Accountability Without Control

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Lovett H. Weems, Jr., explains that in these times, when church leaders can rely less on structure and hierarchy to undergird their authority, accountability flows from faithfulness to mission, vision, and values, not hierarchical control.


Rosabeth Moss Kanter speaks of a new kind of leader. These new leaders must learn to operate “without the might of hierarchy behind them.” The crutch of authority, she says, must be thrown away.

Authority is available as a source of power in an inverse ratio to its use. The more you claim authority, the less power it has.

Having to lead without depending on structure, hierarchy, and authority presents a new challenge for the leader operating in these times. Faced with the frustrations of a time when there is so much suspicion of and resistance to institutions and leaders, persons in leadership often respond in two equally problematic ways. Some will continue to rely on authority more and more, as if the more one claims authority the more influence one has. The reality is just the opposite. Authority is available as a source of power in an inverse ratio to its use; i.e., the more you claim authority, the less power it has.

The opposite extreme so many leaders take is to give in to the resistance and become managers. Some will call themselves “enablers,” others “facilitators,” and still others “empowerers.” Good leaders do at times enable, facilitate, and empower. Yet many who latch on to these descriptions for their total leadership seem actually to function in a way very close to what Robert Blake and Jane Mouton describe in their Managerial Grid as “country club management.” Here the leader is no more or less than the director of a voluntary association. Such leaders function as if the group is everything, and there is no larger purpose or mission requiring faithfulness.

Accountability to mission, vision, and values

A third alternative option is to see one’s role as leader as helping to ensure accountability to the mission and vision — but without control. This sounds difficult. It may even seem impossible! On the other hand, such an approach just may make accountability easier. Greater, not less, accountability may result.

Accountability may actually be easier since it is based now on faithfulness to our mission, vision, and values, and no longer on authority. It is based on what we as a people have affirmed as our mandate. Time is not spent by leaders telling people what they cannot do, but in asking people what they are doing about our shared commitments. People will be less likely to feel the need constantly to report what they will not do because no one is telling them anything they must do. Instead, everyone is busy being responsive to the shared vision because accountability is expected.

In many ways this is no different from the way John Wesley approached a number of issues. Regarding doctrine, Wesley dearly wished others would believe as he did. Yet he gave freedom of belief with accountability. One was free to believe but not free from belief. No energy was then needed for debates over freedom. The issue was never freedom but doctrine. So the time went to doctrinal accountability. Wesley constantly asked questions of people focused on not only what they believed, but also on issues of accountability and growth in discipleship. It was not enough simply to state one’s beliefs. In the absence of control, people felt more willing to talk about the basis for those beliefs, the logic of them, how they compared to others, and also what they meant for discipleship.

Freedom to restructure, but not freedom from accountability

An issue in recent times for denominational congregations is the desire to have more flexibility for establishing their own structures to meet their particular needs. This is a reasonable desire. Flexibility gives freedom from mandated structures but can never in the church give freedom from accountability for the mission. Bureaucracies often seek to mandate accountability through control of structures, among other things. That no longer works or is acceptable.

In this new situation it would be easy to confuse freedom for flexibility with freedom from accountability. Instead, the message to congregations is, more appropriately, that you are free to be flexible with your structure. You are not, however, free to structure in a way that does not promote the manifestation of the power of God where you have the calling of ministry.

Let us look at what accountability without control might mean for some other specific issues.

With the freedom of flexibility, congregations can structure as they think best to reach the diverse populations in their communities. There is no control of structure now, but accountability for the vision remains. So a congregation is free to structure for reaching diverse populations in any way it chooses with one exception. It is not free to structure in a way that does not result in the love of God through Christ becoming a reality for all the people they are called to serve. A congregation is free to plan its program of evangelism in any way it chooses. It is not free to have a program of evangelism unfaithful to the call of sharing Christ with a needful humanity. A congregation may choose to plan for children’s ministry in various ways. Accountability does not seek to control. Accountability does inquire why a children’s ministry does not result in reaching the children within the community. This accountability does ask about results.

The importance of right questions

How is such accountability without control best achieved? Accountability in our day will not come by mandates, legislation, or resolutions. Accountability instead may be achieved through the right questions. Leaders do not need all the answers. Leaders must have the right questions.

The background for every question must be what it is that God is calling us to do. The questions must be tied to the very reason we exist, or they will have neither credibility nor power. The questions need to call us back to the very values that brought us to faith in the first place. For them to be seen as worthy of attention and respect, they need to strike at the heart of who we are as Christians.

No longer will people be asked if they are following the process. No longer will an answer that we followed the process be adequate. Instead, does the process being followed address the need and the calling?


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About Author

Dr. Lovett H. Weems, Jr.

Lovett H. Weems, Jr., is senior consultant at the Lewis Center for Church Leadership, professor of church leadership at Wesley Theological Seminary, and author of several books on leadership.


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United Methodist studies: Methodist Identity — Part 1: Our Story; Part 2: Our BeliefsWesleyan Studies Project — Series I: Methodist History; Series II: Methodist Doctrine; Series III: Methodist Evangelism