Jo from Birmingham started watching pornography at the age of 12. All of his friends were watching it and it seemed harmless. By the time he was 15 he was viewing porn on a daily basis.
‘That was two hours a week every week for years, and it allowed for hundreds, if not thousands, of images into my brain. They were there every waking moment,’ he reveals.
A pattern of denial and cover-up followed and Jo grew increasingly unhappy. He struggled in relationships and felt he would never fulfil God’s call on his life unless he could be free of the addiction.
An accountability partnership, notably with an older and more mature Christian, has helped Jo immensely. ‘The change was slow initially but has now accelerated,’ he says. ‘And although I slip up on occasion, I realise I am now going in the direction of my identity, calling and influence.
‘This would not have happened without my weekly accountability sessions. I often think, when tempted, “If I do this, I’ll be letting my mentor down.” I thank God for accountability, and because of this I am now heading in the right direction.’
FROM THE TOP DOWN
Paul Wilcox, church warden at All Saints Worcester and founder of The Mentoring Network, recently found himself confronting an Anglican vicar, one of his close friends. ‘Who asks you the character questions?’ he queried.
‘I asked him because I’m concerned that he has someone outside of his normal ministry orbit who will keep him accountable on matters of integrity,’ Wilcox says. ‘I would almost go so far as to say that I am prepared to risk a friendship over this. I know of too many casualties whose ministries are no more because they were not encouraged to be accountable.’
Designed to encourage openness between accountability partners about real issues such as pornography, ‘backsliding’, addiction and unforgiveness, many believe accountability can be a big help when it comes to living out a godly life on a day-to-day basis. Perhaps this is why Wilcox describes accountability within a relationship of mutual trust as ‘a precious gift’.
This certainly reflects my own experience of being in an accountable friendship. A friend and I set up an accountability partnership five years ago. We’re in constant contact via text and email, meet up regularly, minister to others together and are confident about asking each other the difficult questions.
It’s wonderful to have someone I can be real with, to confide in when I’m struggling; someone I know will pray for me. There have been awkward moments when one of us has had our feathers ruffled, but I view this as a healthy part of the process.
WE CAN BE TEMPTED JUST TO KEEP UP A FACADE
As Christians, we have a tendency to keep up appearances and say that everything is ok, when often it isn’t. So even if we make an agreement with a friend to be accountable to one another, there’s no guarantee that this will help develop either party’s walk with Jesus.
Wilcox believes that the word ‘accountability’ may even hold negative connotations for some Christians. ‘“Accountability”, as well as terms such as “authority”, “discipline” and “submission”, have lost the beauty that they are intended to convey within the Body of Christ,’ he says.
‘This is reflective of the postmodern mindset, which kicks against objective truth...It is also regrettable that much blame for this has to be levelled against the Church, which has allowed a desire for power and manipulation to shape some discipleship programmes in the past.’
Lucy Cooper, who writes for the Evangelical Alliance, believes accountability can only work if a relationship is entirely open: ‘Our culture is all about self-sufficiency and it’s certainly not fashionable to show your weaknesses or failings. We can be tempted just to keep up a facade on Facebook or online, giving the impression that we’re sorted.
‘Often the issues I know I need the most accountability on are the ones that have the most grip on me, therefore I find it hardest to be told how I should handle or resist them. It takes a courageous person to concede to accountability on those subjects. Accountability is only as strong as your level of honesty.’
ACCOUNTABILITY AND THE BIBLE
God has put us in church families to help and admonish each other. In Galatians 6:1 we read: ‘Dear brothers and sisters, if another believer is overcome by some sin, you who are godly should gently and humbly help that person back onto the right path. And be careful not to fall into the same temptation yourself’ (NLT).
Hebrews 10:24-25 teaches us that it is our responsibility to encourage each other: ‘Let us think of ways to motivate one another to acts of love and good works. And let us not neglect our meeting together, as some people do, but encourage one another, especially now that the day of his return is drawing near’ (NLT).
According to the Bible, we can ‘spur each other on’ in all sorts of ways: helping in times of need, providing instruction, serving in love, working together to gently restore, carrying burdens for one another, speaking the truth in love, building up and correcting wrong conduct.
IT’S WONDERFUL TO HAVE SOMEONE I CAN CONFIDE IN WHEN I’M STRUGGLING
WHY IS ACCOUNTABILITY SO RARE?
Despite the obvious biblical credentials for accountable friendships as a key part of our discipleship strategy, I found that few people in their 20s and 30s had these sorts of relationships. The majority knew what accountability meant, but embarrassment and the concern that no one would understand was a common deterrent. Some feared that private information wouldn’t remain confidential, or that they would be made to feel ashamed and isolated.
Emma Scrivener, author of A New Name (IVP), believes genuine friendship is preferable to formal accountability. ‘Sometimes we use the word “accountability” when what we really mean is just friendship,’ she says. ‘Developing accountability within friendship has a certain power to catalyse change because we know we’re being challenged within the context of love.’
Scrivener says that accountability without the context of friendship can become something negative; potentially bringing with it the threat of exposure, judgement or censure.
‘The fact that we challenge each other within a friendship stops us from buying into the letter of the law but not its spirit,’ she says. ‘I don’t just say, “Are you doing your quiet time?” or “Have you got a porn filter on the computer?”, I give you space and time to talk about the heart issues underlying the problem and I give you permission to ask me the same thing.’
ACCOUNTABILITY IS ONLY AS STRONG AS YOUR LEVEL OF HONESTY
THE MOVE TOWARDS MENTORING
Cooper believes that mentoring is often a more effective discipleship approach than an accountable friendship.
While mutual accountability is traditionally two-way, with each person free to ask questions of one another and to help one another push through difficulties and temptations, mentoring is structured differently. Mentor and mentee reflect the New Testament relationship between Paul and Timothy. Paul (the mentor) acts as a counsellor, supporter and role model for Timothy (the mentee).
‘Mutual accountability can become about backslapping without much effect; and sometimes people don’t give each other great advice,’ says Cooper. ‘In that case, a mentoring relationship would work better. “Disciplers” – mentors or older, mature Christians – can help teach and correct.’
CWR tutor Andy Peck agrees that ‘mentoring’ and ‘coaching’ are becoming more fashionable discipleship structures within UK churches.
‘Some areas of sin and growth are tough to talk about,’ Peck says. ‘An accountable relationship can work well for a limited period when someone comes to faith, or maybe is battling with a particular problem, such as an addiction.’
However, Peck claims that the drawbacks of accountability mean that this may not work long term for the new convert: ‘People are free to only share what they want and keep other things hidden. Also, the value of the accountability rests on the maturity and godliness of the person you are with. Just because two people are accountable, it doesn’t mean that they are wise listeners or advisors.
‘The New Testament stresses the work of the Holy Spirit in convicting and equipping. Overdependence on human advice that ignores what God is doing is counterproductive.’
A PIECE IN THE PUZZLE
Bryn Hughes, who runs a training and mentoring consultancy, believes that accountability should merely be part of the individual’s discipleship. He suggests that it is sometimes essential that we take a hands-off approach in allowing others to make mistakes, learn from them and grow spiritually. ‘Jesus asked more than 200 questions, and that approach is effective because it puts the onus back on the individual,’ Hughes says. The aim, he believes, is to produce lifelong learners who don’t need to be spoon-fed, but who take responsibility for their own development.
WHAT IF IT ALL GOES WRONG?
Unfortunately, some accountable relationships turn sour. Perhaps one member lords their so-called authority over the other or one party becomes so entangled in the friendship that they allow themselves to become dependent upon it. It may be that both parties had different ideas about the relationship to begin with.
Dylan Morrison wrote The Prodigal Prophet (CreateSpace) about his own negative experience of accountable relationships. ‘We tried to emulate strict early Methodist accountability in our Northern Irish movement in the late ’70s and early ’80s as well as tying into the American Discipleship movement,’ he explains. ‘It was a disaster that got everyone’s religious egos pumped up, including mine.
‘Co-dependency is a danger that lurks within many faith “relationships”. What starts off as friends sharing their lives can quickly become psycho-spiritual energy directed solely in one direction.’
Giving a bit of background on the shepherding movement, Morrison says: ‘Each church was under the “authority” of a shepherd with various strata of sub-shepherds under him; a pyramid structure of sorts with every “committed” member under the pastoral care of someone above them in the spiritual food chain.
‘The main shepherd was in turn under the covering or authority of an apostle; either one of the American founders or one of their sub lieutenants. I realise that it all sounds quite bizarre, but it worked for a while until interpersonal rivalries broke out between shepherd and shepherd, and shepherd and followers.’
THE KEY TO GOOD ACCOUNTABILITY
Wilcox says that the key to maintaining the health of an accountable partnership is to keep Jesus central to discussions and attitudes. ‘But our own agendas, insecurities and issues can sometimes creep in, thus creating unhealthy dependencies,’ he says. ‘It is vital to keep every step shrouded in prayer, submitting it all to God, every step of the way.’
If you find yourself uncomfortable with the dynamic of an accountable relationship, then prayerfully call it a day. Try to ensure that you remain friends, but recognise that a partnership that started out with good intentions is no longer helpful. Asking for supervision from a church leader may also be a good idea.
Despite the potential pitfalls of accountable partnerships – and the arguments of those who would rather see this approach replaced by mentoring relationships – I still believe there is a place to come alongside one another as trusted friends and give permission to speak honestly into each other’s lives. ‘When accountable relationships bear the kingdom hallmarks of vulnerability and grace, an amazing channel for personal growth and freedom can open up,’ Wilcox says. Wasn’t this exactly what Jesus offered his disciples?
CASE STUDY: STEPHEN SHARES HIS EXPERIENCE
I was asked to join an accountability group in my first year at university by four other friends. I had only recently become a Christian and didn’t have a clue what it was, but said I would go along. It was probably one of the best things I did at university.
Were the conversations comfortable? Often far from it. I was regularly pulled up on different aspects of my attitude and behaviour, but that’s what I signed up to when I joined. We loved each other and really supported one another.
I also found it to be a fantastic place of encouragement. The negative view of accountability groups is that it’s just about making you feel bad about sin. But people in the group began encouraging me in an evangelistic gifting and I ended up becoming the evangelism secretary on the committee of the largest Christian Union in the country at the time, and am now on the leadership team of our church’s Alpha course.
Beyond all of this, many of our friends at university (Christian or not) knew about the group, the impact it had on us and why we did it. We had a number of non-Christian friends join the group who subsequently came to Christ.
To my mind, accountability is twinned with responsibility. Responsibility without accountability sounds dangerous, as does accountability without great responsibility.
TEN TIPS FOR FINDING AN ACCOUNTABILITY PARTNER
1. Be proactive. Pray and then think about who you are already in a close relationship with. It should be someone you can learn from and who inspires you. Choose someone of the same gender.
2. Remember that it is a two-way relationship. What can you offer and what responsibilities will you have? Are you prepared to ask (and answer) the difficult questions?
3. Be clear. Accountability and mentoring relationships come in many forms and you need to work out between you what the best approach is for both parties. Discuss how often you will meet and for how long.
4. Set ground rules. Accountability relationships are not sources of juicy gossip. Everything you share and everything you hear should remain confidential, unless permission has been given to pass information on. Remember that you are not God. Even if you are challenging certain behaviours, you must always remain non-judgemental in your approach.
5. Hold the relationship lightly to begin with. You both need to feel comfortable, so give it time.
6. Take a risk. Mutual respect and understanding can only come about if you are both willing to share openly and allow any vulnerability to be exposed.
7. Pray for your accountability partner as often as possible.
8. Be gracious with one another! You are human, so you will make mistakes. Learn to forgive one another quickly and move on.
9. Remember that it doesn’t just have to be one to one. My friend and I often meet up with a third person, and that can offer a really helpful dynamic.
10. Review the arrangement on a regular basis.