Waiting for The Next Great Leap Forward

Mao encouraged Zeng to experiment with the so-called “responsibility fields.” “Give it a try,” he reportedly said. “If it doesn’t work, carry out self-criticism. If it works well . . . that will be splendid!”

–Pankaj Mishra

I am uncomfortable with the word “accountability”.  That’s not because I don’t want to be accountable.  I love being accountable.  That’s why I sign my full name to everything I write.  I take ownership for what I do.  It’s more about the implications raised by the word.  For example, am I able to trust those to whom I am accountable?  What will my brothers and sisters do with my accountability and I with theirs?

Though required to attend accountability groups, no one ever seems to know why we’re there or what we’re supposed to do.  Despite the varied structure accountability groups adopt, they often devolve into sessions where pastors complain about their work and those they are called to shepherd.

I’ve never been in a group where any serious issues emerged.  Whether out of fear, a lack of trust, or some other reason; these “accountability” groups didn’t lead to the depth they were intended to create.  Given the proliferation of scandals and calls for more accountability, I’m starting to wonder if “accountability” is the problem.  Perhaps, we need a new word, concept, or idea.  Something’s not working.

The first time I encountered an “accountability group” I immediately thought of the self-criticism sessions in Maoist China’s reeducation camps.  Doesn’t an “accountability group” sound a little like Mao’s “responsibility fields”?  Who defines the standard to which pastors will be held to account?  Is it the United Methodist Party? Is it Chairman Jesus?  Is that the ideology of the group’s local commissar? Is it some general sense of right and wrong?

Perhaps I’m pro-choice and my colleagues are pro-life and their idea of accountability is different than mine?  The action of holding each other to “account” can become an exercise in wielding power, guilt, and shame if not done properly.  Again, I ask, is “accountability” the word we want to use?  (Perhaps “mutuality” or “mutual” are options.)  As currently construed, many “accountability groups” allow pastors to do for each other what they should never do with their own parishioners:  act in a mental health/therapeutic capacity for more than two sessions.

Early in my ministry I asked a colleague, “What’s an accountability group?”  I was told (in all seriousness) that it’s a time for pastors to, “sit around, pray together, to confess your porn addictions, talk about problems with your wife, and things like that.”  First of all, that sounded like a group therapy session.  Secondly, I wasn’t a porn addict and was recently divorced.  I was paying for therapy with counselor.  I didn’t want to sit around with people I knew professionally and talk about my personal problems.  I could sue my doctor if he broke my confidentiality but I didn’t know what I to do if the preachers down the street started talking to the Bishop about my divorce.  The whole idea sounded awkward, clichéd, and ripe for misunderstandings.

Most people get accountability right and a few get it horribly wrong.  When it goes off the rails, it’s spectacular; like the slow motion car wreck you can’t avoid watching. Frankly, I’m tired of all the rubbernecking and ready for the next great leap forward.  We need a new word, “mutuality” or “trust”, anything other than something that sounds like it emerged from the Cultural Revolution.

Granted, it’s hard to do when we’re fighting a Civil War.

Richard Lowell Bryant