by Jason Sansbury
Want to do an interesting experiment? Create a Google news alert that will send you a message every time the words “youth pastor arrested” show up in a news story. I did this experiment for a few months before I had to turn the alert off. It is disheartening and saddening, and my heart is broken for everyone involved. But I learned something from it: I need accountability in my life.
For most of us “accountability” comes in the form of expectations in our jobs. The church staff, the church lay leaders, etc. are all supposed to be encouraging you and correcting you along the way. In healthy contexts, this is a great first level of accountability. In unhealthy contexts, this “accountability” can start and end with the same sentence: “We are moving in a different direction and we need you to turn in your keys.” This level of accountability is important and shouldn’t be ignored. In truth, it can mean the end of your position in ministry, whether a lay person or a paid church worker. But this kind of accountability shouldn’t be the only accountability in your life.
The second layer of accountability is hugely important and it starts with this premise: you invite accountability into your life. All of us need people in our lives who are holding us to high standards of character, morality, and spirituality. But in order to have all that, we need to be open to it and we need to be honest about ourselves.
Two years ago, I was in the place where I needed to find some healthy accountability for myself. For me, it also meant people away from the church I was working in. A group I had been in had slowly faded, so I looked to form a new group. Over a few weeks, what was a fuzzy group and idea began to solidify and take shape. So now, nearly every Tuesday morning, I meet with three other guys at 6:00 a.m. at a local coffeehouse for two hours or so. For us, this is what accountability looks like:
1. We mutually share burdens.
All of us are willing to be honest about our failings, our hopes, our struggles. Part of what makes it work is that we are together carrying each other and each of us is sharing.
2. We are committed to honesty.
Early on in our group, I struggled with wanting to put on my ministerial facade. But over time, as we all slowly learned to trust each other, it has gotten easier and easier for me to be honest about my struggles, my hurts, and to ask for accountability. Inviting others to hold me accountable has clarified what is important to me. (And this is something that we all have to work on. Periodically, we ask each other this question: “What have you not been honest with us about?” Because the slow fade is to drift away from authenticity and we want to lean into it.)
3. We are committed to each other.
Being in a relationship of accountability over time builds friendships. When I suddenly left a ministry position, one of my accountability partners showed up to pack my office. When one of us goes out of town, we all make sure their spouse has our numbers in case they need anything. All during the week, we send each other texts that encourage each other, support each other. (And make each other laugh. May the courts never subpoena these conversations.)
4. We are committed to growth.
Part of our group is reading, studying together. And part of our group is working hard to help each other grow, both professionally and personally. I recently had a situation where something I shared in a public way hurt the feelings of some of the people involved. I was able to go to my group and ask them to review the situation and all that I said, and help me navigate that situation; without their help, I am not sure who I could have trusted to give me the honest feedback I needed. Part of growth is asking people to tell us when we are wrong and asking for honest criticism.
You can easily be in ministry with no real accountability. Sometimes you can even do it well for a few years. But the truth is that we all need people to hold us accountable. Being in a relationship with accountability is built on honesty, sharing our burdens, and encouraging each other forward in growth.
None of the people who suddenly show up on the Google alert for “youth pastor arrested” ever thought they would wind up there. But a lack of accountability (and being open to accountability) nearly always plays a part. Do what you can to save yourself from a similar fate!
Jason Sansbury is the youth minister at Belle Meade United Methodist Church in Nashville, Tenn. Previously, Jason has served churches in Franklin, Tenn. and Georgia and has been on staff with YoungLife. Additionally, Jason was one of the founding partners of Crossed-Up Ministries, a ministry specializing in putting together large worship events for youth groups. He has a heart for helping young people find their call into ministry and succeeding early in their ministry and careers. For fun, Jason loves movies, music, and television. He is a fount of useless pop culture trivia and dreams of being a winner on the TV show Jeopardy.