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Accountability is Not the Silver Bullet... But it is a Bullet

by Scott Thomas, Acts 29 President

Pastors Leaping into Sexual Immorality

I am concerned about the number of pastors falling (or more likely, leaping) into sexual immorality. It is not a new problem.  The Internet seems to have exposed some of these formerly quiet indiscretions hidden in the walls of the church out into the public.  I spoke with two wives recently whose pastor husbands left them for a younger woman who was employed in the church. These wives were both devastated over the tragedy and they were full of anxiety about how they were going to provide direction and provision for the young children at home. In both cases, the pastors had carried on their immorality for an extended period of time. This raised the question about their personal accountability.

Accountability Will Fix Everything... or Not.

A way to protect the pastor is through accountability but it is not a foolproof way to protect them and the church. One of the men who committed adultery was in a regular accountability with other pastors in the church. These younger associate pastors asked their senior pastor the right questions and he lied to them for seven months.

I am not convinced that accountability is properly administered within the church. I think men join an accountability group as a façade to hide their spiritually anemic lives. I even think some men are in an accountability group to get their wives off their backs. Somebody had to say it.  I think some “Men’s Accountability Groups” miss the point altogether. The focus, it seems, is on the accountability and not on responding to the Gospel. There has to be a greater motivation for an accountability group other than checking off our list of questions asked by men who hope you don’t ask them the same questions. Asking a list of the same questions can do nothing but produce self-righteousness. We need to ask, "How jacked up were you this week?" rather than basically ask questions like "How good were you?"

Accountability is the Bridge, not the Destination.

I view accountability like a bridge over a body of water. The goal is to get across the water. The means of crossing the water is the bridge. And the pillars that uphold the bridge are important for its structural integrity. But when you set out to cross a bridge, you don’t say, “We drove to the bridge to focus on the pillars and to talk about them and to take pictures of these massive pillars of concrete and steel.” Rather, you say, “We drove to the bridge so that we can cross this body of water and get to the other side.” You focus primarily on the destination, a little on the method to get there (the bridge), and hardly ever on the pillars. The purpose for accountability is to provide the spiritual integrity to uphold the means to allow the Gospel to transform every aspect of your life. The other side of the water is Christ–likeness. When you focus exclusively on the accountability, it is like the Bridge to Nowhere with awesome pillars.

I have a formalized and detailed accountability structure for my personal life, my spiritual life and my missional life. Four men serve me well and ask me hard questions. They have access to my wife to ask questions and they have access to my two sons.

Five Basics for Accountability:

  1. Focus on the gospel and your responding to the grace of God.
  2. Find men who have regular contact with you and can observe your life closely.
  3. Find men who are not employed by you or under your direct authority. Sometimes silence on their part means not getting fired. It is okay to supplement your accountability with men under your supervision, but they cannot be the only ones who are holding you accountable.
  4. You have to train participants to ask hard questions and to be relentless about their receiving an accurate answer, even if they question your honesty. Someone asked me how I would know if an accountability team was actually working for their benefit. I told him to lie to them and see if they press anyway. If you can lie to your accountability team, it is of no value or protection to you. Now, I know where all liars go. It is the same place that all whoremongers go (Rev 21:8). I am not encouraging lying; I am encouraging raw honesty.
  5. Utilize questions that are not the same every week and find questions that examine sins in your head and your heart and not just in your hands.  I believe sin starts in our head where we entertain ungodly thoughts and if unchecked, sin moves into our heart were we long to fulfill that lustful thought. Jesus spoke about this as he condemned not only the act of adultery but the thoughts of adultery (Matt. 5:28). James said, “But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death” (James 1:15-16).

Accountability is not the silver bullet––but it is a bullet; it is a tool to be implemented with precision. It can be helpful when the focus is on Gospel transformation and not merely on behavioral modification. Pastors, Men, “ponder the path of your feet [and allow others to carefully observe your thoughts and your heart’s passion’s]; then all your ways will be sure” (Proverbs 4:26).


Gabriel Posey

on Mar 13, 2011 :: 5:20 pm

Thank you for posting this. It has long been my assertion that too often the church has built what I refer to as 'Accountability Janitors' that are really just there to help pick up the pieces after everything blows up.

I really love your idea of intentionally lying to the group if, for no other reason, it will also train the group on your specific 'tells'. For me, I need men who know what I look like when I'm lying, who know what my specific way of sinning and how I might lie about my sin by answering in indirect ways.

Don Sartain

on Mar 14, 2011 :: 8:12 am

Thank you for posting this, and for speaking to us at the Acts 29 Boot Camp in Dallas!

Mike Towers

on Mar 14, 2011 :: 2:28 pm

It may help if those in accountability groups take the viewpoint that the other men can't be trusted, and you need to prod hard to find the truth. I've been in accountability groups where the questions where like lobs in a t-ball game for 4 year olds. GRILL your accountability partners for their sake. Make them scared of messing up, cause accountability group is meeting again next week!
Yes? No?
I'm unsure about the intentionally lying part. Can you give an example? What comes to my mind is being caught in a lie, you could just respond, "ha ha! Got you! I was intentionally lying to see how you respond! No problem here!"

Craig Forbes

on Mar 15, 2011 :: 9:10 am

Great article and greatly needed! Your premise matches my observations. I like your 5 basics. Item number 2 is critical. Dwell time is one of the best ways to have brothers in Christ observe character issues that may lead to failure. Only significant time in biblical community will allow people to help. Another key tool is to have brothers (and sisters and wives) to pray for God the Holy Spirit to press in on us and to convict us of sin. For Him, Craig

Luke Gilkerson

on Mar 17, 2011 :: 6:59 am

This post perfectly echoes the message of the new e-book Jonathan Dodson recently contributed to: Internet Pornography - A Ministry Leader's Handbook. Pastoral accountability is such an important need today. Thanks for this, Scott!

Randall Neighbour

on Mar 22, 2011 :: 1:33 pm

Through the years I've had many "accountability partners" and all the relationships have ended after a year or two with both of us feeling as if it was no longer productive. Why?

Because the relationship was based on asking those stupid Promise Keeper's questions and we assumed, like Mike stated above, that taking a stance that your accountability partner can't be trusted is the only way to get somewhere. What a lousy basis for a relationship!

This is not productive accountability. It's controlling or bad parenting. And it usually doesn't promote taking personal responsibility for one's actions.

Then one day, I was invited to join two older men for breakfast every Tuesday morning. They were ten and fifteen years older than me, which was great because they had far more years of experience in life than me and were more patient than guys my age. However, with all this life experience under their belts, they were intelligent enough to know that advice was only appreciated when it was invited. (Selah)

That first morning, David told me that he and Bill met for a year on Tuesdays, and the time was filled with sharing personal goals for moving forward in life with God in ministry, with one's spouse, one's job, hobbies, interests, and so forth. David said, "We define accountability differently. Accountability is you telling us not just how you failed in some way since we last met, but what you're planning to do differently in the future. It's just not us asking one another if the other has done something naughty for which they do or do not yet feel guilty enough to confess."

Through this and many other conversations in our Tuesday morning breakfast together, I learned that accountability is productive when each individual arrives with:

• A clear understanding that nothing shared is repeated outside the company of the person who shared the information unless what is shared is illegal or has personally brought harm to another person.

• A lack of fear of sharing the shameful fruits of sin, knowing judgement that matters comes from God, not man and the fruit is not the big deal... the root of the issue is the big deal and should be the focus.

• A dogged determination to dig down and determine the root of a sinful problem so Christ can bring healing in that area.

• A well-thought out, written set of personal goals in many areas of life, both short term and long term.

• An even more well-thought out and written set of incremental steps to accomplish each goal, with dates when incremental steps will be accomplished.

• A desire to bite one's tongue and not give advice that probably isn't warranted, appreciated, or valued. People learn far more when they work out their own problems instead of doing what someone else thinks they should do to fix it or solve a situation. This translates into asking good questions, such as "how's that working out for you?" and "what do you want to do differently in the future to see a better outcome?"

I hope this helps any of you hoping to have a much better accountability partnership! It's all about taking personal responsibility for one's life, focusing on moving forward and accomplishing life goals with God, and being too productive with God in life to get caught with your pants down doing something you shouldn't have time to do in the first place.