by Ellen Livingood
Before we jump on the bandwagon, we have to answer some basic questions.
Accountability has hit us like an avalanche. Bible study groups and one-on-one discipleship now include accountability. Pastors meet with their accountability groups. Accountability is written into job descriptions.
Many people in various aspects of world missions have jumped on the accountability bandwagon. Supported by the biblical precedent of Paul’s reporting to the church at Jerusalem (Acts 15:4; 21:17-19), missionaries, mission agencies, and churches have declared accountability an important part of doing the job right.
But specific thinking about accountability is far from clear. Convictions about what missionary accountability is, and who should be accountable to whom, differ dramatically. To avoid misunderstandings, unfair accusations, and general frustration, we need consensus from missionaries, agencies, and churches about the following questions.
1. What is accountability in missions?
The basic definition might be: reporting about missionary activity. But the issue is not so simple. Accountability is not a one-way street. Implicit in the concept is the idea that the person or group reported to has some degree of authority to evaluate and make decisions based on the information provided.
Such was implied in Paul’s two reports to the elders in Jerusalem. In both cases, approval of the apostle’s missionary work was predicated on the elders’ hearing a full account of what God had done through the missionary team.
Therefore, accountability in missions might be more accurately defined as the process of providing comprehensive information about missionary activity to those who have authority to evaluate and direct the ministry.
2. By what criteria is accountability judged?
Here the issues grow more complicated. Information? Is accountability measured simply by the amount of detail provided as missionaries review their activities for a given period of time? If so, the missionary who writes the most and longest letters is the most accountable. But is there more to missionary accountability than the frequency of mail from the field?
Results? Is the essence of accountability reporting (good) results? Is the worker who can tell of the most people won to Christ the most accountable? Some churches and donors communicate overtly, or by innuendo, that accountability is tied to productivity. The rationale seems to be, “Accountability means you’ve got to prove to us that we are getting enough ‘bang for our bucks.’”
Concern for good stewardship is certainly legitimate. But those who decide to evaluate accountability by output standards quickly encounter difficulties. First, who is qualified to determine what constitutes an acceptable level of results? The missionary, the agency, or the church? Or a consensus of all three? Will expectations be individualized because of the unique and changing field circumstances? For instance, it would be unfair to hold a missionary on a staunchly Muslim or Hindu field accountable for the same results a missionary might produce who works in sub-Saharan Africa or South America.
Goal achievement? Well, then, would it be better to use predetermined individual ministry goals as the benchmarks for assessing accountability? In other contexts, accountability is frequently related to the achievement of personal goals. For example, a young believer decides that she wants to be more regular in daily devotions and asks an older Christian to hold her accountable for such. Or a pastor asks a group of friends to hold him accountable for maintaining moral purity.
But missionary accountability is more difficult because the agency and church(es) believe they have a vested interest in the goals. As in results-based accountability, goals-based accountability demands identifying who is qualified and authorized to set the criteria and measure the success.
Or do the different parties have the right to set some goals, but not others? For example, should the agency establish guidelines for the missionary’s performance onthe field, while the church does so for the period of home assignment? If accountability is measured by these goals, it is critical that the goals are stated clearly in writing and in measurable terms.
Two dangers are inherent in a goals-based definition of accountability: First, the missionary whose goals are “safer” and less challenging will usually appear more accountable, since he or she is more likely to be successful in achieving them. Such a basis for evaluation will repress the desire to set high goals and take calculated risks. Second, the danger exists that the goals will measure activity, not effectiveness; quantity, not quality.
Which definition of accountability will we choose? Before churches, agencies, and missionaries glibly declare their commitment to accountability, they need to make sure they are talking about the same thing. Each agency needs to clarify its definition and practice. Every missionary member deserves to know on what basis and via what process his or her accountability will be judged both by the agency and supporters. Churches must decide if they will set their own accountability standards, or accept those of their missionary’s agency.
3. What is accountability based on?
Is accountability based solely on the missionary’s personal evaluation, or is corroboration needed from a third party? A few negative experiences have convinced many people of the dangers of naively accepting missionary reports at face value. However, in some instances, the pendulum has swung to the opposite extreme of unwarranted cynicism. Every missionary report is not suspect. But given the abuses, supporting churches feel justified in expecting the agency to provide some on-the-scene evaluation to confirm missionaries’ evaluations of their own performances. Both times the apostle Paul reported to the elders in Jerusalem (Acts 15 and 21) he was accompanied by others who substantiated his claims. What about the missionary who faithfully writes supporters each month, but who either has little or no agency supervision, or whose field supervisor does not provide any type of evaluation? How can North American donors be sure that such a missionary’s reports accurately reflect field realities? Even the missionary with the highest standards of integrity struggles with presenting facts that may not be flattering, knowing that letter recipients hold the purse strings. Objectivity is further compromised by emotional ties and spiritual beliefs that impact how the missionary evaluates the ministry and its effectiveness.
On-the-field supervisors, or home administrators charged with missionary evaluation, need clear guidelines in assessing missionaries. Training in how to conduct and report performance interviews is crucial.
4. To whom is the missionary accountable?
Missionaries traditionally have seen themselves as responsible only to God, who called, equipped, sent, and sustained them. Today the role of church and individual senders is emphasized and institutional accountability is widely acknowledged as important to good stewardship.
Although churches traditionally accepted this philosophy, many are undergoing a fundamental change in attitude about missionaries’ relationship to the sending congregation.
It quickly becomes evident that differing viewpoints put the missionary in the middle between institutions which may have very different criteria. Not only is it crucial to define where accountability belongs, but also what differentiates primary and secondary accountability, and how they intersect. And to further complicate matters, where does the receiving church factor into the accountability picture? Increasingly, missionaries serve at the invitation of, or under the leadership of, a national church which expects some type and level of accountability.
While selecting an agency, the prospective missionary, the sending church,and the agency under consideration need to openly discuss accountability. Are the agency and the prospective missionary able to meet the church’s accountability expectations?
With the rising involvement of local churches in both sending and accountability, agencies likely will be asked to establish different accountability structures with different churches. Agencies need to grapple with whether this is feasible in light of personnel restraints and their own philosophies and practices of accountability.
If accountability is to be judged on performance standards, it may be pragmatic for the agency to set the standards in the area of ministry, and for the church to set the standards in the area of communication (frequency of letters, reports, etc.) and home assignment. However, some churches believe they have a biblical mandate to address every aspect of the missionary’s work. Unless consensus is reached, conflicts are inevitable.
5. How many “bosses”?
To how many different persons and institutions should the missionary be accountable? Although most missionaries acknowledge the need for, and usually welcome, accountability, many are frustrated by what they perceive to be a multiplying number of people and institutions demanding accountability.
Not only do multiple “bosses” create many (sometimes conflicting) expectations, but the amount of time it takes to keep everyone informed becomes unrealistic, not to mention the stress of having to respond to so many expectations. Does accountability to the North American church relate only to the sending church (and some missionaries have several “home” or “sending” churches)? Or does every church that contributes money to the missionary have a right to expect some degree of accountability? If so, is this accountability direct, i.e., from the missionary to the supporting church? Or should it be via the agency, or the primary sending church? If so, the missionary reports to the agency, or primary sending church, and meets its accountability requirements. This information is then passed on by the agency or primary sending church to the other churches.
In such a scenario, the agency or primary sending church needs to take seriously its responsibility to both require the missionary to be accountable and to follow through with reporting to those to whom indirect accountability is due.
Standardization in reporting will be essential if many churches are involved. If each of 10 supporting churches requires the missionary, field supervisor, and agency administrator to complete its own form, the time wasted would be monumental. Agencies, or better yet, organizations such as the Interdenominational Foreign Mission Association and the Evangelical Fellowship of Mission Agencies could design report forms that efficiently provide the most useful information for originator and recipient.
6. How should we implement the accountability process? Accountability will remain nebulous without schedules and deadlines. We need to agree about the frequency, breadth, and depth of both the reporting and the accountability procedure.
Logically, the agency should take the lead. It could establish an annual schedule of report deadlines for missionaries and supervisors. All reports could be sent to the agency, collated, and distributed to each sending (and possibly supporting) church. This would be a major commitment for agencies, especially those with a lot of missionaries. But it would send churches a strong signal that the agency is committed to meaningful, shared accountability, and to efficiency.
7. What about confidentiality?
How do accountability and confidentiality intersect? If a missionary is accountable through the mission agency to the sending church, and possibly also to multiple supporting churches, do these churches have a right to all performance evaluations? Or are aspects of the supervisor-missionary relationship confidential? How can we maintain confidentiality without gutting the report? Will churches accept an “unsatisfactory”grade as long as the agency assures them that the problem (revealed or kept confidential) is being addressed? Or do sending, or even supporting, churches deserve to know the specifics of their missionaries’ weaknesses and performance failures?
Few employees would tolerate their performance review being posted for the world to see. Yet the churches’ calls for increased accountability move in that direction. Is the answer for the agency to fully disclose its information to the church(es) but request that only a few carefully selected people be able to see it? Is that realistic? If less than flattering information about the missionary and his or her performance is withheld from the church, can the agency’s assessment still satisfy the church’s desire for missionary-to-church accountability?
Perhaps agencies should again take the lead in establishing confidentiality policies. All parties must be aware, however, of where the lines are drawn. Missionaries will feel betrayed if information they consider confidential gets outside the agency. Churches will consider the agency to be usurping their authority if information they deem important is withheld.
8. Can we make the accountability assessment fair?
Where missionaries are evaluated primarily via written reports, will the missionary who is not skilled at written communication be judged accurately? What about the self-deprecating missionary who portrays himself as the unworthy servant, or the optimist who may paint an unrealistically rosy picture (whether the positive spin is added consciously or unconsciously)?
Agencies and churches must know their missionaries. Some subjectivity may be necessary for a fair evaluation. Third-party observation may be critically important. What does the supervisor say about aspects the missionary overlooks or, through self-effacement, fails to mention?
9. Who is accountable to the missionary?
Are churches and agencies accountable in some sense to the missionary? Sometimes missionaries feel that the responsibility to fulfill expectations is always a one-way street. Although accountability in the narrow sense may be correctly construed as being one-directional, in the broader sense, missionaries have justifiable expectations of the institutions and leaders to whom they submit.
The pastor of a supporting church reprimanded a missionary for not communicating with them, although letters had been sent to a contact person who did not circulate them. The missionary wrote back and apologized, then gently reminded the pastor that aside from support checks, he had not heard from the congregation or sensed any interest in his ministry.
Missionaries who take precious hours to faithfully complete and return the detailed report forms required by their agency and church deserve a response. Otherwise, there is a tendency to doubt that anybody even reads the report. Missionaries wonder, “Is this just a hoop to jump through because accountability has become popular?”
10. Will they act?
Will agencies and churches respond responsibly to failure in accountability? It is not enough to mouth the term, develop the forms, establish the schedule, receive the reports—and then fail to act if a particular missionary, even a favored son, is not willing to be accountable. Or if he or she is not making a satisfactory contribution to the missionary enterprise. Honest confrontation about the problems, mentoring to correct them, and, if all else fails, the request for resignation or the withdrawal of support may be painful, time consuming, and unpopular. However, accountability is an empty exercise unless we take the entire process seriously.
Let’s define accountability clearly and practice it responsibly.
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