Word on the street is that accountability is the holy grail of influence.

  • Want people to have a quiet time every day? Hold them accountable.
  • Want guys to stop watching porn? Hold them accountable.
  • Want your new program to be implemented with precision and effectiveness? Build in accountability.
  • If you want groups to invite every member and every prospect to every fellowship every month, hold them accountable.

But, accountability has a problem–a theological one. If not implemented with great care, it can turn into law. We can use a method (discipleship by rule-keeping) that has a long history of not working. The Bible teaches that kindness leads toward repentance (Romans 2.4). Accountability is not always kind. We believe people are changed by grace, not by rules. What place does accountability have? How do we implement accountability without becoming rulish?

I had a man who discipled me who said, “There is more to discipleship than, ‘I have my verses down; do you have yours?'” Indeed. We don’t see this kind of thing too much in the life of Jesus, although, he did debrief his disciples after they went out on mission.  How do we use the power of accountability while avoiding its pitfalls?

One place accountability has demonstrated success is in weight loss programs such as Weight Watchers. Most participants would agree that the benefit was in the accountability more than the specific program of counting points instead of calories. Something about standing on that scale in front of all those people is very motivating.

It does raise the question–is it the accountability or is it the social proof? (See www.joshhunt.com/Influence7.htm ) Imagine you got on the scale privately before a boss figure and reported you weight gain or loss, would that have the same effect?

My own discipleship has been greatly helped through accountability. Various discipleship groups over the years have held me accountable for key disciplines such as quiet time and scripture memory.  I thought I was doing pretty well until I submitted to accountability. I learned there is a lot of truth in the old adage, “Whatever gets measured gets done.” I learned something about myself. I fooled myself into believing I was having a quiet time every day, when, in fact, I was having a quiet time about half the time. There may be more to discipleship than, “I have my verses down, do you have yours?” but there is seldom less.

Disciples are rarely made without accountability.

Accountability is not always to someone else. I found considerable accountability when I bought my first One Year Bible a few years ago.(Check out Group’s God Sightings version and small group help.)  Holding myself accountable to myself for keeping on schedule really helped me to be consistent in my time with God. No one was checking up on me. But, if I opened up my Bible and the last time I read was 4 days ago, I knew I needed to do better.

Accountability can be helpful, even necessary. But, it can also go wrong–very wrong. It can degenerate into an ugly, controlling, manipulating relationship that is the very opposite of the grace-filled communities we want to create. How do we employ the strength of accountability while avoiding its pitfalls? Here are five ideas.


Motive is everything.

There is a dark, sinful side of all of us that wants to control. We want to “lord it over.” (Matthew 10.25) We want to be God. I not only want to be God, I want you to like it! This is the part of us that we must daily repent of. This is the part of us that we must turn from. This is the part of us that we must renounce. This part of us can be incited to sin under the good banner of accountability.

“I am not manipulating, I am just holding them accountable.”

“This isn’t controlling; everyone needs accountability.”

Hogwash. Accountability can be a thin veneer covering a desire to lord it over. It is sinful to the one desiring to control and damaging to the one he seeks to control.

The key question is motive. What is your goal? Do you want to help them, or, do you want to get them to do what you want them to do. Do you want their good or your benefit? Do they have a choice in this accountability? This question leads nicely to the next key point.

One caveat: I am thinking of accountability in volunteer settings such as a church. In the military or in the workplace things might be different.

Accountability must be voluntary

You will sometimes hear someone say, “I am going to hold you accountable for that.” From where I sit, unless he is your boss or your C.O. this is not appropriate. Accountability should be voluntary. If it is not voluntary, it is lording it over.

Voluntary means I can opt in and I can opt out. You hold me accountable at my pleasure. If it doesn’t please me any more, I can drop out of the group. No harm no foul.

This does raise an interesting question. How much authority does God give to a pastor? We have all seen examples of abuse. Still, consider Hebrews 13:17 (NIV) “Obey your leaders and submit to their authority. They keep watch over you as men who must give an account. Obey them so that their work will be a joy, not a burden, for that would be of no advantage to you.”

How many times have you heard someone say, “I am doing this out of obedience to my pastor”?

This sounds like a Good Question that would Have Groups Talking, but it is a little off-topic.  Let’s move on.

Lite Accountability

I make an argument in the Disciplemaking Teachers seminar that some lite  accountability is appropriate in open groups. If you use Good Questions That Have Groups Talking you see these pretty regularly. Here are some examples. In a group, you might ask:

  • How are you doing these days in terms of your time alone with God?
  • When was the last time you had the opportunity to tell someone how much you love being a Christian?
  • How did you come to learn your spiritual gifts and do you put them to use at this stage in life?

When you ask this kind of question, it is always a good idea to lead by example. Follow up by saying, “For example, on Tuesday I read this passage and here is what it meant to me. What have you been reading and what has it meant to you?

More rewards than punishment

Classically, there are two ways to influence: carrot and stick. (Some modern research suggests we rethink some of assumptions about this; we will get into that in the next article.)

My point here is only that we should have more carrot than stick. More “atta boys” than “you can do better.” The ratio ought to be about five to one. Catch them doing something right–even if it is approximately right–and you will see more of that behavior.

My wife told me about a group she was in once. One of the ladies is habitually negative. Everyone feels for her husband who has to put up with her whining and complaining. Recently, Mary (not her real name) shared with the group, “My husband made me dinner but he didn’t do the dishes. I started to complain but I decided to just be nice and thank him for dinner and leave it at that.” The group practically hired a marching band when Mary shared this. “That is fantastic!” “Good for you!” “I bet he really appreciated that!”

In his excellent book, Winning with Accountability, Henry Evans  posses this important question. “Picture yourself in a meeting. Suppose there are a dozen people seated around the table and some one says, ‘I am going to hold you accountable for what we have discussed.’ What words or feelings immediately com to your mind?”

I am  guessing the words are not, “Oh boy!” That is because accountability has come to have a very negative connotation. To counteract that, we need to have way more compliments that criticism–way more carrots than stick.

Whatever gets rewarded gets done. Whatever you want more of, compliment.

Accountability needs to lead to autonomy

It is like parenting. We don’t want to parent forever. We want to grow kids up to be all on their own.

This is why short-term accountability groups are such a great idea. It allows for voluntary accountability with out building a permanent paternal relationship.

Ultimately we want to create people who have quiet times on their own, minister without supervision, and serve without being asked.

External motivation (accountability) must lead to intrinsic motivation.