Circles of Accountability
I find it helpful to think of four concentric “circles” of accountability for myself and my fellow elders:
Circle 1: The Man: This is the most important circle. Accountability hinges more on my personal honesty than any system. If I am not honest and open, then no system, or set of questions, or caring friends will make me so.
Circle 2: The Team: Our eldership team is our primary circle of accountability. We think of accountability mainly as encouraging each other and enhancing each other’s strengths, but also about confrontation and correction when necessary. We find that the following things help create an atmosphere on our team where accountability thrives:
We celebrate the gospel. A non-legalistic, grace-enthused, gospel-centered approach to life promotes loving Jesus and hating sin. Legalism is fertilizer for sin, whilst grace provides a hot-house for holiness (Titus 2:11-14).
Our relationships are intentional but not intense. Vulnerability and honesty are a way of life. We try to laugh a lot, and care for each other. A brotherly atmosphere fosters heart-level accountability, as opposed to an officious atmosphere that hinders it. We often build in time in elders’ meetings to ask each other how we are doing, and to pray for each other. If our agenda is too busy for that, then we either work smarter, or lengthen the meeting, or meet more regularly, but one way or another, we are determined to keep brotherhood a central part of our team dynamic.
We have meaningful connection as married couples. Wives often sense anxiety in each other’s lives quicker than men do, and tend to be quicker in calling for help than their husbands.
We are all clear that any of us can raise issues with another elder(s) anytime without fear or prejudice.
The plurality of an eldership team goes a long way to self-correcting internal blind spots and weaknesses and generally keeping the team self-accountable. However, it does not go the whole way, and a wise and humble eldership team will also recognize the following two circles of accountability.
Circle 3: The Congregation: Although our eldership team is clear that we are authorized to lead our congregation, we remain alert to the perspective and concerns of our congregation. We make sure our people know that they may raise concerns about an elder, with any other elder, at any time, without fear of rebuff. We encourage our members to follow the Matthew 18 principle of first taking their concern to the individual elders with whom they have issue, but we also recognize that this is sometimes virtually impossible for a congregant to do, which is why we say they are welcome to talk to any elder about any elder any time. Some churches opt for a formal ‘grievance policy,’ whilst others operate less formally, but either way, clear thought and communication needs to happen before the fact, or you will have the added strain of trying to work out helpful protocol amidst the pressure cooker of accusation or strife.
Circle 4: Outside Advisors: The Roman poet, Juvenal, asked the question, Quis custodiet ipsos custodes – “Who guards the guards?” A significant part of our answer to that question is having several trusted church leaders from our network who regularly help us with philosophy and practice of ministry, and help enhance a healthy atmosphere on our eldership team. We give these brothers a standing invitation to bring any ideas or concerns to us at anytime. All the elders know these brothers, not just me, and an ever-increasing number of our members know them also. These brothers often see things, and say things, that are trickier for us to either see or say. And, they can ask questions that make us think ahead of time about things that we otherwise might blunder into blindly – prevention is better than cure. A standing invitation doesn’t mean that they will show up unannounced, or that they will in any way usurp the God-given authority of our local team of elders, but it does mean that they are empowered to watch our backs. I have told my fellow elders that they are warmly encouraged to talk to any of our outside advisors any time about anything, even without talking to me first if they would find that easier.
Over two decades of working with multiple eldership teams, I have consistently found that the four circles work together to create a natural, un-intense, effective safety net of accountability. Because accountability is an issue of the heart, there is actually no fool-proof human way of ensuring leaders and elders remain accountable, but overdoing it, or doing it in the wrong way, makes things worse because it promotes control, fear, and legalism which are fertile soil for all sorts of sins and dysfunctionalities to thrive.
You might have noticed that within the four circles I didn’t explicitly mention things like regular performance reviews, or well-worded Constitutions that limit certain people’s power. Such things may well be useful, but they are not as effective as the four circles (assuming each of the circles are mostly working right). And if one isn’t working (or doesn’t exist), it is better to bolster the circle in question than to boost legislation.