A Meditation on Accountability

Originally posted at Florida Conference of United Methodist Church. Shared with permission from Bishop Ken Carter.

Florida United Methodist Bishop Ken Carter addresses crowd from the Capitol steps. Rex Adams photo

Florida United Methodist Bishop Ken Carter addresses crowd from the Capitol steps. Rex Adams photo

Many of us are reading through Luke and Acts in this calendar year (2014). In my own devotional life I am reading a chapter each week. As I read Luke 20 a couple of weeks ago, I kept returning to the parable of the tenant farmers in the vineyard (20. 9-19). The vineyard is a traditional term for Israel, and the language of “beloved son” resonates with Jesus at his baptism (Luke 3) and transfiguration (Luke 9). The rejection of the cornerstone, from the text itself, is clearly a teaching that places Jesus in conflict with the religious authorities. While it is important that Christians not read this passage in an anti-Jewish way, at its origin its meaning was related to Israel’s acceptance of the Messiah; it is also clear that this parable came to be interpreted in light of the church as the vineyard, and the return of Christ as judge. I believe it is often true that biblical passages have more than one interpretation.

The context is also important. Having just returned from Israel in May, I am conscious that Jesus has entered the city (Palm Sunday) and cleansed the temple. The teaching is taking on an increased sense of urgency, and he is in dialogue with other rabbinical and philosophical schools. As Luke Timothy Johnson argues, the question is whether we accept Jesus as the embodiment of God’s prophetic vision. To reject the cornerstone (Hebrew: eben) is to reject the son (Hebrew: ben). Thus Jesus laments over Jerusalem (Luke 20. 42) and weeps over it, recalling the life of an earlier prophet, Jeremiah.

I have reflected on the parable as a lesson about stewardship: the land is not ours, the church is not ours, the episcopacy is not mine, we simply labor here, for a season, until the time when we give an account. Within the text there is a focus on fruitfulness, and respect for the beloved son (20.13), and our human tendency to claim all of this as our own property (to be autonomous). The result is that the vineyard is given to others. God is never without a witness.

There is significant conversation at the moment, in the secular media, in the church’s media, and in the social media about schism, division and unity. I want to offer a perspective that is not often stated: unity is not our goal. Unity is a by-product experienced by those who are devoted to the mission of being faithful and fruitful disciples in the vineyard. Many of our sister mainline denominations no longer have issues with unity, because they have become smaller and more homogeneous (like-minded) groups.

In the words of the epiclesis, the prayer for the coming of the Holy Spirit at the Eucharist, we pray:

“Make us one with Christ,
one with each other,
one in ministry to all the world.”

At a time when division, schism and unity are common topics, I invite us to
pray for a transformation that is beyond our human capacity or imagination:

That our lives would be more Christ-centered…

That our unity would be rooted in him and not in our natural sympathies, political convictions or tribal affiliations…

That the energy channeled internally toward division would be released externally in the world to which we are sent.

The Holy Spirit is not constrained by our unfaithfulness. As the missiologist Lesslie Newbigin commented,

“The Holy Spirit…always goes before the church in its missionary journey.”

If we are not faithful and obedient to the Holy Spirit, God will give the vineyard to others. We are called, in John the Baptist’s challenge to bear fruit “worthy of repentance” (Luke 3. 8), or appropriate to our conversion.

I find this a sobering challenge to leaders. It calls me to take seriously my accountability to the calling, and to try to work in such a way that my part of God’s kingdom honors the Lord’s intentions, and, by his grace, that it is fruitful.

Accountability is a critical matter of concern in the present moment. In our United Methodist Church, Bishops have made promises to order the life of the church through guarding the faith, seeking unity, exercising the Discipline and supporting the mission of the church. I recall making this particular promise at Lake Junaluska in July, 2012, when I was consecrated (set apart for the work) as a bishop, and at First United Methodist Church in Lakeland in September, 2012, at the service of Installation here in Florida.

I want to say clearly, to the clergy of the Florida Conference, that I sense an accountability to these promises and a renewed energy to remain in this calling. I remind myself of these vows because we will soon ordain a new class of deacons and elders, who will make their own promises to Christ and his church. We gather, in this place, to bear witness to the journeys of these men and women, to offer our support and, yes, to offer our accountability. And I am not asking you, my brothers and sisters, to do anything that I am not willing to do myself. I hope you will join me in this rededication.

When I served as a pastor of a local church, I took seriously my working relationship with the pastor-parish relations committee. Along the way I came across a simple insight: we flourish (grow, mature) when there is an appropriate balance between support and accountability. When the balance is too far in the direction of support, the clergy senses affirmation, but the mission suffers. When the balance is too far in the direction of accountability, the clergy experiences burnout, and leadership cannot be sustained. The visible sign of the former is often a long pastorate where the church is on a plateau or in decline. The visible sign of the latter is often a series of short term pastorates in a particular congregation.

A healthy balance of support (grace) and accountability (holiness) produces a particular kind of soil, namely one that often bears fruit. The fruitfulness is the outward and visible sign of our mission—“to make disciples of Jesus Christ, for the transformation of the world”. We are accountable to this mission. We do get distracted, and our human tendency is to avoid accountability. One of the ways we avoid accountability is to obsess about holding others accountable! In this parable, we are reminded that the Lord will return to hold us accountable, and the question will be how we have cultivated our plot of the vineyard. Is it alive? Does it glorify God? Does it produce an abundant harvest that blesses friend and stranger? Are we making new, younger, more diverse disciples of Jesus Christ?

Historically, Methodists in America experienced support and accountability through conferences. These included quarterly (local church) conferences, annual conferences and general conferences. In his study of these conferences, the historian Russ Richey has noted three ideals: polity, fraternity (I would use the term collegiality) and revival. These ideals are in tension with each other, and yet I would submit that they also contribute to an increased sense of support and accountability.

The quarterly conference transitioned over time to the charge conference. This annual event, led by a superintendent or an authorized elder, is for the purpose of connecting the local church to the annual conference and the denomination. Historically, its roots were in the revival movement of our country.

The annual conference began as a gathering of preachers. Over time this was expanded to include lay representation and today clergy whose ministries take other forms. The annual conference was and is largely focused on collegiality: for many it is a meaningful reunion of friends and colleagues, and this is expressed in the traditional question posed by the Wesley hymn, “And Are We Yet Alive?”

The general conference had its origin in the conferences led by John Wesley himself, which produced minutes of conversations. These minutes morphed into a book of doctrine and discipline, and this book has grown, over 200 years, into a highly complex legal manual filled with rights and responsibilities (for example, there are over 4700 “shalls” in the Book of Discipline). The general conference’s primary focus is on polity; how our life as a denomination is governed, and how we live as a connectional church in accountable relationships with one another.

The basic premise of a Christian conference is that we need relationships with one another. This is Wesley’s actual definition of social holiness: surrounding ourselves with covenantal relationships and practices that contribute to the increase of our love of God and neighbor. My hope and prayer for our Florida Annual Conference is that we will undertake the work of polity, enjoy the friendship and fellowship of colleagues, and experience revival through the power of the Holy Spirit. But, as with the earliest Methodist conferences, this will all be for a greater purpose: to be engaged in the mission of God. And what is the mission of God? Could it be the work the Lord has given us to do on this earth, which again is related to our common work together in our own plot of the vineyard? And could the significance of this labor be related to a few critical questions that are linked to the mission in our congregations and communities: Is it alive? Does it glorify God? Does it produce an abundant harvest that blesses friend and stranger? Are we making new, younger, more diverse disciples of Jesus Christ?

For the mainline church in the United States, and the United Methodist Church in particular, this is our primary task. This is the urgent and imperative missionary calling to the church and the clergy and lay leaders of the Florida Conference. And it is the daily labor that we undertake, to be sure, trusting in the power of the Holy Spirit, and remembering the words of Paul: “I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth” (1 Corinthians 3). In this way, in an itinerant ministry, all of our labors are related to each other.

So let us pray for a church that is alive, that glorifies God, that produces an abundant harvest that blesses friend and stranger, that makes new, younger and more diverse disciples of Jesus Christ.

Sources: David Lyle Jeffrey, Luke: Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible. Luke Timothy Johnson, The Gospel of Luke: Sagra Pagina. Russell Richey, The Methodist Conference in America. Lovett Weems, Ten Provocative Questions for the United Methodist Church.

Special Contributor to UMR

Special Contributor

This story was written by a special contributor to The United Methodist Reporter. You may send your article submissions to
kevin@circuitwritermedia.com
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Join the conversation....

  1. Gary Bebop says:

    There’s no “accountability” that floats above the details. It’s painful to read the bishop describe conferencing as a legacy matter but not address present reality. Disobedience mocks the legacy of conferencing, because conferencing is made to be ineffectual in the teeth of proud rebellion; the disobedient have become the new hegemenikon (the leading edge). The bishop would have been better off to have addressed this emerging new clerisy directly–pointedly–because unless he has something to say to disobedience, there is no accountability, nor prospect of remedy.

  2. I concur with Gary Bebop. Bishop Carder seems to long for a smaller like minded denomination. If he views those who call for clergy to keep their promises as “obsessing”, he will likely get his wish granted.

  3. The good bishop Carter is long on words. I believe the rank and file members of the umc are tired of ALL the rhetoric–and have about given up on anything being accomplished. Folks are hurting in this country and all over the world. Church leaders as well as political leaders seem to continue to be self-serving and offer slim to no hope. Keep looking up—-signs and wonders are happening by the moment–our Jewish Messiah is poised………………………………

    • Wes Andrews says:

      Blah, Blah, Blah…. too many words. He should have said:

      “As a Christian and Jesus follower I will proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ. As a Bishop of the United Methodist Church I will honor the covenant relationship as described in the Book of Discipline. I will uphold the doctrines of the United Methodist Church. And I WILL REQUIRE all clergy under my supervision to do the same, or resign. I challenge my brother and sister Bishops to do the same, or resign. Now go back to your local churches and expand the Kingdom of God by proclaiming and living out the Good News of Jesus Christ!”

  4. One of the exciting revelations to me – as a student of Wesley – has been learning that what we are accountable to, and how that is put into practice, both matter. The InspireMovement.org has been helping Christian leaders learn that being held accountable to a Way of Life that consists of four elements (seeking more of God, practicing the Spiritual Disciplines, engaging mission and committing to sharing deep fellowhip in a ‘band’ situation which meets intentionally and specifically to work out – with 2-3 others – one’s own discipleship in the nitty gritty of everyday life is vital. These bands are a place of mutual accountablity and group spiritual direction and give disciples the lens through which to view and shape their following of Jesus. It’s very exciting to be a season of hearing testimonies of how this is bearing fruit in Europe – particularly in Ireland and England. God let your Kingdom come …!

  5. A holy and thoughtful presentation. I am surprised and saddened by previous comments. Finally, a call to accountability that calls us to seek God first and always proclaiming the grace that suffices for all our needs.

  6. Timothy Bonney says:

    Blah blah??? Really Wes? How disrespectful to a Bishop of the Church! You talk like you want accountability while at the same time showing great disrespect for the office of Bishop.

    Bishop Carter is speaking to the issue with depth. Sometimes we’ve had too few words and too many short sound bite answers to complicated issues. I apprecate the Bishop’s exploring the depth of the meaning of accountability for United Methodists rather than just spouting rhetoric.

    • Wes Andrews says:

      I apologize. (If I could edit and remove “blah” I would.) That emotional response is unhelpful. He may be the only one who is willing to speak out. Part of the problem is that there is an illusion that speaking in an artistic perhaps poetic kind of way is appropriate. It certainly can be inspiring. But we live in an age when a hurricane is baring down on the UMC. Polite/poetic words really need to give way to very clear challenges to our clergy, and to the Council of Bishops. And while Bishop Carter helps honor the office of Bishop, few of the others do. In fact, “Bishop” as a term seems to have so many other synonyms that are more fitting but less authoritative and honorable, because the Bishops have FAILED to lead the church in proclaiming the gospel, and have failed to lead and require the clergy and the agencies to uphold the doctrines of the church. And, Timothy, thank you for holding me accountable to my less than honoring way of communicating.

      • You must be a very fine man, Wes. Don’t know if you are clergy or a layman of the umc, but, the denomination is blessed to have you as a member. Sometimes, though, harsh words are necessary to convey ones feelings. Jesus certainly did not couch His words in soft platitudes when He drove the money changers out of His Father’s House with a whip. I am sure there were other times as well. The modern church progressives would have “us” believe that Jesus was weak and a “casper milk-toast.” Nothing could be further from the truth. He was a weathered carpenter who carried on His ministry full steam ahead, with a firm dignity and a diligent and determined pace–knowing full well the Cross waited for Him. Praise Father/Son/Holy Spirit for the Shed Blood of the Lamb–and the cleansing it brings to us sinners–IF–we believe…………………………. And, we each will stand before The Throne of Judgment

      • Wes, I agree with James as you typically demonstrate restraint and respect for people who often do not demonstrate the same toward you or toward the faith they ostensibly embrace. One can be forgiven for being frustrated since the words of Carter, while containing truth, are replete with the (now habitual) vagueness and ambiguity that gives folks enough wiggle room to disregard major portions of Scripture and Christian history. Carter is trying to speak the truth without stepping on toes, but, as the great G. K. Chesterton noted, when you say yes to something that means you are saying no to something else. What we need today are bold, yet respectful, proclamations of the great truths of the faith.

        • William says:

          Vagueness and ambiguity are the hall marks of the Bishops and other church leaders who are attempting to avoid dealing with their positions if and when they speak or write on this conflict. Many are simply remaining quiet and out of sight as much as possible. But we must note the reality. It is those who disagree with the BOD and are acting against it who are speaking out loudly, commanding the headlines, driving the agenda, and gaining the PR upper hand as filtered through the secular system. It seems as if many of those in leadership positions in the church who support and uphold the church and the BOD on this issue have been thoroughly intimidated. They look like a football team down 60 – 0 in the fourth quarter with the other team driving. Was Jesus intimidated? Was he ambitious? Was he vague? Did he offer up local options? Did he debate the scriptures and make concessions to his adversaries in order to find a way forward? Did he teach his followers to doubt and/or question scripture?

          Where are our Orthodox Methodist leaders who support the present church beliefs, doctrines, theology, and church law in this hour of crisis?

        • Wes Andrews says:

          Thank you both James and Mark. I would remove the disrespect that was expressed in my post, but not the suggested clarity for the Bishop. As I read his statement I kept thinking in my head, “please get to the point.” Life is short. Our words matter! And sometimes speaking in a brief, clear and concise statement is much more potent than using lots of words. And Yes, “God is giving the vineyard away” to churches that will LOVE people, but will not love their self-focused choices and solutions.

  7. theenemyhatesclarity says:

    Bishop Carter said “If we are not faithful and obedient to the Holy Spirit, God will give away the vineyard to others.” In John 16:13 we learn that the Holy Spirit is the “Spirit of Truth” Who will “guide (us) into all truth.” If we are not walking in truth, we are not listening to the Holy Spirit. And if we are not listening to the Holy Spirit, our mission will not be a success.

    The Bible is clear that homosexual behavior is sin. Romans 1:26-27 is explicit. The Bible condemns homosexual behavior in both Testaments. Nowhere does it speak favorably of that behavior. To say that same sex marriage is good, or to seek some sort of “third way” that avoids telling the truth about same sex activity, is to deny the truth. To deny the truth is to deny the Holy Spirit. And without the Holy Spirit, we are dead.

    In Christ,

    The enemy hates clarity

  8. Thank you, Bishop, for your reflections. John Wesley liked the saying, “In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; and in all things, love.” We may not even be able to agree on what is essential and what is non-essential, but surely we can agree to be loving in our disagreeing! Acts 15 also gets lifted up a lot in these discussions promoting unity- where the church agreed Gentile Christ followers didn’t first have to become Jews through circumcision, and the new Gentile believers were asked only to honor a few key points from Judaism. I think the Acts 15 example, however, that works even better for our current situation is found in verses 36-41 when Paul and Barnabas, who had just been completely united in advocating for the outreach to the Gentiles, chose to go their separate ways over their inability to agree on whether they should take John Mark on their next missionary journey. Paul and Barnabas decided it was best for them to move on to the next season of their journeys in a way that didn’t prevent either of them from moving forward in joyful service to proclaim the Good News. Their separation was over a far lesser issue than we are facing as a denomination, even as they agreed on the far greater issue of sharing the Good News with the Gentiles. As they parted ways, apparently without deep rancor or in a way that irreparably damaged their relationship, both went on to continue with effective ministry and mission in a spirit of “friendship and fellowship.” Could that not be true for us in the United Methodist Church as well? Maybe Timothy Tennant’s proposal (http://timothytennent.com/2014/06/16/a-way-forward-my-response-part-7-the-way-forward-let%E2%80%99s-not-divide-let%E2%80%99s-multiply/) navigates well between “The Way Forward” proposal and the “Amicable Separation” suggestion? No one I’ve talked with is “for schism;” rather they’re just tired, getting more tired, and don’t see any other good end in sight, especially given the new commitment by so many in our denomination to disregard our Covenant. While I’ve come to believe it may be time to consider moving forward separately, I would love to be proven wrong, so I also look forward to all kinds of new, creative ideas being brought to the table, but what we’re doing now isn’t working.

  9. John Wesley liked this statement: “In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; and in all things, love.” Of course, while we can’t even agree on what is essential and what is non-essential, perhaps we could agree to live out the last part of love in our discussions. Acts 15 also gets lifted up a lot in these discussions- where the church agreed Gentile Christ followers didn’t first have to become Jews through circumcision, and the new Gentile believers were asked only to honor a few key points from Judaism. There was unity. I think the Acts 15 example, however, that works even better for our current situation is found in verses 36-41 when Paul and Barnabas, who had just been completely united in advocating for the outreach to the Gentiles, chose to go their separate ways over their inability to agree on whether they should take John Mark on their next missionary journey. Paul and Barnabas decided it was best for them to move on to the next season of their journeys in a way that didn’t prevent either of them from moving forward in joyful service to proclaim the Good News. Their separation was over a far lesser issue than we are facing as a denomination, even as they mostly agreed on the far greater issue of sharing the Good News with the Gentiles. As they parted ways, apparently without deep rancor or in a way that irreparably damaged their relationship, both went on to continue with effective ministry and mission in a spirit of “friendship and fellowship.” Could that not be true for us in the United Methodist Church as well? Maybe Timothy Tennant’s proposal (http://timothytennent.com/2014/06/16/a-way-forward-my-response-part-7-the-way-forward-let%E2%80%99s-not-divide-let%E2%80%99s-multiply/) navigates well between “The Way Forward” proposal and the “Amicable Separation” suggestion? No one I’ve talked with is “for schism;” rather they’re just tired, getting more tired, and don’t see any other good end in sight, especially given the new commitment by so many in our denomination to disregard our Covenant. While I’ve personally come to believe it’s time to consider moving forward separately, I would love to be proven wrong, so I also look forward to all kinds of new, creative ideas being brought to the table, but what we’re doing now isn’t working.

Your thoughts?

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The United Methodist Reporter wants to encourage lively conversation about The United Methodist Church and our articles in the belief that Christian conversation (what Wesley would call conferencing) is a means of grace. While we support passionate debate, we cannot allow language that demeans or demonizes others, and we reserve the right to delete any comment we believe to be harmful or inappropriate. We encourage all to remember that we are all broken and in need of Christ's grace, and that we all see through the glass darkly until that time we when reach full perfection in love. May your speech here be tempered with love, and reflection of the fruits of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. After all, "There is no law against things like this." (Galatians 5:22-23)
 

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