Baptismal Accountability

(Reprinted from a series on the Episcopal faith and work blog “Living God’s Mission.”)

By Edward L. Lee, Jr.

In A. Wayne Schwab’s recent posting for Living God’s Mission titled “Designing the Right System” he posited this insight: If we want a church that gives primary emphasis to the concept of ministry in daily life then we have to  “redesign the system to produce the results you want.” That’s a big task given our current denominational and congregational traditions, practices, and governance structures. But he’s right.

An essential element in any redesign of our church systems will have to be member accountability. Why?  The church is a voluntary association of leaders and members. There are ways, both formal and informal, to hold leaders accountable. But there is little if ever any likelihood that all members will be held accountable for attitudes and behavior that contradict the norms and values of the church’s mission and ministry embodied in Baptism and articulated in the Baptismal Covenant (see Book of Common Prayer, pp. 304-305).

What is meaningful accountability in a community, a congregation of the baptized? Accountability means simply that: the ability to give an account. I Peter 3:15 puts it this way: “Always be prepared to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you.” (NRSV) That hope is grounded in faithfulness to our baptism and the covenant we have with Christ in God’s mission in and for the world. That mission is daily and not just Sunday. It is in the fullness of our lives and not just in the confines of our home parish. The latter should be a place and community of empowerment, a system for supporting and affirming ministry in daily life.

How might a congregation exercise baptismal accountability? First, it makes it an expectation of membership, of what it means to be “sealed by the Holy Spirit in Baptism and marked as Christ’s own forever.” In short, that being baptized is serious and solemn business day in and day out.

Second, offer members regular opportunities to “give an accounting,” a mutual sharing of what ministry in daily life entails with all of its complexities, contradictions, challenges, and confusions.

And third, trust the community of the baptized to help answer the question, “How am I doing?” Baptismal accountability is not an inventory of success or failure, of pride or repentance, but of assessing with others how we live into and live out our baptismal mandate to see and serve God in the world as we daily encounter, endure, and embrace it.

The Right Rev. Edward L. Lee, Jr. is the former Bishop of Western Michigan (1989-2002) and recently retired from being Assisting Bishop in the Diocese of Pennsylvania, his diocese of baptismal and ordination origin. His ordained ministries include campus ministry, peace movement and social justice endeavors, and parishes abroad (Italy) and domestic (Philadelphia and Washington, DC).

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