“I began to feel I was an exception, that what I would censure in others, I could justify for myself,” a pastor reflects. “Looking back, I realise that as I was burning out, my values were going first. And there were no relationships where I was open or accountable.” Individualism. Narcissism. Loneliness. Value-free choices. “My counselee told me, ‘If you cared for me, you’d hold me,’ ” a pastor reports. “So since caring is the essence of pastoral care, we held each other. Then we decided that much more caring was needed by us both.” Individualism. Narcissism. Loneliness. Value-free choices. “I became convinced that I deserved more pay. Other professionals around me were making double my salary,” a parachurch minister confides. “I found a way to enable my board to correct my problem and to increase their fringe benefits at the same time.” Individualism. Narcissism. Value-free choices. These are all key elements in the decline of the practice of mutual accountability in Western churches, among clergy and laity alike. Where once believers stood to watch with each other against the loss of centre, of values, of faithfulness, there is an increasing willingness to wink at questionable ethical choices, considering them “none of our business.”
The practice of ministry, however, always involves making, fulfilling, and keeping covenants. A group is as healthy as its “social contract” is clear; a congregation as faithful as its covenant is mutually understood; a pastor as effective as the pastor’s and people’s commitment to trust and integrity is honoured, guarded, and fulfilled. The integrity of boundaries and the trust of those maintaining them are central tasks in the ministries of interpretation, teaching, preaching, counselling, administration, and evangelism. Any decrease of accountability in any of these ministry tasks diminishes the integrity of each of the others. Accountability, mutuality, and interdependence in body life are what we are about in “being a church” with one another.
Forces of Destruction
From the multiple factors in our culture that strongly encourage the diminishing of accountability in the ministry, seven stand out and call for comment. They are interlocking elements in the system that shapes the setting for pastoral work. These elements function with different strengths and varied styles from person to person or from parish to parish. But they are present in almost all ministries.
- Individualism. This remarkable belief sees the self as an island of autonomous experience distinct from every other human being. This is imagining what is unimaginable to most of the world’s population for most of the world’s history. The individualist assumes that he or she lives in a private, inviolate, protected territory (the boundaries of the self) where one is “free to choose,” to undertake projects of personal expression, free to live a private life with a personal history separate from all others. Choices can simply be defended as “my own business.” However, both individual autonomy and communal solidarity are necessary for a fully human existence.
- Narcissism. With the increase of individualism that grounds identity in self-esteem, there is the inevitable rise of narcissism. The classic characteristics of narcissism are now afflicting both pastors and their counselees: an inability to make appropriate attachments to others, an inflated concern for one’s interests, and self-centred moral processes. The loss of authentic social interest in the welfare of others and the inability to experience genuine mutuality are more common tendencies in us all that we care to own.
- Isolation. Shrinking personal networks have come to characterise Western life. According to Mansell Pattison (Pastor and Parish, Fortress), the healthy person needs from 20 to 30 significant others-5 or so each drawn from family, church, work, play, neighbourhood, and relatives. These are partially interlocking, yet richly varied networks of friends with a commitment to intense, positive, reciprocal, instrumental relationships with history and continuity. Many pastors are hard pressed to name more than five to ten such friends who are truly mutual and reciprocal. The constant temptation to be a helper in nonreciprocal and non-accountable relationships leaves a caregiver impoverished relationally, with less community than is necessary for healthy functioning.
- Value-free society. Contemporary society, in its commitment to pluralism and tolerance, avoids expressing moral judgments about people’s choice of religious beliefs or sexual habits. This value-free context infects the unconscious of its citizens. The capacity to rationalise questionable choices (excusing oneself) or tolerate immoral behaviour (ignoring one’s neighbour) is central to socialisation for life in a pluralistic society. Pastors and their people catch this ability to explain their choices as “inevitable, necessary, and excusable” from the media, literature, and the arts. The sense of being embedded in moral realities that must be honoured before God and others is not as assimilated in the depths of the psyche as it would be in settings where central commitments of faith are core beliefs that integrate life.
- Decentred faith. Christians used to say, “I believe, therefore I know.” Their faith was the essential beginning point of thought and action. But that approach to faith has become instead, “I know empirically. Therefore I can believe.” This rationally based, scientifically grounded Western approach to knowledge has less room for central commitments that spring from faith. Thus religious belief takes on different roles: as an additive (contributing an enriching dimension to life), as integrative (helping one make sense of difficult experiences), or even as the fulfilling completion of life (“Ah, sweet mystery of life”). But when faith is no longer the source from which all else springs, it becomes weak and decentred.
- Superficial reconciliation. Together all these factors remove the possibility of deep reconciliation for those who are estranged by sin, prejudice, power politics, or old-fashioned feuding. Forgiveness becomes equated with live-and-let-live tolerance, acceptance, and “love”-rather than absorbing the hurt and building bridges of understanding. Repentance becomes a desirable consequence of forgiveness-rather than an essential ingredient in this difficult process. One individualist, with narcissistic tendencies, isolated from many genuine relationships, will set values aside, adjust faith commitments, and “forgive” another individualist’s shortcomings without working through injury and pain to authentic reconciliation.
- Confused authority. An egalitarian society has led us to discard vertical models of authority. But it has not created alternative models for appropriately distributing authority in the community. Horizontal models of authority that work out patterns of mutual accountability are available. But they have their price: They require us to limit our individualism, to adjust our narcissistic self-realisation, to commit ourselves intentionally to building personal peer networks with integrity, and to make increased commitments to values, core faith positions, authentic repentance, and renewal of relationships.
The motivation for such change is already present in any theology grounded in New Testament faith. We are called to a community; we are instructed to claim solidarity; we are invited to experience mutuality; we are empowered to believe deeply; we are to follow Jesus, who expressed all of the above.
The Mark of Maturity
Accountability, puzzling as the concept is in the modern situation, is the mark of maturity in discipleship. It is not optional, nor a mere by-product. It is essential, central, and definitive of life in the community of the Spirit. Who will model the nature of mutual accountability in the church if pastors avoid peer accountability and shun open responsibility with congregational and denominational colleagues? (The pastor can break the taboo against peer accountability by contracting monthly peer group sessions with a semi-annual review of her or his work. Who will confront the patterns of individualism, self-absorption, and isolation if not ministering persons who choose to create rich networks of accountable relationships to teach by lifestyle what personhood-in-community means? (The pastor can intentionally enrich his or her network by making commitments of time to groups built around family life, the neighbourhood, or common recreational interests. These can reduce the obsessive investment of time into work, and model a more person-centred lifestyle in our task-oriented culture.) Who will interrupt the abuses of sex, money, and power among church leaders except those who commit themselves to open conversation on their sexual and financial temptations (as well as those that come by virtue of their position in the church) with colleagues who dare both to question and support, to care and confront? (Every pastor should have a consultant relationship for monthly reflection on her counselling relationships; for annual review of his time, talent, and money budgeting; and for spiritual direction and growth.) Who will invite the members of the body to join in watching with one another, rather than merely winking?
Credit: David Augsburger for Christianity Today, 11 December 2006.