Accountability in the Local Church

Accountability in the Local Church December 2, 2010

David Kinnaman, at Barna, released this report:

I’m keen on hearing your response. And, what is your local church doing about accountability? Stories to tell? What are the dangers to avoid?

Many of the exhortations in the Bible are not popular in today’s world. But a new study by the Barna Group indicates that one of the least favorite biblical principles might well be “Obey your spiritual leaders, and do what they say. Their work is to watch over your souls, and they are accountable to God. Give them reason to do this with joy and not with sorrow” (Hebrews 13:17, NLT).
The Extent of Accountability
Because the underlying theme of the Christian life is one of being transformed from a selfish and self-driven individual to one who lives for and surrenders control of one’s life to God, the practice of accountability for life choices and behavior is central to that process of transformation. Yet, a national survey by the Barna Group among people who describe themselves as Christian and involved in a church discovered that only 5% indicated that their church does anything to hold them accountable for integrating biblical beliefs and principles into their life.

Although there were a few subgroups that were more likely than average to experience church-based accountability, there was not a single segment for which even one out of every five people said their church does anything to hold them accountable. The segments that were most likely to have some form of church-centered accountability were evangelicals (15%), adults living in the western states (10%), people who say they are conservative on social and political matters (9%), and Baby Busters, who are known to be a highly relational generation (8%). Amazingly, while 7% of Protestants claimed to have such accountability there was not a single Catholic adult surveyed who claimed to be held accountable by his/her church.

The Means of Accountability
Among the 5% of Christian adults who said their church holds them accountable, there were seven primary approaches to oversight that were described. The most common approach was through small groups, which was listed by one-third (34%) of those who claimed to be held accountable. Putting those figures in context, the survey found that 22% of adults were involved in a small group, which means that only 7% of all small group attenders identified accountability as one of the functions fulfilled by their group.

Other accountability methods utilized by churches included limiting or revoking membership for those who did not meet specific standards (21% of those who experienced any form of accountability); being accountable to individuals they were acquainted with in the congregation (19%); being responsible for completing activities assigned to them by church leaders, with follow-up by those leaders (16%); personal accountability to the pastor or other pastoral staff person (10%); answering directly to the congregation for questionable activities that are identified (8%); and having regularly scheduled reviews with church leaders (6%).

Placing these statistics into their larger context —that is, how many Christians are held accountable by any particular approach —demonstrates not only how infrequent accountability is, but also how little consistency there is in the procedures used by churches across the nation. The most frequent method—accountability through the relationships developed in small groups—is practiced in the lives of only 2% of all self-described Christians in the nation. Other forms are found in the lives of 1% or fewer Christians.

Why Isn’t Accountability More Common?
Although the survey was not designed to assess the reasons for such a paucity of accountability practices, the survey’s director, George Barna, offered some possibilities to consider based on previous research.

“Barna Group studies among pastors and other church leaders have consistently shown that such leaders have a distaste for initiating any type of confrontation and conflict with congregants. Another barrier is that many followers of Christ are uncertain about the difference between judgment and discernment. Not wanting to be judgmental, they therefore avoid all conversation about the other person’s behavior—except, sometimes, gossip.

“One of the cornerstones of the biblical concept of community is that of mutual accountability. But Americans these days cherish privacy and freedom to the extent that the very idea of being held accountable by others—even those with their best interests in mind, or who have a legal or spiritual authority to do so—is considered inappropriate, antiquated and rigid. With a large majority of Christian churches proclaiming that people should know, trust and obey all of the behavioral principles taught in the Bible, overlooking a principle as foundational as accountability breeds even more public confusion about scriptural authority and faith-based community, as well as personal behavioral responsibility.”

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  • The one danger to avoid that I know of is accountability without relationship. If I am not walking with the person, right there beside them in their lives, and they have not invited me into their life to that level where accountability has meaning, for me to step in and hold them accountable is invasive, unloving, and, most often, unproductive. Why? Because standing outside of the relationship and saying “You need to change” is taken as a judgmental action because the inevitable response is “You don’t know me, you have no idea what is going on in my life.”

    The assumption on the flip side, though, is that a “good” church will be fostering those relationships to begin. When I enter into the community relationship of a congregation, what should be happening is that the relationship extends beyond just the Sunday morning experience but is a whole-life relationship. In a congregation of several hundred, this is VERY difficult, which is where small community groups within the congregation is extremely helpful in fostering this relational accountability.

    To sum up, accountability is a two-way street. It is a submission of one person to be held accountable to another (or to a community) but it is also a committment of the other (or the community) to live in authentic relationship with the one who is submitting.

  • Barb

    As a Presbyterian–our polity includes church membership in which members agree to put themselves under the discipline of the church. In our congregation we have a large percentage of attenders who do not become members. As an Elder I’m aware of the instances where we have had to carry out church discipline. We do it, it IS HARD, it is COMPLICATED, and it TAKES TIME. If the person is not a member they just pack up and leave the church. It’s not just a matter of writing someone a letter and saying “stop it”. It requires personal, face-to-face, relationships with people. It requires prayer FOR the person, it requires GRACE. If it is not in the DNA of a congregation I don’t know how you would cultivate it from nothing. Maybe that’s how we’ve gotten to this state.

  • Robin

    My churches up until now have always practiced both accountability and cuhrch discipline. My current church is not reformed, but is more of a hybrid church plant, so I have yet to see how it will play out.

    In the reformed baptist churches I have attended accountability/discipline looked like this.

    (1) The decision to join a church entailed agreeing to a covenant where the individual submits to the church (and its leaders) and the churches makes reciprocal promises

    (2) those promises include active participation in the body, financial participation to the extent of your ability and a personal commitment to growing in grace

    (3) active participation included coming to all the services (when possible) and participating in small groups. Yes, I did have pastors call me when they noticed I wasn’t at a Wednesday night prayer meeting. Active participation also meant having regular meetings with the elders (with my wife) to talk about our experiences in the church, our growth, our relationship, etc. In the year between leaving my recent church and joining my present church the elders and small group leaders continued to call and meet with us, not to get us back, but to provide pastoral care until we could find a church in our new area.

    (4) Church discipline was something I have not had to personally experience, but we were made aware of it on a few sad occasions. My impression was that it was only an option of last resort, generally for very public sins, and that it took months and was careful and deliberate. The only instance I can recall that wasn’t an obvious sin like continued drunkenness or drug use was a member who basically had quit coming to church for a year or more, hadn’t started attending anywhere else, and showed no desire to attend church anywhere. I know the elders loved on him for months, shared to him the imperative to not abandon the fellowship of other believers, shared the gospel with him, pleaded for him to find another church if he just didn’t like ours, etc. In the end it was clear that he wanted no part in fellowship with other Christians so we removed him from membership and started to view him as more of a mission field than a missionary. The goal from first to last was restoration, and even though he is now considered an (likely) unbeliever, the level of love hasn’t changed, it is just now more focused of evangelism than fellowship.

  • Phillip

    Fear of conflict, confrontation, and appearing judgmental may account for not insisting upon accountability. But such accountability can and should arise from love and, as noted above, out of an existing relationship. The goal is not criticism but growth in Christ. Perhaps part of the problem is that pastors are often viewed as employees of the church rather than members, so they are kept at arms length and don’t develop the relationships needed for mutual accountability.

    Drawing especially on Proverb’s wisdom on accepting correction, I know one minister who held an annual congregational review of himself, where he invited critique.

  • Mark E

    I think it is an issue of what is a spiritual leader. I have no problem obeying a spitirual mentor, unfortunately, none of them have been my “church leaders.” Feeling a need to obey my church leaders has not been much of an issue since none of them have been involved in my spiritual formation like a spiritual mentor.

  • tdsutter

    “Amazingly, while 7% of Protestants claimed to have such accountability there was not a single Catholic adult surveyed who claimed to be held accountable by his/her church.”

    My guess is that the surveyed Catholics were unable to see the forest for the trees. Tell your local priest you (or your spouse, girlfriend or daughter) is going to have an abortion. See what happens.

    If you’re a politician, let the bishop know that you support “abortion rights.” See what happens.

    Don’t get me wrong; I don’t disagree with the church’s action (discipline). I am suggesting that MOST Catholics see abortion as so egregious that they are unable to see the discipline that comes with it as Church Discipline.

  • Pat

    Unfortunately, I find that accountability isn’t formally addressed in our church until something happens and then people are not always receptive to it. Informally, it does happen in small group settings, which is good to an extent. However, when something major happens, church leadership is then sought out to intervene.

    The culture in which we live is very privatized and that mindset has crept into the church. We’ve even had someone tell us that the problem with membership is being accountable(?!). This individual by the way, was caught in sin, had been employed by the church in a visible position and that was their response to a request for a meeting with leadership to attempt to continue a restoration process. A process that he felt no need for. So it’s hard because restoration takes two. Add in to the mix those in the congregation that only know one side of the story and who feel the church hasn’t done enough or was heavy-handed in the way they dealt with a matter.

    All that said, I still believe in accountability and feel it is the responsibility of church and its leadership to see that people are held accountable (in a loving manner) and that measures are in place to deal with issues as they arise. My frustration is that I feel our church is more reactive than proactive.

  • Mich

    I think Robert is spot on. Too often “accountability’ becomes mere rational process–follow our Church plan, do what we say, read this powerpoint and do likewise, etc. But there is no relationship. Is this a problem endemic to the modern church? There must be a trusting relationship before accountability. Accountability grows out of the relationship narrative.

  • gary davis

    I am on a short break here from work, and forgive me if I haven’t read all the responses. So if I am stepping on someone’s toes here, oops sorry.

    I think that accountability is such a taboo topic in the church today because in our present western vocabulary, accountability is the language of the person in recovery. It is addiction language. We like to think of ourselves, that is those of us who aren’t alcoholics or drug addicts, as people who have nothing of real consequence to be held accountable to. I guess being a lousy sinner isn’t good enough is it?

    I think that the recovery ministry has the BEST hold on what true discipleship is, and I think key to that understanding is the fact that accountability is a central value, along with blunt force trauma honesty.

    I say if you want to see those numbers go up, then everyone…and I mean EVERYONE, needs to see themselves as a person who is powerless in the face of sin. That they see in themselves the same desperation that the alcoholic faces when they hit the bottom. That they detox from their destructive ways, admit to themselves that they need recovery just as much as the drug addict.

    Accountability happens in this kind of atmosphere…

    Take it from a person whose life was destroyed because of an addiction to porn and is just now beginning to see how much working the steps not only helped him “recover”, but it helped him follow. Isn’t that what being a disciple is all about?

  • Jeremy

    What were the actual questions? When I hear of accountability and submission to church leaders, I think of patriarchy or churches where the leadership is invasive, overbearing and stepping way beyond their bounds…The sort of church where you can’t move down the street without the Pastor’s permission or have to attend church functions 4 days a week. Not the sort of thing I want anything to do with.

    However, if small groups and church encouraged accountability groups count, then sure. But it never would have occurred to me to think of those as a yes.

    That said, I wonder how easy it is to pull off in large protestant churches. It’s virtually impossible for the church leadership to have the kind of relationship with their members necessary for true accountability.

  • Barb

    the kind of discipline that I’m talking about involves actions that are hurting the church. we’ve had a few individuals who professed to be Christian and yet they spent time and energy gathering and passing on very vicious gossip about our pastors. We’ve also had some who mis-used their positions of leadership, and refused to account for money that they were entrusted to oversee. Stuff like that.

  • I know this horse gets beaten a lot, but I see consumer culture playing a role in this as well. As church has become another player in the competitive market place, leaders are often driven by what keeps the consumer happy. I just overheard some people in Denny’s today discussing how a worker at another restaurant told them it was closing time and they’d have to leave. Their response? “I’ll never so business there again. The nerve ofthose people.”

    From their conversation, it didn’t sound like the employee was rude, but as consumers we don’t likebeing told what to do. When a church functions like a provider of goods and services, people become customers that can do business with the competition down the street.

  • Jason Lee

    Before I give Barna stuff any thought, I’d want to know the % that didn’t answer which questions and how many people responded “don’t know.” If either are high, it can make %’s relatively meaningless. We have to be especially careful to do this with research (e.g., Barna, Ed Stetzer/Lifeway) that is not subject to peer reviewed before publication.

  • Ryan

    Who keeps them accountable? What does one do when the senior pastor convinces the elders to become less involved in the direct handling of the church in order to have more autonomous, ie less accountable, control? What does one do when there is a clear character defect in the senior pastor that needs over sight and correction of an elder board but they are too distance from the day to day to know or account for what is happening?

  • What about one active member divorcing another (assume no cheating or abuse)? Would your church know what to do with that?

  • Robin


    I don’t know that my church would know what to do with it immediately, but the church leaders (and any Christian that cared about them) would treat it very seriously and immediately try to understand the dynamics causing the divorce and most appropriate course of action. It wouldn’t be swept under the rug, and we wouldn’t pretend that whatever foundational sin that led to the divorce wasn’t a big deal.

  • As I’ve read the Psalms, over the past 30 years, I’ve absorbed the psalmists’ calls to God to correct them. The psalmists expect God to hold them accountable within God’s community of which they’re members. The psalmists, I think it’s fair to say, treasure God’s correction. “Your rod and your staff, they comfort me.”

    Barb’s Presbyterian Church is unusual, not only in its denom, but among all churches. Personal accountability is not welcomed, because it succeeds error, and error reveals self-interest. Accountability & humility are inseparable attributes in Scripture. Most folk puff themselves up (using Paul’s 1 Corinthians language – phusiow) and become arrogant when someone dares to discern that what they’re doing is contrary to the Word. [A false-humility response is possible, too.] Paul’s answer to arrogance is to commend being crucified with Christ, as he “die[s] every day!” (1 Cor. 15)

    We need to model and help one another, in love, to embrace dying to ourselves to follow Christ. I have witnessed &/or experienced “churches” and “pastors” who would & do “kill the prophet(s)” rather than hear the discernment of wise & godly folk. They teach their flock the same denial of sin and refusal to leave corrupt & manipulative practices behind.

    Discernment is using the eyes of wisdom, given by God, to sense the paths are not righteous. Judgment is the consequence given to the one who receives gentle correction for the purpose of restoration. The most severe consequence I see in Paul’s writing is to exclude someone from the fellowship, so that they may experience the harshness of the world’s ways, repent and desire to be received back into fellowship.

    I would note that most churches which I’ve seen practice accountability, struggle with history. It’s just as hard to live out forgiveness, “…and such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God.” (1 Cor. 6)

    Accountability-humility are the characteristics of someone following Christ, and ongoing welcome-forgiveness should be the marks of the Body of believers. Too many humble Christians have encountered churches which hold their sins against them, ad infinitum. Some also hold others’ sins (e.g., relatives’, friends’ sins) against the humble & vulnerable! (Not unusual per John 9) No wonder that individuals fear open confession & accountability!