Okay, let’s rethink the question a little bit, then we can tackle the issue. Forced accountability is less like having a spiritual coach and more like having a probation officer. Since most group members aren’t working hard to avoid incarceration, making group members accountable is a failed enterprise. The title of that book would be How to Lose Friends and Frustrate People. I don’t think that’s what you have in mind. Here are some things to consider in developing group member accountability:
1. Why do you feel your group members need accountability?
Either accountability works well for you, or you’ve heard that it does. Whether you’re starting a new habit or forsaking a bad habit, the help and encouragement of another believer can be a great support and motivator. If your group members are asking for accountability, that is a beautiful thing. If you think your group members need accountability that they’re not currently seeking, well, that’s a whole other deal. Proceed with caution, unless you are exercising your gift of martyrdom on this one.
Think about what led you to see accountability was a good thing for you. More than likely, this was a process for you. It wasn’t a gut reaction. You thought about how accountability could help you. You thought about what would work for you. You thought about who would coach you. It took a little time. Your group members probably aren’t there yet.
Give them insights into how accountability has helped you before you pop the question. Just casually bring up accountability during the group meeting. You might even start with a praise during the group’s worship or prayer time, “I am thankful for my accountability partner. This relationship has really (helped me maintain a consistent quiet time or kept me in the gym or whatever it was).” You have to show them on the value of accountability.
“But this will be good for them. We need to just get started.” Imposing accountability on unwilling group members will backfire in a big way. It will be about as popular as the brussel sprouts you serve instead of brownies at your next meeting. Your group members want to grow spiritually. You have found a tool that will help them get there. Now, you have to give them the “why” and not just impose the “what.”
2. What accountability is your group open to?
Every believer is at a different place in their spiritual journey. In fact, no two believers walk identical paths. While Jesus is the only way to Heaven, each person’s background, wounds, victories, personality, gifts and passions are very different. What works for one will not necessarily work as well for everyone else. One size does not fit all.
The only accountability that works is the accountability that your group members actually want. They may very well want to forsake a bad habit or develop a good one. Accountability may be the perfect tool to get them there … but only if they ask for it.
Once your group members have bought into the concept of accountability, there is nothing wrong with asking the group members what they would like accountability for.
3. What accountability has the group agreed to?
Your group has already agreed to some things that require accountability. Your small group agreement outlines each member’s responsibility to the group. If your agreement puts responsibility on your members to let the group know when they can’t make a meeting, then they have consented to accountability in that area. The same with the other areas of agreement: confidentiality, active listening, etc. If someone violates something in the group agreement, then you should definitely ask them about why they broke one of the ground rules for the group.
Accountability That Works
Some accountability comes across as coaching and encouraging. Other efforts at accountability seem condescending and defeating. Here are some things to consider in setting up accountability with others:
1. How does accountability work?
Accountability fails when it’s conducted by an accountant. “Your goal was to exercise four times last week, but you only exercised two times. Now you need to repent and pledge to do better next week.” Yikes! Sounds like they’ll be skipping the next accountability meeting, too.
The Bible tells us that “love keeps no record of wrongs” (1 Corinthians 13:5). If the purpose of accountability is to confront the person with their failures, it’s a failure. The nature of accountability can’t be merely a ledger recording wins and loses.
Accountability works when it’s more like coaching and less scorekeeping. If the member only got two workouts in this week, then the response should be, “Good, you got two in. What kept you from doing all four? How did you feel after your workouts? How did you feel when you skipped your workout? How can I help you this next week?” What are the reasons behind the success or failure? What motivates them? What demotivates them?
Accountability partners need to know that you have their best interest at heart. Your prayers are significant. Your short voicemail messages or texts or tweets can encourage them daily. But encouragement should be given in appropriate doses; otherwise it can seem like a backhanded rebuke.
2. Who should provide accountability?
As the group leader, you should have an accountability partner, especially if you are advocating accountability. But the group leader shouldn’t have more than a couple accountability relationships himself. “But the group has never done this. What if they don’t do it right?” Okay, Moses, read Exodus 18 and take a breath.
The group leader can coach the group on providing and receiving accountability. But there is no way to maintain an accountability relationship with every person in your group, and it’s not healthy either. Ideally, group members should be matched with someone who has a measure of victory in the area they are holding another accountable for. This just makes sense. Who do you want coaching you on weight loss—the guy who lost 80 pounds in the last year or the guy who would like to? You want the guy who has succeeded.
If someone wants to get up at 5:30 every morning to start a quiet time, they need someone who is up at that hour to give them a wake-up call for a while. (By the way, 5:30 pm is just as spiritual as 5:30 am—just sayin’.)
Your group might not even want to use the term “accountability partner.” For several years, my group had “prayer partners.” Two of us got together every other week to pray for each other. There was some checking in involved in the process, but it didn’t feel like a pop quiz.
Done the right way, accountability can be a good tool to strengthen your group and deepen their relationships with each other and with God. As long as you keep the “why” ahead of the “what,” your group could be well served with this.