Thursday, January 17, 2008

Fellowship and Accountability

On Tuesday, the Elders of the Oklahoma UM Conference convened for the annual observance of the Covenant Service. This was followed by the semi-annual lecture. The Order of the Elders meet to fellowship, embody the connection of the annual conference, and to offer edification of the body. This year I believe we also met with the Local Pastors (I wasn't really clear on that).

During the course of the day I experienced fellowship, worship, accountability, and frustration. I'll deal with each in turn.

Prior to attending the meeting, a gang of colleagues descended upon Abuelo's in Bricktown. Around a table, eating chips and salsa, we experienced fellowship. There were different age groups, different backgrounds, different college affiliations, and different styles of ministry appointments (theologically we were fairly close together). But it wasn't about what made us different that made the fellowship great. It was that we all took the time to come together and share around a common table. I believe in a theology of table. Not a communion table where the Eucharist is celebrated. But a common table where friends and enemies, familiars and strangers can sit down and feast on the food to nourish the body but also feast on the spirit of fellowship that restores the soul.

Worship was good. In day to day life I don't see how much I miss being the participant in worship. Most of the time I am the "conductor" at some level or another. It was refreshing to sit back and give my spirit up without having to worry about what comes next. It was a blessing to celebrate worship.

The subject of the lecture/exercises was accountability. In the course of the afternoon I was held accountable in two different ways. The first was through the Bishop's message. He asked us where we are pitching our tents. He was preaching from Acts 2: 22-26 out of Eugene Peterson's The Message. Verse 26 says, I'm glad from the inside out, ecstatic; I've pitched my tent in the land of hope. I had to be honest and say that I don't always have a landscape of hope around me. At times I get caught up in the failures I see in ministry. Many times I don't view my work as effective. And I don't see the hope in what God can accomplish because I only see the brokenness of what has been done.

I was also held accountable by my colleagues throughout the day. Many of them asked me how things were going with the church. And it is here where I have to say that I'm not always honest. With close colleagues I can be more honest. I can say that we are not growing. I can say that we are struggling in our ministries. I can say that it is a tough time. But it is worthy work. And it is work that I still am fulfilled in doing. Then there are other colleagues with whom I am more guarded. "It's going alright," I say. Well enough. Okay. It is not a desire to be dishonest. But it is a lack of connection with these other colleagues that stops me from sharing the burden.

This brings me to one of the frustration points I experienced. Our guest lecturer was Gwen Purushotham who has written Watching Over One Another In Love: A Wesleyan Model for Ministry Assessment. Her point is the deeper calling to accountability that is part of our mutual calling in ministry. In love, we should be holding one another accountable to fulfill our calling effectively and earnestly.

The frustration point that I was encountering is that, in my experience, accountability happens when it develops in organic relationship development. I mean that when people meet, grow in their friendships or relationships, and eventually develop more sincere connections, then they can hold one another accountable for the life choices that we all make. If we try to create a static model (cluster groups, peer review with appointed members, annual consultations) we have overlooked the most critical aspect of vital accountability - relational development.

I look at two experiences in my life where intentional relational development has created friends that go beyond my normal routines and circle of friends. The first has been the ministerial alliances that I have been a part of, especially the last one I was a part of. The intended goal is to gather the ministers of a community together to provide a united spiritual effort in our shared community. But out of that purpose grew friendships that went beyond the work we came together to do. The second has been the lectionary study group that I am a part of now. We come together to read, study, and converse about the lectionary scriptures. But I have developed friendships that go beyond denominational and theological differences. In fact, we will be saying goodbye to one of those friends over the next couple of weeks as he and his wife begin a new chapter of their ministry in El Paso, Texas.

The point is that in those intentional efforts to do something else, deeper relationships develop. We as connectional members of the conference need to find some way to develop those relationships first if we are going toward a peer review accountability structure.

The second frustration that I encountered was the way the subject of covenant was dealt with. We began our time together by reaffirming the covenant we have with God to live a righteous life of faith. Then Rev. Purushotham shared that for accountability to function, we need to establish a covenant with one another. What frustrated me then is something that finally coalesced after hearing the same thing over the last few years. There is a growing effort to dilute the significance of covenant.

We live with the biblical witness that we live under a covenant. This covenant was established by God through Jesus Christ and lived out under the presence of the Holy Spirit in our lives. The idea of covenant from scripture is that of a life and death binding agreement between the one who has the authority and power to 1.) make the covenant, 2.)provide for the provisions outlined in the covenant, and 3.)enforce the punishments agreed to if the covenant is violated. Many Old Testament scholars look back to the treaties between kings and conquered people (suzerainty treaties) as the model of God's covenant with Isreal and, by extension and adoption, Christians.

What I have been hearing, and allowed by acquiescence and silence, is the lesser understanding that a covenant is an agreement among equals. This use of covenant intends to lift the relational aspect of agreeing above the idea of a contract. But what is being proposed is just that, a consensual contract. A covenant is an agreement between one or more parties to do certain things (such as a marriage covenant) but ultimately all parties have to make an agreement with God. This is the Christian heritage of what a covenant is.

By diluting the concept of a covenant down to a consensual contract, we could ultimately come to a place where we view the covenant with God as an agreement with our equal. God did not allow any room for doubt on this issue: God is god; there is no other above, beside, or equal. It is God who has the authority to establish the covenant because God is holy and righteous. God has the power to provide for the people because God is the Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer. God has the authority to punish for breaking the covenant because God is the righteous judge and ruler of all.

Frustrations aside, the day was positive. I hope to repeat it soon.