Accountability is a commendable idea, but for many it lacks the depth to hold us to our intentions. Like anything worth doing, it's only useful if we have some skin in the game. For example, if I say something rude to a clerk I don't know at a store I'm rarely in, I can move on from that situation pretty easily. I don't have to care about it. But if I say those same rude words to my wife or a friend, I am eventually forced to deal with it because of my proximity to them on a daily basis. And there can be even more forces pushing me in accountability because I genuinely do care about their feelings and how they think of me. That poor clerk I'm rude to in the store is out of sight, and out of my character "care zone." Oh well, sorry, God. I'll do better next time.
If I'm accountable to you and we both struggle with the same sin we can drift into simply having a "secret club" about our struggles. And then there are the issues that come if I don't struggle with what you're fighting against. I can simply listen, not really understand and say things like, "I'll pray for you."
"For," not "to"
Please understand that these are just my experiences. I'm sure many have had great success with accountability. But I also know that I'm not alone in this. I've heard many stories like mine, of grand intentions that produce little or no actual change.
I honestly think I would have written off "accountability" altogether if it hadn't been for the several years I spent as a professional firefighter. During my first year of training, they used the word accountable often but in a radically different way than the Christianese I'd heard. They too added a little word at the end, but it wasn't "accountable to" but rather "accountable for." We were accountable for each other. It was a complete paradigm shift for me.
You see, when we are in a burning building, firefighters are paired up. We are responsible to get our partner through the emergency and return them back intact. It doesn't matter if your partner made a mistake or a bad judgment call that got him in trouble. You're accountable for him. Period. Get him out of danger. Don't even think about leaving him behind! No excuses, no giving up, no blame, and no certainly no whining. Sure, chew him out later if he made a stupid move, but right now … "We are getting you out of here, my friend!"
When you are accountable for another, you can't ask them to leave a group. You don't get to call a timeout in the middle of an emergency. You have to help them even if it hurts you. And if it comes to it, you trade your life for theirs.
You may get on each other's case later, but friendship at that level can always work through conflict. We don't leave our partners. Not ever. Firefighters use little catch phrases like, "If you go then we both go." And, "Everyone goes home today." They have a keen sense of awareness that the stakes of their job are incredibly high. Firefighters work amongst human suffering. That is also true for men and women in ministry.
Michael Cheshire is the senior pastor of The Journey Community Church in Conifer, Colorado.