Making the Most of Accountability Groups by David Dunham

Accountability groups can often feel like the most useless strategy for fighting sin and growing in obedience. You’ve probably experienced this frustration yourself. You meet weekly with a few folks, discuss areas of struggle and setback, pray, reassure each other that God still cares, and then adjourn. Next week you’ll repeat the exact same cycle. It feels like nothing is being accomplished in this process and after a while people just drop off and the group dissolves. Accountability groups, then, are just frustrating and seemingly useless. Groups, can, however, be useful if we do them correctly.

The failure of accountability groups often lies at the feet of participants. After all, accountability is a real thing that God instructs us to participate in as believers. Paul says that those who are “spiritual” should seek to “restore” those who are “caught in any trespass” (Gal. 6:1). Likewise James tell us to confess our sins to one another and pray for one another (James 5:16). Jesus instructs that we are responsible for correcting our brothers. He says:

“Be on your guard! If your brother sins, rebuke him; and if he repents, forgive him. (Luke 17:3)

The author of Hebrews urges us to “consider how to stimulate one another to love and good deeds” (Heb. 10:24). Paul tells the Thessalonians of their responsibility to one another, saying, “Therefore encourage one another and build up one another, just as you also are doing” (1 Thess. 5:11). We could go on with other verses, but it is evident that the Bible supports the idea of accountability. But how we do accountability is important.

In order to get the most out of our accountability we should consider a few principles to guide our efforts. Heath Lambert has provided great insight and help on this subject in his new book Finally Free: Fighting for Purity with the Power of Grace. Though Lambert’s focus is on fighting against pornography his “seven principles that can help strengthen the common weaknesses we find in most accountability relationships” apply to a diverse set of accountability situations.

For starters, Lambert instructs us, don’t rely exclusively on accountability. If our sole plan for discipleship, growth, and fighting sin is to be part of an accountability group then we will see little to no fruit from our efforts. Accountability groups work well, but they don’t work alone. As Lambert says, “Limiting your weapons unnecessarily limits victory” (48). We need more than just accountability to see real growth.

Second, good accountability assists us in the stage of temptation. Most groups function as delayed confessions of sin. Instead of seeking help when temptation hits us, we use confessions merely to relay past failures. Lambert writes:

You will not experience dramatic change in your struggle as long as you use accountability to describe your sins instead of declaring your need for help in the midst of temptation. (49)

There’s not much help that can be offered after the fact of sin. We do of course need encouragement and rebuke, but if that’s all that our accountability offers us then there is little hope that the cycle of failure won’t continue. We need help on the front end of our temptation, before sin. We need people praying for us, correcting us, and assisting us when temptation first strikes so that we might avoid the pitfall of sin and not repeat the cycle of failure.

Thirdly, accountability works best when we are partnering with more mature believers. My own experience with accountability groups has often been disappointing in large part because those I was asking to help me were in the exact same situation. It’s like asking an alcoholic to help another alcoholic overcome his drinking problem. It’s like asking one porn addict to tell another sister how to stop looking at porn. We each struggle with various issues, but in order to overcome those issues we need the help of mature believers who have experienced a season of growth and freedom from this specific sin.

Likewise, we should seek out accountability partners who have authority. This fourth point argues that if we don’t involve someone who can enforce consequences we most likely won’t change. Here Lambert insists it is best to involve those who have spiritual authority, for those who are younger it’s best to involve parents in our accountability. Far too often we ask those who have no weight to hold us accountable, but they lack the necessary tools to really insist on change. We need more help from those with authority.

Lambert’s fifth principle warns us not to share too much information. We need to give enough information to communicate the seriousness of our struggles, temptations, and failures, but not so much that it either celebrates the sin or tempts others to sin. The way we confess sin, the way we share burdens, the way we invite help is important. Too much explicit information can be dangerous to ourselves and to those we ask for help.

Sixthly, good accountability puts the burden of responsibility on the one with the problem. If my partner has to constantly chase me down, pry confessions out of me, confirm that I am not lying then this relationship probably isn’t going to work out. If I am not willing to unload my burden, share my struggle, ask for help, then I am probably not really willing to change. As Lambert writes:

The responsibility to confess sin and expose the darkness lies with the person who has committed the sin. It’s not the job of spiritual mentors to go on a fishing expedition to reel in a confession from those they are trying to help. A person passively waiting to provide answers to specific questions is in a far different place spiritually than a person who is willing to take the initiative to expose their struggles in the pure light of day. (54)

In other words, if I am asking for help I need to be willing to open up, confess, and share the information that will bring about the necessary help.

Finally, Lambert says that effective accountability actually holds people accountable. There has to be some real effort on the part of spiritual mentors. One of the reasons accountability groups often fail is that those involved don’t actually follow through with the help they offer. We get busy, distracted, and disconnected. Overtime we eventually just stop meeting and stop pretending like we really doing any good. Real accountability means actually doing something, hanging in there, and working alongside those in need. If an accountability partner doesn’t follow through then I need to seek out someone who will.

Accountability groups can be effective in helping us to fight sin and grow in godliness. The reasons they often don’t produce real change or promote real growth is that owing to our weak approaches. By rethinking our approach to accountability, however, we can see them actually accomplish what the Scriptures intend for them to accomplish.

David Dunham is an associate pastor at Cornerstone Baptist Church in Roseville, Michigan. He is a graduate of Ohio University (BA) and Southern Baptist Theological Seminary (MDiv).

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