In almost every conversation I can remember about pastoral failure the topic of accountability comes up. It usually comes up towards the end of the conversation, after the unfortunate details of the situation have been laid out, when someone comes to the uncomfortable realization that this problem isn’t getting better. Someone in the conversation, in hopes of finding some solution that will help them feel better about their own pastor, will usually say something to the effect of ‘Well, this is awful. And it shows you how important accountability is. If this pastor just had some people holding him accountable, this could have been prevented. I’m glad my pastor has accountability.’
It’s never fun to dismantle our illusions. But there is a very high likelihood that this person’s current pastor has a nearly identical ‘accountability’ structure around him or her that has no meaningful way of preventing them from living a hidden life. Accountability structures are powerless to hold someone accountable that does not want to be held accountable. Yet, it seems as if we continue to think that accountability is what will prevent a major leadership failure.
Most of the pastors I’ve spoken with who have experienced failure acknowledge having some accountability structure in place prior to their fall. And not just the appearance of accountability, but strong, Godly men and women who knew them and were committed to lovingly walk through life with the pastor. Despite being surrounded by a group of elders, or a men’s group, or a group with other pastors, these pastors still chose to make poor choices that were hidden from others, and ultimately derailed their ministries.
I am not advocating that we throw out accountability, but I am advocating that we stop trusting it to do something it has demonstrated it cannot do: consistently prevent leadership failure. I don’t have any answers, yet. But I do know that our current accountability structures are not working. My hope is that through research, we will learn more about the specific conditions in which accountability is effective so we can create better structures in the future.
What about you? What has your experience been with accountability? Do you have a story to share?