is accountability a four-letter word?

How often have you heard someone say, “If I hadn’t told people I was going to do this, I wouldn’t have”? I heard it again just the other day … which leads me to wonder, how much of our faith should be a public matter?

Ours is a society that claims privacy as a right—indeed as an entitlement. We withhold the specifics of much of our living with the assertion, “That’s no one’s business but my own.” Which is actually rarely true. It has occurred to me recently, for example, just how vitally important the parenting of others is to me—how much their parenting is my business—in terms of how their children will relate to mine, to me, and to our world … which means, of course, that my parenting, as well, represents much more than just my own family business.

I certainly understand the strong impulse and the persistent effort to strive for a sense of control and of freedom when it comes to the living of each of our own lives, but suggest that keeping things private offers but the perception of control and the perception of freedom—perceptions that correspond to the proposition of dubious integrity that if people don’t know what we do, then we cannot be held accountable and are thus more free to do what we want.

And there is also that whole if-I-say-absolutely-nothing-of-substance-no-one-has-anything-to-use-against-me line of thought made popular in Supreme Court justice confirmation hearings, graduate school, on all too many job sites, in all too many relationships.

Religion constitutes one dimension of life, along with money, typically deemed most private—much more so than the sexual dimension euphemistically referred to as someone’s private life. And yet my confession of faith is out-loud and to my community of faith—leading to the subsequent and also very public act of baptism. So my initial faith affirmations are, in fact, counter-culturally and counter-intuitively, made in public.

Then there are particular events in the lives of people of faith that again invite such publicity when it comes to faith matters: marriages, baby dedications, ordinations, to name a few. What if we expanded that expectation of a public dimension to faith journeys though? What if we acknowledged that beyond particular events in life, the very process of living involves dynamic faith statements that develop—grow—change? What if we made room for revisions, reaffirmations, and discoveries on our faith journeys? What if we issued no more just an initial invitation, “come make your profession of faith,” but an ongoing invitation, “how are you growing in your faith?” And what if, as we grew in our faith (we do, don’t we?)—what if, as we grew in our faith, we continued to make our developing—growing—changing faith affirmations public within our faith community?

And what if, furthermore, having made these affirmations public, we expected some members of our faith community to hold us accountable? Not to their expectations … that’s where we so frequently go wrong, but to our own confessed ones. What if part of our life together was the explicit affirmation, “I should be held accountable to my own expectations … to my own hope of being, named out-loud within my own faith community.”

What would such vulnerability—such honesty—such trust make of our faith communities? Might it mean that a greater part of our church life together would revolve around the comment, “If I hadn’t told you I was going to do this, I wouldn’t have”?


2 thoughts on “is accountability a four-letter word?

  1. I’m not sure if accountability is a four-letter word, but it is a word that is, to me, off-putting. In my work world, it is threat that accompanies every policy/ procedure, that the consequences of noncompliance will be severe, as if social workers do what we do just to avoid punishment! So I reframe (a good social work term) and decide what I will aspire to accomplish, and work to inspire those who report to me to aspire to the same goals, just because it’s right and good for kids and families. So, I would not want my faith community to “hold me accountable” to even my own confessed expectations (which I fear would unintentionally become the community’s expectations). That feels too harsh, like I would have to give an account, and be answerable for consequences. But I can totally get with sharing with one or a few, an aspiration, a decision, mostly for the support and encouragement that comes with the covenant relationship. Suppose one says to another or a few “I have decided to be a better parent (or spouse, teacher, deacon, minister, mentor) or “I have decided to increase my giving (or devote more time to bible study, prayer, visiting) or even “I have decided to quit smoking (or over-eating or texting while driving.) Suppose a young person says ” I have decided to do better at following Jesus (even though the same young person said the same thing last year). In our faith community I believe the hearer would be moved, and compelled to respond “I wish you well and if you wish, let me check in with you from time to time so you can let me know how it’s going.” That feels more like faith community, less like world, and leaves room for grace, when we fall short of our own aspirations.

  2. Sounds like weight watchers for believers. It seems to be successful in that context.

    I concur with Marsha’s distrust of the word when it’s used in a hierarchical context where the intent is clearly to grant a “superior” the power to reward and punish.

    I perceive benefit in a context of mutuality where goals are self-selected, where the primary concern is the welfare of each individual, where failure meets encouragement, and where success is celebrated.

    Remember Growth Groups?

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