In his essay on the epistemological problems underlying the current economic crisis, Jerry Z. Miller refers to the “cult of accountability:”
The cult of “accountability” was linked to key innovations that turned out to have unanticipated undersides. One was the shibboleth of linking pay to performance, which put a premium on schemes that purported to measure performance. This tended to produce “hard” numbers that seemed reliable but were not. It created tremendous incentives for CEOs, executives, and traders to devote their creative energies to gaming the metrics, i.e. into coming up with schemes that purported to demonstrate productivity or profit by massaging the data, or by underinvesting in maintenance and human capital formation to boost quarterly earnings or their equivalents.
Accountability has been all the rage for the past decade, especially since the failure of Enron, Worldcom and their ilk. The thought is that if we can gain objectivity and accuracy by means of stricter and clearer accountability, we will avoid those problems of the past.
Business is not the only enterprise facing higher accountability. In at least my Annual Conference (of the United Methodist Church), we have had a greater emphasis on accountability over the past few years. As with Enron et al., the need (I admit that it is a need) for accountability arose from perceived failure. Our conference leadership saw that the churches of the conference were failing. While the population of the region was growing, the churches at best (and there were few at this level) were keeping even. Most of the churches in the conference were declining while the population grew. This failure was further evidenced by the lack of professions of faith in congregations. Half the churches in the conference were showing not a single profession of faith in a year. Speaking plainly, that means that as far as the official statistics show, not a single person had become a Christian through the ministry of that church that year. A key response to this crisis has been increased accountability, effected by weekly reporting of key statistics: Worship Attendance, Professions of Faith, People in “hands on ministry.”
All of these are good things. Having people come to worship, come to faith in Jesus, and join in Kingdom work – all of these are essential to church health. But are we missing something? Is it possible that just as the “cult of accountability” reflected faulty epistemological assumptions on the part of business and the economy, our own adaptation of that cult could reflect faulty assumptions as well?