There’s a two-word phrase we often use which sounds simple enough but which is actually quite complex: assuming responsibility (or taking or shouldering responsibility). Being responsible includes considering one’s opportunities, obligations, needs and desires; prioritizing them in order of their significance; making decisions based on those priorities; taking actions to carry-out those decisions; and facing the consequences, good or bad, which result. Responsibility also includes the willingness and discipline of learning about oneself and about life from in the process.
Like good parents, leaders of all kinds attempt help people to assume responsibility. Teachers encourage their students, coaches urge their athletes, and therapists challenge their clients to live in ways that do not shirk or shift responsibility for themselves. Personal, professional, and spiritual growth hinges on our willingness to do faithfully those things that are legitimately ours to do.
As you know, the meaning or the word responsibility becomes clearer if we break it apart in a way which makes its implicit verb explicit: responsibility is the “ability to respond.” When we say, “I am responsible,” we’re actually saying: “I am able to respond.”
What’s more, the Latin roots of the word respond include the ideas of answering and promising. In a sense, “to respond” is to answer a calling meaningfully and with commitment. Responsibility is a thoughtful, committed, and enacted “yes” to a calling.
We can’t offer an answer which we’re glad to give and which we’ll be able to sustain apart from listening and seeing beneath the surface of things. We need to take a long, lingering, and loving look at the realities sometimes hidden from us by our illusions; to listen past the clamoring voices of the immediate and the urgent; and to hear the gentle cadences of grace rather than the insistent drumbeat of others’ plans and expectations for us.
Calling appears to us, whispers to us, and claims us when we allow ourselves to pay focused and steady attention to what is most deeply true around us and within us.
Responsibility begins, therefore, in clarifying the call which comes through our visions and dreams, our covenants and commitments, our talents and gifts, our experiences of joy and fulfillment, and, of course, our love for God and neighbor.
We particularly listen to the summons which sounds from the life, teachings, deeds, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Our responsibilities will be consistent with who he was and is and with what he did and is doing. They will flow from the river of his hope for the will of God to be done on earth as it is in heaven. They will express his ways of love, justice, mercy, and grace. They will pursue his healing and reconciling and healing purposes for everyone and for all creation.
The capacity for assuming responsibility, then, is a fruit of calling. The word assuming needs some thought, however. Some church leaders assume that whatever has gone wrong is theirs to make right, that whatever needs doing that no one else will do becomes theirs to do; and that whoever needs help that no one else is providing falls to them to provide.
Their default mode—their deep wiring—is that their role in life is to fill the gaps no one else is filling, to agree to tasks no one else will take-up, and to care for people to whom no one else seems willing to tend. They assume responsibility because they assume they are always the responsible ones, even if the corrosive effects of carrying too much for too long threaten their own physical, emotional, and spiritual well-being.
That’s responsibility run amok. Healthy assumption of responsibility is a deliberate decision, not an unconscious reaction. It involves not just the urgency of the needs about which we hear, but it also takes account of the quality, character and well-being of our own lives.
The need, by itself, is not the call. Even the need and the ability to meet the need are not, on their own, the call. The need, the ability, and a sense of joy, rightness, and peace point toward the likelihood of a call.
As Eugene Peterson’s lovely translation of Matthew 11:28-30 assures us, Jesus’ calling and our ability to respond to it (his “yoke” and our wearing of it) will fit us well and will not leave us frustrated and exhausted:
“Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.” (The Message)