When I was younger I attended an "accountability group" for a while. It was made of several unmarried men in their early twenties who wanted to stay accountable to each other for things men struggle with. That's a softball way to say we were supposed to stop each other from watching porn, having sex, getting drunk, or doing anything else that seemed sinful.
It didn't work at all. Sure, it all sounded great, but it quickly became apparent that mere accountability wouldn't compensate for what we lacked in character and maturity. Each week, we would meet for an hour or so and confess our bad thoughts and deeds. Every week, some of us would do good and some not so good. But for one young guy, every week was an epic fail. He had developed an addition to porn at a very young age, as well as some drug addictions, so he was just a real mess.
As the year went on, several of the guys got more and more frustrated with him. They would accuse him of not even trying or not loving God enough to change. Each time he would tearfully apologize, but he seemed unable to overcome. It all came to a head one day when I was asked to come to the group an hour early so we could discuss something. When I showed up, the only guy not invited to that secret meeting was our struggling friend. During our discussion, I realized we had been brought in before him so we could all agree to ask him to leave our accountability group. The reasons seemed logical. They threw around scriptures about knowing people by their fruits and such. I listened and agreed that he really didn't fit. After all, if he wasn't going to even try then he shouldn't be with those of us who are trying to become better Christians. When he arrived, we broke the news to him. He was upset, but overall, very understanding. He left that day and never came back to the group. At least, I think that's what happened. I never went back either. Of course, my reasons were different.
You see, I never went back because, unlike him, I had never been truthful to those guys anyway. I was sleeping with my girlfriend and wouldn't tell them because they knew her, her dad, family and all her friends. I justified it because I loved her and we were going to get married … and we did. Even for those who did admit failing in an area, there wasn't anything we could do or say that really left an impact. Should we lecture them, tell them to pray harder or just slap them? No, we all just listened and said to "keep trying."
After that whole experience, I really hated hearing the word "accountability" thrown around in church leadership situations. Many times, it was used by the older leaders to control younger staff by letting them know who was in charge or how they could be punished if their obedience or behavior displeased those to whom they were accountable. Accountability began to be used as a tool to manipulate people into being quiet and not questioning things we did not really agree with or understand. Mostly, the phrase I heard was "accountable to …" It really is funny how much it is used considering it is only in the Bible a few times. Honestly, I began to have less respect for that word when I saw how it was put into use.
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."
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.
One of the core values of the church I pastor is that we as a staff are all accountable for each other. If one of us falls, we are not going to kick them out of the club, staff or church. We are going to stay with each other until we clear the danger. If a staff member falls, they don't automatically lose their job or position. They get the chance to be helped back up on their feet. We believe our mistakes can be just as big "God moments" as the successes in our life.
Accountability, in my life, means I can share the worst parts of my character with my staff and fellow leaders, and in turn, they can share theirs with me. No one gets left behind. No one on this team lives under the cloud of their failure forever.
Over the years, we have had this principle tested a few times. Once, a young staff member got into some sin that was hurtful to his reputation and to a relationship. Several people in the church found out about it and demanded that he be fired. We all stood together and said, "No way! If he goes, we all go." We met with the disgruntled church members and clearly communicated to them in no uncertain terms that they would lose all of the leaders if they ran this guy off. Our worship leader, support staff, all our youth pastors and every other staff member said they would all quit; they would not be part of a church that needed perfect leaders.
And you know what? Most backed off. A few people left, but who cares. They obviously don't understand the power of love, friendship, forgiveness, and loyalty. The moral mistake had happened and he had acknowledged it and repented. He worked to heal the ones he had hurt, and that chapter in his life was over.
That happened so long ago that we never even think about it, but the young man that had a momentary failure has become a trusted key leader here now. Only God can make all things work for his glory. And so he does. At some point, I just think that the church has got to be a church for the leaders, too. They need protection and healing as much as anyone else in the congregation. At times, they need even more.
This kind of accountability doesn't appeal to some. I occasionally get emails about how this is a wrong way to live or build a church team. Maybe. I guess we will all find out over our lives because everything gets tested. So far, however, it has been a pretty messy way to live but at the same time it gives us all a very secure feeling that we can be open with each other. People can walk away from our team or our church because that's their choice. However, if they choose to stay and "do life" with us, to engage in ministry and community with us, then we are all accountable for each other. We are accountable to get through our lives and callings until we all get to go home.
No excuses, no giving up, no blame, and no certainly no whining. That's no way to behave in a fire.
Michael Cheshire is pastor of The Journey Church in Conifer, Colorado and author of How to Knock Over a 7-11 and Other Ministry Training (2012) and Why We Eat Our Own (2013)
Copyright © 2013 by the author or Christianity Today/Leadership Journal.
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