You don't have to read the news for long before running across stories of prominent Christian leaders who have fallen into immorality. Quite often the scandals involve sexual sin, but sometimes they relate to financial misappropriation or just plain dishonesty. One recent illustration is the pastor in Pennsylvania who was caught lying about his supposed history as a Navy Seal. The sad tale of Bishop Eddie Long is an example of the more commonly reported pitfall of sexual failure. And it isn't only pastors and leaders who fall -- ordinary Christians fail as well, with equally tragic consequences for their families and communities. It just doesn't usually make the national news.
Anytime something like this happens, there are those in the Christian community who ask," Why was nobody holding this man or woman accountable?" The belief is that if he or she had been in small group of people who asked tough questions, then this devastating fall might not have happened.
There is some truth in that assumption -- in fact, I am in an accountability group with two close friends. None of us wants to be another example of failure, so we meet weekly to ask hard questions and pray for one another. We also keep in touch throughout the week in case there are struggles that require immediate prayer or counsel. I believe in Christian accountability.
But such groups don't always work. I have known several people who were in accountability groups, but for some reason the group had no effect on their behavior. What goes wrong in such cases? I have a few ideas:
- The composition of the group isn't right. In order to work well, the group has to be composed of people you respect but who you don't fear too much. There needs to be a little bit of fear about confessing your sin, but not so much that you're tempted to lie on a regular basis. If you're too impressed with the members of your group, you're not likely to be honest. On the other hand, if you feel too comfortable then confession will just become another ritual with no teeth. (I think this is probably why many groups fail when a high-profile member is involved -- nobody wants to upset the famous guy by holding his feet to the fire).
- The group only meets once a week to confess failures that have already occurred. And it often happens in a shallow way. One member admits to looking at pornography last Tuesday and the others shake their heads and express sympathy without exploring why this happened and how it can change in the future. No mechanisms are put in place to help the struggling brother or sister before the failure occurs. The most effective groups keep an open line of communication throughout the week. My group has a standing agreement that if one of needs prayer, we can text the other guys at any time of the day or night to ask. It helps keep the accountability constant even when we're not in the same room.
- The group doesn't trust each other. If there is any worry that the information shared in the group will be passed along to outsiders, people will quickly clam up and the group's effectiveness is destroyed.
- People simply lie. Even in the best groups, I'm convinced that people lie sometimes. Nobody is completely honest with himself, much less with other people. But the best groups learn how to stifle the temptation of self-protection in order for the long-term spiritual benefit of accountability. As the old adage goes, "Confession is good for the soul, but bad for the reputation." Those who value reputation over spiritual growth will ultimately lose both.
- Trust and accountability take time to develop. I've been meeting with the same group now for nearly five years. It probably took one or two years before we developed enough trust for it to work really well. Most people give up on the process too quickly and decided that the whole exercise is a waste of time. I'd encourage you to keep with it for the long haul (if possible) and you'll begin to see the benefits.
I'd love to see dramatic stories of failure disappear from the news. I'd love it if Christians were known for honesty, transparency, and moral purity. I think accountability can help that process if it is done well and if the people involved are serious about it.
What suggestions would you give to an accountability group? Anything you've seen work well that you'd like to share?