“If you make a mess, clean it up.”
“You made your bed. Now lie in it.”
“The captain goes down with the ship.”
These are the simple aphorisms of accountability. Actions have consequences. The one taking the action should bear the consequences. The captain who steered into disaster can’t be the first into a lifeboat.
It all seems so simple (if somewhat counterintuitive to a child) and yet so absent in today’s cultural, political, and economic climate. The art of managing nowadays seems to focus on getting someone else to pay the price. Enjoy rewards on the way up, but dodge consequences on the way down.
If the business goes sour, simply lay off lower-level employees, even though they had no hand in messing up product design, market analysis, financial stability, research and development, or capital spending. If the bank’s foolhardy risks go sour, don’t fire the CEO who steered the ship; acquire another bank, and fire its CEO. Or just demand federal money.
As of mid-February, not one of the eight bankers who testified before Congress about the financial meltdown happening on their watch seems in danger of losing his job.
Even as they put entire towns out of business, captains of industry continue their comfortable lives and, evading all mention of their failures.
The message isn’t lost on underlings: Deflect blame. Don’t be the one left holding the bag. Pump up the numbers. Discourage true measurements of performance. Blame the workers for being lazy, blame the customer for being stupid, blame the Chinese, blame immigrants. Soon, no one knows the truth, and telling the truth becomes known as “whistle-blowing” and must be protected as if it were an endangered species.
It was refreshing when President Barack Obama said he messed up in not vetting some appointments. What president in recent memory has accepted accountability for failed policies, improper behavior, or bad management? In an election, no one admits to being responsible for consequences.
In religion, mainline Protestant denominations have been in steep decline since 1964. Partisans have used that slide to blame women, gays, liberals, or whoever stokes their ire. But no one looks at the generation running churches in 1964 and asks how they misread a changing culture, failed to retain their members, ignored questions people were asking, planted congregations in poor locations, and squandered centuries of accumulated respect. Failure is a great teacher — the best teacher — but only if you see it and own it.
It’s a fool’s game, of course. Reality inevitably prevails. Ships that hit icebergs do sink. Wars waged on fraudulent information and unexamined ideology become quagmires.
I vote for faith communities. Let’s start by teaching right and wrong. Let’s accept our diminished state as something we brought about by ignoring needs, by soothing and not challenging, and by offering too much fluff and too little substance. Let’s stop hiding from reality by maintaining facilities we can’t afford. Let’s stop the precious internal feuds that have nothing to do with recessions, wars, rampant dishonesty and greed, or God. Let’s close underperforming churches and furlough under-performing clergy and lay leaders.
If we who claim Messiah’s mantle don’t teach and accept accountability, who will?
Tom Ehrich is a writer, church consultant, and Episcopal priest based in New York. He is the founder of the Church Wellness Project, www.churchwellness.com. His Web site is www.morningwalkmedia.com.). See Tom’s weekly column for this issue of the Outlook on page 20.