accountability

This is my fourth post on biblical polity contending for a plurality of elders. I’ve already addressed the arguments from the Bible, health, and responsibility for our church having a plurality of elders. I believe the need for pastoral accountability is a significant reason for embracing a plurality of elders at Wilkesboro Baptist Church. In some ways, this is both the hardest and easiest post to write.

I’ve written previously on accountability being too often missed in the lives of Christians and leaders. In truth, God demands holiness and righteousness from each follower of Jesus. Our sanctification through Jesus and his gospel and our participation in obedience is God’s will for our lives (see 1 Thessalonians 4:3). Part of God’s plan for sanctification in the life of the believer is the community of faith.

We need each other to encourage, inspire, comfort, and call out. We need each other for accountability. I have a great pastor friend of many years. We talk regularly, pray for one another, ask each other hard questions, and confess failings to one another. I’m deeply grateful for him. But he and I have recognized the need for accountability within our own community.

In our current church structure, regular accountability within our structure is a challenge. I had a conversation with a deacon at our church more than five years ago on this very topic. We were working through our staff evaluation process because he was serving as the personnel chairman. As we talked, I acknowledged this question, “Who holds me accountable?” As the supervisor of the staff, I hold the staff accountable. Positionally, it is not viable for my church staff to hold me accountable. Structurally, it is not viable for the deacons to hold me accountable. Truly, it is the congregation’s job to hold the pastor accountable. But accountability to the congregation is final and not personal or pastoral in nature. It would not be beneficial to confess my struggles regularly to the congregation nor expect the congregation I’m supposed to lead to hold me accountable in my job duties or my spiritual walk. In truth, I would expect the congregation at Wilkesboro Baptist to fire me if I failed to preach the Word or failed morally or ethically. The aim of regular accountability for spiritual health and pastoral leadership is to protect our pastors from those kinds of failures.

It is true that we have discipleship groups that provide functional and real accountability for church members. This is part of our mission. I will address the mission argument for a plurality of elders next week. And I lead a discipleship group that does offer some accountability. But the guys that I lead don’t regularly bear the weight of pastoring the church. There are some struggles I have and some stories I live that I cannot share with them.

A plurality of elders functioning biblically would become a mutual group of elders accountable to one another for our spiritual health.

In the model I am proposing for our church, the elders would function as the accountability structure for myself and the other elders. Here’s what that could look like:

  • We would know one another. Elders would meet together formally for prayer and to discuss spiritual and leadership issues. Informal meetings could consist of developing individual accountability partners from within the elder team.
  • We would care for one another. Elders would be responsible for each other’s spiritual health. We would expect to hear how our private devotions are going, about our times of prayer, our spiritual disciplines, our day of rest, our healthy boundaries, and our families.
  • We would question one another. Elders could ask any question at any time of any elder. The beauty of a plurality of elders is the mutual care and accountability shared. Look at any of the major failings of spiritual leaders over the last few years or decades. Most of these leaders were isolated. They did not have people who knew them (their struggles and souls) or who were aware of their temptations and their burdens. Isolation whether out of fear or out of being on a pedestal is unhealthy and unscriptural.
  • We would challenge one another. Elders should not be yes men. They should be prayerful, thoughtful men. An elder team should not set out to be contrarian, but it should set out to be thoughtful and honest. Real accountability cannot occur if there is an unwillingness to speak candidly.
  • We would pray for one another. Elders should care about the health of the church so much that they pray for each other. A church’s health is not singularly tied to its leaders. Thank heavens that the church is ruled by King Jesus, and many churches have overcome significant leadership failures (morally, ethically, or with regard to wisdom). But when a church’s leaders fail in one or other of these areas, the church body is most affected. So we would pray for one another to experience protection from the enemy and direction from the Holy Spirit.
  • We would bear one another’s burdens. Elders who share the responsibility of leadership, ministry, and soul care, will spread out the burden of ministry. This will provide better care for our congregation, but will also provide a true sense of care for one another. An elder team will give each of our elders (pastors) an opportunity to be shepherded as well.

There is a scriptural basis for this type of accountability. Paul tells Timothy in one of my favorite verses in all the Bible:

Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching. Persist in this, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers.

1 Timothy 4:16

Pastors and elders need to be attentive to what they believe and how the behave. Pastors and elders need to be attentive to their disciplines and to their doctrines. While I do my best to remember this verse, a team of elders holding each another mutually accountable is the most biblical model for being attentive one’s words and walk.

There is an experiential basis for this type of accountability. I wrote in the first post on this topic:

Too many churches crumble because of internal wars of preference and power. Too many churches falter because of an unwillingness to hold onto theological fidelity. Too many churches are crushed because of leadership failure rooted in pride, a desire for power, or immorality.

Biblical Polity, pt. 1

I could relate story after story of church difficulty. Some are caused by the power struggles and lack of spiritual maturity in the church. But many are caused by the lack of holiness in the life of the pastor.

  • There are the stories of pastors who have committed adultery, fraud, or abuse.
  • There are the pastors who have too much authority and give themselves a pay raise.
  • There are the pastors who are unwilling to address difficult issues in the church leaving the church in a mess for the next pastor.
  • There are the workaholic pastors who are married to the church leaving their congregation with a poor model to follow as husbands and fathers.
  • There are the pastors who are hiding closeted sins that eventually burst into familial chaos and church hurt.
  • There are the pastors whose stress and anger damage family and church.
  • There are the megachurch pastors whose stories of failure are known by many.
  • There are the smaller church pastors whose stories are only known locally.

In any of these cases, if elder accountability could have prevented the spiritual and church damage done, the cost of accountability would have been worth it.

It is my prayer and desire that a healthy and biblical model of church leadership will aid Wilkesboro Baptist Church in creating a structure of accountability for pastors and elders. For the health of the church and my own soul, this is the structure that I’m leading us to embrace.

Photo by Nick Fewings on Unsplash

According to research shared from Barna Group, 29% of pastors thought about quitting during the pandemic. Our local paper, the Wilkes Journal Patriot, ran a national article reflecting on the difficulty of the pandemic year for pastors, and how some had stepped away. Anecdotally, I know of several pastors who have stepped away from ministry of their own accord or were encouraged to leave by their churches. Also anecdotally, the associate pastor at our church shared that 5 of the 7 close ministry friends he has worked with over the past 20 years are no longer in vocational ministry.

Personally, the past 15 months have been challenging and at times overwhelming. I understand the sentiment and concerns for many of these pastors who have stepped away. But I long for something more. I long to finish well.

In this post, I’m writing to pastors and church leaders. My aim is to encourage you to apply some of the strategies for finishing well. In a subsequent post, I’m going to write to churches and church members encouraging you to support and encourage your pastors and ministers on their journey.

In his book, The Making of a Leader, J. Robert Clinton reflected on several barriers to leaders finishing well. They are:

  1. Finances-their use and abuse
  2. Power-its abuse
  3. Pride-which leads to downfall
  4. Sex-illicit relationships
  5. Family-critical issues
  6. Plateauing

The strategies below will not specifically address each of these barriers. But they will help us as leaders to build habits and character traits into our lives that will help us finish well.

No leader plans not to finish well, but leaders who finish well make plans to finish well.

Leaders don’t finish well accidentally.

Strategy #1. Create spiritual habits that keep you close to Jesus. If you examine the barriers above, many of them relate to sin issues. Fame, flirtations, and finances have been the downfall of many pastors/leaders better than us. Avoiding sin issues that disqualify leaders requires spiritual habits that keep us close to Jesus. We need to read and study the Bible devotionally, to pray dependently, to preach the gospel to ourselves regularly, and to confess and repent consistently. When we drift from Jesus, we will drift into sin.

Strategy #2. Keep your family a priority. Some ministers are forced to step away from ministry because ministry itself became an idol and destroyed their families. The leader who wants to finish well must prioritize healthy family relationships and interactions. Eat meals together. Talk. Have a family devotional time. Do fun things together. Go on holidays and vacations.

Strategy #3. Stay physically active and healthy. Vocational ministry is largely sedentary. Sitting, writing, reading, counseling, and relational interactions are not physically active parts of the job. Physical activity helps me sleep better and encourages better eating habits. Physical sloth encourages poor health habits. Take walks. Go running or hiking. Play an active sport. Physical activity is a natural stress relief and longterm health benefit.

Strategy #4. Never stop learning/growing. One of my favorite verses in the Bible is 2 Timothy 4:13: “When you come, bring the cloak that I left with Carpus at Troas, also the books, and above all the parchments.” Paul was in the latter days of his ministry, but he still wanted to read, study, learn, and grow. I was convicted by the reality referenced in Clinton’s book that many ministers don’t burn out of ministry, they plateau. Develop a reading and study plan. Write. Take a course. By continuing to grow and learn, we remain pliable and teachable as pastors/leaders.

Strategy #5. Develop friendships and accountability. I need people in my life to look me in the eye and call me out for folly or sin. God has graciously given me several people who will regularly speak truth into my life and ask the hard questions. If you don’t have these people in your life, pray that God will give them to you. Finishing well means that God has protected you from foolishness and sin, and often God protects us by using friends as our accountability. Get in a discipleship group. Find an accountability partner. Open up to your spouse.

Strategy #6. Ask for help. You can’t do everything you are responsible for. You need help whether that help comes in the form of staff members, assistants, or lay leaders. Pastors (leaders) that last are pastors (leaders) who don’t try to do it all. Delegate. Train others. Disciple fellow workers and leaders. Turn over key tasks and responsibilities. During the pandemic, our church has remained strong because we have so many key leaders (staff and lay) who have taken ownership of everything from technology to cleaning to other protocols.

Plan to finish well.

Photo by Joshua Hoehne on Unsplash