Our United Methodist conference (Texas) is working through issues of faithfulness, effectiveness, fruitfulness, and accountability in ministry. Specifically, we’re trying to ramp up all of those things in order to better fulfill our mission as the people of God. It seems reasonable to me that Dr. Lovin is aware of our situation. After all, we are in his backyard and our bishop is a prominent national figure within United Methodism who just received a distinguished alumnus award from Perkins this past spring. Whether intentional or not, his column enters into conversation with our actions over the past couple of years.
Dr. Lovin’s column calls into question modern obsessions with results. He points out that our obsession with results opens the door for demons, including deceptiveness in order to measure up and, more importantly to him it seems, “a flight from human finitude that begins by offering others the illusion that you are unlimited and ends in the delusion that you can escape the laws of the state, if not the law of gravity.” He goes on to say that Christians, churches, and pastors are no less caught up in this than the rest of our culture.
Lovin’s understanding of faithfulness, he says, neither excludes “effectiveness,” or automatically entails it. The emphasis for him is not on our end result, but on practicing faithfully the way or means given by God: the process is just as important, if not more so, as the result. I think he’s right to say that simply acheiving the right or desirable results, no matter how noble, is not enough. And further, that it is potentially dangerous because of what we’re willing to justify in order to end with the results we’re looking for. But the Great Commission to make disciples of all peoples seems to have an end or result in view. And to be “eschatological people” (thank you, seminary) is to know that history is moving towards a consummation, an end.
In my thinking, what we seem to be in need of is this: (1) a vision for an end, (2) a vision for a truthful way to that end that should not be compromised, and (3), and this is the linch-pin, an atmosphere that is conducive to practicing the truthful way in responsive obedience to God’s work in the world, which has God’s end in view. The first two are more tangible. They are the kind of things we can write into documents that can be approved at Annual Conference gatherings and the like. But the third, the critical piece, is more slippery to nail down. It is as much or more an ethos that is lived, that is embodied. For the ethos or atmosphere to pervade our life together, it must be lived by those who lead the body.
Our conference has made huge changes in order to be more faithful. But some questions are worth ongoing discussion: With our present power dynamics and organizational culture, do we have the right atmospheric conditions in place? While emphasizing accountability is good, what are we emphasizing accountability for/to? Accountability for the results/end? Accountability to the way? Can and/or should we nurture accountability for both?