You Asked: Our pastor is a wonderful person and a great preacher, but there is one thing that bothers me. He says that he has a divine call and is therefore accountable directly to God, not to the congregation or the church board. I don’t think that this is right, but no one seems to want to challenge him on it. What do you think?
Answer: Christian denominations differ widely on how they handle the accountability of the pastor, but one thing is sure for all spiritual leaders: they are accountable to God through the people who employ them.
Even Jesus in his human nature was accountable to God through people. He was accountable to his parents while he was a child, to his rabbis while he was in training and to the Roman authorities when he was an adult. All during his life, he was also directly accountable to His Father in heaven for his Messianic responsibility.
Pastors and all other human beings are accountable directly to God for fulfilling the basic responsibility of all human beings to love God and to love our neighbors and to do that within the limitations of the Ten Commandments.
Furthermore, pastors and all other human beings are also accountable to their employers for the satisfactory performance of their responsibilities. In the case of pastors what may be confusing is that their responsibility is to be the spiritual leader of a congregation. To make matters more complicated, pastors often have to give challenges to improper behaviour and words of correction to the very people who pay their salaries.
What congregations must hold their pastors accountable for is precisely this: their performance in providing spiritual leadership and for staying within certain limitations while doing their spiritual work. That accountability is administered through the board, elders, voters, assembly, presbytery or whatever name the congregation gives to its pastoral source of authority. But clearly, God does not give pastors annual performance reviews, holidays or salary increases. He has delegated that to congregations.
Part of the problem behind the question you raise is in our understanding of accountability. It is often used synonymously with discipline or punishment. Actually, accountability is simply measurement. It is a neutral term. In a supportive working environment like a congregation should have, accountability is a gift that gives official commendation of a job well done and affirming redirection and support where there is weak performance. In fact, weak performance may be caused by inadequate resources, in which case the congregation must accept responsibility.
Another part of the problem is that in the church there is a strong tendency to confuse forgiveness with accountability. We think that it is unforgiving to confront anyone, especially the pastor, with poor performance or violations of their authority. Actually, both forgiveness and accountability are essential to reconciliation and healthy relationships. The Father forgave us in a plan made before the world was created. Yet when the fullness of time came, God also held His only Son accountable for our failures. If forgiveness were a replacement for accountability, Jesus would not have had to die.
Finally, we need to understand the meaning of the divine call. God calls us to freedom of choice in how we will serve God. Pastors are not forced to go into the church’s public ministry by God. They are specially equipped just like teachers, farmers, carpenters and labourers for specialized service. When they “follow God’s call” they are exercising their freedom to do what God has equipped them to do. What is special about the pastors’ call is the respect we ascribe to the pastoral office. It’s important, however, to remember that the call of the professional plumber, truck driver or stone mason is just as divine.
For the reasons above, some pastors are fearful of being held accountable and in some cases uncomfortable about thinking of the pastor’s position as “employment”. There is no easy fix for this longstanding misunderstanding shared by pastors and congregations. But the path toward understanding working relationships lies in understanding the role of authority, responsibility and accountability. This is true for all of us, pastors included.
Les Stahlke, President/CEO