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The Power of Accountability by Tony Stoltzfus

Nov 14th, 2011 | By | Category: Featured Content, Transformational Coaching

It’s 11:00 p.m., you just got back from another long day of ministry two time zones away from home, and you’re sitting alone on your hotel bed, exhausted. Tomorrow you fly back home through O’Hare, but right now all you want is to relax for a half an hour or so before bed. As you’re flipping through the channels trying to find ESPN Sports Center, there right in front of your eyes is a graphic, X-rated sex scene.

Temptation is always the worst in that kind of situation. Alone, tired, far from home and outside your normal routines, your defenses are down. It would be an easy place to slide back down the hill from a place of moral purity.

Of course, we aren’t alone. The Holy Spirit is right there in the room. But in the seeming privacy of our thought life, it is awfully easy to rationalize away the invisible presence of God. We block Him out of our minds, or say we’ll repent later, or just give in on the pretense that we won’t get caught. What makes it possible for us to sin like this is not that God is any more distant than usual, but that people are. We’d never watch that movie with our spouse, or with a buddy from church, or at home where the kids might wander into the room. The difference is that we’re by ourselves.

And therein lies the cure to overcoming a clinging private sin: voluntarily remove the veil of secrecy surrounding it. A besetting sin is like a mushroom that takes root and grows only in the darkness. The solution is to turn on the lights. When you’re tempted to rationalize away the presence of a God whom you can’t see, bring in a friend you can see.

Being accountable is voluntarily asking to be held responsible to live up to a chosen standard. In spiritual terms, accountability is standing in for God. The company of a brother or sister in Christ makes the invisible presence of God real and undeniable at the point where we’d most like to ignore it. For you, lust may not be the issue: it could be late night trips to the refrigerator, or skipping your morning run, or avoiding conflict, or wasting an hour on the internet when you’re supposed to be working. We all have tough hills to climb, and alone we don’t have the resources to live the life God created us for. But if you’re accountable, you’re not alone.

When I know my coach is going to ask me next week about my conduct, I am much more successful at sticking to my standards. His presence in the situation provides the extra energy I need to make the change. The knowledge that I’m accountable keeps me focused on the goal, so I’m less likely to forget it or rationalize it away. And when I do fail, accountability helps me quickly get back up and try again.

Because accountability is standing in for God, the way you hold your clients accountable literally gives them a picture of who God is. Accountability that is gentle but firm, energizing and encouraging draws us closer to God. On the other hand, if we try to motivate people through fear, shame or guilt, we are standing in for God but acting like the devil. (“There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and he who fears is not perfected in love” I John 4:18.) Many Christians have soured on accountability due to this kind of negative modeling. Let’s reexamine what makes for healthy and unhealthy accountability.

Unhealthy Accountability

Years ago my wife and I ran a small mentoring program for dating couples in our church. The congregation had been going through some major leadership changes, so we ran the classes for about two years with virtually no oversight from the church. Finally, a new staff person was hired for that area, and in due course she requested a meeting.

After a few pleasantries, she began the meeting by saying, “Let’s look at everything you are doing in this course, and then we’ll decide what has to change and what you can keep.”

That immediately got my hackles up. “Wait a minute,” I thought. “We’ve been doing this successfully without any oversight for two whole years, and now in the first meeting you want to come in and tell us what to do?” We expected to be honored for serving faithfully without any help, and instead we felt we were under suspicion before we’d even said a word.

Things went downhill from there. She kept asking pointed questions about what we were doing. We felt that she didn’t know what she was talking about and got defensive, and she took our defensiveness as rebellion and used her authority position to pin us to the wall. At the end of the meeting, I finally said, “If you want to make all the decisions about this, then you go ahead and run it yourself, because I don’t have any interest in functioning this way.” She replied, “Well, if that’s your position, I’m going to have to take this to the elders and recommend they shut it down.”

In one of those blissful surprises that the Lord manufactures every so often, her husband received an attractive job offer and she quit and moved away before things ever came to a head. We went back to being unsupervised and continued to run the program very fruitfully.

I was a person who believed in and wanted accountability, but her approach rubbed me completely the wrong way. Instead of bringing me into greater alignment and partnership with the church, it pushed me away. Suspicious from the start, it was more concerned that things were done “right” than it was about me as a person. Instead of energizing me for ministry it made me want to give up. That’s not healthy accountability.

Healthy Accountability

When accountability is working properly, it energizes and motivates us for change instead of making us feel watched or controlled. Accountability is not meting out punishment for wrong behavior. It’s not someone making you feel shamed or guilty when you blow it. In fact, the focus of accountability isn’t on failure, but on success. Accountability is a pro-active, voluntary openness that is meant to pre-empt wrong behavior. The purpose of accountability is to supply energy for change.

A number of years ago I went on a diet and lost quite a bit of weight. One of the keys to my success was a friend who called me every week for six months to ask me how I was doing. There were many times when I would have given up on my own, but I knew Eric was going to call, so I stuck it out. Our accountability relationship was built around seven principles that made it tremendously life giving:

  1. Voluntary
    I asked to be accountable, instead of being pushed into it against my will. The person being held accountable initiates healthy accountability.
  2. Positive
    Eric believed I could change, and he was always there to cheer me on. I drew strength from that. Trying to motivate with negative emotions like guilt or shame is counterproductive in the long run.
  3. Pre-emptive
    Eric’s purpose in calling was not to reprimand me when I failed, but to help me succeed. Accountability is primarily proactive, not reactive. It is meant to pre-empt wrong behavior rather than punishing it.
  4. Consistent
    Eric and I talked every week. Consistent accountability is particularly vital in habit change, where if you slip up you start sliding back down the hill and may have to start over.
  5. Honest
    Effective accountability doesn’t let you slide by. It calls for honest, authentic answers.
  6. Specific
    Effective accountability is specific and to the point: “Did you stick to your diet this week? How much weight did you lose?”
  7. Energizing
    I was more focused and motivated because I was accountable. It gave me the energy to keep going for the long haul. Eric’s calls felt like a gift and not a weight.

If you’ve never experienced the benefits of accountability, give it a try. If you are one of the ones who have soured on accountability due to negative modeling, give it a fresh look.  Find a coach or friend who models the seven principles of healthy accountability, and experience fresh motivation and energy for change in your life.

Tony Stoltzfus is a master coach, author and coach trainer.  More of his writings on the disciplines, skills and heart of a Christian coach can be found in his book, Leadership Coaching.

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