I recently received a note with a question that I’m sure most pastors have asked themselves at one time or another.

Why are congregations not held accountable, especially when the congregation (in spite of what they say they want) does NOT believe in change or in follow-through?

I’m afraid there are many answers to this question.

  • The congregation is paying the pastor’s salary – so they’re the boss (or at least they think and act like they are).
  • The congregation is an all-volunteer organization – if they don’t like or find personal value in the organization, they’ll leave (and they regularly do).
  • Many (dare I suggest most) churches aren’t churches; they’re clubs that support a couple of service projects, but mostly take care of and cater to the members.
  • Many pastors understand their job to be more about taking care of the members (pastoral care) than about moving a congregation forward (leadership).
  • Many pastors are more concerned about job security than about faithfully following Jesus or leading a biblically faithful church (they’ve invested in a career rather than a call).

And just like there are many answers to the why question, there are several answers to the unasked question, “How do we hold a congregation accountable?”

The first answer is this: churches are being held accountable for their lack of faithfulness to the biblical mandate to make disciples all the time. In fact, every day in the US, forty-one churches close their doors forever. And every day in the US about 4800 “Christians” stand before their maker and, I suspect, have to answer for their unwillingness to be faithful witnesses to the gospel. Of course, that’s an ephemeral answer.

The next answer, though, addresses this side of the grave for both churches and Christians.

I teach a pastoral leadership class for the Mid-America Center for Ministry every couple of years. We engage this kind of issue throughout the eight-week course. The solution to the problem of congregational accountability really does rest in the hands of the pastor, but to bring about the necessary changes means the pastor must be willing not only to risk their job, but to hold themselves accountable for success, failure, or for a stalemate.

Before a congregation can be held accountable, it must first understand why it exists in the first place – but that knowledge has to move from the head to the heart, or in the words of Chip and Dan Heath, from the rider to the elephant (see the book Switch). That means a pastor must communicate the mission in such a compelling way that the congregational leadership is moved, touched, and inspired to embrace a “new way” of being a church – or at least to continue with a more focused purpose.

And that’s a leadership issue. The reality is, if a pastor cannot inspire the church’s leadership to embrace the mission/vision then the pastor should be questioning their own leadership ability – at least in that congregational setting. Make no mistake: casting a compelling and inspiring vision is a key mark of a leader’s effectiveness. If a pastor cannot effectively cast a vision, he or she cannot be an effective leader. Period.

Presuming that a congregation embraces its purpose (and vision), the next step is congregational accountability. However, let’s be clear – when we speak of congregational accountability, we’re really talking about leadership accountability, since the church is made up of people. And the only way to hold church leaders accountable is to stop treating them like volunteers who are doing us a favor by their service, but “promote” them to unpaid staff status and then treat them like staff.

The notion of unpaid staff, however, can’t be treated like we have treated the shift from committees to teams – it can’t just be a name change. To have an effective unpaid staff, the supervisor (the pastor, in many cases) must include these folks in staff meetings, engage them in regular one-on-one staff coaching sessions, and hold them accountable by providing annual evaluations and consistent feedback on performance goals. In other words, unpaid staff must be given the courtesy, respect, and expectations they would receive if they were professional, paid staff members (which means you’d better be pretty selective about who gets into leadership – but that’s a different conversation).

In a nutshell, this is where congregational accountability comes into being. When leaders succeed, the congregation succeeds. But when leaders fail, their failure is either redeemed (what did we learn? how will we keep that from happening again?) or else they are removed from leadership. Just like you would do in restaurant management when your dishwasher didn’t show up for a shift or didn’t get the pans clean or consistently broke racks of coffee mugs … you would terminate them. In the church, sometimes termination means helping them find a better fit, but sometimes it means you remove them from leadership. Period.

Ultimately, isn’t it interesting that congregational accountability still comes down to pastoral leadership? And so here’s the final response if you find yourself in a stalemate. If you can’t lead your congregation into these changes, then another change is in order. You’re faced with a choice. Either you develop the leadership skills you need and then bring the church leadership along, or if they won’t come along then you hold them accountable – and you hold yourself accountable – by leaving the church and finding a better fit. And that is how to hold a congregation accountable.

Question: How have you held your congregation accountable for their behaviors and results? Share your experiences in the Comments section below.


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