I simply do not know enough about the diversion of PC(USA) money to the Presbyterian Centers for New Church Development, Inc. to comment on it responsibly. A lot of people have been quick to draw conclusions about what happened. Based on the small amount of information made public (by late- December when I am writing this editorial), I think such judgments are, at best, premature, and at worst, masking other agendas.
One thing is clear: The financial diversion has caused considerable consternation within the rank and file of the PC(USA). In my opinion, the bewilderment and anger are rooted in a much bigger issue than the diversion of money. Namely, more times than not in the PC(USA), we do not hold people accountable for their actions. We are quick to criticize our government, the police or anyone else doing something wrong. But hold our own people or ourselves accountable? It usually doesn’t happen.
When bad things happen in our judicatories and congregations, no individual or group seems to accept responsibility for the failures. Most people work in places where, when bad things happen, there are repercussions for those who mismanaged. So management in the church is disconnected from the managerial best practices in many other parts of our society. Indeed, many secular organizations handle the accountability issue much better than the church.
Examples of the lack of accountability in the PC(USA) are legion:
- A new pastor comes in and basically blows up an otherwise healthy congregation. After much turmoil, the pastor leaves for another call. The congregation struggles for years with what amounts to ecclesial post-traumatic stress disorder. A few years later, word spreads that the pastor who caused problems is engaging in the same destructive behavior in another congregation.
- A new pastor is called to a congregation that has a history of devouring its clergy. During the call process, no one warns the pastor about the congregation’s past. After realizing the impossibility of ministry in such a setting, the new pastor leaves with a broken heart and damaged career.
- Presbyteries lose millions of dollars from ill-advised decisions related to the sale of camps, legal fees in sexual misconduct cases and other instances of mismanagement. When all is said and done, no one — not the staff, presbytery council or the presbyters themselves — accept blame for losing money that could have generated new church developments or other important ministry. Life goes on as though nothing happened.
- Some members of the Presbyterian Mission Agency Board and its governing predecessors complain that they don’t know important information until after damage has been done to a particular project. It is impossible to hold people accountable when critical information is missing or inaccurate.
- Those reading this column can add their own examples.
In all of these cases, the common denominator is that no one is held accountable — not the pastor guilty of blowing up a congregation’s ministry, nor the congregation that eats clergy for breakfast, nor the presbyteries who waste money entrusted to them, nor those failing to be transparent at the GA level. In my opinion, the reason no one is held accountable is that we have made leadership such a diffuse responsibility that no one feels responsible. Let me explain. Our governing bodies (sessions, presbyteries, synods, PMA board and General Assembly) materialize for a brief period of time, make decisions and then recede into the background until their next appointed time of appearance. In the case of presbyteries, synods, the PMA board and General Assembly, the people materializing and disappearing are not even necessarily the same from one meeting to the next. As a result, too often members of our governing boards know precious little about what is actually happening in the bodies they are supposed to be governing. There is little continuity or depth of oversight.
Mismanagement can take place when governing boards are effective in oversight of a ministry. If the members of a governing body don’t know what is going on, it is almost certain that mismanagement will take place. As a management and leadership consultant, our governance system raises many questions in my mind. What does “fiduciary responsibility” mean when the members of the governing body have no thorough knowledge of the finances or program details of the entity they govern? How does a governing board have any real influence when it meets infrequently and its membership turns over regularly? In an era when many organizations have decentralized, how does our 20th century vertical system of governance (session-presbytery-synod-General Assembly) hold accountable a 21st century church and congregations that are operating horizontally across the breadth of our nation and world?
Distrust anyone who has quick answers to those questions! There are answers and, with the help of God, we can find them. But they will require profound denominational soul-searching and analysis of our form of governance from sessions all the way to General Assembly.
Whatever the reasons for our problems, we can no longer avoid confessing, in the best sense of confession, that our governance system in the PC(USA), from top to bottom, is not working very well. Too many congregations, pastors, church members, staff and governing bodies do not feel as though they will be held accountable for their actions because they aren’t. It is way past time for us to confess, talk about and rectify this problem.
Our failure to hold each other accountable in ministry is ironic since we place the Holy Bible at the center of our organizational and personal lives. And what does that book contain? One story after another tells of God holding us accountable. Consultants like me didn’t invent performance measures to insure accountability. Jesus gave us very specific performance metrics for ministry: the hungry will be fed, naked clothed, the sick and prisoners visited, strangers welcomed. He declared that we will be held accountable for meeting those crystal-clear performance measures. We may not want to hold each other accountable. God will and does.
Given our proclamation that God holds us accountable for our actions, why are we so afraid to hold each other accountable? And please, enough with the “Take the log out of your own eye before you worry about the speck in someone else’s eye” or “Judge not, lest ye be judged.” Jesus didn’t intend for those words to be an excuse for not holding ourselves and others accountable. And enough with saying that governing boards should not get involved in management. For better or, usually, worse, when managers don’t perform well, boards have no choice but to get involved in management decisions.
Bottom line: Many other organizations and institutions do a better job of holding people accountable than the church does. We can learn from them if we will stop thinking that the church is some unique organization that dropped out of heaven. Clearly, we have unique Good News for the world. But we are not a unique organization. That being said, we are led by a unique person: Jesus the Christ. Jesus refused to accept the unacceptable and tolerate the intolerable from himself and others, holding himself and others accountable to God. His church must do the same.
Yours in Christ,