{Many Questions and Few Answers Along the Never-Finished Journey of Faith}

Metrics, Measurements, and Dashboards, Oh My! –On Measuring Accountability

Part 1 in our Series: On Measuring Accountability

Accountability. This has become a new favorite buzz word that belongs in a long line of buzz words in recent history among United Methodists. What does it mean? Merriam-Webster’s Online Dictionary defines accountability as: an obligation or willingness to accept responsibility or to account for one’s actions. The church has been in a recognized decline for a few years now. And in stressful times such as these, pastors are being looked to for more accountability for their work. This seems to be the driving force behind why the term accountability has become so much a part of the mainstream conversation of church leadership.

I wonder, however, how many of us are willing to admit in a larger gathering why we’re focusing so much on accountability. We talk about it in small, intimate settings. But we seem to dance around the issue in a larger setting, failing to name the emblematic “elephant in the room.” The truth is we’re not nearly as worried about measuring the fruit of a pastor’s work as we are in measuring the lack of fruit in a pastor’s work. If the church is on the skids then someone must be to blame for it. If it’s not the message or methods of ministry, and it’s not the people in the pews, then it must be the person(s) charged to lead and/or carry out the ministry.

In my conference pastors are asked to enroll in an accountability program that rewards them for meeting particular benchmarks of ministry. If pastors meet these marks [and fill out their paperwork] they are recognized at our Annual Conference as an “effective” pastor. We do this as a means of keeping pastors accountable for their productivity and merit in ministry. The hope is that all pastors would want to be recognized publically for doing good work. Never mind that an emphasis on public accolades and recognition goes against the very nature of the vocation of pastor. That may be a rabbit to chase another day.

All of this raises an interesting discussion for pastors and lay people alike. Pastors do the work of ministry professionally [they are paid for their work] but lay people do it on a volunteer basis [they do work and are not normally paid for it]. The concern to be raised is not in expecting pastors to be accountable for ministry but rather the posture in which we expect such excellence. Are we mutually bearing the burdens of accountability by supporting, loving, and constructively growing together? Or, are we instead constantly looking over our shoulder in fear at our conferences (or institutional superiors) as though they’re our dreaded elementary school teacher who would stand tapping their foot and pointing their finger at us in indignation? However we seek to be accountable to one another, it has to be somewhere between lazily ignoring the issue of accountability, on the one hand, and expecting a trophy for just showing up, on the other.

I can understand creating measures, or benchmarks, for effectiveness. But really, how do you go about creating metrics for accountability. I wonder if at the very heart of it all, do we even know how to speak the truth in love to one another? Or, does the system itself encourage competition and stress among and between colleagues to the point that we have no idea how to love one another enough to hold each other accountable for the work we strive to do together for the Kingdom? I suppose, then, that the answer of accountability may not lie as much with our hierarchy or institutional superiors as we might think. Maybe the answer really lies with well,us.

How do we measure effectiveness in ministry? What about accountability? Is accountability viewed as an individual effort or a communal endeavor? Can we collectively be accountable without expecting special praise for the work we should be doing in the first place?

Metrics, Measurements and Dashboards, Oh My!

I believe Bishop Will Willimon was the first person that I heard say something like, “If it’s worth doing, it’s worth measuring.” If you’re a pastor in a mainline denomination you have probably encountered a similar and growing obession with measuring everything. Effectiveness is treated as a science and pastors and congregations are becoming expected more and more to “measure up” to particular demands for ministry from their institutional hiererchy.

What do we measure? Is it really worth measuring? How do we measure it? And the debate rages on.

Over the new few blog posts, I would like to pull out of the complex mix of metrics various examples of areas that are popular to measure. I would love to start a conversation over what it really means when we measure these things and whether it’s really worth doing. I’m convinced after my Annual Conference that open and honest conversation has a hard time developing when the institution itself runs the conversation. Good, honest and transformative conversation can only happen if it happens organically among friends and colleagues seeking the same goal but with different opinions and experiences to undergird their efforts.I look forward to the conversation and debate. And I pray that God’s Spirit would guide the diversity of opinion and thereby strengthen the conversation.

Coming Up- Part 1: Measuring Accountability in Ministry

“Says Who?” The Problem with Claiming Biblical Authority (Part 2)

In our previous post I discussed some of the issues and potentials problems that arise when one claim’s “biblical authority.” Besides the fact that it is a difficult case to make that God ended all revelation once the canon was put together and we had what we know to be the Bible, there are a few other issues that riddle Christians when they claim authority found in Scripture.

But before we summarize that we should note the problems with claiming “authority” in the first place. To claim any sort of authority based on so-called fact is very much a phenomenon of Modernity/Enlightenment thinking. Before Modernity there was a centralized notion of truth because humanity had little to no means of communication across borders. This reduced contrary thinking in a society. Birds of a feather naturally flock together. The Enlightenment was heavily fueled by two things, to name just a couple. First, the invention of the printing press allowed fact and belief to be filtered across societal lines often for the first time. There grew an emphasis on the written word and, as a result, fact could be located through enough research. Mass amounts of fact was distributed and people could be infiltrated with a wide, new array of knowledge. Secondly, the scientific method offered a proven way to test theories and create fact based in science, research and observation. This evolved over time and allowed humanity not only to measure and weight what could be seen, but also to predict would was to come. All of this created a world where beliefs and truth first were found through the written word and, second, proven as truth through controlled and measured methods of analysis.

Problems arose when this neat and orderly method began to dissolve. I won’t speculate on this blog as to when this happened—many scholars more learned than I am have debated this for many years. The end result is that we now live in a world where diversity and complexity are the norm and where neither can be adequately measured like we once thought we could do. This often doesn’t stop us from attempting to hold onto Modernist notions of universality in truth and fact as the highest form of law. But this is ever so quickly giving way to a world where diversity of opinion outweighs the pursuit of so-called fact.

I say all of this to say something very simple and yet very weighty. Claims of authority are always rooted in an attempt to claim power. When we attempt to claim biblical authority we are, in essence, attempting to exert power over a contrary opinion or even a person who would hold a contrary opinion to that which we read in Scripture. The pursuit of knowledge, in its purest essence, is and has always been a pursuit of power. And claims of authority based in so-called fact and knowledge are always an attempt to levy power, most often over against another.

More often than not, claims of biblical authority depend on a particular reading of the Bible. As Derrida reminds us, “there is nothing beyond the text,” meaning context is always key when understanding claims of belief and truth.
For me, this doesn’t reduce any of the weight of Scripture but, instead, adds weight to it. Not only understanding the context we live in, but also that of the biblical world, we can come closer to glimpsing the mysterious truth found in the pages of Scripture. We can no long be satisfied with a surface-level reading of the Bible. We must trudge through the deep waters of mystery where behind every question we find not answers, but more questions. This is what it means to faithfully read the text. And this also prevents us from using the text to make claims of truth larger than we should.

There is great truth found within the fabric of the biblical text. There is truth that can change the lives of those who dare to read and hear such words. But this truth cannot be contained in pithy formulas or simplistic systems of understanding. It’s much too great for that. At best, we read and share the reading in community. We speak to what it means for each of individually and we hear what it means for our fellow sojourners. And we don’t put it down or stop the conversations until it changes us, over and over and over again. On the one hand, I suppose we could say that we need to greatly limit the so-called authority we attest to the Bible to avoid narrow readings and simplistic understandings of faith. On the other hand, if we dare to do this, we will open a world of mystery and revelation and catch a glimpse of the divine we might never have imagined. Such an adventure surely will “transform us into the same image [of God] from one degree of glory to another.”

Does this limit how you read Scripture? Does it expand your reading of the Bible? Is such a reading of the biblical text even possible?

“Says Who?” The Problem with Claiming Biblical Authority (Part 1)

The question of authority has riddled Christianity for centuries. Whose word carries ultimate authority in matters of faith? Whose writings, thoughts, or critiques grant our claims of faith such solid authority? And what happens when someone else’s claim of authority runs counter to ours?

The truth is, we don’t really care about the first two questions nearly as much as we do the third. In our modern Western context, individuals are, for the most part, free to believe as they want to believe, according to whatever sources they choose to believe in, and by whatever authority they choose to claim. That is, until those choices run up against another’s choice of belief grounded in a different authority. In the end, we may “agree to disagree” with those outside of our respective belief systems, but what happens when groups or individuals who subscribe to the Bible disagree on beliefs and what passages inform those beliefs? Disputes will arise. Debates will ensue. Questions are asked and accusations are made. All of this leads us to ask what grants the biblical texts authority in how they inform our faith journey?

Authority is what guides our decision-making process on matters of faith. There are issues facing the church, albeit too numerous to name, and biblical texts claiming authority are being trotted out with each one. Scripture is meant to be the guiding force that inspires and informs our faith. On “hot-button issues” it becomes the sticking point that leads to creating dividing lines across the issues. In other words, I wonder if when we debate these issues we aren’t really debating how to read the Bible? If someone doesn’t read the Bible the way I do, they must be wrong because I work under the basic premise that my reading of Scripture is essentially right. Therefore, if you’re not with me, then you’re against me. And so the debates ensue.

This debate over the authority of the Bible is not a new thing at all, in fact we can go back as far as the Westminster Confession of Faith (1646) for an early articulation of strict biblical authority. The assumption was that God spoke and acted completely in the biblical account–there were no further revelations. In defense of this Calvinist doctrine, the Reformation and Enlightenment had led many to claim authority based on new revelation in many areas, even those outside of the theological arena. Much of the reason why this Confession of Faith was constructed was to offer a clear, concise understanding of the nature of God and the authority of Scripture.

Okay, I think we’ve had enough of a history lesson. So what does this mean for us today?

After 350 years, the Westminster Confession is still alive and well. Camps form around the various ways we read the Bible and dividing lines establish who’s “in” and who’s “out.” Many who subscribe to the classical Liberal Protestant reading of Scripture will essentially argue that passages on grace and love trump those on law. Many will even claim extra authority on the so-called “red letter” passages (those are the words of Jesus in case your Bible isn’t color coded). Others who lean more towards the more Evangelical reading of the Bible will often have a great emphasis on the inerrancy of the words found in the Bible–including those passages on laws and ethics. This is essentially what informs ideas on women in leadership in the church and homosexuality to name just a couple of issues debated.

There is a major risk we run no matter how we read the Bible. We risk being guilty of Bibliolatry, which is essentially idolatry.

The problem with both readings is that it leaves no room for continuing revelation. I recently had a conversation with a friend where I mentioned this idea of “continuing revelation.” He quickly informed me that “continuing revelation” simply means justifying that “anything goes.” I disagree. What sort of living vitality does the Bible hold if it simply serves as a rule book or encyclopedia of faith? What sort of transforming power do those words have if they have no living power? And where is the note that God was finished revealing God’s self once the canon was established?

What does the Bible mean for you? What experience do you have with people debating current issues using the Bible as authority for their opinions?

In Part 2, we will discuss what giving something the label “authority” means–maybe not something we’re willing to admit.

Lessons on Faith from Oprah

As you may know by now, Oprah ended her run of daytime programming last week after 25 years on the air. But Oprah was (and is) so much bigger than merely an afternoon TV show. She’s become her own brand—a force of nature, if you will. Her endorsement can make or break the career of potential entrepreneurs.

The city of Macon has a special love for Oprah and she came here a few years back to film on of her “Favorite Things” episode. As a newer resident of Macon, it took about two weeks before someone shared the “Oprah in Macon” story with me.

After all of the build up from weeks of celebration, Oprah’s final episode was a simple and unique hodge-podge of thoughts similar to what those in academic communities know as “Last Words”—where a retiring professor will share what they’ve learned during their career.

As she shared some of the wisdom learned throughout the years, Oprah confessed that she could not have accomplished anything over the last 25 years without God. She gave credit to God in saying, “because nothing but the hand of God has made this possible for me.” She would go on to share more of her faith woven within a beautifully honest and human backdrop of love rooted in the human experience. When it came time, she ended her show, she earnestly proclaimed, “To God be the glory.”

And yet you don’t have to go far to hear from those of us who would be skeptical of the validity of Oprah’s faith. Why is that?

There have been certain authors and religious personalities who have made a good living selling books and sharing thoughts using Oprah as the embodiment of the so-called “secular spirituality” that seems to pervade the American religious experience. Many of these use Oprah as the counter to what a good, solid “Christian America” looks like. And that’s very sad.

But please hear me, I don’t think Oprah is a saint by any stretch of the imagination. She would be the first to admit that. However she has helped us see for the last 25 years that one can be both a follower of Jesus and a lover of all things beautifully human. In her final episode she demonstrated that the Christian faith doesn’t have to begin by opposing those outside of the faith, but rather it begins by including all of God’s people in love and acceptance as the very expression of our faith.

I have lots of admiration for Oprah. She’s a smart businesswoman who knew she couldn’t preach day in and day out if she wanted to be as big of a success as she is. But I think she also knows deep down that God loves all people no matter what. And she showed us that God’s grace is demonstrated best when we resist beating people over the heads with narrow expressions of faith. It’s something all Christians should try from time to time.

Oprah reminds us that we can “love God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength” but we also have to “love our neighbor as ourselves” even when that neighbor is not Christian or not even like us at all. God’s love is very real tangible. It’s a message all people probably need to hear that now more than ever.

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