If Accountability Groups Don’t Work, What Does?

The most common solution proposed to help pastors share their secret struggles is the establishment of accountability groups. This is deemed important because as Gayle Haggard shares in her book, Why I Stayed, “Secrets are what empowers sin.” To effectively curb sin in ministry professional souls and lives the solution is accountability. Right? Probably not. Accountability groups are not effective. They may even be counterproductive.

Every human has secret struggles. Every pastor is human. According to a recent on-line CRN poll, only 3 pastors out of a group of 76 use accountability groups to share their secret struggles. So, who listens to pastors, hearts? Who takes care of the remaining 96%? Spouses, counselors and friends hear the secrets of 28% of those taking the poll. A breakdown indicates 12% told spouses, 9% told counselors and 7 % told friends. The rest? Sixty four percent say they have no one with whom they share their secrets. Exactly twice as many ministry professionals tell no one their secrets as told anyone their secrets.

Knowing Christian Leaders are struggling secretly without sharing these secrets is sobering. “We are as sick as our secrets.” Says the recovery proverb. Potentially the vast majority of ministry professionals are on the path from secret struggles to secret sins to public falls and failures. What can be done? If you read books on the personal lives of pastors you will discover most of these books recommend accountability groups to solve this problem. The solution used the least by ministry professionals is considered the best. No wonder the Church is dysfunctioning so dramatically. I do not believe creating more accountability groups and compelling clergy to meet in them is an effective strategy. Campaigning for this kind of accountability is more likely to be destructive than useful.

Many of those who contact the Clergy Recovery Network for help when their secrets evolve into out of control sins already have accountability groups. A pastor or missionary who is able to lie to his wife is able to lie to an accountability group. Fear and shame motivate pastors to hide their secret sins. Family and career are on the line. One such pastor sought help from CRN. When I discovered he had an accountability group, I asked what he told them about his daily Internet porn use. He replied, “I told them I have wrestled more than usual lately with my thought life. We prayed about it and went home.”

I do not believe asking more specific questions or asking as the last question, “Have you lied to us about any of the previous questions?” will improve matters. Having hall monitors for Christian Leaders does not work. Skillful probing tends to result in skillful denial. When groups are established to hold pastors accountable, these groups are seldom, if ever able to provide the essential elements of trust, shared struggles, empathy, absolute confidentiality, camaraderie and heart to heart honesty which promote open sharing and actually help clergy in their struggles. Too often no matter how we dress up such groups they come off like they are checking on the pastor to be sure he does not have struggles instead of supporting him in his struggles.

When groups are created as described above, they can even be destructive. Churches and Boards erroneously conclude their leaders, because they are in an accountability group, are doing just fine. Other measures which could be more helpful are not considered or pursued. Faulty assumptions based on secrets kept are made about the spiritual, emotional and family health of the leader. Pastors who do not feel safe to share honestly with such groups learn to lie or stretch the truth. Telling the truth to such a group would be too threatening as is evidenced by 96% of CRN poll respondents not telling their struggles to such groups.

An additional complication with these groups exists. Almost no pastor is comfortable to share his heart in such a group but saying so is almost impossible when his Board, trying their best to be helpful, establishes such a group. If a pastor had the courage to say, “I don’t find this kind of group safe and I don’t wish to participate” he would be viewed as having something terrible to hide. The Church and its leaders would be better off to recognize this approach is faulty and find healthier, more creative means of aiding their pastors’ with their personal lives.

What works better than accountability groups?

The truth? Becoming aggressive and creative in caring for Christian leaders has not been a high priority in most ministries. Denial blinds us and doing nothing and maintaining status quo is easier than thinking outside the box to help create quality environments where ministry professionals can develop healthy relationships of trust, honesty, grace and sharing. Ministry professionals are not necessarily even able or motivated to build such relationships naturally. Many need help with relationship basics. Answering the call of God does not make anyone immune to family of origin dysfunction, prepare anyone to manage competing and complex demands on family life or to deal effectively with personal struggles.

Courageous and innovative lay and clergy leaders must establish new models of functional relationships which are supportive in nature. Rather than it being okay for Christian leaders to be friendless, isolated and lonely without enough time for their spouses, we must find ways to challenge this status quo. We need to discover new and better ways of handling secret struggles, human needs and intimate relationships. Establishing a group for ministerial accountability is easy. Creating healthy environments which invite vulnerability is difficult.

Only 22% of pastors have meaningful same sex friendships. Spouse complaints about ministry husbands not being home are legendary. Easy fixes do not exist. Deep and systemic change in Church and ministry culture is required. We must create safe and nurturing environments for quality relationships to blossom and we must provide ministry staff the time and money to engage in such relationships. Secrets surface in safe and inviting relationships. Before you read some ideas of mine please know to stimulate your thinking and create some interaction on this important issue, CRN will be sending a free book to the person with the simplest and most creative comment on this issue. The book is Rooted In God’s Love. Here are some suggestions which may head us in right direction:

  • Attend recovery groups like CODA and invite your church and ministry friends to go with you.
  • Encouraging ministry professionals among us to develop friendships with Christian leaders in other denominations or ministries. Cross denominational quality relationships are more likely to be safe places for our struggles.
    • These relationships are more often perceived as safe when confidentiality is important.
    • These relationships are not as filled with competition and in-house rivalry.
  • Funding cross denominational peer relationship building among ministry staff.
  • Provide money as a matter of graceful care for the ministry professional and his spouse to see a Christian counselor without any strings attached (including having to report the reason for seeing the counselor). Normal expectations, complexities, competing priorities, relationship blind spots are all intensified by ministry demands.
  • Pursue and nurture the longings and well being of ministry spouses. Paying attention to what is really going on requires providing safe settings for ministry spouses to be heard, understood and heeded.
  • Encouraging the mentoring of ministry personnel by qualified mentors who are attuned to relationship issues and are able to delve below surface issues.
  • Secrets which surround Internet use are easily addressed by graceful computer monitoring policies.
  • Understanding and addressing the issues which surround holidays with extended families, adult children married or in college, and losses like deaths, divorces, business failures of family members is critical. Pastors’ hearts hurt too. Unattended losses foster secret acting out.
  • Ministry families do not have the option of normal Sabbath and weekend rhythms. Sundays out of the pulpit and away from the ministry load to do whatever the family chooses at least once a quarter create relationship check points which constantly staying in the saddle does not provide.

Thinking conceptually regarding this issue is easier than being concrete and specific. Honestly, in some ways I can see the big picture but I am grabbing at straws. My life and ministry when I served in local churches was fraught with my dysfunction. Some of the things I suggest above we practiced. Time off each quarter, attending recovery groups, getting help from counselors and having a limited number of peer relationships are among those we practiced. Help! If you are a lay or ministry person we want to hear your heart. If you disagree with this article, let us know. Comment, think, pray, and be creative with your guidance and ideas. What do you suggest? Would you rather just have accountability group meetings? What actually works for you? What do you think might work? Will anything work? Take a stab at that free book! Make a suggestion now.


  1. says

    In summary, i think that what Dave Ward wrote was spot on, however I would add one thing to that. The internet is the #1 stumbling block for people, and there are some things we can and should be doing to specifically address it. Church leaders should be given for free and required to use internet filtering and reporting at their homes and at church. Check out http://www.covenanteyes.com . There are other services out there too, but that one offers both reporting and filtering. I think if every church leader knew that their reports would be seen by anyone who wanted to see them, there would be much less stumbling. The thing is that the internet is very good about drawing people into deeper and deeper evil – its designed to be that way. So its not like just being holy will work, you can still get exposed to stuff even on your holiest day. It needs to be cleaned!

    anyway, my 2 cents.

  2. says

    What a relief to read another article willing to say that “accountability doesn’t work!”

    You are right… it is the *truth* that sets us free (John 8:32), not accountability. In whatever measure that accountability works, it works because we are too embarrassed to have to admit to others that we “failed again.” In other words, it’s really only an attempt to employ the motivation of “the fear of man” to impact our behavior. But the fear of man is a snare… it’s a bondage all of its own. Using one bondage in the attempt to overcome another bondage is bound to fail.

    After attempting (and failing with) all the other strategies people suggest, I and several other pastor friends have found permanent freedom from pornography through the truth.

    I wrote a story called “The Chain” in my gratitude for what God did in my life, and it is posted on a site called My Chains Are Gone. My name above should link to the site. If you or someone you know is struggling with porn, please take the time to read the site or pass it on. There is no cost or any requests for money. God’s truth is free to us all.

    By HIS Grace,

    Pastor Ed

  3. Dave Ward says

    As a former pastor, a professor who teaches preaching, and a Christian I was very happy to find this post.

    As to your question, when I went through my own recovery process I memorized a phrase that seemed to help me “I am only as accountable as I want to be.” The problem with accountability groups is they externalize the accountability that can only come from internal commitments.

    Here is my simple solution:
    1. Have every pastor design their own covenant of honesty, sign it, give it to the board and their spouse (if they have one)
    2. Give every pastor a monthly counseling budget with only one string: they have to use it and share who they are seeing. If they do not, some other monetary consequence should be in place. Preventative grace trumps restorative grace.
    3. Give every pastor a budget for one paid retreat per year for spiritual renewal. It should cover the cost for a five day trip including cross-country travel, high end accommodations, top level teaching, and recreational activity. Requiring a summary of activity is appropriate
    4. Give every pastor one extra day off a month for prayer retreat
    5. Require pastors to be in a support group of other pastors that meets at least once a month during office hours. This could be attached to some monetary reward (Christmas bonus for example)
    6. Have a publicly announced off-call day for every pastor of the church. Days off only count if emergencies don’t count. Some other person should cover emergencies on…

  4. Dale W says

    Thanks so much David. I read your testimony and am praying for the success of your endeavor. Please keep me posted.

  5. Dale W says

    Well said, Pastor Al. Would love to chat sometime. It seems you have hooked up with some serious wisdom along the way.

  6. says

    Finally, someone has taken a more realistic look at what will actually help a pastor. As a Christian counselor/pastor, I have found that accountability groups do not work just as the article has stated. It is difficult to see (after several months of work) the accountability group fall apart and the troubled minister subjected to even more shame. Pretending that the group is working while continuing the behavior in secret is even more destructive that the initial exposure of the sin. And the LAST place that fallen ministers want to air their sin is in the presence of other community pastors where they feel as though they are under tremendous judgment.
    The expectations and responsibilities of ministers go too far beyond those of any other professional position. It’s almost as if churches force pastors into isolation and pretentiousness and then throw them to the wolves when they fall.
    As a pastor who has experienced the struggles, trials, rejection and heartache, I pray for my brothers in ministry! Thanks for a very realistic and compassionate look at our world.

  7. says

    Dale –

    I have enjoyed this thread. Thanks for creating it. I appreciate all that is being said here. Once you read my testimony, you will understand the impact such insights may have on me.

    David R. Thayer

  8. Liz says

    I do think a counselor being available is a tremendous asset to a pastor. Both my husband and I have received counsel since his secrets became known to me 2.5 years ago. It has been more than helpful; it has saved our marriage and our ministry. The fear of confidentiality is larger than life. The cost of counsel is very impacting. This as a perk to ministry could conceivable save ministry marriages and pastors’ private hellholes. We don’t have this at our church; but I wish we did. We would not have made it this far without counsel. Also, Dale W. is a wonderful help but, of course, is only one person, trying to stop a flood of crude. Thank you, Dale, for being there for me long enough for me to not QUIT!

  9. Dale W says

    Thanks big time Bill for your comment. I am thrilled you are out there in the trenches helping leaders connect and heal. May you know lots of success in creating models of vulnerability and honest with pastors. Keep us posted as we would love to be supportive of what works. Kudos to you and those you serve. If we are ever able to give your wagon a push let us know

  10. says

    As a psychologist and leadership coach, I have tried to facilitate greater connection and sharing between pastors for many years. This has proved to be more of a challenge than I expected. Most pastors and ministry leaders appear to be very cautious of opening themselves to the possibility of church discipline, loss of respect, or betrayal.

    The idea of cross-denominational groups does seem to be a good one. I recently formed a group called the Gateway Christian Leadership Alliance here in Saint Louis, MO. About 8 pastors from several different denominations (or non-denominations) who support my ministry attended the first meeting.

    My plan is to have quarterly meetings, share a “leadership nugent” teaching, encourage authenticity, pray for one another, and allow trust and community to build. Looking at ways we can collaborate to reach out to unchurched people or impact our area should provide cohesiveness and a sense of mission.

    Please pray that God uses this group to strength his shepherds and heal our tendency towards isolation and secrecy.

  11. Dale W says

    Thanks so much Karen. I am sorry for your pain. I pray the separation will produce the best possible end for you folks. I will be praying for you. The shame which drives us to engage in cycles of compulsive sexuality or even chemical dependency is heightened by the “strings attached” approach and gives the addiction more power. The more strings, the more likely the relapse. Grace is needed. When a Board takes on the shame of a pastor who has engaged in something like porn strings come out every pocket!

    If we are ever able to give you or your husband’s wagon a push let us know.

  12. Dale W says

    Thanks for the comment, Mike. Too often we preach, teach and minister as if all souls were created with equal capacity to respond to the Father and as if every soul had the same life experiences. We too often assume the call or even salvation does some kind of magic. The emphasis of Scripture is not change in a moment but a process of change over time which takes time.

  13. Dale W says

    A Board expecting a pastor to take the time to create same sex friendships, to take time with his family and do other self care things makes sense as long as there is the understanding this is part of his ministry. Too often we want the pastor to develop a quality relationship with his wife to do the same with same sex friendships and we also expect him to work every weekend, put in 70 hours a week and build the quality relationships when he doesn’t have the gas money to go on a date with his spouse.

    Pastors are of course accountable to their Boards and ought to be hard working and competent, improving their skills and relationships and Boards MUST realize pastors need the time and money to do relax, to be free from the stress of being “on” every weekend, etc. A pastors ministry is his person. He must take time for and save some of his spirituality for himself. Thanks for the comment.

  14. says


    Great article. Thought provoking and a call to action.

    My thought on how to help pastors does have some accountability and relates to the performance evaluation process used by the board or deacons or group of key lay leaders like a personnel committee.

    Given the issues mentioned above, wouldn’t there be a benefit in having the board or other leadership expect the pastor to build some same-sex friendships and what about asking the spouse how things are going (not from a prying perspective) but from the perspective that if time is not being appropriately spent or relationships being developed, a board should be able to spot the “leading indicator” and perhaps step up pressure without having any knowledge of any specific sin.

    My doctor cares about my exercise, diet and social patterns. As my caregiver, I give him permission to ask. What about the same being granted by pastors to their governing bodies. Individually we are each weak. Together and in love and grace we are strong.

  15. Rev. Stephen Agbemavi says

    I have agreed about all that you have said but the accountability group meetings will work for me.Many pastors need financial push in their various ministries .If the ycan get some groups that can takecare of those needs for them they can open up to the accountability groups .Because they think that they have anyone to help them that they do not want open their problem doors to anybody.

  16. Mike K. says

    Amen to this truth from your article…”Answering the call of God does not make anyone immune to family of origin dysfunction, prepare anyone to manage competing and complex demands on family life or to deal effectively with personal struggles.”

    Train denominational leaders to understand this very important truth when they interview and authentically support young men/women entiering the ministry.

  17. Karen Martin says

    Dear CRN, This article begins to get at the heart of what I’ve struggled with for so long and part of it being the unhealthy response of the church. My husband and I have been separated for two years. I discovered he was viewing porn on the church computer. We told the Elders but there were too many strings attatched with their “help”. It’s a long story but I want you to know that your article is like a breath of fresh air. Thank you and keep writing…and listening. Karen Martin

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