John 15: The Vine and the Branches-"I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener. He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit he prunes so that it will be even more fruitful.
In the ten years since I sold my business, I've been coaching and consulting with churches and leaders trying to create healthy Christian communities. One of the stark differences I find in the church world versus the secular business world is accountability. Businesses that do not measure the important things and hold people accountable for accomplishing agreed objectives do not last long. Now, one could argue that accountability went missing on Wall Street during the financial meltdown of 2008. When government stepped in and saved the failing institution, there was much debate about the 'moral hazard' involved in the rescue. The concern is that bailing out these banks will allow them to continue with reckless behavior thinking they will be bailed out again. This is the challenge when accountability is absent, people don't learn and improve.
I had a sales person who made unrealistic promises about the delivery of a large order of machinery. When the equipment was late, we had to provide rental equipment. The sales person did not own up to the commitment she made, and the customer got upset when we billed $15,000 for the rental. When it came to my attention, I set up a meeting with the customer. After hearing the customer's side, I asked the sales person if she indeed made that commitment. She sheepishly nodded affirmatively. So, I credited back all the rental invoices even though the result meant that we sold a half million dollars worth of equipment without making any profit. Not a good way to stay in business.
I told the sales person after the customer left, "This mistake cost me about the same thing as it costs for my daughter to attend a semester at Vanderbilt." I went on, "I'll tell you the same thing I tell my daughter, 'At these prices, let's learn something here, and not repeat this semester." Sadly, within a year, she had demonstrated that she did not learn this lesson, and we let her go.
I learned accountability as a sales person. I was getting a small base salary, less than a quarter of the total earnings. The rest came from commission on sales of equipment. My first couple of years went well, then we hit a recession. I called it the sliding scale of unemployment. I had a job, but if I did not sell equipment, we could not pay our bills. We had a very unpleasant year until the economy began to improve. We couldn't make our mortgage payment for a couple of months. There was no one to bail me out. If I did not produce results, I did not get paid. I learned time management, and improved my sales techniques, worked long and hard, and dug myself out of the hole. It was an invaluable lesson.
When I got into management, I had to deal with people who were not performing their jobs. I found myself complaining to my father and brother about a non-performer, and realized I had not made my feelings clear to the sales person. Right then, I made a vow that no one would get to the end of the road with me and be surprised when I brought them in the office and told them their job was at stake. I created a set of measures, and made them visible to the people, so they could track their results against the goals we set. I told my sales force, "Remember, there will always be an anchor, the lowest performer in any team. Don't be the anchor, the one holding us back, because you will get cut loose." When I made good on that promise, then the second lowest performer became the anchor. Sales people got the message, and everyone worked to move at least to the middle of the pack, to protect their job. I met with each individual on my team once a quarter to review the goals they had set against the performance, and tied bonuses to the achievement of team goals.
Over time, as I moved into senior management, we worked very hard to create a dashboard of gauges that would help us fly the plane. It took years, but we slowly identified the key factors of health that were leading indicators of something going amiss. Each month, my team of managers would report any variances, up or down, from the plan so we could make adjustments before we got stuck on the wrong trajectory.
Accountability led to a strengthening of our team year after year. We gave incentives to the individuals and the team for accomplishing goals and challenged those who did not. The quality of the work improved, and the team grew closer. Everyone understood that to remain on the team, you had to fulfill your role and meet your goals so the team could succeed. As we put this system into place, we quadrupled the size of the business in ten years.
Those who succeeded were rewarded, and those who did not fit the culture found other jobs. The amazing thing was, each time we let someone go who did not fit the team and the culture, we saw those people find a better fit and be more successful in a different organization. I came to realize that we are not doing any favors keeping someone on the team who is not capable of performing that role. It creates terrible stress on the individual, and holds back the team. Even though we were a family business, we began to use the word team to describe our culture, not family for a simple reason. Every family has dysfunctional members who they protect and carry. But, on a team, if you cannot perform, you don't stay with the team.
In most denominational churches I've seen, there is very little accountability. Typical council/committee structures are control structures. People are not empowered, and micromanagement by the council and pastor is common. When people do not perform, no one talks about it. Whole committees and programs suffer entropy, a slow deterioration of function and capability as the passion of whoever started the program wanes and no new leader steps up. Yet, councils do not ask what's gone wrong, because we wouldn't want to make the person feel bad. They are a volunteer after all. So, we see very high control/low accountability systems at play in many churches.
I realized in my business life that when I micromanage someone, it says I don't trust them. I want to say to churches that are operating in this high control environment, "How can you have a healthy church if there is not trust at the very core?"
I have observed what almost seems like an unhealthy agreement between pastors and the business leaders in the congregation. It goes something like this, pastor won't hold the business leaders accountable to do more than write checks, and the leaders won't hold the pastor accountable for actually accomplishing anything. Nothing is measured, no one is held accountable, and mediocrity ensues. I've heard many a pastor say, "You can't measure the important things, like spiritual growth." So, they refuse to give credence to any of the proxies, like worship attendance.
This argument no longer holds true. For several years, Willow Creek has been developing the Reveal Spiritual Life Survey, which measures where individuals are on a spiritual continuum, and has identified the critical factors that enable growth to spiritual maturity. They have found that only the programs that help people grow deeper in their relationship with Jesus actually move them towards maturity.
True leaders love accountability. They will measure themselves even if no one else is measuring. They abhor committee meetings where nothing is accomplished and no progress is measured. And, there are churches that encourage this. The alternative to the high control church is the permission-giving church, that stresses high accountability and low control. Some of the pioneers in this work are Mike Breen and Steve Cockram at 3D Ministries. They help churches build huddle structures of accountability, and help people find their spiritual gifts and passions and unleash them in missional communities that are lay led. Here is a short video where Breen describes these communities.
This idea of simple church is getting great traction with the unchurched postmodern culture. Churches are being planted across Europe with this basic model. Here is a two minute video of the difference between institutional and simple church.
Here, Alan Hirsch talks about the 3DM model. Alan is one of the leading thinkers in the development of the new expressions of the church that are emerging.
My own Failure at Creating Accountability in a Volunteer Setting
I understand how churches develop into organizations without accountability. I helped start a venture called the Transforming Leaders Initiative five years ago. I was seeking to create an effective team committed to equipping Lutheran pastors as leaders and building learning communities and networked churches living into a new paradigm. As people gathered around this idea, I could never quite get them to agree to roles and accountability, which are necessary to healthy team formation. Yet, I was so anxious to move this project forward, that I let people join and continue on the board even without making serious commitments of energy and work. Even though we set expectations and agreed to them, we never fulfilled many of them, and I never called people out, because I could not afford to lose them. The scarcity mentality that is so prevalent in the church seeped into my own thinking.
At the same time, I knew a young pastor who was planting a church. He, too, was challenged to create expectations and hold his leadership team accountable to them in the early days. He initially allowed people in leadership who were not personally committed to growing spiritually, and shied away from a commitment to discipleship. After two years, he realized he was not getting traction, and that the team was not modeling to the community what he was preaching. He restructured the leadership team around a shared commitment to discipleship, and began getting traction.
As a lay person in the pews, if I hear a pastor preaching discipleship, but don't see the leaders modeling a commitment to discipleship and growth, then I am off the hook. Until I see the leaders take these things seriously, I won't invest myself.
So, I allowed a culture without accountability to characterize the board of the Transforming Leaders Initiative. In the end, the lack of accountability bled the project of any chance of success. I lost friends as a result. The great potential of the vision never came to pass. Seeds were sown, but the huge investment of time, energy and money never showed a significant return. And the stress nearly killed me. My health failed, and I had to pull back and regroup. A very painful time of learning.
In the midst of this painful time, I worked with a spiritual director, Mark Ritchie, who talked me through my darkest hours. On this question of accountability, Mark had some wonderful insight from his decades ias a marketplace leader and his training as a spiritual director. He views accountability as a blessing. As he talked me through this way of thinking, I captured the following thoughts.
Mark suggests that we start with what is going on in the big picture with the individual. If we seek to follow Jesus' model, we start with: whatever you've done, I forgive you. With Jesus, first we offer love and forgiveness, before admonition. In Celebration of Discipline, Richard Foster's order of meeting is all about accountability. The meeting begins by recognizing all the ways I am called into serving and stating all I plan to do in the next week or two, then coming back and reporting what I have done. It is a very nonjudgmental form, it is individual accountability for a Godly life well lived. So that is different from accountability to a group or a board or an organization. The situation is different when you have to hold others accountable for their commitments to the organization.
In dealing with holding others accountability, begin with 'this is where we are, now where do we go.' Begin with forgiveness, and give permission to walk away if the person is not ready to do that which is committed. Perhaps, without shame the person can see something bigger than the circumstances that bring about the conversation. It would be very easy for the person to feel attacked in this conversation. Defensiveness leads to denial and excuses and blame, and ignores the essence of the issues.
Given the lack of resources in nonprofit ventures, even greater accountability is required. How do we build accountability into a volunteer team through the lens of Christ that starts with forgiveness, not blame?
Here's how Mark unpacked it. From the standpoint of our Christian walk, it is best for me that I be accountable, not best for others. We will be better served in our Christian walk if God holds us accountable. Even in the Garden, the lesson is God holding Adam and Eve accountable. Without a strong accountability process in place, we will never achieve excellence. We must help others understand why accountability is a blessing, that it is best for us. The world does not teach us this. We don't like to get caught; it brings too much shame. But that can be a blessing, if it turns us back to God, not away from Him. So, here are some simple lessons that are quite a challenge to get right. But, true leadership, even servant leadership as Jesus taught us, requires accountability. We will never achieve what God intends in our lives and churches without accountability. It requires we speak the truth in love, and recognize when we have people in roles that they either do not have the gifts, the passion or the commitment to fulfill, we are doing them and the body of Christ a disservice.
May we all grow in our commitment to our relationship with Jesus, and find the blessing of accountability, that we may grow into the purpose and calling God has created us to live out. See a post about how the Learning Circle brings accountability to discipleship.