives, all of us need the love of various kinds of friends; indeed, I would say that all of us need three kinds of friends – or, let us say, three kinds of friendship. Es gibt drei Art Freunden.
First, we all need a 2 o’clock in the morning friend – at least one. Erst — der Ammorgenzweiuhrfreund. If you were stranded or in trouble or in danger or had made a mess of things or were ill or frightened or distraught, if you were facing disaster or contemplating doing something terrible, whom would you call – whom COULD you call – even at 2:00 in the morning, who would answer and help you, no questions asked?
Do you have a friend like that? Haben Sie solch’ einen Freund? Can you say his or her name, right now? If you don’t know whom you could call at 2 in the morning, then you have a dangerous gap in your life – even if you never HAVE to call such a friend.
Beyond that friend, we all need someone who believes in us. In fact, we need LOTS of people who believe in us, encourage us, repeat invitations until we say yes, but especially we need those special friends with whom we are following Christ together. And if you don’t have such a friend or such a support group, you are poor indeed, even if you have more money than you can possibly spend. Wir brauchen auch Freunde wer uns anglauben, wer uns Ermutigung und Hilfe Christum zu folgen geben.
But there is a third kind of friend that we all need, too, and that’s the friend who can, when necessary, step inside our guard and say to us what we need to hear, even when we don’t want to hear it: somebody who can tell us, "You are over the line – and you need to get yourself together." Unser dritte Freund ist der einzige der uns sagen kann, daß wir falsch werden. Oh, we may be mad, but we’ll hear it from that friend, when we won’t hear it from anybody else. So only someone who loves us that much can say what we desperately need to have said to us.
“Faithful are the wounds of a friend” goes the proverb.
It’s not about being a spiritual busybody. It’s not about throwing penalty flags or pointing fingers. It can only be done by someone who loves you more than you love yourself right now. We all need someone who can say to us, will say to us, "I know you can do better than that," OR, "Where were you? We all missed you," OR "What’s this stuff I’m hearing about you?"
And yeah, I know a lot of people who'll cover that up with bluster: “Nobody’s gonna tell me how to live my life; I’m in control of my life!” But you know what? People who say, “I’m in control of my life” are often speeding downhill with no brakes and no steering. They’re not in control of their lives, their lives are out of control. And they don’t have anybody who loves them enough – nobody to whom they have given permission to love them enough – who can step in and help them before they go smash.
A friend who doesn’t care enough about you to warn you when you’re on the wrong path is somebody who doesn’t care where you end up. And a church that doesn’t care enough to talk about wrong choices is a church that doesn’t love people enough to snatch them away from the brink of hell.
Wir brauchen alle drei Art Freunden; und wir müssen auch solche Freunde mit unseren Freunden sein. We need all 3 kinds of friends in our lives, lest we lose ourselves. And we need to be all those kinds of friends for others, according to our various relationships: to some, ready to be a 2:00 in the morning friend, even if never called upon; to many (I hope), an encouragement and an upbuilder; and maybe to some, the one voice they will let themselves hear that will bring them back to the right path.
Accountability is simply the spiritual discipline of bearing one another’s burdens, and so fulfilling the law of Christ. “So lebt ihr nach dem Gesetz, das Christus gegeben hat.”
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.