Thursday, August 8, 2013

Communities of Accountability

In my last blog I referred to communities of accountability. I am guessing most of you are familiar with these types of communities.

I report to various communities of accountability. “Report” is too strong a word for some of these communities, but right on target for communities that certify me [i.e. the Presbyterian Church (USA)]. I remember the shock some of my ecumenical colleagues expressed that I have to a) participate in my presbytery, b) fill out paperwork annually, and c) behave according to the standards I promised at my ordination, all in order to be in a validated ministry (and claim a housing allowance, too). Of course, as a grown-up and as a professional, sometimes it annoys me, this layer of accountability. But it is both a choice and a joy.

I could operate all by myself as an individual, but that would be a lie. I am who I am because of the communities that form(ed) me, support(ed) me, and make my life and work possible.  I believe in accountability because I know I didn’t get to be a citizen or a child of a legal marriage (bans on interracial marriage were on the books until 1967, with the Loving v. Virginia decision), or educated and hold a fancy job all by myself without cost to others; there had to be a first for everything, and I wasn’t the first. The system opened doors for people like me because a community of advocates and change-makers worked to open those doors.

One of those communities of accountability is my denomination and its subgroups: the church I attend, my presbytery, youngish people serving the church, women I know from the National Network of Presbyterian College Women and Racial/Ethnic Young Women Together, Asian Pacific Americans, Presbyterian Women, the crowd of those who serve its seminaries, etc. I report in regularly. I show up when they tell me to and I do what they tell me to do, within reason. Preach on my thirteenth consecutive day of work without a break? Sure! Lead a round of Siyahamba in Indonesian? Of course! Not because I’m obedient, but because I understand that sometimes being in community means I respect the spirit of the Christian community, and challenge that community in love.

Another community of accountability is my family. This is not one cohesive unit, much like most other families. I try to report in to my elders, and keep an eye on my younger cousins. I try to check in with each branch of the family, at least every few years (it’s a big and diverse family). And I let them lecture me when I don’t call/move anywhere but California-Oregon-Washington/don’t eat right/don’t exercise enough/wear glasses/wear contacts/look too thin/look not thin enough/don’t stand up straight/act too Christian/don’t act Christian enough/anything else they don’t like. I let them do this because I don’t really have a choice. Also because they love me.

Another community of accountability is a group of antiracist people of color and white people. While I’m pretty invested in anti-oppression work in general (because I’m a Christian, and that’s what Jesus taught me to do), this is the community in which I’m most invested. The nice thing about antiracism work is that this community acknowledges and works to end the ways in which we perpetuate inequality along class, gender and sexuality lines. This community also reminds me of two important things: a) change is a very long process, so buckle up and pace yourself; and b) being antiracist is a way of addressing the ways in which everyone is impacted by inequality (not just me, not just my friends… everyone).

Another community is where I live. Let me be clear I frequently do not like where I live. But where I live becomes important because county and state laws and practices have a great deal to do with the quality of life of my community. I pay city and county taxes that I want to be spent a certain way. My representatives in the state legislature and the U.S. Congress matter to me because they make (or block) laws with real consequences to my community. So I try to show up.

I was thumbing through a Westminster John Knox book the other day, for my nerd fun, and came across a statement on accountability by Stacey Floyd-Thomas and Miguel de la Torre in their introduction to Beyond the Pale: Reading Ethics from the Margins. Their work of liberation ethics is intended to raise as viable sources the lives and work of the marginalized, which will “further the real work of human flourishing and communal accountability” (p. xxii). Reading the work of ethicists from historically marginalized social locations will begin to address the historically oppressive work of theological ethics. I believe they are making an effort to hold their own field accountable for its marginalizing habits.

However difficult it is to be accountable to communities we may or may not love, I believe this work of holding one another accountable is undeniably Christian. I bring my own Presbyterian angle to it, as our polity is very much about layers (and layers and more layers) of accountability.

I use a few passages from the Bible as accountability guides. (And I’m really hoping my Baptist/Pentecostal seminary classmates are proud of me right about now.) Matthew 18:15-17.  If y’all aren’t getting along, address it! Bring along some community members if you need to! I Corinthians 8:13. If it is will really be a problem for someone else, I shouldn’t do it. Because community is sometimes more important than what I personally want to do.  

What are your communities of accountability? Your church? Your neighborhood? How do you stay accountable to them?


Beyond the Pale: Reading Ethics from the Margins, eds Stacey M. Floyd-Thomas & Miguel de la Torre. 2011. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press

*My friend/colleague/fellow blogger/birthday buddy Mark Koenig posted a thoughtful piece in response to my questions here: http://graybeardtrail.com/2013/08/08/to-a-community-of-accountability-thank-you/

1 comment:

  1. Thanks Laura for raising the questions of community of accountability. You have reminded me of the important roles that community plays in our lives - particularly as they shape us - and make us human - and draw out of us who we are.

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