Establishing healthy accountability relationships is one of the more difficult tasks for a Christian.by Daniel L. Weiss
Establishing healthy accountability relationships, either between two individuals or within a group setting, is one of the more difficult tasks for a Christian. Although increasing in popularity, a majority of Christian men and women still have not entered into such relationships.
The reasons for this are myriad, both good and bad. In some ways, a Catch-22 surrounds the accountability movement. It is difficult to find safe, mature Christians to start such groups, but this stems partly because too few training grounds for such Christians exist—one of which would be an effective accountability group. The paradox is that if we had more accountability groups, we would have more accountability groups.
Where does that leave us? Simply, we have to just start setting up safe relationships and learn as we go along. With proper guidelines, and care to avoid common barriers to effective accountability, we can develop safe, secure, and influential relationships that not only protect and preserve our own faith, but also serve to improve the health of God’s Church on earth.
Let’s examine some common barriers with the intention of avoiding them.
Fear is the primary reason we don’t do what we want to do in many aspects of our lives. Fear keeps us from asking the attractive woman on a date or from seeking the raise we deserve. Fear keeps us from speaking when we have valuable advice to offer. Fear keeps us from sharing the truth in love with close friends, and from standing up for God’s truth in a culture that isn’t interested in it.
Fear is the immediate death of any accountability relationship. Fear will prevent us from sharing the deepest part of ourselves with another human being; it will keep things in the dark that need to come to the light.
A counseling friend of mine told me a story. For more than a year, several Christian men met together weekly and prayed for each other faithfully. Then one week, one of the men revealed that his wife had just discovered his pornography addiction and was threatening divorce. His disclosure prompted three or four others to also share their struggle with pornography. All of that time had passed and none these men were getting the support, encouragement, spiritual guidance, and help they had presumably sought by joining the group in the first place.
The Bible tells us that perfect love drives out all fear, and that we have not received from God a spirit that makes us slaves to fear. If our accountability relationships are to provide any support, they must be constructed on absolute openness and honesty.
The truth is, however, that the fear that cripples so many of these relationships is intricately and directly tied to most of the other barriers to effective accountability.
Shame is one of the most defeating emotions in a person’s life. Shame tells a person that he is so bad inside that no one will accept him, much less forgive him—not even God. Shame keeps many people from attending church, which is, paradoxically, a fellowship of sinful, fallen people. Shame also keeps many from even praying to God, afraid of the harsh judgment and condemnation they believe will be forthcoming.
From the very beginning, we had problems with shame. After disobeying God in the Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve told God they were afraid of Him because they were naked and ashamed. Fear and shame disrupted our relationships with the Father—and with each other.
Yet, notice how God reacted to Adam and Eve’s disobedience. While they did receive the penalty He had warned them about, His first act was to fashion clothing for them to cover themselves. God had compassion on His creatures and He promised a Savior to put an end to sin and shame. That Savior was Jesus Christ, who mediates for us before the Father. While God provided a temporary relief to Adam and Eve’s shame, Jesus provides permanent relief. Guilt is a real condition that occurs when we violate God’s design for our lives, but shame is the devil’s stranglehold on our ability to receive God’s forgiveness through Christ.
If our accountability groups and relationships are to offer God’s healing compassion, we must view one another through the eyes of Christ, without judgment or condemnation. Our goal in such relationships is to pick up our brother, dust him off, and support him as we move forward together, each of us as walking wounded.
Tied to fear and shame is the apparent failure to make any significant personal progress regarding sin or temptation. If a person continues to struggle with the same sins each week and doesn’t appear to get any better, there can be a tendency to stop talking about the struggle out of fear or embarrassment.
Yet, continuing to talk about the struggle is precisely what a person needs to do. To hide continuing battles is a grave disservice not only to your own faith but to that of your accountability partners. If secrecy creeps in at one point, it will spread and infect the entire group.
Think about it: if you suddenly “stop” wrestling with your temptation, others might feel less open to share about their chronic struggles. They may then “find” their own (false) deliverance in order to stop sharing with the group. Eventually, no one will be praying for or supporting one another in their real struggle. Satan has spun his web; the entire group will be caught and rendered ineffectual.
Continuing to share an ongoing battle will serve the group and yourself in a number of important ways.
First, your partners will be able to pray more accurately and effectively for you. The Bible reminds us in James 5:16 to “Confess your faults one to another, and pray one for another, that ye may be healed. The effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much.”
Second, being open and honest about your struggle will serve as a reminder to the group that Christ is sufficient and that God’s power is perfected in our weakness. The man who relies on God in all things is a tremendous witness to His glory and mercy.
Third, as your group matures, you may learn through each member’s continuous battles not to focus on changing external behaviors or even internal thoughts. The primary focus in our life, in our faith, and certainly in our accountability relationships, should always be spiritual transformation. When the heart and the soul are oriented toward Christ—and oriented toward relating intimately and effectively with Him—the love that springs up from this primary relationship will inform and transform our thoughts, emotions, and, eventually, our behaviors.
To learn more about this concept, read Understanding Intimacy Disorder.
Very few people are willing to open up the deepest parts of themselves to individuals who don’t seem safe. How much do we gossip about our marital struggles or our son’s pornography addiction with those in church? Not much, I suspect!
Effective accountability groups absolutely require a safe environment. This safety is characterized by meeting with other wounded people, by the lack of condemnation and judgment,1 strict confidentiality, and by serious and heartfelt prayer. Our accountability relationships may even need to be safer than our marital relationships at times because of a lack of safety with our spouse.
Safety is such a crucial aspect of accountability that group members must be chosen carefully. This is one dynamic within the group that will likely be learned as your group matures. For example, if the group senses that someone is not treating others’ confessions in appropriate ways, they will need to confront the individual and ask for greater cooperation. If this person persists in creating an unsafe environment, he may need to leave.
Some will have difficulty in casting a member aside, especially if there are friendships with that individual outside the group, or if his life would take a dangerous turn without the care and concern of the group. It may be appropriate for a more mature member to begin a mentoring or accountability relationship with that person the side.
An accountability relationship requires dedication, sacrifice, service, love, compassion, faith, hope, and lots of prayer. It sounds like what we pour into marriage or parenting, doesn’t it? In many ways, accountability relationships are as important as these other relationships. They all require maturity, trust, and intimacy.
A lack of spiritual discipline in any close relationship spells trouble, especially in those requiring the sharing of sensitive or embarrassing information. Accountability relationships exist for one reason—to facilitate a greater, stronger, more mature faith among participants. Groups may involve humor and laughter at times, but this should never be at the expense of saying the tough thing, engaging in ardent prayer, and taking one’s responsibilities as a Christian brother or sister with the utmost seriousness.
Groups also need to realize that not everyone will have the same levels of spiritual maturity. This is, after all, why you meet. Rather than enforcing a strict code of conduct, groups should be comfortable, and everyone should be encouraged to expand his understanding and practice of the faith.
There are likely many guides to effective accountability out there, but I have personally been blessed by a little book written by German pastor and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Written for his students at an underground seminary in Nazi Germany, Life Together details how a fellowship of dedicated Christians can live together and effectively support one another through Christ.
I won’t mislead you; some of his suggestions are difficult to swallow. In fact, more than once, upon finishing a chapter, I remarked to friends that I would need to completely re-imagine my life if I were to live as Bonhoeffer has suggested. It seems terribly legalistic at times. Yet, I have since discovered that one of my primary objections sprung from my inability to actually love Jesus. I believed in Him, but I didn’t love Him. Looking back, I realize that Bonhoeffer’s plan was based on uncompromising love of the Savior. Anything less on our part and it would become a burden.
No matter how you come to the book, I am confident you will recognize the spiritual discipline that Bonhoeffer not only writes about, but lived out.
This is the most practical, but equally as important, consideration of this list of barriers to accountability. Erratic meeting times can quickly end a relationship. The best thing for partners to do is to plan well at the start, anticipating obstacles to regular meetings times, such as family and work obligations or frequent travel. Develop ahead of time plans on how you will handle inevitable interruptions. Then, stick to what your group or accountability partner have come up with.
Many people are not thrilled at the idea of sharing their sins each week with a bunch of other people, so missing meetings can often seem like a bit of relief from such heavy work. If this “relief” occurs too often, all motivation to continue with the process will disappear.
This “relief” may also indicate a greater spiritual problem that needs to be addressed and prayed over within in the context of your accountability relationship.
Most of us have areas of life so important than we plan around them. For my wife and me, it is football. I can assure you that I will be in front of the TV every Sunday afternoon for the next ten years. Yet, there have certainly been periods in my life when my Sunday church attendance was less automatic. When football takes precedence over God, you know there’s a problem!
For some people, this malaise indicates a spiritual disorder. We should be motivated to enter into accountability relationships by love for our Lord and Savior and out of concern for maintaining a healthy relationship with Him. If love isn’t your prime motivator, and you are one of those less inclined to want to engage with others on this level, at least begin the process by praying that God would change your heart.
And have faith in that prayer … changing hearts is what He does best.
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