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.