Power and Accountability

A stressful week in the workplace has led to a lot of soul searching for Arkansas United Methodists. Last week, the pastor of a growing congregation left the UMC and encouraged his people to go with him. It’s a common problem in denominational circles, akin to divorce.

It’s just another statistic until it happens to you. But when it hits home, it hurts.

As we sift through the broken promises and misunderstandings that inevitably come with such a separation, I’m conscious of how the different reactions I’ve heard reflect a division made worse by our language and our practices. Some fault the pastor who left as an opportunist who used the ARUMC’s church planting resources as a springboard for his career. Others place at least equal blame on the Conference’s hierarchy for being such a hindrance as to thwart spiritual entrepreneurs, possibly including even the Holy Spirit himself.

It’s enough to make me seriously contemplate Revolution. As in, the American Revolution of 1776.

During those times that tried men’s souls (a la Thomas Paine), the American leaders were learning the hard way how difficult it was for such a young democracy to run a war. Congress tried to dictate battle plans directly to George Washington, whose trial by fire as executor of Congress’ defense plan was not going well by any standards.

In stepped Nathanael Greene, one of Washington’s generals. He helped form a compromise in which Washington was given full authority in military matters, but was still answerable to Congress for his actions and his methods. Within days of his authorization as commander in chief, Washington had crossed the Delaware River to attack Trenton and dramatically improved the fortunes of the Revolution.

It seems to me that the parties involved could agree on the nature of the situation and on the principles to be applied to it. They also admitted limitations to their own ability and authority. They agreed to share power through mutual accountability.

Too often—even in church life—we treat power and accountability like commodities, constantly bartering for more of the one and less of the other. We waste precious energy trying to loosen constraints on our own decision making while increasing the accountability owed to us.

But what if we viewed power and accountability as the Founders did: not as commodities, but as instruments. Could we fix our eyes on common purpose and principles while allowing those at ground level freedom to operate? Could both those with the power of position allow for accountability that includes honesty without retribution? Could we all share just enough power that accountability becomes something built into our processes rather than something continually imposed upon it?

I am not entirely sure what the answers to these questions are. Perhaps they are far afield from the situation at Mt. Olive UMC. But my hunch is that they are not.

I have a feeling that the most important question facing the UMC today revolves around our concept and use of power. I’ll be exploring questions of power and accountability more in the weeks ahead. I’d welcome your input.

Surprise Stability…Sort Of

I am inclined to anticipate and welcome change. I’m sure part of this by nature, and that piece of my personality serves me well in my work with college students. But I’m also sure that my awareness of change is strongly connected to the culture in which I work, which is highly reactive (if usually immobile) in the face of change.

So when I returned to Wilmore, KY, where I lived while I was in seminary, I expected to be awed by the changes so many of my friends had warned me about—old structures demolished or remodeled, new buildings constructed, changes in campus culture, even new parking regulations. I was thoroughly prepared for the shock of returning to a place that, although once called home, was now a foreign country.

Only it didn’t happen that way. In fact, quite the opposite.

What struck me on the drive into town was how well the things I remembered have held up over time. The country houses and horse barns still bear stately witness to a key driver of local culture, as well as to the separation of local people into classes of gentility, peasantry, and students. The old restaurant where I worked is gone, but the Marathon station nearby is still fifteen cents per gallon cheaper than the Exxon down the street. The people in my old neighborhood are still friendly to a fault, somewhere between Mayberry residents and the Stepford wives.

Not only that, I find that who I am now is remarkably consistent with who I was fifteen years ago. I am older and wiser and have lost what little jump shot I ever had. But I still question authority as a reflex, still feel called but not incorporated into clergy life, still value the deep friendships I formed here, even though I have not seen most of those friends for more than a decade.

The experience had an odd effect on me, akin to what I imagine Frodo must have felt on his return to Rivendell (I’m also still a geek, FYI). I found myself in a place that had not changed at the same rate the outside world had changed. Despite my love of new things, I found it comfort in the sense of stability.

At the same time, I don’t trust that feeling. I’ve seen enough of life to know that, regardless of how things appear on the surface, the world beneath is always in flux. Outward changes are often (though not always) simply a manifestation of invisible processes that have been at work for some time.

So where does that leave me? Embedded in complexity, for one. The world is neither stable nor simple, and it never has been.

But returning to Wilmore also leaves me encouraged. It reminds me that, even as I work in an organization that is obsessed with change, time still moves at the same rate for me as it did for my parents or John Wesley or Jesus. My experience of life as a frantic, inescapable whirlwind is not ultimate reality. It is simply my experience, and I have some choice in whether or not I continue to experience it that way.

Life changes, and we along with it. But the core pieces of being human—particularly of being a human brought alive by God—remain consistent. Perhaps this is not deep gospel. But it is, at least, a reason to take a deep breath, and even rest.