Men, how do you feel about accountability groups?
Before I was exposed in my sin and addiction I was part of an accountability group for about ten years. During that time – before I began my recovery and started experiencing true authenticity – I probably would have answered that questions something like…
“Oh, I love it. And I need it. There’s nothing like meeting with a few guys who will help hold me accountable to live a life of holiness.”
What I would have said if I was being honest would have been more like… “I hate it. I feel like such a fraud every time I go. Whenever I’ve screwed up and acted out, I find a lame excuse not to go so that I won’t have to outright lie. If I were to actually be honest about what’s going on in my life, I’d be screwed.”
My experience with an accountability group was different from a lot of men, in that I was serving on church staff at the time. If I had been honest, my fear of losing everything seemed much more likely. But every time I went, and every time I held back from being truly honest, I was reminded that I had no one in my life with whom I could be completely open. It wasn’t the other guys’ fault. I never gave them the chance to respond to my stuff because they never knew about it.
Even though many of you reading this aren’t currently in a position where honesty in accountability would cost you your job, I’d be willing to bet that the fear of opening up is just as real. “What if they tell me I have to tell my wife?” “What if they go tell my pastor what I’ve done?” “What if they kick me out of the group?”
What doesn’t exist in many accountability groups – in my opinion – is an understanding about what is the best goal of such a group.
Should a men’s accountability group exist to…
- Keep the members from sinning?
- Give consequences to members when they fail to meet standards of holiness?
- Provide a time for members to confess times of failure since the last group meeting?
Or should it exist to…
- Provide a place where men can safely remove their masks and allow themselves to be completely known?
- Offer a safe context to work through issues that are driving sinful behavior?
- Give members an opportunity to confess without fear of rejection?
- Give hope for progress and victory that is free from shame?
Odds are most of you like the second list better, but have experienced the first list a lot more. Jonathan Dodson, pastor of Austin City Life Church, wrote a great chapter for Covenant Eyes’ book Internet Pornography: A Ministry Leader’s Handbook. The chapter is called “Gospel-Centered Accountability,” and in it he talks about his experience with punitive accountability – i.e. “put ten bucks in the jar to keep from sinning” – and how it is not consistent with the Gospel message. Instead, he suggests an approach based on reminding members about how the Gospel speaks into their situation. This avoids license (“sin is no big deal”) as well as legalism (“it’s ALL about the behavior”) and focuses on the heart.
In his amazing book Surfing For God: Discovering the Divine Desire Beneath Sexual Struggle, Michael John Cusick writes about different types of accountability, and why some are less effective than others.
In Chapter 14, “Going Under the Knife,” Cusick talks about “Cop Accountability,” in which…
“Our chosen accountability partner represents law enforcement, and we are the law-abiding citizen with a proclivity for exceeding the posted limits of appropriate sexual behavior. When we exceed the lawful limits, we turn ourselves in to a law enforcement officer, who issues the appropriate citation. I wish I could say that my description here is written entirely in jest, but I would be lying.”
The problem with this type of accountability is at least three-fold. It relies on honesty, which is something that doesn’t come easily to a man struggling with sexual sin. It also depends on the external reinforcement of another person, and when that other person is no longer in the picture, often the good behavior drops off. Finally, it only deals with behavior and doesn’t look at the heart.
He also talks about “Coach Accountability,” in which…
“Our accountability partner plays the role of an instructor, trainer, and coach, who helps us manage our lives so we can keep moving for- ward. We are second-string players on God’s team with a pretty good shot of making it to the spiritual big leagues. When we fail to perform well, we check in with the coach, who encourages us from the rulebook, sends us back in the game, and tells us to keep our eye on the ball. This approach implies that if we give it enough effort, time, and attention, we can earn a victory over sin and make our lives work. This ‘try harder’ emphasis concerns itself less with sin management and more with the relentless effort to be good. It is a gospel of inspiration.”
Cusick acknowledges that this approach is better than the “cop” approach, in that it is more encouraging and positive and that it comes from someone who really cares about us. But it still lacks some of the care for our hearts that we need.
Cusick says that what we really need is “Cardiologist Accountability.” This is an approach where…
“…we move from accountability to accessibility. We expose our hiddenness, but more than that, we acknowledge our brokenness. Instead of trying to manage our sin, or be inspired to obey, we recognize our need for transformation. We begin to allow God, and a few others, to walk into the messiness of our lives, and we learn that we are more than the sum of our brokenness. Cardiologist accountability does not require a professional therapist or counselor. It begins with the assumption that our whole lives, including our brokenness, are the soil in which God grows us. The only requirements for becoming a cardiologist of this kind are a healthy curiosity, a desire to be a caring friend, and a willingness to grow in your understanding of the process of spiritual transformation.”
The truth is that there will still be fear associated with coming out of isolation, especially for the man who has been hiding sin and/or addiction. It’s also true that an accessibility/accountability relationship does not mean one that is free from any consequences. Often the people with whom you walk will press you to open up to your wife and others in your life who are being harmed by your sin. Although this is terrifying and requires risk and vulnerability, it also will ultimately provide freedom and the opportunity for healing – something that always eludes a person hiding in sin.
Have you experienced accountability that seemed to drive you deeper into secrecy instead of into authenticity and the light of the truth? Are you ready to pursue relationship with other men that includes – but goes much deeper than – a focus on behavior or obedience? Not sure where to start?
The Author: Greg Oliver
Greg Oliver was a worship pastor for 15 years before his secret addiction to pornography and sex was exposed in January of 2009. Since then he has been on a journey of recovery, coming to know God better and experiencing His grace like never before. He and his wife Stacey have experienced deep healing & restoration within their marriage, and through the ministry of Awaken they walk with individuals, couples, and ministry leaders to help them experience connection and healing in the midst of sexual brokenness.