An Essential Ingredient for Ministry Leaders

Hillsong’s Carl Lentz joins a long list of well-known Christian leaders who have been asked to step down after moral failure. In fact, that list is beginning to read like a Who’s Who of 21st-century pastors. Given the seductive nature of power and the many pressures of ministerial work, perhaps this should surprise no one. However, moral failure is not inevitable—particularly if multiple practices and safeguards are in place. Perhaps the most significant deterrent is personal and corporate accountability.

According to Bay Area pastor Brad Wong, “Within Christian settings, accountability is an overused word and an underutilized concept.” Wong refers to accountability as “proactive honesty.” Where confession is an after-the-fact admission of wrongdoing (Jas 5:16), accountability aims to prevent us from failing in the first place.

Being proactively honest means that whenever we are tempted to sin or wherever we are currently sinning (including the easy-to-hide sins of the heart such as greed, jealousy, or harshness), we initiate conversations with trusted friends or co-workers. This should include a detailed confession of past failures. Such proactive honesty deals a death blow to our pride which, according to Proverbs, is often a formidable impediment to health and holiness (Prov 11:2, 16:18).

The Risk of Honesty

Choosing to be accountable can be agonizingly difficult, particularly in our current culture that deems image and popularity as the hallmarks of success. From time to time, most of us will feel the gravitational pull of pleasing people over pleasing God. If we fail to resist this, we may end up creating and then propping up a false persona—the antithesis of what our family and congregants actually need from us. Pastors and leaders who choose to conceal angry outbursts or unhappy marriages because of fears of being judged or disciplined will not only put themselves in danger, they will potentially jeopardize their families and the relational integrity of their church, ministries, and organizations. That’s hardly worth a trending Tweet. Choosing to be accountable can be agonizingly difficult, particularly in our current culture that deems image and popularity as the hallmarks of success. Click To Tweet

As leaders, we obviously need to exhibit discernment regarding what we share and with whom. Revealing a present-tense struggle with pornography or substance abuse from the pulpit may not be wise, but if your elders or staff are not aware of your issues, chances are that you’re heading into the danger zone.

Honesty is risky. We can’t control how others will respond to us. However, never admitting failures, weaknesses, or places of need may adversely affect you, your family, and your congregation in a variety of ways. If we as leaders don’t model this kind of humility, others won’t sense the permission to admit their struggles or to get help when they need it. The church is composed of broken men and women who need various forms of help and support. But if on the surface it appears that all of the marriages in your congregation are doing remarkably well, that’s probably an indication that couples may feel uncertain about whether it’s acceptable to admit that they’re struggling. If the recovering addicts are not given a clear pathway toward sobriety, they may relapse—or go elsewhere for support. If those wrestling with pornography, greed, or any other area of moral struggle have no models for how to confess and share, then they may continue to suffer in isolation and silence.

Furthermore, choosing not to practice accountability will most likely short-circuit your own growth and healing. We have to think about proactive honesty in a holistic fashion rather than limiting it to the admission of overt sins. For example, it should include a willingness to disclose that you and your spouse have been avoiding each other for months or that you’re routinely discouraged on Monday mornings.

Succeeding in ministry cannot be based on performance; it’s a deeply relational vocation. In fact, we cannot minister well for the long haul without being known by and receiving deeply from others. In moments or seasons of vulnerability, if we can reach out for help rather than assuming we can—or should—handle it alone, we’ll discover that when our friends and co-laborers love us even after becoming aware of our faults, we can trust that their love is genuine. That kind of love is not only restorative: it helps to prevent future moral failures.

Corporate Accountability

Broken human beings create broken systems. That’s part of why accountability needs to be practiced both individually and corporately. When the truth about a pastor’s moral failure finally comes to light, we typically discover that corrupt behavior has been going on for years. No one wakes up one morning and decides, “You know, I feel like embezzling church funds or having an affair or firing all the dissenting voices today.” We cross the line of blatant immorality only after making thousands of incremental steps in that direction. In the wake of such failures, marriages are torn apart, and many disillusioned churchgoers leave the church or worse, leave the faith.

A consistent pattern often emerges in these situations: there were people who saw or perceived that something was amiss and either opted to collude with the leader (for various reasons, but mostly connected to maintaining their status), lacked the courage to speak up, or occasionally, spoke up and then were punished for it. How many large-scale failures might be thwarted if more of us commit to lovingly confronting and holding one another accountable? How many large-scale failures might be thwarted if more of us commit to lovingly confronting and holding one another accountable? Click To Tweet

Accountability on a corporate level can be achieved through various practices including, as previously mentioned, regular confession. For staff and leaders to feel safe confessing, forgiveness must be extended and confidentiality upheld. Creating safe places to confess and practice confidentiality does not exclude reality consequences. Accountability always moves toward restoration by asking, “What do I need to do to make things right?”

When someone has caused physical injury or broken the law (e.g., incest or misappropriation of funds), authorities should be notified. In less severe cases, there should be a clear process in place for the leader to step down, stay in close connection to others, and receive appropriate support. Restoration should never be rushed. Assuming two months of therapy is sufficient after a pastor discloses an affair or an ongoing addiction is short-sighted and dangerous. It also establishes an unrealistic precedent for others.

Accountability should be seen as an essential ingredient of leadership. It must become a form of “internalized ownership,” according to Wong, “rather than an external pressure” that we yield to in order to placate others. Churches led by men and women who practice this kind of proactive, honest accountability create trustworthy communities where our co-workers and congregants can find support and healing as they move toward Christ. Now more than ever, we desperately need such leadership.