Let me tell you a secret.
I hate accountability groups.
Oh, I know I shouldn’t say that.
I know they’re a valued part of many churches and youth groups, a way to keep wayward teens accountable for their actions.
I know that as a youth pastor, I’m supposed to love them.
But I don’t.
Instead, I despise them because of how unhealthy they usually are.
Consider, for a moment, the set of questions that most accountability groups for teenage boys use:
1) How often have you looked at porn this week?
2) How often have you masturbated?
3) When did you lust after someone this week?
4) Have you gone farther than you should have with your girlfriend?
5) How else have you sinned this week?
How can such questions do anything other than make someone feel like a failure?
How can such questions do anything other than make someone feel guilty or inadequate?
Rather than help students turn their eyes to Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, such questions instead turn our attention inward, towards ourselves and our sin. Rather than equip us to do God’s kingdom work in community with others, such questions make us retreat into ourselves, paralyzed by guilt and shame.
Ironically, this is, I think, the opposite of what we intend when we, as youth workers, establish accountability groups in the first place.
After all, being accountable means being responsible to someone for some action. Such a definition actually implies community and dependence on one another, two things that are vitally important to the formation of a consequential faith. Knowing this, recently I began to rethink accountability groups.
This summer, my student leaders and I read and discussed Help! I’m a Student Leader by Doug Fields. In this book, Doug says, “One of the best ways not to lose focus on God is to ask another leader to hold you accountable. Invite that person to ask you tough questions about your heart’s condition and your spiritual growth.”
Despite my negative bias toward accountability groups, I wanted to challenge my student leaders to grow in both their faith and community. As a result, we discussed the idea of accountability groups. We wrestled with how asking one another tough questions might challenge us to grow as leaders and followers of Jesus. We then discussed this question, “In order to help each other be the best, most effective leaders possible, what questions might it be good for us to ask one other about both our role as leaders and our spiritual growth?”
Together, my leaders then came up with a new list of accountability questions:
1) How did you successfully welcome people into our youth ministry this week?
2) What did you specifically contribute to our youth ministry this week?
3) What are you still thinking about from our last youth ministry gathering? How is that impacting your faith and life?
4) What are you doing on your own to grow closer to Jesus? What progress have you made on the spiritual goal you set this summer?
Unlike your typical set of accountability questions, these focus not on our failures, but on Jesus. They also focus on what we’re doing well in our faith journeys rather than on what we’re doing wrong. As a result, they simultaneously encourage students while also challenging them to grow in their faith. This, in turn, binds them together and provokes them “to love and good deeds.”
That’s an accountability group that even I can get behind.
Jen Bradbury has been in youth ministry for 11 years. She’s the youth director at Faith Evangelical Lutheran Church in Glen Ellyn, IL. Her writing has appeared in YouthWorker Journal, The Christian Century, and Immerse. She blogs at ymjen.com