Giving Thanks for Accountability

by | Oct 9, 2023

Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
    I will fear no evil,
for you are with me;
    your rod and your staff,
    they comfort me.

Psalm 23:4

It seems like last Monday was a long time ago. With the shocking explosion of violence in Gaza this weekend, it has been a very long and painful week. We are again bewildered with the intransigence of revenge and violence in God’s chosen land, and we can only pray that God’s power for peace overwhelms the human attachment to hatred.

Last week started with a sad email from Karen Sapio, letting me know that Dee Kelley, long-time active ruling elder of Claremont Presbyterian Church and dedicated leader of this presbytery, passed away on Sunday night. Her daughter thought that Dee had Presbytery meetings on her calendar and asked that Karen let us know. Dee was so active that in fact she was expected at two meetings last week; that’s how unexpected the heart attack was. Please pray for Dee’s family, for her Claremont family, and for all who loved and appreciated her.

Dee’s memorial service is scheduled for Saturday, October 28, 1 pm, at Claremont Presbyterian.

When I think of Dee, I am thankful for the feedback she would give me. She served in different ways, but she felt most called to the Administration and Finance Committee. Lately we have been talking quite a bit about property, and she’s been around long enough that she knew all the properties we were talking about, and the congregations that were housed there. Sometimes there would be need for repair, which takes some capital, and Dee was the one who regularly gave a critical eye to the investments we were making. But while she would pose questions and critique some recommendations, she always made clear that her priority was the care of the congregations and the mission of the presbytery. And while she was one of the people who challenged me most, she also showed appreciation for things I did that helped her. At the last meeting she attended, as we were talking about our recent cash crunch and the need for someone to be intentional about raising funds for the presbytery, she showed care for me by saying “that can’t be Wendy; we’re already asking too much of her.”

Often when I talk about the Presbyterian Church to folks who are new to our tradition, I say we’re all about accountability. Everyone is accountable to someone. I remember in another presbytery, we denied the request of someone to be ordained to a ministry with an unaffiliated mission agency in Europe because we could not find an accountability body for him that he would accept. The PC(USA) polity ensures that everyone is accountable to others, and if people are not being held accountable, it’s because someone is not doing their job. This can happen when a session does not step up to partner and guide the pastor, or for presbytery leaders to question and warn me if I’m missing something. It’s not that I like being told to do my homework, but I know there is much I miss or don’t know. I appreciate that Dee questioned me, but also showed care and appreciation and faith with the questioning.

One of our newer pastors reflected that he appreciates that the PC(USA) does have an accountability structure, but also does the work. He has seen non-denominational churches that do things but without proper accountability, or rigid institutions that follow rules but hoard resources or fail to act out of fear of making a mistake. As I’ve mentioned, we are becoming a place of hope and healing for people who have become disillusioned with the churches that brand themselves evangelical, and one of the things they appreciate the most is the accountability that prevents individual pastors or church leaders from abusing their power or exerting condemning policies in the name of God.

Indeed, we can act because we have the confidence that others are reviewing what we do from different perspectives, and as we keep our eyes and ears open for the guidance and correction of God, we are reminded that God is indeed watching over us. As in that least favorite verse in the 23rd Psalm, we are comforted by the protection against harm, and the boundaries of guidance, that God’s rod and staff represent. God protects us from being hurt, but also keeps us from hurting ourselves or others. (This would be an obvious place to promote the boundary training that all church leaders and people working with children and vulnerable adults are required to take every three years —so be it. There is self-guided training, and while the October training held by the Synod is full, they will schedule another in early 2024.)

One of the most common themes in the Bible is God attempting to call us back to God’s righteousness —and our stubborn desire to hold to our own faulty wisdom. Our world shows how our failure to heed God’s call continues to burden the human condition. In the PC(USA), and specifically in San Gabriel Presbytery, we seek to be faithful to God’s call, to submit to the authority of the larger church and the wisdom of our group discernment to provide guardrails against abuse, and we exercise the freedom to respond creatively to the challenges and opportunities of our world today. God’s go-to form of accountability is the shared discernment of the body—as I say, it’s why we’re always in meetings, because we always like to make decisions as a group, knowing that one person never has all the wisdom. So let us contribute the wisdom God gave each of us to the ministry of our congregations and presbytery, and let us offer that wisdom with compassion, faithfulness, and humility.

Thank God for giving each of us a part of Christ’s mission for San Gabriel Valley. Let us give our part, and let us appreciate the contributions of others. And let us pray without ceasing that we may be surprised by peace in a land shocked by violence.

Grateful for this Presbytery,