When the subject of accountability groups came up in conversation at a retreat for pastors, the retreat leader mentioned that a high percentage of pastors who’d had moral failures had been part of an accountability group. In disbelief, one of the pastors at the retreat blurted, “those couldn’t have been very good accountability groups, then.” As I thought about that I wondered why we were surprised. I mean, if a person is willing to lie to self, a spouse, a church council, a congregation and to God, why do we expect that person will be honest and transparent in an accountability group?
I think a similar question can be asked of congregations and classes. We say that mutual accountability is one of the reasons we meet as classes, yet over the years the traditional structures for accountability have eroded away. Classical credential forms no longer require Church Councils to wrestle with specific questions about their congregational life, and Church Visitor reports are rarely, if ever, taken up at classis. Meanwhile newer forms of accountability have yet to take hold. When one classis said it wanted accountability around ministry share giving, the classical ministry committee created a plan to discuss the giving patterns of member churches. When the plan was presented, however, classis was no longer quite so eager to discuss giving and the plan was shelved.
We don’t like accountability as much as we say we do. That might be because the traditional structures had become little more than formalities; classical credentials forms were changed because the ‘article 41 questions’ were no longer effective. It might be because we’ve too often practiced a sort of “selective accountability.” Over a period of years the same church was asked in meeting after meeting to give an account of its ministry share giving. However, no one seemed to notice that the church forced to explain itself was growing by leaps and bounds, while the churches demanding answers hadn’t seen a convert in years. This suggests that the deeper issue rests in the human heart – and by extension the heart of congregations. We deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.
Yet, we know that we need accountability both as persons and as churches. We know that we will not deal with our blind spots without it. So, I am not suggesting that we simply throw up our hands and give up on the whole idea. I am suggesting that we cannot rely too much on any one strategy or technique whether new or traditional. We can try to infuse new life into practices like mutual censure or church visiting. We can also look for new models. We can try to create the kind of climate that fosters openness and honesty. But we cannot create that climate if unless we begin with ourselves and admit that we cannot remove the speck in another’s eye if we are not willing to address the log in our own.